A couple of nights riding the current in the Honeymoon Capital of the World is a barrel of fun, pardon the pun…
By Doug Wallace
“My ride’s here,” I say cheekily as the Niagara Helicopters pilot swings into view and touches down on the landing pad, light as a feather. I’m bloody James Bond, I think, as we head up and over to the natural wonder of the world that is Niagara Falls. What a view! I take the middle seat, of course, because I’m a martyr.
However much you think Niagara Falls is just a tourist trap, think again. Despite the saucy jacuzzi-in-the-bedroom stigma, Niagara Falls makes for an excellent weekend away, romantic or otherwise. It used to be the fudge that brought me back here time and again, particularly when out-of-towners would insist on making the trek around the Golden Horseshoe to check it off their bucket list. Now, the Niagara agenda is as long as your arm, Brenda.
You’re a tourist – act like one
Call me corny, but I never stop smiling on the Voyage to the Falls Boat Tour, formerly the Maid of the Mist. It’s just a we’re-in-this-together kind of outing. Twirling around inside the Horseshoe Falls in my plastic poncho always makes me laugh, headlining my Instagram post of the day.
We can almost – but not quite – hear the screams of everybody on the boat later on, while watching it from our perch on the new falls viewing platform, which opened last summer. It’s at the end of a long tunnel, once used to move water out of the old Niagara Power Station, which opened in 1905 and was decommissioned in 2006. Appropriately called The Tunnel, it’s the newest project of Niagara Parks, which recently converted the whole station into a museum. The museum does double duty: when the day tours are over, it transforms at night into an immersive sound-and-light show that hinges on the history of the building and its place in the story of electricity. It’s while wandering around the station that I notice how handsome Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was, which leads to an online search for his boyfriends. (Asexual!)
After the show, we walk into the neon part of town where the night is still young, all haunted houses, arcades and guilty-pleasure food. We amble into a pod of the Niagara SkyWheel, Canada’s biggest at 53 metres, and relax looking out over both falls – all lit up as they are each night. We can see the river, the skyline, the go-karts screaming around the rollercoaster-style speedway, the mini-golf course with a dinosaur that growls every few minutes – this is kid’s stuff, but it’s fun.
An appetite for bon appétit
Happily, Niagara Fall’s culinary highlights are well worth the trip all on their own. At Reds steakhouse in the Fallsview Casino, I find a dining experience that straddles the fence between old-school and new-style. We take our time deciding on the sides that will go with our prime rib, because they had me at “cabernet jus.” The meal is seriously good.
Up in Orchard Park, the oyster champions at Tide & Vine are still winning awards, included in OpenTable’s Top Restaurants in Canada listings. The Mollica family at Casa Mia Ristorante are still going strong after 30 years of serving Italian classics, three generations on. I love Italian restaurants that let you just “add meatballs” to a pasta bowl of something delicious, like you were curating the perfect, personal dish. Flour Mill Restaurant, set within the turn-of-the-century Old Stone Inn, turns out artisanal everything. High tea is an exercise in indulgence, the macarons and petit fours duly fine, ditto the skewered bacon drenched in maple syrup.
The confections in Niagara Falls are also award-winners. Maple Leaf Place provides a guided taste-testing of its Ontario maple syrup mere steps away from where it is bottled, and the same goes for CFX Chocolates, which makes the most exquisite red chocolate-covered cherries. You are going to need more than a half-hour in each of these places – just make sure you’re not hungry or you’ll end up with a backseat full of sugar.
And let’s not forget the trunk full of wine. You would be remiss not to visit a few Niagara wineries, all on a relatively beaten path. Custom tours can pick you up and drop you off no trouble, so you don’t have to drive, which is key. Take note of the nearby family-owned Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, which is one of the top winery restaurants in Canada. We tuck into family-style platefuls of house-cured and -smoked charcuterie and local cheese, tomato-and-bread salad, braised short ribs and Erie pickerel, then roll into the van with a few bottles of their brut fizzy to take home.
It’s a walk in the park
North of town, my phone dings to say, “Welcome to the United States. You’re roaming!” Nope, I’m just wandering the 40-hectare grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1936. It’s famous for its rose garden, which contains almost 2,500 blooms. The nearby Butterfly Conservatory is pure magic, home to more than 2,000 butterflies that flit among the exotic flowers, trees, ponds and waterfalls of their little dome. It feels a bit like The Truman Show. And by the looks of their little plates of fruit, butterflies are the slowest eaters ever.
Farther down the river, a stop at Queenston Heights Park brings us to the Landscape of Nations, a memorial to the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) Confederacy and Native Allies for their critical contributions to the winning of the War of 1812. Eight limestone walls are arranged in a Memory Circle here, around a bed of sweetgrass – a peaceful spot to re-examine the core of Canadian history.
While you’re up in this neck of the woods, keep going north for one more touristy indulgence: the Whirlpool Jet Boats. No, you don’t have to get wet like the pictures; you can stay dry by piling into the dome-covered seats. We head out to cut doughnuts around the Class 5 rapids of the Niagara Whirlpool. These are natural rapids not caused by rocks but by the massive flow of water leaving the Niagara Gorge. Yes, there’s a little “Do you want to go faster?” schmaltz, but the tour guide is fun. He actually catches me trying to take a surreptitious picture of him mid-voyage in his little track suit – I immediately feel guilty. Why didn’t I just ask him to smile in the first place?
DOUG WALLACE is an international travel and lifestyle writer, photographer and custom-content authority, principal of Wallace Media and editor-publisher of TravelRight.Today. He can be found beside buffet tables, on massage tables and table-hopping around the world.