Niagara is primarily known for its falls but that does a disservice to the wider area, writes Craig Platt.
I'm looking up at movie heart-throb Robert Pattinson, star of the teen-vampire-romance Twilight films, but something's not quite right.
His face seems a little ... off. I'm standing outside a waxwork museum and Pattinson's likeness on the marquee, while recognisable, isn't likely to challenge Madame Tussauds for uncanny accuracy.
This is Clifton Hill on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, a bizarre, gaudy strip of vaudevillian entertainments just a short walk from one of nature's most majestic sights. There are a couple of waxwork museums, at least three haunted houses, a ferris wheel, a Ripley's Believe it or Not! museum and a wide range of other family entertainments. It's tacky, tasteless, outdated and, for me, utterly charming.
Niagara Falls has been a tourist attraction virtually for as long as mainstream tourism has existed, so it actually makes sense that some of the attractions surrounding the famous falls would harken back to the days of Robert Ripley or P.T. Barnum.
The falls are hugely impressive in their magnitude, split into two halves, the Horseshoe Falls and the smaller American Falls (adjacent to the much smaller Bridal Veil Falls), and visitors are able to get an up-close view, whether simply walking along the street that follows the canyon the falls flow into, heading down behind the falls or taking a boat ride on the Lady of the Mist.
It must be said, this is without doubt a touristy town. Not surprising of course, given its location and ease of access. There's a road that runs right along the river providing great views of the falls without even having to stop the car. But there is another side to the Niagara region. While the majority of tourists stick to the big attraction, I head out into the surrounding area to enjoy one of the region's lesser-known attractions.
Although only a short drive from Canada's biggest city, Toronto, and its expansive suburbs, the Niagara-on-the-Lake region is filled with wineries, in beautiful rolling countryside. The Autumn Taste the Season festival in the region sees 28 of the local wineries offer wine and food pairings. Visitors buy a touring pass to try the food and wine at each venue.
Of course, sampling that much wine is not conducive to driving, so the festival has designated driver discounts - although a popular way to participate with a group is to hire a bus and driver for the day. I'm fortunate enough to have a driver to escort me, which means there's nothing to hold me back from partaking to my heart's (and stomach's) content.
At Chateau des Charmes, I enjoy a 2009 cabernet merlot paired with the fanciest taco I've ever eaten - braised beef with tomatillo salsa and goat's milk creme fraiche. At Ravine Vineyard it's hearty fare to go with its 2010 cabernet franc - ribs smoked for nine hours.
And on it goes. Participants have a passbook that gets stamped at each location, with space for tasting notes on each wine. The passbook is there to prevent people going back and claiming their drink and food repeatedly, but given there are so many wineries involved it would be impossible to visit all of them once, never mind going back for seconds.
While I have been enjoying the reds and whites on offer, it is a Canadian cold-climate speciality that really takes my fancy: ice wine. Ice wine's origins go back centuries, with legend telling that the style was discovered by accident in 18th century Germany by farmers attempting to save a grape harvest after a sudden frost.
The grapes are picked during sub-zero temperatures, in the middle of the night, and immediately pressed, delivering liquid that is highly concentrated in sugars and acidity. The result is a sweet, rich dessert wine.
The Ontario region, including Niagara, produces 900,000 litres of ice wine annually and is the only place in the world that has the right climate to ensure an ice wine crop most years. One of the most awarded wineries for the drop is Inniskillin, where we head towards the end of our day of touring.
Here I indulge in a delicious 2008 Vidal ice wine, paired with chicken wings. I'm inspired to buy a bottle to take back to Australia. Ice wine is more expensive than other wines (a decent 375ml bottle can cost about $75) due to its low yield and labour-intensive creation. Nevertheless, it's too delicious to resist.
From Inniskillin, I visit Niagara-on-the-Lake, a quaint village on the shores of Lake Ontario, filled with beautifully restored heritage homes and quirky shops. Like the falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake is also a tourist town, but the charms here are very different.
It's a place to quietly stroll through, ducking into some of the quirky shops and galleries (including a Christmas decoration store that's open all year round).
My journey on Queen Street ends at Lake Ontario. There's a gentle breeze blowing off the lake, a few empty park benches look out towards Canada's largest city, Toronto, to the north, and across the border to New York State in the east. As I stand and contemplate the peacefulness, it feels a world away from the noise and bustle of the gaudy town surrounding the grand falls.
Craig Platt is Fairfax Media's digital travel editor. He travelled as a guest of Niagara Falls Tourism and the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Air Canada flies from Sydney (with Qantas connections to other Australian cities, including Melbourne) to Toronto via Vancouver. See aircanada.com. Niagara Falls is about 90 minutes by bus from Toronto. Greyhound and Coach Canada operate regular services from downtown Toronto with fares from about $C15 ($15) one way. See greyhound.ca, coachcanada.com.
The Niagara Falls Hilton offers excellent views of the falls (it was voted as having one of the top 10 best hotel views in the world on TripAdvisor) and the hotel's Myst bar, on the 33rd floor, is the perfect place to enjoy the illuminated falls at night. Rooms start from $C109 a night. See www.niagarafallshilton.com.
NIAGARA WINE FESTIVALS
Taste the Season – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in November
Ice Wine Festival - January 10-26, 2014
Days of Wine and Chocolate – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in February
Wine and Herb – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in May
New Vintage Festival - June 14-22, 2014
Nigara Wine Festival - September 13-28, 2014