There are few iconic places in the world that have to be seen to be believed and Niagara Falls is truly one of them. Our Canadian adventure would not have been complete without a trip to the most famous waterfalls in the world.
Not actually a waterfall?
Did you know that Niagara Falls is not actually a waterfall? It’s three waterfalls. It’s the collective name for the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls that straddle the Canadian/US border along the Niagara River. The famous falls that we all know and love are the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, these are the ones that the boats sail up to and to be honest the other two are really just an aside.
We’d decided to visit Niagara on a weekday as we thought it might get a bit busy on the weekends so set off Friday morning in our little Note bright and early to beat the rush. We took the QEW from St Catharines as it went straight through the town of Niagara. Wait. You don’t know what the QEW is? It’s the Queen Elizabeth Way which runs all the way from Toronto through the Niagara Peninsula to Buffalo in New York. Just a motorway really but QEW sounds much cooler doesn’t it? Anyway, to beat the rush and get a rare parking spot we pulled into downtown Niagara before 10am.
Deserted! We didn’t just have the pick of parking places we had the pick of car parks which were everywhere. The best one was next to the Skylon Tower which was probably quite impressive back in the 1970s but was certainly in need of a bit of TLC. Bizarrely once I’d walked across the car parks, over the concrete bridge, through the concrete passageways, down into the main concourse, through the entertainment area, past the closed-up shops, and across the enormous reception to purchase a parking ticket I was informed that it was far too early for parking staff and that they might be around later so a ticket wasn’t necessary. Weird.
Approaching the Niagara river the first thing that hit us was just how close the USA was. Sounds daft doesn’t it but with all of the border-control talk in the States at the moment it was odd to just look across the river and see the US. Right in front of us the Rainbow road bridge told you everything you needed to know about the differences between Canada and America. Cars were passing into Canada fairly quickly after a quick passport check but the queues going the other way were already fairly bad. We heard it can take 3 hours to cross that way and only minutes to come back. Says it all doesn’t it?
All along the rivers edge on the Canadian side is a lovely walkway lined with trees and grass verges. All the way from Rainbow Bridge to the Horseshoe Falls with fabulous views of all three waterfalls. The American and Bridal Veil Falls are completely in the US so lie across the river from the walkway but the iconic Horseshoe Falls are primarily in Canada although the Eastern edge meets Terrapin Point where the border officially runs. Not sure how much of a view you would have of the main falls from the US side though.
The Niagara Walkway
Still cloudy and a bit overcast we wandered up towards the Horseshoe Falls wondering what all the fuss was about. It didn’t look all that impressive. As a few more tourists turned up we did some seriously professional people-watching and really enjoyed the ‘look-at-me’ selfies being taken everywhere. Closer and closer we got to the edge of the falls and as we did we felt ourselves being slowly taken in by its majesty.
Maybe it’s the power or the noise or just the fact that you know it never ever stops, but we found ourselves almost entranced by it. To tell you the truth, we both expected it to be bigger in both height and width. That’s probably due to the films we’ve seen I suppose but the closer we got the more impressive it got. What we loved the most was the reaction of the other visitors to the constant mist and spray being thrown up over the walkway. Like light rain it was inconsistent but did get you a little wet. People had umbrellas up and raincoats buttoned to their necks. Waterproof hats and jackets. It was nuts! It wasn’t cold and the spray was just part of the experience. What a fuss! Really funny.
After too many photos and too much laughing at the other wet-ones we decided that we just had to do it. We were only here once so thought we’d take one of the boats up underneath the Horseshoe Falls. Why not?
Now everyone thinks it’s just the Maid of the Mist that takes you to the falls but that’s on the US side, the Canadian boats are run by Hornblower Cruises. Main difference is that everyone on the Hornblower boats wears pink raincoats and everyone on the Maids wear blue. Easy. Luckily no queues as we arrived, grabbed the pink ponchos, walked up the gangplank, and we were off.
So picture the scene. Majority of the passengers on the top deck at the back of the boat sheltering from the spray, a few actually inside looking out of the windows, but a select group of idiots right at the front on the main deck below the captains wheelhouse. Obviously we were in that select group of idiots. If you’re gonna do it then just do it!
Nice commentary by Captain Hornblower as we passed by the American and Bridal Veil Falls and sailed up into the base of the Horseshoe Falls. A crowd of 15 or more intrepid front-of-ship adventurers taking photos and enjoying the bumpy ride as the falls got bigger and bigger with each passing minute. A young French couple to one side of us took selfies galore as a family of loud Americans whooped and hollered the other side. Two friendly Canadians got me to take their photo with the falls behind them and everyone was having a whale of a time.
Within seconds we went from a relaxing tourist cruise to a crazy George Clooney, Perfect Storm, water everywhere nightmare! The Falls disappeared in a cloud of spray and driving rain lashing us from every direction! Instantly soaked to the skin Jo did what every other sane person would do. She collapsed in hysterics! Her pink robes twisted around her neck for some reason and her face contorted in crazed laughter as she almost lost control of her senses in the storm-lashed conditions under the Horseshoe falls.
At this moment we realised that we were the only people at the front of the boat, everyone else had run for it. The French and Canadians disappeared immediately and even the loud American were nowhere to be seen. Just us and the water and the spray and the rain and more water ……………… oh and Captain Hornblower watching us from his dry wheelhouse smiling sympathetically. Or not. Impossible to take photos as it really was like standing in the shower fully-dressed with another couple of showers being deliberately fired across you.
Drenched! Shoes completely soaked through. Hopeless pink poncho-mackintosh-cape-raincoats just dripping and probably making things worse. The boat sat under the falls for 5 to 10 minutes as we remained being lashed from all sides. Dreadful? No we loved it. It was amazing and incredible and fabulous and such a laugh.
As the boat turned away and headed back to the jetty down river a few of the scaredy-cat other passengers ventured forward to join us at the helm and looked at us in amazement. Jo had recovered slightly from her hysteria but we were both high from the excitement and it really was one of those experiences that we never wanted to end.
I’m really not sure if my lovely fellow JWalker has ever laughed so much. It was brilliant.
I really wish I could have filmed the faces of the oncoming trippers as we passed them on our way off, they were a sight to see. A mix of incredulous amazement at the state of us dripping wet and giggling, mixed with growing concern and worry about how wet they might get and whether they should have booked the trip at all. So funny.
We headed wet and wild into the nearest Tim Hortons coffee shop for refreshment and a bit of warming up, it was still a cloudy overcast day after all. Between you and me it took us a couple of hours to completely dry off but we didn’t care a bit. It was so worth it.
Niagara the town
Although we loved the boat trip and were blown away, literally, by the falls the same couldn’t be said for the actual town of Niagara. It has a reputation as a lovely romantic getaway but in truth it’s a mass of tower blocks and skyscrapers with amusement arcades, cheap attractions, and casinos. We walked through the huge casino at the top of the walkway and it was like being back in Las Vegas. The whole town just made you think ‘Why?’. Why spoil one of the natural wonders of the world with all of this cheap tat? Such a shame. Apparently the concrete skyline has affected the local wind direction which in turn have impacted on the falls and the spray. Again, not good.
Across the river on the US side it’s even worse with huge hotels covered in flashing neon signs advertising upcoming shows and events. It certainly takes a lot away from the experience and we were so glad that we didn’t stay in Niagara but traveled down from the beautiful little town of Port Dalhousie.
We’ll never forget the Hornblower boat trip though, another of those amazing JWalking moments that we both love so much.