How the mighty fall
Niagara reveals the power and glory of nature
Over, under, sideways, down … no matter which way you look at Niagara Falls it can’t help but impress with its beauty, spectacle and, when you get close enough, its daunting, relentless brute force. To stand a few metres away, as you can do thanks to a series of underground passages and viewing platforms on the Canadian side, is to feel in your gut the wonder and the danger of an unstoppable natural torrent.
Niagara Falls, the gorge of which divides Ontario in Canada and New York State in the US, can be viewed from either country and you can see pretty much everything there is to see in a day or two. I have 24 hours, which seems to be ample. I travel south from Toronto, a 120km drive through uninspiring landscape until you get into the wine country that surrounds the city of Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. This Niagara on the Lake region is home to about 20 wineries, most of which offer tastings, dining and, of course, buying in bulk . I visit Trius Winery at Hillebrand, which is set in welcoming lush gardens. It offers a very enjoyable red and a first-class lunch and dinner menu.
A short drive from there unveils the majesty of the Horseshoe Falls, the biggest of the three falls that cascade 24/7. As you drive alongside the promenade leading to the tourism centre, housed adjacent to the main falls, the scale of what you are witnessing widens in intensity. There are plenty of options on how to enjoy the Niagara experience, short of jumping into a barrel and throwing yourself off the top or hoisting up a tightrope to take an unorthodox walk to the US.
The best way to get a panoramic view is by helicopter. I choose Niagara Helicopter Tours, which operates from a small heliport on the outskirts of the town, about 10 minutes by car. It flies five six-seater Bell 407 helicopters from 9am until sunset. The flight takes only 12 minutes, but that’s plenty to take photos or videos from a variety of vantage points, and to listen on headphones to commentary on the landscape, as well as simply to marvel at the fact that you’re flying over Niagara Falls in a helicopter. It’s pretty awesome, but also expensive at $C140 ($148) for an adult; $C87 for children.
A cheaper and almost as thrilling way to do the trip is by boat. The Hornblower Niagara tour departs from a jetty close to the falls and lasts 30 minutes, taking in all three waterfalls and coming to a stop, breathtakingly so, within throwing distance of the main falls. Once again, the force of nature is as awe-inspiring as the view. You’ll get wet, so returnable waterproof jackets are provided. Getting splashed by waterfall spray is part of the fun. Cost for adults is $C28.80; $C21.10 for children.
Just a few minutes’ walk away from the promenade is the town itself. The contrast between the spectacular water views and the streets of fast-food joints, amuse- ment arcades and souvenir shops is extreme and a little sad, but such is the nature of having a world tourist attraction on your doorstep. Accommodation in the area varies from small B&B-style to grander hotels such as Doubletree Fallsview Resort & Spa by Hilton. I choose something in between, the Old Stone Inn, in the centre of town. It’s a boutique hotel, in a relatively quiet side street and an easy walk to the falls. The 100-year-old building was converted from a flour mill in the 1970s; guestrooms are small but have a pleasing old-world ambience. There is also a small indoor pool and its Flour Mill restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
An exciting alternative for dinner is the Skylon Tower. The revolving restaurant at the top of this structure has excellent views, particularly dazzling after dark, with the falls illuminated at various points. The dining area, which turns around at an incredibly slow trot, is formal. The food, in my experience, is average and a little overpriced, as if the view has been incorporated in the admission. Next morning is an opportunity to take in the spectacle once more with a long walk along the promenade, which bustles with pedestrian traffic, particularly in summer.
A visit to the tourism centre offers a few final perspect- ives on this entrancing natural wonder, albeit with a little help from technology. The Niagara Fury “ride” is a wellcrafted history lesson, especially for children. It documents on a giant 360-degree screen the history of the falls from the Ice Age onwards; for patrons standing in the dark in the middle, “rain” and “snow” fall from the ceiling and the floor shakes to mimic a boat going down the rapids, which is good fun.
And then, to say goodbye to it all, there’s the experience underneath the Horseshoe Falls. Journey Behind the Falls involves taking an elevator 45m down and stepping out at the foot of the Horseshoe. Suddenly, there it is, right in front of you — 2800 cubic m of water tumbling down every second at 65km/h. The noise, the spray, the sheer power of the water and of the view combine to create one of those great moments that can only bring a smile to your face.
Iain Shedden was a guest of Niagara Falls Tourism.
• niagarafallstourism.com • oldstoneinnhotel.com • niagarahelicopters.com
Horseshoe Falls, top; view from a helicopter, above left; the Old Stone Inn, above right; tourists at the falls, below