Canada’s Top Retirement Destinations: St. Catharines, ON

Located on the edge of the Niagara peninsula,  the Garden City is relatively small and yet offers plenty of amenities

By Wendy Haaf

Photo: Tourism St. Catharines.

Just as a confluence of geographic factors create the mild microclimate that makes the Niagara region ideal for growing wine grapes, a number of qualities combine to make St. Catharines, ON, a great fit for many retirees.

The city is minutes from the countryside, yet not far from airports and the US border. It’s relatively small and yet offers plenty of amenities, including a thriving arts and culture scene. And it’s set amid the attractions, natural and otherwise, of one of Canada’s top tourist destinations, yet away from the crush of sightseers and day-trippers.

Located on the northern edge of the Niagara peninsula, across Lake Ontario from Toronto, the Garden City—so nicknamed for its abundance of luxuriant greenery, verdant parks, and trails—has the unhurried atmosphere one might expect from a city of 133,000, along with a selection of services and perks broad enough to satisfy former big-city dwellers like Mary Viola.

“It has everything you could need and all kinds of things to keep you busy in retirement,” says Viola, who moved to St. Catharines from Toronto after retiring, in part for the slower pace. “Plus, it’s a lovely area. I thought it was an ideal place to retire—and I still do.”

For example, devotees of entertainment, culture, and the arts could attend a different event every night of the week at the state-of-the art, four-venue FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre alone, from movies, plays, and dance performances to concerts by well-known artists and recitals by students from Brock University’s school of fine and performing arts. The centre, which together with the school forms a lively cultural and academic hub, is also home to the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.

And then there are the stadium acts that appear at the 5,300-seat Meridian Centre, numerous festivals (Readers, Jazz, and Bravo Niagara!, to name just three), and concerts, tastings, and culinary experiences hosted by local and area wineries. St. Catharines also offers a cornucopia of gastronomic delights, including its farmers’ market and the Niagara Homegrown Wine Festival, where a “discovery” pass allows you to sample food-and-wine pairings at eight of 30 participating wineries.

Opportunities for other leisure pastimes are similarly plentiful. For starters, the city’s three centres for older adults offer classes in skills such as painting, woodcarving, and quilting; drop-in activities including model-flying, chess, and euchre; groups and leagues for fitness, pickleball, line dancing, and Nordic walking; and dinners and social get-togethers. “Dunlop Centre [for older adults] is marvellous,” says Diane DeWitt, a transplant from Saskatchewan.

Myriad other sports and activities are available through municipal facilities (which include an aquatic centre, three arenas, and tennis courts), clubs, the YMCA, and the university. “We’ve got a great library system, great pools…lots of access to a lot of things,” DeWitt says.

If you enjoy spending some of your free time helping others, you’ll find many opportunities. “I do a lot of volunteer work,” says Lilla Channer, a former Toronto resident who retired to St. Catharines in 1999. And amateur historians could spend decades delving into the city’s past, many reminders of which have been preserved as historic sites and heritage districts; for example, Salem Chapel was a hub of abolitionist activity even before the city’s days as the terminus of the Underground Railroad, and it was the church Harriet Tubman attended when she lived in the city from 1851 to 1858.

For fans of fresh-air recreation, St. Catharines is a virtual playground. You can windsurf, kite board, and sail on Lake Ontario; canoe and kayak on the Welland recreational canal; play volleyball on the sandy beach in picturesque Port Dalhousie; and fish, camp, and birdwatch in Short Hills Provincial Park. And with 90 kilometres (56 miles) of trails criss-crossing the city—including a stretch of the celebrated Bruce Trail—and more than 400 hectares (988 acres) of municipal parkland, there are any number of places to walk, hike, cycle, and cross-country ski. In fact, thanks to a network of trails and quiet roads connecting St. Catharines and surrounding cities including Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls, the area has become a premiere cycling destination, with routes appealing to wine lovers, historians, and sightseers. “I like the physical layout of the place—the trees and the green space,” DeWitt says. “You can walk to the bridge, cross the canal, and you’re in farmland.”

Other points in the city’s favour as a retirement destination include a large community hospital, a cancer centre, and a continuing care/rehabilitation centre. “I’ve had three surgeries since I’ve been here, with no problems and no long wait times,” Mary Viola says. What’s more, the local Family Health Team is a teaching site for McMaster University’s medical school, which also has a campus in the city. And while the area reportedly needs more doctors, gains are being made due to active recruitment efforts.

For travellers, St. Catharines’s location is a boon; airports in Toronto, Hamilton, and Buffalo, NY, lie within roughly an hour’s drive. (While the latter two offer a more limited selection of destinations—daily flights to Dublin and a number of Canadian and US cities, as well as seasonal service to a handful of vacation spots in the Caribbean—they’re less congested than Toronto. Flights from Buffalo are often cheaper than those departing from this side of the border, as well.)

And while they’re higher than in some centres, real estate prices in St. Catharines could allow someone who sells a house in Toronto to either upsize or bank a healthy sum. In October of 2018, the average selling price for a detached home in the GTA was $914,179, versus a 2018 average of $414,293 in St. Catharines.

“Overall, it’s a great place,” DeWitt says. “I’d definitely recommend it: four or five stars out of five.” Lilla Channer concurs: “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”