This is Niagara Falls? On our way to visit Niagara Falls, Dani and I had both been picturing rustic log-cabin restaurants, maybe a few lumberjacks, a small town feel and definitely something a bit more romantic. After all this is supposed to be the Honeymoon Capital of the World. We never expected this…mega tourist trap.
Pulling into town, however, we found ourselves suddenly driving downhill on a wide street with cheesy tourist attractions stacked up tightly on either side. A wax museum, a haunted house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not…
“Wait, is that another wax museum?” I asked. “I think so,” Dani remarked. “And I just saw two more haunted houses on my side.”
As we reached the bottom of this long, strange road, I turned right – away from the Hershey’s Chocolate store and toward the intense sound of rushing water.
Should you even visit Niagara Falls?
Yes, Niagara Falls are magnificent.
Just a split second after leaving behind the uninspiring town, there it was! The awe-inspiring view of Niagara Falls. There are actually three sets of falls pounding into the Niagara river below: the American Falls and smaller Bridal Veil Falls on the American side, and the massive Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. Immediately humbled, we cruised slowly along the four-lane thoroughfare which hugs the pedestrian viewing along the cliffs, gawking at the sheer size of this sight.
We managed to find $5 parking (instead of the lots with New York City level prices) and walked down to gaze at the Falls. Seeing Niagara Falls on postcards and in pictures does not compare to the sight of this incredible natural wonder in person. Two things really stood out. First, the water seems to speed up as it reaches the falls, as if it can not wait to plunge over the cliff. By the time it goes over, the water is moving so quickly and just looking at this makes you comprehend your own delicate mortality.
Second, the sheer force with which the 4 million cubic feet of water per minute hits the river below causes much of it to shoot back up into the air, with the spray reaching at least twice as high as the 180 feet it dropped in the first place. This ‘cloud’ of mist can be seen even when the Falls themselves are out of view. This part of the walkway, and all onlookers standing here, is soaking wet.
The Maid of the Mist is a MUST!
Being such a popular tourist attraction, there are several tours to choose from which will get you up close and almost within reach of the Falls. We steered away from the package deals and chose only the 30-minute Maid of the Mist boat tour. With all passengers covered in plastic ponchos, the boat set off onto the Niagara river, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario and forms the border between the U.S. and Canada. The steady ship reached the Horseshoe Falls within minutes and we were immediately drenched by the mist. Actually feeling how much water soaked us at the edge of the mist helped to visualize just how much water is contained within the waterfalls themselves. We can highly recommend doing this tour as it is quick, painless and gets right to the point. While it feels adventurous, boats leave every half hour from the dock to the falls, making this a common and safe experience for everyone. We say: The Maid of the Mist is a MUST when you visit Niagara Falls!
Indeed, these imposing waterfalls are one of nature’s incredible wonders, and everyone should visit Niagara Falls if they get the chance. Most agree that the views are better from the Canadian side, but cross the Rainbow Bridge to the American side and check it out for yourself. From what we could see, there are far less tourist eyesores and it could well be a more natural experience. Back on the Canadian side, we just couldn’t help but be disappointed by the fact that Niagara Falls might just be the most unnatural wonder we’ll ever visit. Luckily, we found a solution, a way out of the tourist trap – and it involves a lot of wine.
Winding our way through the wineries
No, there was no drowning of sorrows in copious amounts of wine. Instead, after beating the crowds to some breathtaking early morning views at Niagara Falls, we set off into the Canadian wine country. Sleepy narrow two-lane roads weave through historic villages which open up into vast fields filled with countless rows of wine as far as the eye can see. We glided along the road, stopping in for samples at a few charming wineries and picking up fresh organic peaches, pears and veggies from farmers stands along the way.
Tip: Try the sweet dessert ‘ice wine’, a local Ontario wine which uses grapes picked only after the first frost of the year.
Suddenly, 15km from Niagara Falls, a spot of slow traffic began when there had previously been only a few cars on the road. Where were we all of a sudden, we wondered?
Love at first sight: Niagara-on-the-Lake
This charming, historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is everything Niagara Falls is not. Independent shops and restaurants fill the bottom floors of historic buildings, which are set back on streets lined with breezy trees, exotic flowers and lovely sidewalks meant for strolling. Everything in town seems to center around good food and good wine.
Whereas the town of Niagara Falls seems like Las Vegas without the flash and fun, Niagara-on-the-Lake is more like the Canadian version of Tuscany, with its Dolce Vita attitude. Surrounded by 26 wineries, it seems easy to focus on the ‘sweet life’ here.
It was love at first sight, and as we rambled along peeking into shops and checking out restaurant menus, we made an even more exciting discovery. Food and drink here is more fairly priced for infinitely higher quality than the fast food tourist fare down the road. To add to our delight, we spotted plenty of affordable classic hotels and boutique bed and breakfasts throughout town.
As we left Niagara-on-the-Lake, the car was filled with delicious wine, fresh blueberry scones and our homegrown fruit and veg to enjoy once we got back home.
Niagara Falls Tip:
If you visit Niagara Falls, which you really should, skip the cheapie budget digs on ‘motel row’ out of town, and don’t waste serious cash on the 42-story hotel/casino monstrosities all vying for the best views of the falls. We say make Niagara-on-the-Lake your base, take a couple of day trips to the falls and spend the evenings relaxing in this adorable haven just down the road.
The best hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake:
- Hilton Garden Inn Niagara-On-The-Lake: Small hotel with an indoor swimming pool, free parking and an on-site restaurant. Double rooms start at US$90 per night
- Holiday Inn Express: 3-star hotel with indoor pool, fitness center and spacious rooms. Double rooms start at US$89 per night.
- Best Western Butler Colonel Inn: Small hotel with fitness center, comfortable rooms and a good location. Double rooms start at US$89 per night, including breakfast.
- 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa: Charming small hotel in historic buildings right on Queen Street in the Old Town with large rooms and luxury villas. There is a spa, a cafe and a restaurant on site. Deluxe rooms start at US$154 per night.
- Historic Wilson Guy House: B&B in a historic 1816 building near Queen Street. Rooms start at US$150 per night, including breakfast.
- School House Bed & Breakfast: Small B&B with a shared lounge and a garden. Rooms start at US$181 per night, breakfast included.
- Pillar & Post Inn & Spa: The small boutique hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, a spa and an onsite restaurant. Premium rooms start at US$268, which includes breakfast and dinner.
- Prince Of Wales: An intimate luxury hotel in a historic Victorian building. Rooms are decorated with antiques. there is an art-lined indoor pool room and whirlpool. The spa offers a variety of massage and tea-based treatments; the restaurant offers daily afternoon tea. Room start at US$284, which includes breakfast and dinner.