We leave the hustle and pace and crowds of the Big Apple behind after three days in New York (Day One, Day Two, Day Three) for the comparative serenity of Toronto, on the east coast of that fair northern land – Canada.
But we’re not long in the city before Christine, our Toronto local guide, hustles us into her car and we’re out on the road.
Seems that New York isn’t the only town with hustle.
- a lovely drive along Lake Ontario towards…
- one of the world’s most well-known natural wonders – Niagara Falls
- warm up afterwards with a Canadian national beverage
- fit in a spot of bargain outlet shopping, then
- sample some of the strangest wine in the world
The meandering drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls follows the curves of Lake Ontario as we leave the city. It’s mainly highways for the first part of the trip, but we are treated to views of the massive lake extended long out into the horizon in the morning sunlight.
Gradually the development begins to become less apparent and our expectations perk up. Niagara Falls, such a renowned natural wonder, is sure to be set in a location of spectacular natural beauty itself, showcasing the landscape and wildlife of southern Canada. Surely?
Natural Wonder + Casino
Niagara Falls is actually very heavily developed – to the point of absurdity, really.
We approach the falls from the Canadian side, which has the best view (no, really – it does – sorry USA) and instead of being gradually led through forests and mountainside to see the towering falls up gradually appearing in the distance behind sun-dappled trees, we just suddenly arrive smack bang in the middle of a miniature Las Vegas.
It feels a bit “oh yeah, there are some big waterfalls around here somewhere – but wouldn’t you rather play another hand of blackjack”.
We shouldn’t be surprised, though. According to the Niagara Parks agency, there was an admission fee to see the falls back in 1832. They say;
The first enclosed stairs were built in 1818, and a spiral staircase was constructed in 1832 for visitors to enter what was then called the “Sheet of Falling Water” attraction. The admission fee was $1, and for an additional dollar, certificates were presented to those who had completed the trip behind the Falls.
Being a tourist attraction is old hat for Niagara Falls.
We don’t have any photographs to share of the long line of casinos and massive hotels that line the upper banks along the Falls, because who wants to see that? Just prepare yourselves, is all we’re saying – if you’re expecting Niagara Falls to be remote and untouched, you’re going to be disappointed.
Now that is out of the way – we can talk about the Niagara Falls waterfalls.
One word – woah.
The sun is out and the wind is up a little, and everywhere around the falls there are miniature rainbows following you around.
If the world was just we’d be spotting pots of gold everywhere we looked, and little leprechauns would be carrying our things for us and calling us ‘Sir’, but the world isn’t just and this is Canada, not Ireland. No gold today.
Rainbows need water, by the way, and they’re caused by the sheer volume of water pouring over the edge of the falls and being picked up by the wind. It means that it is seriously wet around here – yes, even two hundred metres away from the falls. We would have been smart to bring an umbrella, or a waterproof jacket with us. This is definitely a sun shower – no clouds needed.
The archetypal Niagara Falls image, like the amazing photograph above, is found on the Canadian side of the border between Canada and the USA, close to the Horseshoe Falls. As we get close to the guard railings it is almost too hard to process the sheer power and volume of the water that must be rushing through the falls every second. The long curve of the Horseshoe gives an incredible perspective to the vivid green water contrasting against the pure white of the voluminous spray.
Christine turns to us and asks; want to get closer?
Not really, we think.
Behind the Niagara Falls
Somewhere in the vicinity of four milion cubic feet of water go over the falls every minute (we used Imperial because it sounds bigger; in Metric it’s around 100,000 cubic metres).
Christine grabs our tickets for the Journey Behind the Falls experience. We’re handed a (biodegradable) waterproof poncho and squash into an elevator that feels like it was part of the very first tourist attraction in Niagara Falls that we mentioned earlier.
We descend in the depths of the rock before the door creak open and we step out into tunnels built as far back as 1889. “They’re safe” we’re assured.
The noise, the roar from the falls is more than sound. You can feel the pressure and deep, low thrum generated by these elemental forces, and it is especially overawing as you get closer to the tunnel exit and begin to glimpse the tonnes of water rushing past at sixty-five kilometres an hour.
As you can see in the photograph, there are no real barriers to stop you from getting as close as you wish to the waterfall. Of course, most people, us including, are keeping a very, very respectful distance away from the edge of that ledge. We’re around one-third of the way down the waterfall but that is still a drop of 34 metres.
At the mouth of another tunnel exit, we head outside underneath a platform to get a better view of the waterfall, and are numbed by the relentless spray and the perspective that this view affords.
It is an awe-inspiring view. Cold; but awe-inspiring.
Warming back up
We’d be remise if we didn’t mention, at this point, one of Canada’s national drinks.
Tim Horton’s, the Canadian version of Starbucks crossed with Dunkin’ Donuts, is exactly what we need to warm up. The Vanilla Cappuccino goes down a treat…as does the second.
Finally some warmth returns to our extremities, and it’s time to move on to our next activity.
In the mood for a bargain?
The Canada One outlet stores near Niagara Falls are a must-visit if you’re looking to grab some bargains while you’re in Canada. We managed to pick up discounted Coach, Ralph Lauren Polo, Colorado, and Nike gear – so much that our poor little car complained the whole way back to Toronto.
It’s Cold in Canada, hey. Ice Wine, hey.
Christine drives us away from the commercialised, yet naturally compelling, Niagara Falls and promises a unique taste experience next.
We’re on the way to the Jackson-Triggs winery, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Canada is one of few nations in the world who can produce a type of wine known a ice-wine. The tradition originally comes from Germany, with whom Canada competes with for ice-wine supremacy. Of Canada’s annual production, most comes from Ontario, and the micro-climates of Niagara-on-the-Lake make this an ideal location to sample this unusual type of wine.
Invented by accident by those crazy Germans, the point is to leave the grapes on the vine through several frost-thaw cycles, and when pressing them, to aim for an optimal mix of thawed and semi-frozen grapes. Too cold, and you could break your winepress, as this NYTimes article describes.
Pressing the grapes while they are semi-frozen means that the water is crystallised and remains behind, leaving a concentrated cocktail of sugars to be put into the barrel.
Producing ice-wine is a risky business – there’s frost, disease, and calamity to contend with, but as the first golden drops is poured into our glass it becomes clear why this is a risk worth taking. The aroma is of caramel, vanilla, and apricots, and we debate whether there’s a hint of musk.
Better have another to check.