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Canada: Where ice wine's crack, politics are open season & golf's characters rule

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Canada has some of the most under-rated golf courses in the world, with a few of its courses able to hold their own with the best of Ireland and the Carolinas. Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club is just one of Canada's golf courses more than worth the price of a ticket.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls is the most American of Canada's golf destinations.
Niagara FallsNiagara Falls Golf Scene - George BushIce Wine - Canada

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario - Ice wine is Canada's crack. Only more addictive.

On the West Coast of Canada, they treat this syrupy, sweet liquid with a reverence the Queen only wishes she still received. In the Okanagans, aka Napa North, they build Roman arches to celebrate it. In remote spots like the Kootenays, the precious grapes get more tender loving care than Oprah's puppies. In the hip wine bars of Vancouver, it can go for $25 per small, small glass.

But here in Niagara Falls, you can guzzle it in a diner.

In fact, on this night, there is a couple in a tuxedo and an evening dress (chances are they just got married) and four loud guys in shorts and T-shirts (chances are they've been loaded all day), drinking dueling ice wines in opposite booths.

"It's really supposed to be a dessert wine," the waiter says almost apologetically, as he brings it with your French toast.

Oh well, a lot of things are supposed to be. Like Kevin Federline working as a gas station attendant. In Ontario, most of the "supposed to bes" are thrown out the window.

If you've only been to Western Canada, you've missed out on the land that manners forgot. At least traditional Canadian manners. Eastern Canada is a little more brash and crass. That hippie in Birkenstocks who stopped his Mercedes to give you directions in Whistler will cut you off and flash the finger on the QEW in Toronto.

Hit Niagara Falls and you've reached the extremes of even Ontario. This is the most American of Canadian golf destinations, a place where souvenir mugs and cheesy t-shirts rule in the mist of those roaring falls.

This is one of the only spots in Canada where you can get guys hitting into your group, a la the Sideways scene.

It's still full of characters. Just a little more high-strung characters. This is one of the great reasons to take a Canadian golf vacation. You're going to run into some people you'll never forget during the trip. Maybe it's the clean water or the universal health care, but folks in Canada often don't give a damn about fitting in. They'll tell you like they see it, even if you're a complete stranger.

Sometimes especially if you're a complete stranger.

Canada has some of the most underrated golf in the world. If you put some of the courses here down in Ireland or the Carolinas, they'd receive more raves than James Gandolfini in the Sopranos.

The only thing more underground than the great golf is the outrageous golfers.

Where else would the son of a small-town's ex-mayor light up a marijuana bud in front of a reporter during a round? "You know us Canadians and drugs," someone else in the foursome joked.

This happened at Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, a nine-hole course that's only 132 years old and right on one of the bluest bodies of water you'll ever see. Locals in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a town that dates back to before the Revolutionary War and looks like something out of the 1950s, call their home NOTL for short and take their politics seriously.

At least when they're not smoking pot.

"So how bad do you feel having Bush as your president?" local Taylor Lawson asked me after we'd known each other for all of 20 minutes.

Who needs fake politeness anyways? It's fun golfing where opinions fly as freely as drivers. No one's trying to impress you. No one's attempting to put up a false front. It's largely honest. And hilarious.

"They don't really believe in the mute button around here," American vacationer Ken Burke said, laughing.

Turns out that boring-as-a-public-service-announcement PGA Tour player Mike Weir is about as atypical a Canadian as you can get.

Golfing with crazy Canucks

Golf offers one of the few chances to see Canadians unplugged. No other activity promotes true cultural mingling like it. Can you imagine showing up at a restaurant and getting led to a table with three strangers already sitting at it? Talk about your nightmares in social awkwardness.

But you can walk on as a single at a golf course and end up drinking beers for hours with people you'd never met before - and never would have introduced yourself to in a million years.

It may be a lonely planet, as the guidebook series suggests - but not if you know how to wield a seven-iron.

Or as 25-handicap Canadian golfer and philosopher Ted Lemire put it, "Anyone who plays this game regularly has to be a little crazy, so we might as well stick together."

In Niagara Falls this means eschewing the long lines to don those smelly old raincoats on a Maid of the Mist boat and those other long lines to walk underneath The Falls in favor of woodsy courses where The Falls aren't even a rumble.

"It's really peaceful here," visiting golfer Pak Chung said, looking around Thundering Waters, a John Daly design that should be called Quiet Forest.

Maybe the crazy Canucks with sticks know what they're doing after all.

It's easy to get caught up in the let-it-fly, to-heck-with-PC spirit, too. When Chung insists on waiting for the green to clear on every par 4 under 350 yards, on the off chance he suddenly morphs into John Daly, an American finally hits him with a, "I hope you took steroids since the last one."

Chung just stares daggers.

Novices should know better than to try their hand at Canadian humor. Oh well. Nothing a glass of ice wine won't fix. Now to find a dealer ... er, 19th hole.

"I hear they have it at the diner," Chung offers.

Word gets around fast. Oh Canada.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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