Thursday, February 26, 2015

Biking the Niagara Heritage Trail and Wineries

Last summer we spent a week exploring the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is the last post of the 6-part series of posts about that trip and the fun times we had exploring the land up north!

If you're not keen on spending more time at the Falls (as magnificent as they are) or doing all the more touristy things, Niagara-on-the-Lake (NotL) offers quite a bit of other activities for both adults and family. I wish I'd planned on time for kayaking, as that's an option for the lower, more calm part of Niagara River, as it flows into Lake Ontario. And of course, kayaking on Lake Ontario is also a good possibility.

There is about 33 miles of biking trails on the Niagara River Recreation Trail. Part of other trail systems, including the Trans Canada Trail, Waterfront Trail, and the Greater Niagara Circle Route, the Niagara River Recreational Trail runs along the Niagara River and extends from Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, through Chippawa, to Historic Fort Erie. This mixed-use path passes through many Niagara Parks attractions, historic sites and natural areas, and can be quite congested in the more touristy areas.

Constructed in 1986, the Niagara River Recreation Trail is a paved path for hikers and cyclists. It is divided into four scenic sections, each with its own history and high adventure set amidst lovely countryside. It takes one to two hours to pedal leisurely each of these sections: NotL to Queenston; Queenston to the Whirlpool Aero Car; Chippawa to Black Creek; Black Creek to Fort Erie. We only biked the NotL to Queenston section.

We chose to rent bikes for the day from Zoom Bikes. A paved path follows the river all the way to the Falls. With my young son along, we decided to only bike over to Queenston and back -- still a pleasant ride along the river, partially shaded. We passed a number of orchards and wineries and my friend and I made a mental note to head back to the wineries, on our bikes, after we brought my son back to the cottage for lunch.

But meanwhile we were biking past some gorgeous homes -- some older, some not, but all beautifully landscaped. There were also some notable historic homes, like Willowbank, pictured above, and the McFarland House. Willowbank was the home of Alexander Hamilton, the fourth sheriff of the Niagara district. He built Willowbank in 1833 (it was completed in 1835) overlooking the village of Queenston.

In NotL proper, the scenic river trail branches off into the Canada Heritage Trail, which runs through the town. The scenic river trail dead-ends at, logically enough, the mouth of the Niagara River.

That afternoon, although we chose only to go to a couple of wineries, we realized that bike enthusiasts can spend several days touring the wineries by bike -- the terrain is for the most part flat and conducive to pleasant riding through the orchards and vineyards. The wineries are well marked and there several bike maps available giving the locations of the wineries. In addition, several outfits in town provide tours of the wineries -- either via vehicle or via bike. But you don't need a bike tour -- just head down the Scenic River Trail and you'll pass by half a dozen wineries!

These wineries accommodate bicyclists by either holding your purchases for later pickup or they will deliver (if you purchase a certain amount). The commercial bike tours often include ferrying your purchases from the wineries back to either your hotel or a central location, such as the tour's headquarters.

If you don't want to schlep your own bike all that way, no worries -- there're are several bike rental outfits in NotL that are quite reasonable.

Niagara-on-the-Lake and the surrounding region has more wineries and vineyards than anywhere I've been before. In fact, that region, with the most area under vine and a series of recognized sub-appellations, is Canada's largest wine growing region and is blessed by a unique micro-climate facilitated by the interaction of the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario.

I was especially taken by the prevalent Gew├╝rztramer and GerwurztraminerRiesling wines that were there. Gerwurz, as it's sometimes referred to, is, an aromatic wine grape variety, used in white wines, and performs best in cooler climates.

The area is also known for its ice wines. A true Icewine can only be made from grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine and picked when the thermometer dips to -8° C or lower. The solidly frozen grapes are handpicked and pressed immediately to gently release a single drop of thick, rich, yellow-gold liquid, highly concentrated in natural sugars and acidity. The yield is small, but the result is a sumptuous and perfectly sweet wine.

Tour the largest sub-appellation in Niagara-on-the-Lake, this flat and fertile plain is optimal for growing grapes.
Click here for full itinerary.

Visit the vineyards that sweep down to the shores of Lake Ontario to produce full-bodied and flavourful wines.
Click here for full itinerary.

Explore without covering a lot of distance as the wineries along the picturesque Niagara Parkway are quite close together.
Click here for full itinerary.

Tip #1: Cyclists are welcome at all Niagara Parks attractions, restaurants, and shops. All facilities are equipped with bicycle racks to secure your bike while you enjoy the sights/sites.

Tip #2: If you avoid purchasing wine and pack your own picnic, this is a budget-friendly day trip!

Helpful websites:;

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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Jet Boating the Niagara Rapids

Last summer we spent a week exploring the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is part of the 6-part series of posts about that trip and the fun times we had exploring the land up north!

The Niagara River flows north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, forming part of the border between the Province of Ontario in Canada (on the west) and New York State in the United States. And although they are famous now, they've been well known, even outside of North America, since the late 17th century, when Father Louis Hennepin, a French explorer, first witnessed them. He wrote about his travels in A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (1698).

The falls have moved almost 7 miles upstream from the Niagara Escarpment in the last 12,000 years, resulting in a gorge below the falls. Today, the diversion of the river for electrical generation has significantly reduced the rate of erosion and ever so slightly tamed the rapids. The Niagara Gorge extends downstream from the Falls and includes the Niagara Whirlpool and another section of rapids.
It is this section of rapids that we are focused on in this post. Although not the Class VI rapids of the upper Niagara Gorge, these Class IV and Class V rapids are scary enough.

The rapids, when seen from the shore, look beautiful and really, not all that threatening, especially to those of us unfamiliar with actual experience on rapids such as these. From the shore, they look fun, not deadly.

When viewed from a boat skimming across the top and superfluously dunking its riders in particularly high waves, I learned that these rapids induce mind-numbing, scream-inducing terror. 

It was in an effort to be cool -- cooler than my ex, which, although not really hard to do, the competition is still felt keenly -- that I suggested, timidly, that we take the Jet Boat Ride to the Whirlpool. I felt sure that cooler heads would prevail, that my friend Barb would bail, thereby offering me an out, that my husband would persist in his allergy to boats, removing the final adult from possibly going. Or maybe someone with some financial sense might object to the expense.


"Sure let's!" they all said, calling my bluff. 

The idea of the jet boat tour is exciting and fun. They seem to go REALLY fast and indulge in a few splashes, what's the harm in that? 

Photo courtesy Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours
Thus it was on a rainy summer morning that we arrived at the launch point and donned rain ponchos (which are ridiculous in light of the actual protection against wet they afford, which is to say, none at all) and life preservers, which I knew to be futile against the pull of the Niagara Whirl Pool... said to relentlessly pull down anything that dares ride its surface into a soggy death 100 feet below. 

They announced that the ride is scariest and splashiest in the front couple of rows. My eldest son immediately volunteers that he'd like to sit in the front row, and asks me to do so with him. With the coolness factor in mind, I blithely say, "Sure, it'll be fun." Afterall, I have my water poncho... 

Photo courtesy Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.
My grandmother was a worrier. She worried about things that could happen, things that might happen, and things that would probably never in a million years happen. I am her granddaughter in so many ways. I worry, too. It's a full-time hobby. 

There are many things to worry about regarding the jet boat tour. For starters, what if it's the captain's first time soloing the tour? (That occurred to me AFTER we'd left the dock.) And just how young is he anyway? OMG, he's young enough to be my child. ... Aren't young 20-somethings reckless? What if he takes unnecessary chances? What if someone falls off? What if my child falls off? What if I fall off? And so on ... 

And there I am, in the front row. With my child. (My other son, younger but wiser, chose to sit a few rows back, with a grateful Barb and my husband in tow.) I realize AFTER the boat leaves dock that I should be on the outside, that being on the inside would be safer for my son. Too late. I worried some more. 

But the jet boat turned north, going toward the calm waters of the mouth of the Niagara River. Maybe this will be okay, I think. The tour guide is saying something about a hamilton turn and there we go, into this steep 360 degree turn. Holy cow! So much for a placid ride.

Photo courtesy Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.
It's been a good life. I really have nothing to complain about. Nor even many regrets. 

They do it again, just to make sure we're awake. 

And then they head up to those rapids in the lower gorge, the ones that look so pretty from the safety of the shore. 

They talk about how they're going to CLIMB the rapids -- how is that even possible? Well, they tell you why! The boat has three engines, each a gazillion horsepower, which gives it the power to climb up terrifying rapids, and the boat's flat bottom enables it to skim on top of the water, thereby avoiding any rocks or scary things below the water's surface.

They demonstrate the boat dipping into a rapid, just to get our feet wet, so to speak. Then they do it again. They take the boat up the first set of rapids, then turn it around (hamilton turn again), give us a superfluous splash, go back down and do it all again.

Sitting in the front seat and experiencing those splashes is much like swimming, except you have no control. It is advised to hold one's breath in anticipation of the splashes, and to definitely keep your mouth closed (else you could drown, I worried). They actually warn you to grab hold of the bar and brace yourself as you go through these, else you risk falling out (I worried). There are no seat belts. I worried some more. A splash hit my ear so hard I could barely hear for two days out of it. I could feel and hear the water sloshing around inside my head (just more to worry about, but that was later on, after my heart rate had settled back close to normal at the end of the ride). 

We eventually made it up to the Whirlpool, and since I'd already researched the Whirlpool, I knew (and worried) that if they got too close to it, we'd be sucked down, possibly never to emerge from our watery demise. They safely skirted the main action, then teased about heading further up the Class VI rapids. I knew from the Aero Car ride OVER the whirlpool that boats are neither capable nor allowed to take tourists up those rapids. 

NOTE: However, enclosed jet boat tours are scheduled to begin later this year. Talk about scary! 

Our guide talked about the whirlpool and then we safely turned around and headed back down. We did the splashes a few more times, then they brought us all the way down to the placid, peaceful part of the river, did a final hamilton turn (which now seemed rather tame), and suddenly we were back in the dock. 

And you know what? It was REALLY fun!

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Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Niagara Glen, the Whirlpool, and Botanical Gardens

Last summer we spent a week exploring the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is part of the 6-part series of posts about that trip and the fun times we had exploring the land up north!

There's a lot to do at Niagara Falls -- and that's just the Canadian side!

About midway between Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake is Niagara Glen, which overlooks the Niagara River gorge and Whirlpool, a unique natural phenomenon where the river takes a sharp right turn and crosses over itself in the round bowl it's carved out for itself over the past, oh, several million years.

Okay, so maybe several thousand of years ago -- scientists estimate that as few as 4500 years ago -- as the Niagara River slowly eroded its way through the Niagara Escarpment, creating the Great Gorge, the right-angle turn in the river's path forced the rushing water into a deep counter-clockwise spin.

The Niagara Glen Nature Reserve is a unique spot of beauty deep in the Great Gorge that has been a designated Nature Reserve since 1992. After several days spent driving up to Niagara Falls from Maryland and doing more sedentary sight-seeing, the prospect of a short, several-mile hike in Niagara Glen sounded appealing. Opposite, on the U.S. side is the Whirlpool State Park.

Stairways lead down to 2.5 miles of paths that wind through a pristine pocket of Carolinian Forest, past boulders left behind as the Falls eroded through the area thousands of years ago. The trails also led us along the river as it raged through the narrow gorge -- it was lovely and awesome at the same time.

What you need to know before you tackle this popular tourist destination is that hikes through the Niagara Glen involve an elevation change of over 200 feet. And you really want to wear rugged sneakers or hiking boots, since some of the parts of the trail could get slippery and slick, especially if it's just rained (we were there the day after several summer thunderbumpers had blown through). The trails are well laid out and easily negotiated if you take your time. It's almost like visiting another world, with the big boulders strewn about the area! There's lots of interesting geology and biology to explore.

You could easily spend a half day or more exploring the trails along the river's edge. It's very picturesque, so be sure to bring cameras, and maybe even a picnic too.

Near Niagara Glen is the Whirlpool Aero Car, which takes you across the gorge directly over the swirling waters of the water pool. Yes -- this is a tourist trap. But it's a fun one, and ultimately, a must-see/must-do part of the itinerary.

During the aero-car ride, you also get bonus beautiful views up and down the gorge. If you're scared of heights, don't let that stop you -- I am, and I was still able to enjoy the ride and appreciate the magnificence of the Niagara River swirling (far) below us.

The whirlpool's greatest depth is 125 feet and naturally spins in a counter-clockwise swirl. According to accounts provided during the ride, the whirlpool will swallow with anything that is on the water's surface -- making the aero car ride all that more exciting, knowing that were the ride to plunge down to the water, we'd all be sucked down into the depths, our physical remains beyond the reach of human aid. (No, seriously, our guide said that during the ride!)

Beyond the titillating fear, riding over the whirlpool is a lesson in the awesomeness of nature -- it's one of the wonders of North America, in my opinion, rating up there with the Falls themselves, the Grand Canyon, and the like.

Near this part of the Niagara Parkway is the Niagara Botanical Gardens, another worthwhile stop for an hour or two. The original gardens were established in 1936 when The Niagara Parks Commission created the “Training School for Apprentice Gardeners.”The Botanical Gardens are open to the public free of charge from dawn until dusk every day of the year. The Gardens are also home to the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, established in 1997. It's worth taking a few hours to stroll around the gardens and enjoy the different gardens and vistas that have been laid out for your enjoyments.

Tip #1: Niagara Parks offers guided tours of the Niagara Glen during the spring and summer months. Daily hiking tours leave from the Niagara Glen Nature Centre at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Please call the Nature Centre for more information and availability: 905-354-6678.

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fort George and the War of 1812

Last summer we spent a week exploring the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is part of the 6-part series of posts about that trip and the fun times we had exploring the land up north!

No other event has defined Niagara-on-the-Lake (NotL) than the War of 1812 (known by our neighbors to the north as the War of American Aggression).

It's not my intent to debate the catalysts of this conflict. Let's just say I agree to disagree with our Canadian cousins, as well as our former colonial overlords, about who started what.

The war ranged on the open seas, on the Great Lakes, and wherever the United States touched what is now Canada. It, of course, came to NotL, and to Fort George, a British fort that was attacked and invaded by the American troops just across the river.

Built in 1796 by our erstwhile colonial overlords to guard against American encroachment on remaining British landholdings, Fort George sat right across the mouth of the Niagara River from the aptly named American fort, Fort Niagara. Fort George saw fierce engagements during the War of 1812, it was bombarded and captured, destroyed, and then refortified by the Americans in May 1813, but then retaken by the British later that year when the Americans withdrew.

But the Americans didn't just withdraw -- they/we burned the town, although politely:  they knocked
on folks' doors to rouse them from their slumber before they set all the houses afire, a gesture I don't think we're given enough credit for making. Even so -- the Americans withdrew during the winter, and the fire destroyed all shelter on a cold, and reportedly, snowy early morning. The inhabitants suffered terribly, and there were some casualties; the British were less than pleased and there's some bitterness to be detected in today's accounts of the conflagration. According to the information at Fort George, it was this needless destruction of NotL that caused the British to not only destroy towns up and down the Niagara River but also to march on Washington D.C. and burn our Capitol Building and the White House. So there. We were repaid in full, several times over.

Although considered to be a victory on the American side (I guess because the Brits withdrew, to focus on the more important conflict (to them) raging on in France, led by Napoleon) the war was pretty much a draw. We failed to expel the British from North America; the British failed to take back their former colonies. Neither side met their objectives, but at least the Brits left us alone, more or less, thereafter.

Interestingly, you can go on a ghost tour of Fort George -- a fun, but also slightly scary way to experience the fort. During one story, you're led into a dark building, a bunk house, lit only by the guide's lantern. You're told about ghostly children, and then they turn out the lantern. Even the most skeptical listeners couldn't help but have goosebumps as they exited the building. Given its violent, and lengthy, history, there's plenty of creepy fodder for the ghost stories, and they're well-told. The ghost tour takes you into several of the buildings and through a tunnel (which, ironically, dates to the 1930s, not the 1800s but is still reputed to be haunted). The tunnel is eerie during the day; nighttime only makes it more so.

Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Niagara on the Lake: The Prettiest, Most Haunted Town in Canada

Last summer we spent a week exploring the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is part of the 6-part series of posts about that trip and the fun times we had exploring the land up north!

Niagara-on-the-Lake (NotL) is a Canadian town located in southern Ontario Province where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario in the Niagara Region of
the southern part of the province of Ontario. We'd decided to rent a cottage there for the week we planned to visit, instead of the more touristy Niagara Falls. My sons were excited about spending a week in Canada -- to them Canada sounded exotic and fun. Renting a cottage provided all the comforts and space of home, perfect for a family of four, two dogs, and one friend who joined us for the week. We weren't stuck having to eat out every meal, although NoTL certainly offers a variety of restaurants to choose from if we'd wanted to. I particularly enjoyed sampling local wines when we dined out and I applaud the restaurants for offering local wines.

Although our goal had been to explore the touristy Niagara Falls attractions, just 8 miles (give or take to the south), we discovered that NoTL was a quaint and pleasant little town. Tourism is clearly the mainstay of the town, but it's not obnoxious, and in fact, because the town caters to tourists but not in a gimmicky or tacky way, there was a lot to do and see.

Site of the old Neutral Indian village of Onghiara, NotL was settled at the close of the American Revolution by Loyalists coming to Upper Canada, many of whom had been members of the much feared Butler's Rangers based during the American Revolution at Fort Niagara, then under British control.

Some history, for what it's worth: In 1781 the British Government purchased land from the Mississaugas; a strip of land 6 miles wide along the western bank of the Niagara River for "300 suits of clothing." By 1782, 16 families had become established and had cleared 236 acres. In 1791 part of the military reserve at the mouth of the river was chosen as the future townsite and just a year later, Newark - as it was named by Governor Simcoe, became the first capital of the newly created colony of Upper Canada. In fact, the legislature met here for five sessions, until Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe moved the capital to York. By 1796, 70 new homes were built, and the town continued to prosper as the economic, administrative and judicial center for the Niagara Peninsula. The physical appearance of the town, with the exception of the powder magazine at Fort George, was virtually erased by the burning of the town by the Americans during the War of 1812 -- or, with a nod to those whose territory we were staying in, the War of American Aggression. Bad Americans!!! Read more about Fort George in Thursday's blog.

Rebuilt, Niagara became an active commercial center, with a busy shipping
 and ship-building industry, as well as many shops and warehouses. The beautiful old homes lining the tree-shaded streets attest to the prosperity of its citizens.

NotL proudly leads with its reputation as the "prettiest town in Canada," with all the town flowerbeds filled with brightly colored blooming annuals, and all the homes (except one, which I'll get to later in this post) carefully and meticulously maintained -- even the homes away from the quaint main street and heart of the town. It really is very pretty!

If you want to enjoy the touristy Niagara Falls during the day, NotL is a great place to come back to in the evening, with plenty of restaurants and a couple of bars, an active theater, lots of wineries to check out (some 40 of them), and Fort George, which played a prominent part in the War of 1812. We were also enticed by the biking opportunities -- and although we'd originally planned on bringing our bikes, we ended up not, and instead rented some for the very reasonable $30/day. More about biking in the area to come in a future post.

The town also offers the Shaw Festival every summer. In 1962, lawyer and playwright Brian Doherty parlayed his love for the work of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw (as he preferred to be addressed) into a summer theater festival, producing eight performances of Don Juan in Hell and Candida in the Court House auditorium. In this singular act of passion for theater and culture, the Shaw Festival was born.

At its inception, the Shaw Festival specialized exclusively in plays by Shaw and his contemporaries and is renowned internationally for both single-handedly revitalizing and re-energizing the works of Shaw and for tackling the vast array of theater pieces in the mandate period — presenting them anew to appreciative theater audiences. Today, the Shaw Festival is a theater company inspired by the work of Shaw; producing plays from and about his era and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.

The Shaw Festival presents plays in four distinctive theaters: the Festival Theatre – The Shaw’s flagship theatre, the historic Court House Theatre where The Shaw first began performing, the Royal George Theatre, modeled after an Edwardian opera house and the Studio Theatre. All theaters are within a short walking distance of each other. Unfortunately, I didn't get to go to any plays since I didn't learn about this until toward the end of our week's stay.

So what to do after dinner? What else is there to do in NotL if you're not yet ready to head back to your bed & breakfast or house rental? There are several pubs in town as well as a couple of wine bars. But there are also ghost tours every night of the week during the summer months, fitting for a town also billed as the most haunted town in Canada.

Whether you believe in ghosts, or not, consider going on a ghost tour -- these ghost walks are really just stories about local inhabitants, the human condition, and the town's secrets. NotL offers it all: bored housewives conducting Satanic seances, ancient legends, historic forts, dead British soldiers and their counterparts (evil American soldiers), and mysteriously abandoned old houses. Not surprisingly, the War of 1812 played a big part in the town's haunted history.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Ghost Walks features the angry ghost of a British officer inside The Angel Inn, a stop on the shores of Lake Ontario for a violent and ancient legend about Fort Niagara, on the opposite side of Niagara River, and the house that makes cameras go crazy (my husband's did, mine didn't). While on the walk, we were passed several times by carriage rides.

On this ghost walk, you'll also stops outside the NotL Courthouse, the Prince of Wales Hotel, the Apothecary Shop, and the Royal George Theatre, among others.

One of the last stops was in a residential neighborhood near the main street of town, where the guide told us about an historic brick house, a rare survivor of the War of 1812, that had been abandoned by its owners in the 1950s. The family simply up and moved out one day, boarded up the windows and doors when local vandals broke the windows, and the house has stood empty ever since, slowly deteriorating. It is noticeable only in that every other house in the area is meticulously kept and beautifully landscaped and this old house is not. 

According to our ghost walk tour guide, despite a alleged offer of a million dollars for the house, still the owners refuse to sell, supposedly to prevent another innocent family from having to undergo the horrors they themselves had experienced. What happened in the house is a matter of local supposition, legend, and myth: the family refuses to discuss the house, saying only (according to the story relayed to us): "the house has a life of its own."

The house isn't actually on the ghost walk as it's too far an outlier from the rest of the tour. But the tour guide gave us directions and the next morning we sought out the house. In searching for more information about this house, I found this blog. Very interesting! I was not as brave as that blogger!! In looking at the house in the cold light of morning, you see nothing, you notice nothing, it's just an empty, old house. I walked all around it (feeling both daring and brave) and except for noting that at one point I was completely out of sight of my family waiting (smartly) in the car on the street, it wasn't even creepy. It was an old, abandoned house. Like the other blogger, a phrase from a book came to mind, except for me it was a phrase from Shirley Jackson's novela, The Haunted: "Those who walk here, walk alone."

Dogs: NotL is a very dog friendly town. Most of the shops allowed my two beagles to come in and shop with me and most provided bowls of clean water outside. Our rental cottage also welcomed well-behaved dogs.


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger! 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Niagara Falls and all the Trappings

Last summer we spent a week exploring the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. There is a lot to do up there for kids and adults alike. This is part of the six-part series of posts over the next three weeks about that trip and the fun times we had exploring the land up north!

I'd been to the Niagara Falls as a young child with my family. To be honest, I don't remember much from that trip, other than that my dad accidentally slammed his car door shut when I had my finger in the way. Sad that of a trip that included Niagara Falls, a boat ride (judging from the photos), and a trip to Montreal, all I remember is that one incident, and Dad's horrified reaction to the pain he'd accidentally caused. I'd wanted to bring my sons to see Niagara Falls for a couple years and to see the falls again for myself (maybe this time I'll remember them), but last year's concerns about the U.S. Government's furlough (which did occur in October 2013) caused us to postpone our Canadian vacation plans until this past summer.

Niagara Falls, whether on the U.S. side or the Canadian side is tourist tacky and expensive. There are high rise hotels (some of which look very nice) but also wax museums and a museum of world records and casinos and all the things I usually try to avoid on family vacations. So we decided to stay in lovely and quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake (NoTL), a few miles further north along the Niagara Parkway, where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario.

From largest to smallest, the three waterfalls are the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. The Horseshoe Falls lie mostly on the Canadian side and the American Falls entirely on the American side, separated by Goat Island. The smaller Bridal Veil Falls are also located on the American side, separated from the other waterfalls by Luna Island. 

Your best, and closest, complete views of both the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls are by boat -- either Maid of the Mist on the American side, or Captain Hornblower on the Canadian Side. Both issue flimsy but helpful ponchos to shield you from the drenching spray. While riding on the Captain Hornblower, we truly got to appreciate the huge, almost overwhelming magnificence of the falls. But in fact, it takes all the experiences -- going on the boat, going behind the falls, seeing them from above -- to even begin appreciating this wonder of nature. 

The view from the viewing platform of Journey Behind the Falls.
We had purchased an Adventure Pass that gained us admission to four attractions: Captain Hornblower, Journey Behind the Falls, Niagara Gorge "White Water Walk," and "Niagara Fury." Although we'd purchased the passes online, we arrived in the morning and scheduled our entry times for all four attractions -- one of the benefits of the passes, as the attendant helped us figure out how long each would take and how long it would take to get from one place to the next. With the scheduling and an early arrival, it's an easy day to see all four in one day, although the ride-on pass is good for two consecutive days. Because we intentionally waited for a week day, the lines weren't too bad, despite it being prime tourist season in the middle of July.

Photos can't capture the size of these Class 6 rapids.
We went early, so had no problems finding parking in a designated parking lot near the main building. Captain Hornblower, Thunder Behind the Falls, and the White Water Walk were all within easy walking distance, as was Elements on the Falls restaurant, where we ate a tasty lunch overlooking the falls. Although we could have used the ride-on pass to take a bus up to the White Water Walk, we decided to just drive it, and then proceed from there back to NoTL. 

Although we'd expected the White Water Walk to be anti-climatic, we were pleasantly surprised by it -- and were glad we'd not missed it. To see the rapids just a few feet away, from a safe vantage point, was amazing and impressive. What was even more awe-inspiring is that the rapids aren't caused by rocks beneath the water, as with most other river rapids. The rapids are caused by the sheer turbulence of the huge amount of water being squeezed between the two sides of the gorge. These are Class 6 rapids -- impressive and deadly.

Our view during lunch.
Located on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, the combined falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world, with a vertical drop of more than 165 feet. Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America, as measured by vertical height and by flow rate.

Niagara Falls were formed when glaciers receded at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation (the last ice age), and water from the newly formed Great Lakes carved a path through the Niagara Escarpment en route to the Atlantic Ocean. While not exceptionally high, the Niagara Falls are very wide. More than six million cubic feet of water falls over the crest line every minute in high flow.

The striking green color of the water flowing over the Niagara Falls is a byproduct of the estimated 60 tons/minute of dissolved salts and "rock flour" (very finely ground rock) generated by the erosive force of the river itself. The current rate of erosion is approximately 1 foot per year, down from a historical average of 3 feet per year -- reduced because of all the water diverted to power the hydroelectric plans on both sides of the river. It is estimated that 50,000 years from now, even at this reduced rate of erosion, the remaining 20 miles to Lake Erie will have been undermined and the Falls will cease to exist.

We weren't disappointed by the Falls. They were "awesome," according to my teenage sons. I checked this off as a successful vacation!

There are differing theories as to the origin of the name of the falls. According to Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger, "Niagara" is derived from the name given to a branch of the locally residing native Neutral Confederacy, who are described as being called the "Niagagarega" people on several late 17th century French maps of the area.

On October 24, 1901, 63-year-old Michigan school teacher Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to go over the falls in a barrel as a publicity stunt; she survived, bleeding, but virtually unharmed. Soon after exiting the barrel, she said, "No one ought ever do that again." Well, unfortunately, no one listened to her, and there were multiple additional attempts since then, some sanctioned by local authorities and even more accidental or unsanctioned publicity stunts. 

And sadly, the splendor and the fury of the Falls seems to attract those who can't see any way out of their problems. According to local news reports, there are numerous successful and nonsuccessful suicide attempts each year, in addition to folks who simply fall by accident into the river -- almost one a week, according to one of the local vendors -- and unfortunately, the evening we visited the falls at night to see the spectacular colored illumination of the falls was marked by helicopters with search lights and the Captain Hornblower boat searching for the body of someone who gave up the good fight and jumped over the railing, just 100 feet from us. It was sobering, in the face of the beauty of the evening, and what was supposed to be a light-hearted outing.

Know before you go: Purchase the Adventure Pass (for the Canadian side). You'll end up saving money on admission to all the various venues. However, you could easily skip the Niagara's Fury, which, although it explained briefly how the falls were created, didn't add all that much to the itinerary, and seemed to be just an additional excuse to herd tourists into lines, give us ponchos, and get us wet, again (yes, it rains inside the auditorium).

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