The Niagara Falls, on the Canadian and American border, are surely one of nature's wonders. However, with a lovely old town and great wineries in abundance there's more to see than huge waterfalls
Travel upstream of the Niagara River and you hear the deafening roar of rushing water and catch sight of a cloud of mist raising steadily skyward long before you get your first glimpse of the mighty Niagara Falls.
Niagara may not be home to the highest waterfalls in the world but, with more than four million cubic feet of fresh water falling over the crest every minute of every day, their awesome power is almost unrivalled in the natural world.
The falls themselves sit right on the border of the Canadian province of Ontario and America’s New York State. The Canadian city of Toronto is less than 80 miles to the north while the American city of Buffalo is just a short hop a few miles away.
The world famous falls are actually made up of three distinctly separate sections. The largest, and by far the most dramatic, the Horseshoe Falls, sit almost entirely on the Canadian side of the border while the smaller American Falls and smaller still Bridal Veil Falls crash down onto a solely American section of river.
To get up close and personal with the majestic power of the falls you can’t beat a trip on one of The Maid of the Mist boats. The tour begins just downriver from the falls at a less turbulent part of the River Niagara. The landing stage is close to the Rainbow Bridge which traverses the river providing a road link between Canada and America.
Once the boat leaves the jetty, passengers are taken past the American and Bridal Veil Falls and into the swirling, dense mists of the Horseshoe Falls. Then the boats turn slowly for home almost under the immense curtain of water as it plummets over the crest high above.
The Maid of the Mist - there are several boats called Maid of the Mist 1V, V, V1 and so forth - have carried some of the world’s rich and famous towards the swirling watery cauldron at the base of the falls. The roll of honour includes Princes Diana, Princes William and Harry, Marilyn Monroe as well as countless Prime Ministers and Presidents. Even Christopher Reeve took a trip in between filming several scenes at Niagara for the original Superman movie.
All passengers are given a bright blue plastic Maid of the Mist poncho to wear and keep as a souvenir and believe me, to keep anything like dry, you need it while on board. But photographers beware, camera equipment needs protecting from the dense swirling mist which seems to be capable of penetrating even the best waterproof camera and lens housings.
The Maid of the Mist tours are available from early April until late in the year depending on weather conditions. There is no need to book in advance, just turn up on the day although you might have to queue on busy days. The trips, which last around 30 minutes, operate from both sides of the border with Canadian tours costing $14.50 CAD for adults, children aged 6-12 $8.90 CAD. On the American side adults are $13.50 USD while children, again aged 6-12, are $7.85 USD. On both sides, children aged five and under ride for free. Check out www.maidofthemist.com for more information.
The area around the Falls is disappointingly commercialised with towering hotels, casinos and shopping arcades fighting for space and that all important view of the falls. However, get away from the city of Niagara Falls and the charming and beautiful little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is perfect for a peaceful stroll. There are also plenty of superb wineries and vineyards just waiting to be explored in the surrounding countryside.
Where to stay
Sheraton on the Falls, an ultra modern four star high-rise hotel, offers fantastic views of the falls. There is an indoor walkway through to a Hard Rock Café, a Planet Hollywood and the Marvel Superhero Adventure City while the Skylon Tower is only a short distance away. The hotel has a great fitness centre, a spa and a great indoor pool while guest rooms have ceiling to floor windows offering uninterrupted views of the falls. Rooms have wireless internet connections but charges do apply and car parking isn’t exactly cheap at between 15 and 25 CAD a day. A room will cost from 350 CAD to 700 CAD a night depending on the standard of room.
Built around 1812 and recently refurbished, the Charles Inn is a charming, relaxing hotel right on one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s main, but tranquil, thoroughfares. It boasts a delightful bar and the restaurant serves up some fabulous menu options. Try the roast duck with a ginger and lime jus or, for fish lovers, the pan seared Artic char served with smoked bacon and herbs. A room for two costs around 240 CAD per night rising to 385 CAD per night for a luxury veranda room.
Where to eat
The Irish Harp Pub
From Irish chilli con carne - and no, I can’t explain why Irish chilli con carne is any different to any other chilli con carne - to Galway style stuffed mushrooms or lobster bisque this is the place to eat for hearty portions, good Guinness and great craic. You’ll find the Irish Harp right in the middle of Niagara-on-the-Lake at 245 King Street and with menu prices ranging from 15 CAD to 30 CAD dinner at the Harp won’t break the bank.
The Keg Steakhouse and Bar
Overlooking the falls The Keg, at 5950 Victoria Avenue, Niagara Falls, does exactly what it says on the tin - the menu is crammed full of strip loin, sirloin and other steaks. There is, however, a good range of salads, seafood and chicken dishes for those that prefer to avoid red meat or meat altogether. The views are amazing especially at dinner when the falls are illuminated by a plethora of coloured lights. However, those amazing views don’t come cheap and expect dinner for two and a bottle of wine to come in at a hefty 220 CAD or more.
There are more than 20 top-quality wineries surrounding Niagara-on-the-Lake and almost all offer tours and tasting afternoons from as little as 4 CAD.
Canada is the world’s biggest producer of ice wine and almost all the wineries around Niagara produce it. It‘s definitely worth visiting at least one winery to try a glass or two of ice wine if you haven‘t tried it before. Ice wine is a very sweet dessert wine produced from grapes that are left to freeze on the vine producing a far more concentrated product.
Pillitteri Estates Winery at 1696 Niagara Stone Road is recognised as the world’s largest estate producer of ice wine and has won several international awards for the quality of their wines. Tours can be booked daily, visit www.pillitteri.com for more.
Ice wine may be an acquired taste perhaps, but if you have a sweet tooth you’ll probably love it. It’s quite expensive, due to it being labour-intensive and difficult to produce, and only relatively small amounts of wine are bottled from each harvest. However, it’s worth every penny and it’s a must to take a bottle or two home for Christmas. Serve it in glasses coated in melted chocolate that’s been left to set - a simply delicious way of enjoying Christmas in a glass - enjoy!