Niagara Falls

Water, water everywhere - plus tours, restaurants, and an IMAX!

Niagara Falls The Maid of the Mist cruises under the Falls - © iStockimages/Brian Kelly
By Betty Zyvatkauskas, Pamela Cuthbert & Jan Fuscoe

Many Torontonians are blasé about Niagara Falls, seeing them as a convenient way of getting rid of houseguests for the day. But watching 750,000 gallons of water a second slide off a cliff right in front of you is pretty impressive by any standards, and if you're in Toronto, you should make the trip.

Cynical though the surrounding town's exploitation might be, hell, some people like viewing towers, sightseeing 'experiences' and unashamed tourist attractions. Millions certainly come; 12 to 14 million a year, in fact, to the Canadian side alone. If you're not expecting to commune with nature, it can be, well, fun.

The Falls

The Niagara river is the border between Canada and the US. It is effectively a drainage channel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, transporting 5,500 cubic metres (200,000 cubic feet) of water per second for 55 kilometres (34 miles), with a total drop of 108 metres (350 feet). It runs over the Niagara Escarpment, in which sedimentary layers of hard and soft rock from the ancient Michigan Sea are tilted at an angle.

The Falls occur at a bend in the river about halfway along its length, where its total width is about a mile. Goat Island sits on the US side, dividing the two main attractions: the American Falls (56 metres/184 feet) and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls on one one side; and the more impressive Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls (54 metres/177 feet), which link the island to the Canadian bank in a 675-metre (2,125-foot) arc.

The geology here is in a continual state of flux: turbulence at the foot of the Falls erodes the soft rock layer, digging out a deeper drop; periodically, the increasingly unsupported upper, heavier layer breaks off. As a result, the Falls retreat gradually upstream, at a rate of about a foot every ten years. At the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, the Niagara Falls were 11 kilometres (seven miles) closer to Lake Ontario, as high cliffs testify.

A couple of kilometres downstream (and visible as you look at the Falls) is the Niagara Power Project. This joint Canadian/US enterprise generates 2.4 million kilowatts by diverting part of the flow through its turbines. A hard-argued 1950 pact requires it to leave at least 300 cubic metres (100,000 cubic feet) per second in the original river during daylight hours in the visitor season, half the average total flow (thus helping to limit erosion). Take time to imagine how the Falls would be naturally without any intervention: twice as much crashing water (and 24 million fewer light bulbs).

Orientation

Falls activity centres on two spots on the river, the Falls area itself and the Whirlpool Basin area five kilometres (three miles) down river.

A road and a strip of parkland with a railed walkway and viewing platforms built along the cliffs link the two. The town of Niagara Falls and its tourist attractions are set on a rise above the river, with a hotel hinterland stretching west; you could walk between the two, but people seldom do. There's a funicular (the Falls Incline Railway) near the Horseshoe Falls; hotels run shuttle buses, and most tours take you straight to the Falls. In summer the city wheels out its 'people-movers', frequent shuttle buses run between the Falls and various points in town; out of season you'll have to take normal city buses. The train and Greyhound stations are at the far end of town and a five-minute walk from the nearest bus stop, which is at the corner of Bridge and Erie Streets.

The Niagara Parkway runs the whole length of the river on the Canadian side. North and south of the Falls are, yes, more attractions, plus parks, picnic areas and viewpoints. It's pretty, in a regulated sort of a way.

You can cross over to the US side of the river on foot or by car on either the Rainbow Bridge (near the Falls) or the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. Take your passport and any visa documents (see p247 US passport regulations) and be prepared for security checks and body searches. Queues have been longer since 9/11. Given that the views are less impressive from the American side, it's not really worth it.

What to see

The Falls

First – and quite possibly only – the Falls themselves. There are always crowds, often dozens deep, at the main Table Rock site, where you can stand (behind a strong stone and metal railing) a mere metre away from the edge of the Horseshoe Falls. There is a spot where you are literally at the peak of the cascade as it rushes by your toes, plummeting 54 metres (177 feet) down into the foaming, misty gorge. In high season you may have to jostle to get into position by the railing, but it's worth the wait.

The Table Rock Complex has a restaurant, a snack bar and souvenir shops filled with tacky trinkets. It is also the entry point for the Journey Behind the Falls (1-877 642 7275/905 371 0254/www.niagaraparks.com). Visitors take a lift down 38 metres (125 feet) through solid rock, don yellow macs and then walk through a tunnel behind the curtain of water plunging over the Horseshoe Falls. There is also an outdoor observation deck at the side, where you can watch the thundering waters hit the gorge and turn into white mist. Pretty dramatic stuff.

Half a mile north is the departure point for the Maid of the Mist (905 358 5781/www.maidofthemist.com), at the bottom of Clifton Hill, opposite the American Falls. There's a direct road from town, or you can take the crowded, scenic and invariably damp riverside walk through Queen Victoria Park. There's no advance booking, so prepare for a lengthy queue at busy times, or get there early – the first cruise leaves at 9.45am – but this is one water ride that is well worth the wait. At the bottom of the cliffs you get suited up in blue slickers. The little ship chugs past the American Falls and Cave of the Winds before it charges straight for the horseshoe of water. Passengers aboard the bucking boat will find the world turns totally white as they disappear into the mists of Niagara. Make no mistake, you will get wet. But it's worth it for the thrill.

The Whirlpool Basin

Three more river-centric attractions are based in the Whirlpool Basin area, a couple of miles downstream. The Great Gorge Adventure (905 371 0254, closed Nov-late April) takes you down in a lift to a boardwalk beside the seething rapids; the Niagara Whirlpool Aero Car (905 262 4274/www.niagaraparks.com), built in 1913, spans the dramatic whirlpool (subject to weather conditions) – the ride is lovely, but pretty tame. For a real thrill, book a flight over the Falls with Niagara Helicopters (905 357 5672).

Many people prefer to visit Niagara during the frigid, white winters. For one thing, there are no crowds. But the main reason is that the entire area around the Horseshoe Falls turns into a stunning winter tableau of ice and snow. The mist covers buildings, trees, railings and coats everything with layers of ice. It is a beautiful spectacle, especially at night, when the Niagara Light Show (year-round after dusk) bathes the water, mist and ice in startling white, red and blue. Note that many attractions (and restaurants) will be closed, though, or operating on reduced opening hours.

In Niagara town

In the town itself you can pretty much take your pick of international tourist franchises, viewing towers and assorted attractions. The Skylon Tower (1-877 475 9566/905 356 2651/www.skylon.com) is not hard to find. Take one of the little 'yellow bug' exterior lifts for a ride to the indoor or outdoor observation deck. This will give you another view of the Falls – and it is breathtaking – from some 236 metres (775 feet) above ground level. You can see the perfect horseshoe shape of the Canadian Falls and the plume of mist spilling up from the rolling waters of the Niagara river. It's also fun to watch the toytown-tiny Maid of the Mist fight its way towards the Horseshoe Falls.

Clifton Hill, the steep street that runs up from the Maid of the Mist dock, is a glorious concentration of tacky attractions. Here you will find Dracula's Haunted Castle, the Mystery Maze, the Movieland Wax Museum of Stars, Ripley's Believe It or Not, the Great Canadian Midway, the House of Frankenstein and the Dinosaur Park putting course.

The IMAX Theatre Niagara Falls & Daredevil Gallery (905 374 4629/www.imaxniagara.com) showcases the largest collection of barrels and home-made contraptions used to challenge the Falls, successfully and otherwise. To save you making the leap yourself, there is some incredible video footage filmed by a daredevil through the reinforced window of his barrel. Don't miss the photos of Blondin as he crossed the gorge on the high wire. The stunning IMAX film Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic, plays regularly.

The Sky Wheel (905 358 4793/www.cliftonhill.com) is the newest attraction to the strip, a London Eye-type wheel that rises 55 metres (175 feet) above the tack factor to take in views of the Falls at a gentle pace. One revolution takes about ten minutes.

If looking at all that water makes you want to take a dip, head for Fallsview Indoor Water Park (888 234 8408/905 374 4444/www.fallsviewwaterpark.com), which boasts an array of slides, fountains, a 1,000-gallon tipping bucket and tidal pool. At $45 a head, you may feel your wallet is getting soaked, but discounts are offered when staying at the adjoining Sheraton on the Falls, Brock Plaza and Skyline Inn hotels.

MarineLand (905 356 9565/www.marinelandcanada.com) is one of the town's most popular attractions. The show features killer whales, sea lions and leaping dolphins; there's also a zoo with elks, bears and buffalos.

When Niagara's city fathers looked for ways to boost tourism, gambling was the obvious way to go. The town has always had the ersatz vibe of an Atlantic City or Las Vegas, so gambling has become as much a part of Niagara culture as fudge factories and trinkets.

Casino Niagara (1-888 946 3255/905 374 3598/www.casinoniagara.com) has a massive 9,000 square metres (96,000 square feet) of gaming space, but it was eclipsed in 2004 by the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, a huge hotel/casino that is twice the size. Both establishments are open daily, round the clock.

Wildlife & green spaces

At the opposite end of the tourist spectrum is Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory (905 358 0025/www.niagaraparks.com), about eight kilometres (five miles) north along the Niagara Parkway and just south of the Floral Clock (a free attraction that is exactly what it sounds like). This living museum features more than 2,000 butterflies from around the globe. It's an explosion of hues in a lush, climate-controlled rainforest setting. Wear colourful clothing, and the butterflies will land on you for the perfect photo op. The Butterfly Conservatory is part of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens (905 371 0254). Nature lovers also flock to Bird Kingdom (866 994 0090/905 356 8888/www.niagarafallsaviary.com), formerly Niagara Falls Aviary, where free-flying toucans, hornbills and some 350 other species of birds reside in a faux jungle temple ruin.

Niagara has some gorgeous green spaces. One is the Niagara Glen Nature Reserve (905 371 0254/www.niagaraparks.com), a tranquil antidote to some of the more raucous Niagara attractions. Located on the Niagara Parkway, the Glen is a haven mostly missed by tourists who are put off by the steep, rugged paths. Those willing to make the effort are rewarded with rare wild flowers, ferns and mosses that grow on boulders, a centuries-old stand of rare tulip trees and close-up views of the surging Niagara river. Maps are available from the Niagara Glen gift shop (905 371 0254).

Where to eat

Niagara Falls isn't known for its fine dining. Fast and theme food is the order for the day (here you will find Denny's and the Hard Rock Café, plus all the other usual suspects). There are, however, two places that are always busy, if not for the food, then for the views. The Table Rock Restaurant (905 354 3631/www.niagaraparks.com) serves decent casual meals and snacks at fair prices, but it has a constant queue because it is only 100 metres from the Horseshoe Falls (hence you are not encouraged to linger over coffee). You can reserve a table, but not a window seat. The Skylon Tower has two eateries, the best of which is the revolving Skylon Tower Restaurant (1-877 475 9566/905 356 2651/www.skylon.com). The food is of the rich, international type that aims to impress, and is fairly pricey; the views are the attraction.

Where to stay

If you want a lovely place to stay, Niagara-on-the-Lake is more pleasant than Niagara town. It's a 30-minute, scenic drive from the Falls, and the antithesis to its honky-tonk neighbour, characterised by quaint gingerbread houses and quiet, shaded streets. However, if you're playing tourist and want the full Niagara experience, you can choose between the many uniform chain hotels, the down and dirty 'no-tell motel' strip above Clifton Hill or the opulence of a palatial suite overlooking the Falls – with, perhaps, a fireplace and a heart-shaped jacuzzi (such things are almost de rigueur in the honeymoon suites).

Downtown, try one of the period B&Bs lining the road towards the Falls, such as the Lion's Head B&B (905 374 1681/www.lionsheadbb.com), a lovely Arts and Crafts house with stylish rooms. Contact Niagara Falls Tourism for comprehensive suggestions. Always ask about deals and packages, particularly off season.

Two of the most prominent hotels in the city are the Brock Plaza Hotel (1-800 263 7135/905 3744444/www.niagarafallshotels.com) and the adjacent Sheraton on the Falls (1-888 229 9961/905 374 4444/www.niagarafallshotels.com). They stand side by side a block from the Niagara Parkway in the giant Falls Avenue complex (along with the casino and various theme restaurants), and both have views of the American Falls. For a room in the shadow of the Skylon Tower, check out the Holiday Inn by the Falls (1-800 263 9393/905 356 1333/www.holidayinn.com), or if you want a less anonymous location, try the Travelodge Clifton Hill (1-800 668 8840/905 357 4330/www.falls.com) in the colourful carnival atmosphere of Clifton Hill. If you have kids in tow, try the new Great Wolf Lodge (1-800 605 9653/www.greatwolf.com), four kilometres (2.5 miles) north of the city across from the Whirlpool; it has a faux log-cabin setting and a huge waterpark. If gambling's your thing, consider the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort (1-888 325 5788/www.fallsviewcasinoresort.com), which contains various restaurants, plus shopping and gambling amenities. Many of its 368 guest rooms command stunning views of the Falls.

Tourist information

Hotel concierges tend to be the best sources of information, but there are signs everywhere. To save money when visiting attractions, it's worth investing in an all-in-one pass.

Niagara Falls Tourism
5705 Falls Avenue, PO Box 300, Niagara Falls, ON L2E 6T3 (1-800 563 2557/905 356 6061/www.niagarafallstourism.com). Open Mid May-Aug 8am-8pm daily. Sept-mid May 8am-6pm Mon-Fri; 10am-6pm Sat; 10am-4pm Sun.

Niagara Parks Commission
Table Rock Complex, 6650 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls (1-877 642 7275/905 371 0254/www.niagaraparks.com). Open phone for details.

Tourism Niagara
424 South Service Road, Casablanca Boulevard exit on the QEW, Grimsby (1-800 263 2988/905 945 5444/www.tourismniagara.com). Open 9am-6pm daily.
Busy tourist centre off the highway; provides information on the whole region. Hotel reservations can be made through this office at a discount.  

Getting there

By car

When traffic co-operates (avoid the afternoon rush hour), Niagara is a 90-minute drive on one highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way from the city, rounding Lake Ontario. Take the well-signed Highway 420 to drive the last few miles into town.

By public bus

Greyhound buses (1-800 661 8747/416 594 1010, www.greyhound.ca) run throughout the day from Toronto. But at $59 return ($61 on weekends) they're not much cheaper than a tour bus, and less convenient at both ends.

Bus tours/day trips

Several companies run scheduled tours from Toronto to Niagara. Their literature is ubiquitous, their packages manifold (from transport only to the full excursion/attraction monty) and their differences negligible. Ask at your hotel; staff should know which are the most convenient and may have deals going. Standard operators include Gray Line (416 594 0343, www.grayline.ca) and Niagara & Toronto Tours (416 868 0400, www.torontotours.com).

The Magic Bus Company (416 516 7433, www.magicbuscompany.com) sends a funky, brightly coloured school bus round the hostels before trundling down to Niagara, where it stops at a winery, gives the trippers three to five hours at the Falls and stops at the whirlpool and other attractions before heading back ($40).

Casino Niagara and Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort both have contracts with several companies.

By train

There are two VIA Rail (1-888 842 7245, www.viarail.ca) trains a day in either direction, taking under two hours to make the journey. One-way fares are $33 for adults, $17-$30 concessions. You can book a cheaper fare with five days' advance reservation for as little at $21 each way.

Getting around

By bus

The green-and-white people-movers (available to those buying all-in-one visitors' passes; see p234), are sometimes hard to spot among the numerous tour buses. They're convenient, however, dropping off visitors at the different sights around town.

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