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Niagara Integrated Film Festival Pairs Great Films With Food and Wine

06/26/2015 05:24 EDT | Updated 06/26/2016 05:59 EDT

With its parks and gardens and elegant architecture, Niagara-on-the-Lake has always been a fashionable place, but no one could accuse it of being hip. That may be about to change.

There's never been a shortage of reasons to visit NOTL. It's graced with lush vineyards and wineries, a romantic atmosphere, world-renowned theatre -- and now, an international film festival.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

The Niagara Integrated Film Festival

The Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF), at only two years old, is still flying under the radar. And that's good news for anyone who plans to visit next June. NIFF has spectacular settings, big names and international connections, but it's still early days for this event, so it's small enough to be intimate and unpretentious. The concept's a winner: great food, film and wine at the start of summer in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

NIFF was born from the experience of Bill Marshall, one of the founders of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which is now the leading public film festival in the world. He and his wife, Sari Ruda, conceived NIFF as the ultimate approach to seeing films. "This festival integrates wine and food, municipalities, and technologies with the big screen," he said.

This year's festival ran June 18-21, showcasing narrative and documentary feature and short films from Canada, U.K., the United States, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, screened at wineries and movie theatres from Beamsville and St. Catharines to NOTL and Niagara Falls.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

The programming is smart and the lineup is lively. There are Filmalicious evenings, pairing film, food and wine; the Niagara Rises Series, with Niagara filmmakers; Mondo Wacko, a selection of edgy films; World's Smallest Film Festival, a cash prize competition for one to three-minute shorts based on a single theme and shot entirely on a mobile device, and Industry Day, an affordable conference with tips and insights from film and TV pros.

I opted for the Opening Gala and a Filmalicious event, both at the beautiful Peller Estates. Sipping bubbly at sunset in the vineyard, chatting with filmmakers and friends, the strains of a jazz trio in the background, was something like a scene from a movie -- a prequel to the elegant table d'hôte dinner and wine served amid the casks in the cellar.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg, courtesy of John Matlausch

U..K director James Kent was there for the Canadian premiere of his moving Testament of Youth and on hand for drinks, dinner and a post-screening Q&A. The Filmalicious evening delivered more of the same, this time with U.S. director Kevin Pang and Chef Curtis Duffy in for the screening of For Grace, a powerful documentary about the chef and his drive to create his Chicago restaurant, Grace, awarded three stars from Michelin.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

The Club at White Oaks

NOTL has a big selection of hotels and B&Bs but this year, lured by the NIFF visitor discount, I stayed outside of town at the White Oaks Resort & Spa. It turned out to be a smart choice. Just across the hotel lobby is the full awesomeness of the Club at White Oaks, where the sprawling sports and fitness facilities are open to hotel guests. My head-clearing, muscle-lengthening Pilates reformer class with instructor Linda Graham was the way I'd like to start every day. Spoiler Alert: This club may ruin other hotel gyms for you forever.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

The hotel knocks it out of the park when it comes to pleasing guests. A golf course and new outlet mall are just across the road, and you can call someone to pick up your purchases and deliver them to your room. André Plouffe, the resort's Chef Concierge and Head Butler, behaves like he's there just for you. He'll arrange whatever you like -- winery tours, rental bike deliveries, show tickets, car service -- and make it look easy.

The Shaw Festival

Since the Shaw Festival first began in 1962, no spring, summer or fall trip to Niagara could be complete without a visit to the theatre. The Shaw Festival is a must. This year's playbill includes Sweet Charity, Pygmalion, set in modern-day London, and a new version of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.

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Photo: David Cooper, courtesy of Shaw Festival

I caught a matinée performance of the wonderful Peter and the Starcatcher, directed by Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, at the Royal George Theatre, built a hundred years ago to entertain WWI troops in training at Camp Niagara.

Where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a walking-around kind of town and a dazzler in summertime. I took a stroll past the shops and flowers of Queen Street, dropped into Balzac's for a cup of tea with old friends, and we walked down King Street together to the waterfront at Queen's Royal Park. With an old timey feel and a film set gazebo (built in the 80s for The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken), it's a storybook greenspace with sweeping views of the Great Lake, the Toronto skyline, and Fort Niagara across the river in Youngstown, New York.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

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