In 1860, thousands watched as Charles Blondin walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls for the third time. Midway, he paused to cook an omelette on a portable grill, and then had a marksman shoot a hole through his hat from the Maid of the Mist boat, fifty metres below. As attested by Blondin – and the innumerable lunatics and publicity seekers who have gone over the Falls in every craft imaginable – the Falls simply can’t be beat as a theatrical setting. Yet, in truth, the stupendous first impression doesn’t last long and to prevent the thirteen million visitors who arrive each year from getting bored by the sight of a load of water crashing over a 52m cliff, the Niagarans have ensured that the Falls can be seen from every angle imaginable – from boats, viewing towers, helicopters, cable cars and even tunnels in the rock face behind the cascade. The tunnels and the boats are the most exciting, with the entrance to the former right next to the Falls at Table Rock House and the latter leaving from the foot of the cliff at the end of Clifton Hill, 1100m downriver. Both give a real sense of the extraordinary force of the waterfall, a perpetual white-crested thundering pile-up that had Mahler bawling “At last, fortissimo” over the din. After the Falls themselves, be sure to allow enough time to explore the Niagara River along either the Niagara Parkway road or the Niagara River Recreation Trail, an easy-to-follow jogging and cycle path. Both road and trail stretch the length of the Niagara River from Fort Erie, 32km upstream from the Falls, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
A day is more than enough time to see the Falls and its immediate surroundings, but if you do decide to spend the night hereabouts, quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake, 26km downstream beside Lake Ontario, is a much better option than the crassly commercialized town of Niagara Falls itself. That said, Niagara-on-the-Lake gets very crowded in high season, so try to book at least a couple of days in advance.
Even if you’ve seen all the postcards and watched all the films, nothing quite prepares you for your first glimpse of the Falls, a fearsome white arc shrouded in clouds of dense spray with the river boats struggling down below, mere specks against the surging cauldron. There are actually two cataracts, as tiny Goat Island divides the accelerating water into two channels: on the far side, across the frontier, the river slips over the precipice of the American Falls, 320m wide but still only half the width of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. The spectacle is even more extraordinary in winter, when snow-covered trees edge a jagged armoury of freezing mist and heaped ice blocks.
All this may look like a scene of untrammelled nature, but it isn’t. Since the early twentieth century, hydroelectric schemes have greatly reduced the water flow, and all sorts of tinkering has spread what’s left of the river more evenly over the crest line. As a result, the process of erosion, which has moved the Falls some 11km upstream in 12,000 years, has slowed down from one metre per year to just 30cm. This obviously has advantages for the tourist industry, but the environmental consequences of harnessing the river in such a way are still unclear. More positively, the cardsharps and charlatans who overran the riverside in Blondin’s day are long gone with the Niagara Parks Commission (w niagaraparks.com), which controls the area along the Canadian side of the river and beside the Falls, ensuring the immaculately tended tree-lined gardens and parkland remain precisely so.
At Table Rock House, you can get disarmingly close to the crest line of the Horseshoe Falls at a free observation platform and from here you can also spy the rusting remains of the Old Scow, stuck against the rocks in the middle of the river just upstream. In 1918, this flat-bottomed barge was being towed across the Niagara River when the lines snapped and the boat – along with the two-man crew – hurtled towards the falls. There must have been an awful lot of praying going on, because – just 750m from the precipice – the barge caught against the rocks, and it’s stayed there ever since.
Inside Table Rock House, lifts travel to the base of the cliff, where the tunnels of the Journey Behind the Falls lead to platforms directly beside the cascade. It’s a magnificent sight, which is more than can be said for Table Rock’s other attraction, Niagara’s Fury, a self-billed “4-D experience” that aims to re-create the formation of the Falls.
From Table Rock House, a wide path leads north along the edge of the river gorge, with the manicured lawns of Queen Victoria Park to the left and views over towards the American Falls to the right. At the end of the park is Clifton Hill, the main drag linking the riverside with the town of Niagara Falls. From the jetty below Clifton Hill, the former Maid of the Mistboats, now run by Hornblower Niagara (Maid of the Mist now solely refers to those departing from the American side), edge out into the river and push up towards the Falls, an exhilarating trip no one should miss.
For better or worse – probably the latter – Clifton Hill is the centre of the tourist action in Niagara Falls, comprising a short, steep slope flanked by a tawdry collection of fast-food joints and bizarre attractions, from the innocuous Dinosaur Adventure Golf (yes, that’s right) to the eminently missable Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Close by, near the Rainbow Bridge off Victoria Avenue, is one of the town’s two 24hr casinos, Casino Niagara, a bristlingly modern structure where kids can watch their parents fritter away their inheritance; the other is up on Fallsview Boulevard. If you’re keen to avoid all this commercialization, then stick to the well-kept riverside area, where a string of much more agreeable attractions begins downstream with the White Water Walk, 3km from Clifton Hill.
Boasting elegant clapboard houses and verdant, mature gardens, all spread along tree-lined streets, NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, 26km downstream from the falls, is one of Ontario’s most charming little towns, much of it dating from the early nineteenth century. The town was originally known as Newark and became the first capital of Upper Canada in 1792, but four years later it lost this distinction to York (Toronto) because it was deemed too close to the American frontier, and therefore vulnerable to attack. The US army did, in fact, cross the river in 1813, destroying the town, but it was quickly rebuilt and renamed. Since then, it has managed to avoid all but the most sympathetic of modifications, except just away from the centre down on Melville Street, where a rash of new development and a marina add nothing to the appeal of the place.
Niagara-on-the-Lake attracts too many day-trippers for its own good, but the crowds stick religiously to the souvenir and knick-knack shops that line up on the main street and mostly melt away by 5 or 6pm. The town is also popular as the location of one of Canada’s most acclaimed theatre festivals, the Shaw Festival, which celebrates the works of George Bernard Shaw with performances from April to late October, and it is also surrounded by wineries, many of which welcome visitors.
Showcasing the work of one of Canada’s largest repertory theatre companies, the Shaw Festival is the only one of its kind devoted to the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries – and a rich repertoire it is too. The festival runs from April to late October and performances are held in three Niagara-on-the-Lake theatres. The largest is the Festival Theatre, a modern structure seating 850 at 10 Queen’s Parade; the other two, both holding around 300, are the Court House, a nineteenth-century stone building at 26 Queen St, and the Royal George, with its fancy Edwardian interior at 85 Queen St. Ticket prices for the best seats at prime weekend performances hit $120, but most seats go for $35–75. The box office for all three theatres is: t 1 800 511 7429, w shawfest.com.
In the later stages of World War I, over twenty thousand Polish soldiers mustered in the US to form a Polish brigade. It was a delicate situation, as the Allies needed the soldiers but the Poles were committed to the creation of an independent Poland at a time when their country was ruled by Russia, an ally of the US. In the event, policy differences with the US government prompted the Poles to move over the border to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where they established a base camp. Paid and equipped by France, the Poles were trained by Canadian officers and then shipped off in batches to fight on the Western front, thereby deferring their attempts to create an independent Poland. At the end of the war, with the Tsar gone and the Bolsheviks in control of Russia, the Polish brigade – or “Blue Army” as it was called, from the colour of their uniform – crossed Germany to return to their homeland, where they played a key role in the foundation of an independent Poland. The graves of the 25 Polish soldiers in Niagara-on-the-Lake recall these historical complexities, and a small shrine has been erected in their honour.
Until the 1980s, Canadian wine was something of a joke. The industry’s most popular product was a sticky, fizzy concoction called “Baby Duck”, and other varieties were commonly called “block-and-tackle” wines, after a widely reported witticism of a member of the Ontario legislature: “If you drink a bottle and walk a block, you can tackle anyone.” This sorry state of affairs was transformed by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA; w vqaontario.ca), who have, since 1989, come to exercise tight control over wine production in Ontario, which produces around eighty percent of Canadian wine. The VQA’s appellation system distinguishes between – and supervises the quality control of – two broad types of wine. Those wines carrying the Provincial Designation on their labels must be made from one hundred percent Ontario-grown grapes from an approved list of European grape varieties and selected hybrids; those bearing the Geographic Designation (eg Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island) can only use Vitis vinifera, the classic European grape varieties, such as Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. As you might expect from a developing wine area, the results are rather inconsistent, but the Rieslings have a refreshingly crisp, almost tart flavour with a mellow, warming aftertaste – and are perhaps the best of the present range, white or red.
More than twenty wineries are clustered in the vicinity of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Most of them have showrooms, others offer guided tours and just about all of them have tastings. The town’s tourist office carries a full list with opening times and prices.
Peller Estates Winery 290 John St East, 2.5km from Queen St 905 468 4678, w peller.com. With a vineyard and a large modern showroom on the edge of town, Peller has produced a clutch of much-praised vintages. They also do a good line in one of Canada’s specialities, icewine, a sweet dessert wine made from grapes that are left on the vine until winter, then hand-picked at night while frozen. The picking and the crushing of the frozen grapes is a time-consuming business and this is reflected in the price – from about $50 per 375ml bottle. Tour and samples $15. Daily 10am–9pm.
Stratus Winery 2059 Niagara Stone Rd, just southwest of town 905 468 1806, w stratuswines.com. Handily located not far from the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stratus winery has pioneered a more environmentally friendly approach to wine production. Tours and guided tasting $20. Daily 11am–5pm.
Wine Country Vintners 27 Queen St 905 468 1881, wwaynegretzkyestates.com. The best wine shop in town, it carries a variety of Peller-associated wines and offers shuttles to the Peller winery as well. Mon–Sat 10am–8pm, Sun 11am–6pm.