Adrian Brijbassi

NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—For a city whose main attraction perpetually plunges 53 metres, Niagara Falls has conspicuously lacked depth for decades. On your next visit, get away from the kitsch and vapid casino culture and you might be surprised to see elegant, soulful shoots emerging in this city that attracted about 14 million tourists last year.

Sterling Inn and Spa, marketed as the only boutique hotel in the Falls, opened three summers ago and is the city’s top-rated lodging on, based on 254 customer reviews on the social media website as of June 24. The hotel’s location and exterior are deceiving. It’s a few blocks from the Horseshoe Falls and is on the same stretch as economy options. From the outside, it may even be mistaken as one of those budget places.

The hotel provides no view of the natural wonder. It’s in a squat, rectangular building surrounded by parking spots. The slate grey façade includes a giant milk bottle that stretches above the lobby. It remains as a homage to the building’s first incarnation as a dairy barn and ice cream producer. In another city, it might seem charming but in Niagara Falls, the first impression it leaves is of another faux creation that misses the mark.

One step inside, though, and doubts disappear. The hotel is impressive, featuring décor that’s sophisticated and tasteful, as well as high ceilings and wood beams that evoke its early 20th-century origins. Rooms are massive, with several larger than 700 square feet, greater than the size of many one-bedroom apartments in downtown Toronto.

Sterling Inn’s rooms include Jacuzzis, steam showers, hardwood floor, fireplaces, flat-screen TVs and Internet hookup. Each of the 41 rooms is unique; mine had an open-concept floor plan that included standup shower and bathtub in clear view. Sexy, sure, but if you happen to be travelling with a photographer the room’s layout also makes blackmail material easy to produce.

“People were thrown off by the outside, but it’s starting to wear off now. The word’s getting out that you have to wait until you see what’s inside before you judge it,” says Rhonda Hughes, the hotel’s general manager. “We are focused on the interior of your stay. Everything about your stay, we want it to be unique to this area.”

The breakfasts aren’t much: continental choices like what you get in just about every other lodging in the city. But Hughes points out that the breakfast is delivered to the rooms without an extra charge, as you’re likely to pay at one of the large hotels in town.

If breakfast is simple, dinner at Sterling’s restaurant, AG, is decadent. Its locally sourced cuisine is elegantly presented, and ambitious dishes (seared sea scallops with a bee pollen glaze) indicate chef Cory Linkson’s confidence and aspirations. Not surprisingly, Linkson apprenticed at fine restaurants in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Sterling Inn clearly wants to attract the clients who frequent our province’s most popular wine destination.

“Niagara Falls has been such a family destination area that somebody needed to broaden those horizons,” says Hughes.

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