O, Canada! We just got back from a trip to Niagara Falls, which turned out to be a wonderful summer vacation trip. It was probably the most spectacular natural wonder I’ve ever seen (having never been to the Grand Canyon, which I imagine is equally amazing) and I truly found it breathtaking. Our trip was four nights, 3 days. Our original plans were to stay at a fancy Sheraton which is very tall and overlooks the falls, but due to some mix-ups we ended up booking our stay at a more business-y hotel about 15-20 minutes away from the falls. Well, that turned out to be wonderful. We’ve often had good vacation serendipity and karma, and this was definitely the case this time around. Had we not been staying in what was a sort of nothing type area, yet 15-20 minutes away from other great places, I think we would have missed out on some things. We did some research ahead of time and also made ample use of the hotel desk clerks who live there and had great recommendations (thank you, very nice St. Catherines 4 Points by Sheraton staff!)
Our first night there we just checked in and went out to dinner at Swiss Chalet, which is a Canadian chain. Kind of a Boston Market type place? Paul had poutine and the kids were thrilled by the different things they got. The coloring sheet was a booklet of jokes and riddles and coloring all very specific to Canada. Although we typically love to explore unique and local eateries when we travel we ate here on another night as well and you know what? It was great. Inexpensive and the kids loved it and it was close to our hotel. And even though at home our kids usually go to bed around 8:30pm, we headed down to the pool at 9pm and went swimming until 10. In the morning we got breakfast from, where else? Tim Horton’s! In case you’re not familiar with Canada or Tim Horton’s it’s a donut shop that is everywhere. And I’m going to be very unAmerican and say that it is completely superior to Dunkin’ Donuts. For one thing, it’s actually nice to sit in and eat your donuts. Also they have a Maple Dip and Canadian Maple donut, as well as tea biscuits. Three days in a row we ate here. Plus a couple other late night visits. Tim Horton’s rocks and several of our souvenirs were travel mugs and hot chocolate mix from there. We decided that it would be better to visit Niagara Falls on Monday, rather than a weekend day, so we headed out to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a picturesque waterfront town. Along the way we drove through miles of vineyards. Who knew we were in wine country? The town was indeed charming, very reminiscent of Charleston, I though. Gorgeous plantings of flowers, chi chi shops, and a main thoroughfare closed for a peach festival. We visited Beaux Chapeaux and tried on many fancy hats and I bought myself a really nice one, and Tabby a longed for “French artist hat”, aka beret.
We walked along and came upon a big church peach festival and stuck around for it. Music, balloon animals, a reptile show, terrific hamburgers, and a lovely atmosphere. The kids loved their Canadian tattoos, and I was wild about the peach punch (I asked a church lady for the recipe and she said it was pineapple juice, orange juice, lime juice, grenadine, soda water, and fresh peaches.)
We strolled down to the waterfront park-Lake Ontario. It was such a nice day there were many sailboats out and the skies were very clear and we could see Toronto on the horizon.
Here’s where we made one error-we thought we could walk easily to a beach where we could actually go in the water. But after trudging along for a mile we only came to another park with large boulders. It was still very pretty, though. We headed back to the hotel for more swimming and relaxing before our evening. Upon advice from the hotel clerks we went to Port Dalhousie (the only “Dalhousie” in Canada that is pronounced “duh-loozie”), another waterfront town about 15 minutes away. We found a great pub, got to sit outside, it turned out to be $3 taco night, had a nice beer, Paul had a “Bob McKenzie”, and Tabby made such great friends with the lovely Brazilian lady sitting next to us that she gave her a bracelet to keep. After dinner we walked to Lakeside Park where there is a carousel that is very old, still runs, and only costs a nickel to ride.
Apparently a member of Rush also worked here as a teen and wrote something about it in one of their songs (Paul interjects that the song is “Lakeside Park.”) Along with many other folks we enjoy a late summer evening watching the sunset over Lake Ontario (and this time we could go in the water), riding the carousel, petting dogs, playing on the playground. It was such an unexpected thing to do, really the whole day was, and it was great.
The next day, Monday, was our big day of Niagara Falls. And again we had things work out perfectly. Whether because it was Monday or a bit overcast, it simply wasn’t that crowded, and then when it got more crowded we were always just ahead of the crowds. We arrived at our parking area early and didn’t have to pay, we discovered how pleased we were to not being staying right in the thick of things, and we hardly had to wait for things. We had great luck all day! We chose to buy the “Adventure Pass” ahead of time, which admitted us to the five attraction and gave us two days of unlimited rides on the WeGo bus, which travels up and down the river dropping you at at the attractions. I definitely recommend it, and Tabby was even free! What really surprised me about the falls area was how the hotels and buildings and things could not take away from the natural beauty of the place.
In fact, where we parked was a nature area with hiking and biking trails. All along the falls/river is a promenade with gorgeous flowers and plantings and very old fashioned architecture.
The bigger buildings are across the street, so there really is some nice space and beautiful views everywhere. We did:
- Journey Behind the Falls: Put on a poncho and go down and elevator and come out next to the falls about halfway down. We loved this. The roar of the falls was incredible. Also, we had no line and no crowds, and later in the day we saw big lines just to go down.
- Niagara’s Fury: Put on another poncho and watch a film about the creation of the falls, then another surround-film with all senses effects. Clark was insanely excited about this and the water pouring on us. He loved it so much he chose a t-shirt from here as a souvenir.
- Maid of the Mist: The classic. The only time we really had to wait, but they are very efficient. Don the blue ponchos and be ready to get wet. It was extremely exciting and gave a great view of the American falls. You get pretty close to Horseshoe Falls, though it’s so watery it’s actually kind of hard to see them. I hope being on this will be a family memory the kids always have.
- White Water Boardwalk: This was a surprise highlight. Downriver a bit from the falls the river because very wild and turns into class 6 rapids-unnavigable. Another elevator brings you down and then you walk along a boardwalk to view the water. This was very nice because you felt quite removed from the hustle and bustle of the street, and the water was spectacular. Freestanding waves 5 ft high! In a river!
- Butterfly Conservatory: Away from the falls are the Botanical Gardens and Butterfly Conservatory. By the time we got here it was 5:30 and we were quite tired, but an hour looking at butterflies all around us was a nice end to the day. There were hundreds of them and to Clark’s delight one of them landed on his hat and stayed there quite a while.
We were so tired we just went to Swiss Chalet again and called it a night. The following day, our last day, we actually weren’t sure what we’d do. Originally we’d planned to go to Toronto, but decided it was too far. Then we were able to think of so many things to do that we didn’t even do it all. We headed back to the falls area to go do something Clark especially wanted to-play dinosaur miniature golf. This brought us into “Clifton Hill”–a hilly street across from the falls that is filled with the worst tacky tourist stuff–think Ripley’s Believe it or Not all over the place. Still, it was fun to play golf amid gigantic dinosaurs and a volcano that had flames every 15 minutes.
We capped it off with a Rainforest Cafe lunch. Then breathed a sigh as we returned to view the falls one more time. To my delight the sun was peeking through the clouds and we had some new views, including the much anticipated rainbow.
There was much poking along and souvenir buying and we ended up swimming very late and going out to dinner at 9pm at another Canadian chain, new to us, called Boston Pizza (oddly), which was fantastic. And I’m pleased to say that dining out at that late hour the kids were super. Perhaps on a second wind they seemed to be adorably giddy and charming, instead of cranky and tired. It was a great end to an action packed trip. Our return day was rather endless as zealous U.S. Border guards made the lines to get across the border quite lengthy and slow. We also visited friends for a couple of hours en route, which was wonderful.
As usual we bought many souvenirs, including the favored snow globe, nail file, t-shirts, and postcards. We also visited a grocery store and bought fun Canadian foods (and candy, as they seem to carry British candies there.)
The only disappointment of the trip was the lack of barrel themed items. I expected to see a replica barrel at the visitor center, as well as lots of information about the various daredevils of the falls (whom we’d read about in anticipation of the trip.) There was nothing there! The only place we read about the daredevils was a small display in the White Water Boardwalk. I guess they try to downplay it?? The souvenir I most wanted was a pen that would have a barrel go over the falls when you tip it. I asked at every single souvenir shop we went to and though everyone knew what I was talking about, none of them carried it! They are missing out because I would have bought five of those pens.
It was a terrific vacation and I definitely recommend seeing the falls once in your lifetime.
And remember, you’ll be plenty safe as long as no one climbs over the fences!