There’s much more to Niagara and its surrounding countryside than the world’s second largest waterfall, but it’s a great place to start. First, let’s sort out the geography. Niagara is around ninety minutes’ drive from Toronto, Canada’s commercial and cultural capital; home to the Canadian Stock Exchange as well as Canada’s five biggest banks, the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company. Toronto is the fourth most populated city in North America and is dominated by the CN Tower which soars to an amazing 1,815 feet. Until 2010 it was the world’s tallest building. It has a great revolving restaurant, an ideal way to see the city, and on the floor below is a viewing platform with a vertigo-inducing glass floor, popular with those taking selfies. From Toronto I drove north along the freeway and an hour and a half later I arrived in the town of Niagara. The Horseshoe Falls, commonly known as the Niagara Falls, cascades over two million litres of water a second into the Niagara River below, which forms a natural boundary between Canada and the USA. There are actually three waterfalls. The smaller American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls are both in Buffalo, New York State, on the US side of the river opposite the town of Niagara. Between them is Luna Island, a mere 130ft wide. However the Horseshoe Falls, by far the biggest, is in Niagara which is in the province of Ontario, Canada. All three Falls are best viewed from the Canadian side, the two countries being linked by the Rainbow Bridge, so called because the spray from the Falls often creates rainbows. You can walk or drive across the bridge but if you do you need to make sure that you have the necessary documentation with you; security was tightened after 9/11. For UK visitors, both countries now require an electronic travel authorisation. Many people think that the Niagara Falls are out of town but in fact they are right in the city. The riverside road consists of smart hotels and manicured gardens and the area is popular with visitors. I was impressed by how the Canadians had made the Falls so accessible. Not a single toll gate in site; the area is free and open to all and I got to within feet of the top of the Falls – surely one of the most popular places in the world to take photographs. The spray from the falls helps to keep the lawns in great shape but as I approached the top of the Falls I had to put on a shower-proof jacket in order to keep me dry. It’s strange to see people wearing raincoats and holding umbrellas on a bright sunny day. Just behind the smart hotels I explored downtown Niagara and Clifton Hill. In places this area has the look and feel of amusement park. Attractions such as the upside down house, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum and several wax works, one cheekily named ‘Louis Tussauds’, can keep kids, young and old, amused for hours. There is also a range of lower priced accommodation and eateries. Niagara is easily managed on foot so cars, buses and taxis are not needed to get around town. The range of accommodation, restaurants and attractions is very varied. Niagara is not just for honeymooners and sight-seers, it is very much a family destination, indeed families from all over the world.
Of course, no visit to Niagara would be complete without a boat ride into the whirlpool at the foot of the Falls. The famous Maid of the Mist has switched from the Canadian side to the US side of the river and Hornblower Cruises now operates from Canada. There’s really no place to shelter on the boat but I was provided with a hooded plastic poncho to help keep out the spray, which felt more like driving rain as I approached the foot of the Falls. Canadian visitors get red ponchos whilst those from the US side get blue ones. Perhaps this is so that anyone who falls in can easily be repatriated to their country of origin! I tried taking photos but had to put my camera away to avoid it getting wet. It is from here that you really appreciate the might of the second largest waterfall in the world. Whilst the Falls are the central attraction, there is much to see in the surrounding area. A short drive along almost empty roads took me to nearby picturesque townships and villages such as Niagara on the Lake and Jordan, with their pretty shops and homes with elegant manicured garden – modern versions of English country villages. This really is a delightful place to live and popular with those working in both Toronto and Niagara. I also took a guided tour of the beautifully restored and historic Balls Falls Conservation Area. It is one of the earliest settlements in this part of Canada and includes the Grist Mill dating back to 1809 and the St George Church, built in 1864. This is a serious wine-making area and I visited a number of vineyards that seemed happy to show visitors around. Typical wine production here includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling. I was offered numerous samples and it was of consistently high quality, but if you visit make sure you have decided on a designated driver – Canadians don’t stint on hospitality.
I also walked along a section of the famous Welland Canal. It is part of a network of canals linking the Great Lakes and allowing cargo from both Canadian and American cities like Detroit and Chicago to reach ocean-going vessels at ports such as Montreal and Quebec. Its seven locks are required to overcome the natural obstacle that is the Niagara Escarpment which, in 1990, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The Bruce Trail, named after one of the Governor Generals of Canada, James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin, follows the edge of the Escarpment. I explored a small part of this 500 mile trail, the longest marked trail in Canada. It is looked after by local clubs that have sprung up along its path and whose volunteers help to maintain its pathways, bridges and stairways. It is a popular destination and clearly on the ‘to do’ list of hikers from around the world. However, good walking shoes and perhaps poles are recommended. There were plenty of rocks and tree roots to trip the unwary. There’s much to see and do in the area and whilst the Falls are the main attraction, the surrounding countryside is not to be missed; and when you have had enough of the countryside, the big city of Toronto is not far away. I covered a lot of ground during my visit but the one thing all places had in common was the warmth and friendliness of Canadians themselves. From the assistant in a local Subway to the staff at the smart city hotels, all were genuinely pleased to see me, happy to help and keen to hear about my experiences in their great country. For more information go to www.ontariotravel.net/en/explore/niagara