Louise Southerden explores the well-known and the offbeat on Canada's side of the famous falls.
You'd expect a country whose exports include comedians Jim Carrey, Mike "Austin Powers" Myers and Leslie Nielsen (of Flying High and Naked Gun fame) to have a unique take on a world-famous tourist attraction.
Canada actually goes beyond the call of duty to exceed those expectations. Ever since 63-year-old American schoolteacher Annie Taylor became the first person to ride a barrel over Niagara Falls in October 1901 – accompanied by an anvil (for ballast) and her cat (for company?) – this natural wonder has had an offbeat side. You don't even have to step off the tourist-beaten path to find unusual offerings in Ontario's Niagara region – most of them are right there in the brochure.
One of the newest attractions on the Canadian side of the falls is Niagara's Fury (niagarasfury.com), a cinematic experience with effects, at the newly renovated Table Rock Centre, next to the lip of Horseshoe Falls, the biggest of the three waterfalls that make up Niagara.
After an eight-minute animated movie, in which woodland creatures (led by a cheeky beaver named Chip) explain how the falls were created, there's a six-minute, ground-shaking, water-spraying "4D" show (which means experiencing physical effects while watching a 3D movie) that allows you to feel what it might have been like to witness the creation of the falls 10,000 years ago.
Wings of wonder
It's ironic that one of the wonders of the natural world has a sideline in man-made wonders: such as the Niagara SkyWheel, a 42-gondola ferris wheel almost as high as the falls themselves (53 metres versus 55 metres); Niagara Freefall, the only indoor skydiving wind tunnel in Canada; and North America's largest indoor water-park complex where, after taking in the falls, you can ride a wave or laze on an indoor beach far from any coastline.
Barely a block from the falls, there's also Bird Kingdom (birdkingdom.ca), the largest indoor aviary in the world, home to 500 tropical birds and, bizarrely, a 125-year-old Javanese nobleman's house that doubles as a bar.
My personal favourite, however, is Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory (niagaraparks.com), the largest indoor glass butterfly house in North America, hosting more than 2000 tropical butterflies, some with magical names such as rice paper, zebra longwing, red postman, cloudless sulphur and the common Mormon. Stand still long enough and they land in your hair or on your nose.
A charming, restored heritage village 20 minutes' drive from the falls and a world away from its high-rise hotels and casino complex is Niagara-on-the-lake (NOTL). It's the kind of place where it's Christmas all year round (in the Christmas shop at least), where paint doesn't dare peel, where every blossom knows its place in the hanging baskets adorning the lamp posts. It's where people stroll arm-in-arm window-shopping until 9pm in summer. Buy a bag of maple-roasted peanuts, pop in to Niagara Apothecary (Canada's longest-serving pharmacy) or sample the watercress sandwiches at the Prince of Wales Hotel tearoom.
There are British-themed shops selling everything from spotted dick to HP Sauce and stately Edwardian- and Georgian-style homes (rebuilt after the town was razed by American soldiers in the War of 1812).
NOTL is also rumoured to be the most haunted town in Canada, thanks to its war-torn history. There are nightly lantern-lit ghost walks for the believers and the curious (hauntedhamilton.com).
A Shaw thing
NOTL is where you'll find the Shaw Festival (April-November, shawfest.com), which celebrates the plays of George Bernard Shaw and contemporaries such as W. Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams. In addition to performances in the town's three theatres (three theatres in one small town says a lot about NOTL), there are backstage tours, pre-show chats, Sunday coffee concerts, matinees, workshops and summer camps. If you miss the festival, drop in to Bernard's, a shop that celebrates Shaw's era.
Ice wine, liquid gold
There are more than 70 wineries in the Niagara region, as it's at the same latitude as Bordeaux and the Napa Valley and is an hour's drive south of Toronto, making it a popular weekend destination. Many bed and breakfasts and hotels have their own vineyards, including Riverbend Inn (riverbendinn.ca), a renovated 1860s Georgian mansion. Staying at Riverbend is like channelling Scarlett O'Hara: grand staircases, sky-high ceilings and french doors opening on to marble balconies. Deer graze between the vines and some nights you can hear coyotes howl.
The Niagara Peninsula is the world's largest producer of ice wine, made from frozen grapes picked in winter, at wineries such as Pillitteri Estate (run by Australian wine master Dr Mark Bradshaw) and Inniskillin. The Niagara Wine Festival (niagarawinefestival.com) in September is one of the largest in Canada. A 10-day ice-wine festival is held in January and the Niagara New Vintage Festival in June.
The boutique brewery Taps Beer Company (tapsbeer.ca) has a Wine Barrel Lager, while the Inn on the Twenty (innonthetwenty.com), in the historic village of Jordan, 20 minutes from NOTL, offers "vinotherapy" spa treatments.
Spiritual rest stop
Halfway between NOTL and Niagara Falls, behind a white picket fence, is one of the smallest churches in the world. Built in 1969 by the Niagara Falls Christian Reformed Church and now maintained by a local family, the Living Water Wayside Chapel has just two pews, a box for donations and a visitors' book.
One of the surprising things about Niagara, funnily enough, is the area's natural beauty. Shoulder-to-shoulder with flagrantly touristy offerings are parks with large, shady trees to picnic under and where wild squirrels scamper happily through long, lush grass. Sir Winston Churchill once described Niagara Parkway, the tree-lined road between NOTL and Niagara Falls, as "the prettiest Sunday drive in the world". Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens has more than 40 hectares of gardens.
Niagara River Recreation Trail (niagaraparks.com) is a 53-kilometre footpath and cycleway, created in 1986, along the Canadian side of the Niagara River and has 100 monuments and plaques commemorating the war of 1812. The Bruce Trail (brucetrail.org), the oldest and longest walking track in Canada, starts five kilometres from NOTL and traverses the 725-kilometre Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Ontario's Bike Train initiative, (biketrain.ca), introduced by VIA Rail in 2007, allows riders to put their bikes on the train from Toronto. Winery cycle tours are led by former Tour de France and Olympic rider Steve Bauer (stevebauer.com). NOTL is the starting point for the Waterfront Trail (waterfronttrail.org), which travels 780 kilometres to the Quebec border. Nothing, however, beats simply riding a rental bike along the footpath lining the falls, especially early in the morning.
The writer travelled with assistance from the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Just a short barrel ride to the bottom
WHEN Annie Taylor emerged, unscathed, from her barrel ride over the falls in 1901, she said: "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the falls." She also said the feat "ought never be done again". English circus performer Bobby Leach ignored her advice 10 years later and took to a steel barrel in 1911; he broke both kneecaps and his jawbone and sustained enough other injuries to necessitate six months in hospital. At least 15 people are known to have gone over the falls since then, three of whom did it sans barrel (and survived): a seven-year-old boy, who fell out of a boat above the falls in 1960, wearing only his swimmers and a lifejacket; a 40-year-old Michigan man seeking fame and fortune in 2003; and in March this year, a man in his 30s who threw himself over the falls and was pulled naked from the icy waters, his clothes having been torn off.