Destination Spotlight: A Perfect Summer’s Weekend in Niagara Falls (Canada)

Niagara Falls. The name alone conjures up a sense of mystic beauty, let alone the magnificent splendour that awaits its onlookers.

The journey to Niagara Falls’ Canadian side from Toronto is an easy one. On my own journey, the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful, and the ride via Greyhound served as an excellent way to see the terrain of Canada away from the relative concrete jungle that is Toronto. The most surprising thing about the journey was the amount of wineries I saw along the way. I turns out the region is well known – at least in this part of the world – for its wine. I would later enjoy a Niagara Chardonnay and must say it was an decent drop.

But the relaxing part of my trip would have to wait – as I viewed the falls from the relative calm of my hotel room, the excitement of getting up-close-and-personal was palpable. Armed with a jam packed itinerary and an fast running out of time to get it all done, I skipped lunch, wasted no time and made my down to the falls.

The roaring sounds get louder and the breeze gets colder as you approach. Slowly the mist starts to cover your glasses as rainbows form around you. Even in early June, while the weather is a beautiful 25 degrees Celsius, piles of ice still litter the edges of the falls and you have the sensation of going up a mountain, covered in snow, rather than descending into the rivers below. The climate is its own unique beast down here.

You’re also in a unique position geographically. There are actually three falls which collectively form one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the world. First there’s the Horseshoe Falls – also known as the Canadian Falls. This is the largest and most powerful of the three, and easily the most well known with its unique curved architecture (pictured several times above in this article).

Then there are the American and Bridal Veil Falls, pictured below, which are accessible only from the New York side of the river and iconic for its mountain of rocks beneath. The American Falls make up the large volume on the left, while the smaller Bridal Veil Falls you can see to the right, separated by Luna Island. The Niagara river itself, which the falls feed into, serves as a divider between the US and Canada. On each side, unique “falls activities” are offered, alongside hotels, casinos and family-friendly activities that makes the Canadian side, at least, sit somewhere in between the experience of Luna Park and Las Vegas.

On the American side, the “Maid of the Mist” boat trip is something that it’s particularly famous for. Though the Canadian side offers a similar experience in the relatively new “Hornblower”, it’s the opportunity to go behind the walls – literally – that serves as the most exciting attraction. The aptly named “Journey Behind The Falls” sees you venture down 150 feet in an elevator to the base of the falls, with two outdoor observation decks (the earlier picture with the rainbow was taken on one of these decks) and two windows that allow you to look out through the falls.

Through these “portals”, you don’t see much more than the white of the water as it crashes down over the falls, but the sound is deafening and it’s experiencing this power that makes the attraction so worthwhile. And the yellow ponchos they give you on arrival are a must. Heavy mist surrounds you as you approach the windows, and of course as you head out onto the platforms below.

And what about the Hornblower? Well it’s hard to argue how amazing a view it is from the vessel, and no trip to Niagara Falls in Summer is complete without it. You’ll also look dashing in their pink ponchos, which believe me are very, very necessary.

hornblower

There’s even free wi-fi on the Hornblower, though given how wet it is for much of the ride, it would be surprising if you were using much of it.

But there are more than a few ways to get a view of the falls – and these views only scratch the surface of what you can get up to as a tourist in the city. From butterflies to helicopter rides, ferris wheels to dinosaur mini golf courses and even an IMAX experience, it’s hard to fit everything into one short day. But I definitely tried.

Before heading behind the falls, I had the opportunity to visit the attraction “Niagara’s Fury”, a two part experience that’s meant to compliment the “Journey Behind The Falls” with the affordable Adventure or Wonder passes (details on those can be found at the Niagara Falls Canada Tourism Website), which bundle together a variety of experiences. “Niagara’s Fury” starts off with a short animated film with some cutsy characters – chipmunks, owls and such – who tell the story about how the falls – both the Horseshoe and American – were formed. Enjoyable, though more for the kids than the adults and not the attraction’s main feature. For this, you’re put into a large circular room, surrounded by massive screens and water as staff make sure you’ve secured your poncho.

The experience here supplements the story you’d just been told in the 3D animated adventure, putting together real imagery of ice, rivers, streams and falls as you are sprayed with foam and water. The walls become falls of their own, as they disappear into the water below and the ground rumbles. With the actual falls metres away, the real thing is certainly preferred, but it was nonetheless an enjoyable experience, and a particularly good one for families who may not have the time or budget to take on some of the other opportunities – such as the Hornblower Cruise.

Another educational experience was found inside a big pyramid in a parking lot up near the Space Needle-esque tower that beams over the area. Inside the pyramid is where you’ll find an IMAX theatre that screens, hourly, a documentary about Niagara Falls, called Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic. Beautifully shot, the 52 minute film from 1986 captures the falls from a variety of angles, while feeding in the legends of the falls from the Native population as well as reenactments of some of the falls’ greatest feats that have seen daredevils crash over inside barrels, survive miracle falls and even tightrope over them (which was reinacted by real life tightrope walker Philippe Petit, best known from the extraordinary film Man on Wire).

Though as with many of these sorts of documentaries, some of the reenactments were a bit corny, especially the Native American’s “legends”, but it’s worth seeing for the IMAX experience alone. I just hope they use the screen for other films, too (it appears they don’t…)! Following the film you’re able to walk through an attraction showcasing some of the very barrels and pods that have been used over the years in daredevil feats.

Heading up the nearby space needle (The “Skylon Tower”) also provided an impressive 360 view of the falls and its surrounds, which were even possible during the climb up the tower in the exterior, transparent elevators. Look out for a 3D/4D Falls Movie “Legend of Niagara Falls” here as well.

Looking for something a bit more outside the box to do? You might enjoy the dinosaur miniature golf course, not far away on Clifton Hill, where there’s plenty of “no relation to the theme of the falls” experiences to be had. Clifton Hill is home to a carnival-esque strip of bars, restaurants, amusement park rides and attractions. From a mirror maze to haunted houses, bowling alleys, live music and 4D experiences starring Happy Feet, kids will have plenty to enjoy in the pile of family friendly activities.

The hill’s Ferris Wheel – known as the Niagara SkyWheel – will serve as one of the best family activities in the area. Travelling 175 feet into the air at 4.5 kilometres an hour, 42 gondolas serve guests a 15 minute ride with excellent views of all of Niagara’s falls, as classical and jazz music play alongside some commentary of the views.

The cost will set you back C$11.99 for adults, and is a worthwhile journey, or you can get it as part of the “Clifton Hill Fun Pass”. But the only true “birds eye” view was found through a helicopter – my first ever ride in one of the more unique methods of transportation.

Operating since 1961, Niagara Helicopters are the longest running tourist helicopter service in the world and they run all year round. Taking you from its base, not far from the Niagara Whirlpool, over the falls and back, you spend about 12 minutes on board. Though things seem a bit hectic when you run onto the copter – the loud sounds of the propeller overhead feel like your head and hair are in great danger! – once inside, it’s a relatively smooth and quiet experience.

Commentary in the supplied headphones goes between English and Spanish, though you rarely listen as you try and take it all in. At C$144 an adult, it’s not the cheapest way to see the falls – for that you have your Towers and your SkyWheels – but it’s certainly the best. It’s an unbelievably unique view that probably deserves more time in the air than you’re given, as you see the rivers pour down the falls in what one would imagine the end of the world to look like.

Those wanting to experience something a little different also have access to the Butterfly Conservatory with select passes. Inside the butterfly greenhouse you enjoy hundreds of creatures flying around and landing on you as they feed and frolic. Poison frogs can be found in cages and descriptions of all the plants in the area will be a horticulturalists dream.

Located North of the falls within the Botanic Gardens, the exhibit sits at the end of the green WeGo bus line (unlimited access to which is included in the pass) that runs along the river and serves as the best way to get to attractions like the Niagara Whirlpool, over which the “Whirlpool Aero Car” provides the daring a great view of one of the most powerful – and dangerous rapids in the world, and the aptly named “Souvenir City” nearby.

You can also take a 12 miles round trip ride around the Whirlpool rapids with Whirlpool Jet. Since the Whirlpool itself is a class five rapids, you don’t have to worry about actually entering the most dangerous of the waters – it’s not possible- but the experience is still a thrilling one as they zip you down the river through plenty of rapids and some incredible scenery.

Though these experiences aren’t provided to you in any particular order that they were experienced, I managed to fit it all in across a weekend. My first night ended sitting at the edge of the falls, which were beautifully lit up with the respective colours of the country they represented (red, white and blue at the American falls…), as 5 minutes of fireworks lit up near the American side at 10pm. After a rather exhausting day, it was a stunning way to end my trip to the falls.

And if you’re looking for something completely different to do as the night comes to an end, check out the Oh Canada Eh? Dinner Show, which is located a short drive (or bus ride) out of town (8585 Lundy’s Ln, Niagara Falls). Inspired by the Jolly Swagman show that was found in Australia over 20 years ago, it celebrates the best of Canadian culture and music, as you enjoy shared soup, bread, salad and shared plates of meat and assorted food. It’s pretty cheesy, but it’s good fun – and the stars of the show also double as your wait staff. And you’ll surely learn a thing or two, too. Learn more about the experience HERE.

Where To Stay

For a contemporary hotel with incredible views of the falls, there are few better in Niagara than the Hilton. You can read my full review of this location HERE. If you’re looking for something more “classic”, I recommend the Old Stone Inn, a three floor hotel that is something of a maze to explore, and has been in operation for some 113 years. It certainly carries a rustic charm, but is full of all the modern comforts, including Molton Brown toiletries, USB plugs (and plenty of regular AC plugs too), an indoor pool that looked recently renovated and some ridiculously comfortable beds.

But at its heart, this is very much a boutique hotel both in size and in its comfort. Enjoy complimentary coffee and water in the lobby, and even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you should check out the Flour Mill Restaurant, which is among the best dining experiences in the area. We enjoyed an excellent breakfast here.

Getting There

You have two options for getting to Niagara Falls. The first is to fly into Buffalo Airport and get a bus, shuttle or rent a car, and the second is to fly into one of Toronto’s two airports and jump on a bus or rend a car from there.

I returned back to Toronto the next morning by way of Megabus, who provide an affordable route that picks up straight from the Casino – a service not offered by Greyhound – though with a few extra stops en route, it’s not the option to get if you’re in a rush. Also note that they now pick up from out front of the Casino, rather than from the traditional pick up back. But with free wi-fi and comfortable seats, there are no complaints from me. And once again, the weather could not have been more beautiful. A bus is a fantastic way to see the country.

When travelling out of Buffalo, I used Niagara Airbus (about $65CAD a person) to transfer from the airport to the hotel in Canada, as there would have been a lengthy wait for one of the irregular services with Megabus or Greyhound. Look into these connections before you book your flight to save money on the ground, if you’re not renting a car.

More details about the attractions at the falls can be found on the Niagara Falls Tourism Website. But this attraction is barely the start of the experience, and the Adventure Pass is your best bet to try and experience the best that the falls have to offer, with the pass giving you access to a bundle of attractions from $57+tax, as well as two days of unlimited travel on the WEGO bus network – which was perfect for my brief overnight trip.

Experiences, with the exception of transport, were kindly provided by Niagara Falls Tourism. For more on many of these attractions, visit the here. While at Niagara Falls, the author stayed as a guest of the boutique Old Stone Inn, which has been in operation since 1904.