Niagara is in easy travel distance of Toronto, but if you don’t have your own car, transport can be tricky. Your options are public transport (consisting of both trains and buses) which will cost around $40, or doing a tour. Normally I would go via normal transport, but my hostel was offering a heavily discounted tour that would take me not just to Niagara Falls, but the town Niagara-on-the-Lake, for $55. I was feeling pretty bad when trying to organise the trip, so decided to be lazy and fork over an additional $55.
The bus was to pick us up at 8:45, but arrived late due to pickups from other hotels not being where they were meant to be at the allotted time. This meant we had to do another lap of the city in order to pick them up later, and cost us at least half an hour – which we would pay for later. As we got further and further out of town, another problem quickly became apparent.
The fog which was normally touching the skyscrapers was VERY low. And getting worse the closer we got to Niagara. When we stopped at Souvenir City (shops and a food court about 5 minutes away from the falls), we had to cross our fingers that it wouldn’t be as bad as it looks while checking out the rapids on the other side of the road.
Tragically, those prayers were in vain.
According to our driver, he’s been doing this tour for ten years and has only seen fog this bad 3 times before. It was so thick you couldn’t even see the other side. I could see more than my camera could pick out, but because you couldn’t see the full fall or the water’s height, they were a little underwhelming.
Due to people being late for pickup, we had about 2 hours to explore Niagara Falls. The helicopters weren’t flying in this weather, and the boats didn’t start for another few days, but you could still use the elevator that would take you to the bottom of the falls. The lookout section was currently closed off and you could only use the tunnels, but they’d dropped the price from $20 to $13 to compensate for that. However, the weather was so bad even the woman at the desk was reluctant to sell us tickets, and recommended we wait an hour to see if it cleared up.
I took that advice, and ended up walking along the road with another girl from my hostel, Stacie. We tried to make out American Falls and Bridal Veil falls, but the fog was too thick. This was all we could see in front of us sometimes.
Instead, we headed up the hill into Niagara to see if there was anywhere to eat. The hill was a little steep, and when we reached the top there wasn’t much worth seeing. There was however, an IHOP, which I’ve always wanted to try, so we headed in.
First off, the prices were much higher than I expected, and we considered sharing a stack of pancakes between us, before deciding to try the breakfasts. This was a mistake – not only was the breakfast very mediocre for the price, the sheer volume of food meant we couldn’t finish it. The stack of pancakes between us would have been more than enough.
There was some good news though. When we left the IHOP and headed back down the hill, we could make out the American Falls. The fog was clearing up!
Sadly, it hadn’t cleared up enough to make Niagara completely visible. Got the feeling another hour would have helped, but we had 30 minutes. We did however buy tickets to go into the tunnels and check out what we could see. These are tunnels carved into the rock below, and reveal windows allowing you to look from behind the waterfall.
There’s also a lookout point where you can see most of the falls from ground level, although the water and the fog made visibility tricky. Willing to bet in summer it’s a spectacular view though.
At 2pm we all headed back on the bus and got another look at American Falls now we could see it. This is a waterfall on America’s side of the valley, and isn’t far from one of the connecting bridges. Niagara Falls is on the border between Canada and America, and hosts several bridges that connect the countries. There are warnings to anyone visiting not to cross the bridges, because if you’re caught without a passport or visa for the country, you can find yourself detained for up to 24 hours by the respective country. It’s happened on tours before.
There’s also a grey brick bridge that runs across the river on that side, and its apparently getting taken down due to structural issues this year. In September this year, the American Falls will be diverted for six months while they remove the bridge, so that’ll be interesting to see.
In the summer, you can also cross via a cable car that travels over a giant whirlpool. We were allowed to stop to have a look, but were warned we wouldn’t see much as in winter the necessary water that allows the whirlpool to form is diverted into hydroelectricity. It’s still a strange place to see – the river genuinely does a right-hand turn, which isn’t something you see often.
Our next stop is the town Niagara-on-the-Lake, a town situated on the river, and the poster child for ‘affluent’. Just driving into the town gives you an A-Z look at ‘rich people houses’. All of them are big, fancy and oozing privilege. I haven’t seen that many columns and balconies since I visited Italy. Ironically, despite the huge homes, it’s also the location of the world’s smallest chapel, the little Living Water Wayside Chapel.
The town itself is full of much smaller, but beautiful homes built in a rather colonial style. They come in a variety of colours, and remind me of American movies I used to watch. I didn’t really know people still lived in places like this.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is very tourist-reliant, and most of the shops in the centre are aimed at visitors. The shops include a Christmas shop, UK souvenirs, a Viking store and 3 chocolate/ice cream parlours. For ice cream, we were recommended to try the maple-walnut ice cream, a very popular flavour in this part of the world (Canada ADORES maple). Both Stacie and I gave it a shot, and although I found it a little too rich, it’s a very good flavour for ice cream.
Our final stop for the day is at a Wine Information Centre attached to a school that teaches things regarding alcohol. This area is home to a lot of vineyards, and the primary crop is used to create Canada’s ‘Ice Wine.’
This is a wine created from grapes that were left on the wine during winter, and frozen at temperatures of at least -8 degrees. This allows all the water to freeze, and the grapes are crushed immediately after picking so that they don’t thaw. It’s a process that results in a very strong syrupy wine, and a huge export for Canada.
Originally developed in Germany, only the Germans, Austrians and Canadians have the right to make ice wine as they were the first to start producing it. However, Canada is the one who exports the majority due to the weather (of the three producers, only Canada can guarantee a cold enough winter to have a crop each year), and most of the wine is produced in the Niagara area.
Naturally, I don’t taste the wine, but Stacie does, and says it’s extremely sweet – too sweet for her. It’s a dessert wine that is best paired with cheese or dark chocolate, things that won’t challenge the drink for the title of sweetest thing on the table.
There’s also a brewery on site, and we get a little delayed when a few people bolt over to that area to try a few samples from there too, but despite this, we manage to get back on the road and into Toronto for not long before 6. Due to the traffic, the bus can’t drop us off at our hostel, and around 6:40 we get dropped off on Yonge street, a block away.
All things considered, I don’t think I’d do the tour again. The weather couldn’t have been helped, but I hated not having more time at the falls to see if the weather cleared, and I had no interest in the wine. Seeing NOTL was good, and something I probably wouldn’t have seen on my own, but again, we didn’t have enough time.
One other issue I have was the very strong expectations of tips. Don’t get me wrong, I do normally tip my guides/drivers/waitresses etc., but I’ve never had it come across as strongly as it did today. In a restaurant it’s mandatory, but for tourism it was something you did because you wanted, not something that was mandatory. And DEFINITELY not something where the tip price was dictated to you. A 10% tip for a good job has always been my understanding, but the number of times our guide stressed we should give a 20% tip because the minimum wage was so low started to grate on me. Especially when at the end we couldn’t even get dropped off at our door.
I understand that things work differently in this part of the world. For some inexplicable reason Canada and the US can’t just add sales tax to items and have to blindside you at the counter, and then insist on not paying people a living wage, and expecting customers to cover the excess, but I had always assumed that was primarily a restaurant thing, and not tourism in general. I mean, I’m expecting to be working in a minimum wage job that doesn’t come with tips, so why should I be obligated to give such a huge tip when there was very little one-on-one service compared to say, a waiter/waitress? If I need to add a 20% tip to any tour I do, I’ll definitely have to rethink them when I budget.
When we got back, Stacie and I were hungry enough to go hunting for food. I’ve tried the bar downstairs twice and been generally disappointed each time, so we took some advice from the desk and made our way to St Louis Bar & Grill, who had an offer of 15 boneless chicken pieces, chips and a draught beer for $17. That was more than enough for both of us, so we did what we should have done this morning and shared the basket. Made the mistake of trying buffalo ranch, which tasted good to start with but was utterly intolerable by the last piece of chicken. Would happily eat here again though.