Niagara Falls, by Land, Air, and Boat

A litograph of Canada's Horseshoe Falls, Niagara FallsWhen as a child I imagined America, the mighty Niagara Falls, along with Times Square, the Grand Canyon, and the Golden Gate Bridge, were my frequent backdrops.  So when work brought me to Toronto, it was an easy decision to make: A day trip to the Falls, as soon as I could manage it.

We could have driven there (an hour and a half each way from Toronto), but decided to leave the logistics to others. BG Tours Canada did not disappoint.

Our journey began at 8:30 am at a nearby hotel. The driver was a cheerful, knowledgeable guide. He ran the trip like clockwork, arranging for all tickets, and sparing us the many confusing lines. Crowds were formidable. I was shocked at just how commercialized the area surrounding the Falls is. It is not the wild oasis of my childhood fantasies, but an attraction park of sorts. Still, with the tour, we avoided most of the hassle, and some of the place’s “wildness” did seep through.

Niagara Falls helicopterOur first stop was a launch pad for a helicopter ride above the Horseshoe Falls, Niagara’s largest and most charismatic presence. Most of the group headed to relax at a nearby winery, showcasing Ontario’s famous icewine. We remembered our breathtaking helicopter ride over Hawaii’s lava, and decided to shell out the extra bucks (CAD 155) .

Feet window, Helicopter to Niagara Falls, Canada

The perspective is fascinating: You start over a highway, the foam from Niagara Falls rising like wildfire behind structures built to watch her. THAT is water.

Niagara Falls against development, flying in Canada

The congestion of buildings, attractions, cars before you is staggering, yet you are removed from it all. Soon, you take a detour to follow the Niagara River, as it drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. You see the place in the context of the development around, Canada’s Horseshoe Falls a whiff of smoke in the landscape.

Crazy development around Niagara River and Niagara Falls, from helicopter

Helicopter view of Niagara Falls, Horseshoe Bend, Canada

Flying over the actual Falls is a remarkable, moving experience: Like with lava in Hawaii, the power of the water here felt primal, immense, larger than life, and free of the man-made constraints around it. We floated over all of that immense energy, mesmerized.

Aerial view of Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Canada

The distinct greenish hue of the water is special: The river’s force is so great that it grinds rock into flour, dissolved salts and rock particles turning blue-green en masse. The river erodes the rocks by about 1 foot per year. These Falls will cease to exist 50,000 years from now.

Aerial view of Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Canada

The flight lasted about half an hour, every moment savored.

Helicopter over peaceful Niagara River, Canada

Back on land, we downed samples of icewine (nice) and pressed on. Next stop: Niagara by boat. Here, diving into crowds was inevitable. We were separated into groups, given a designated color of rain poncho, and shuffled toward the appropriate boat. Boats float out to the Falls like ping pong balls, taking you all the way up to the waterfall. Everything gets wet.

People in ponchos about to see Niagara Falls by boat, Canada

Tourist in a funny hat, waiting in the boat to see Niagara Falls, Canada Being stuffed like a sardine onto that boat, rendered all the same color and shape under the ponchos, did diminish the charm of the moment at first.

But soon the power of the place broke through.

People on boat about to see Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Canada

The sensation of approaching the Falls was heart-stopping. The roar of it delights. You feel it in your body as much as hear it. The power of that water is staggering, overwhelming. Soon, the cacophony of conversations around me, in myriad languages and inflections, stopped. We were all silenced by the sheer power before us.

Horseshoe Falls from boat, Niagara Falls, Canada

Boat against Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, Canada

American Falls, view from the boat, Canada

Drama of the smaller American Falls — the American side of Niagara looked wilder, less developed. Here’s a map of the entire area to help you visualize it.

Back on shore, we had two hours to wander around. The area has a boardwalk feel: trinket shops, cheap eateries, carnival rides — and people, people, people all around.

By now, we were hungry. A 15-minute stroll brought us to Taki, a Japanese restaurant off the beaten track. It turned out to be a wonderful choice — delicious, quiet, with impeccable service (don’t get discouraged by the utilitarian facade; the restaurant is on the second floor, a serene oasis inside, though I am not sure about its handicap accessibility).

On the way back, stop by the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls hotel — both for its bathrooms (options elsewhere are not as pleasant) and history. In 1927, this was the area’s first luxury hotel, “a mammoth edifice, gleaming white in the sunlight, classic in appearance, looming over the Niagara River,” local press gushed at the time. Over the years, many luminaries stayed here, including Marilyn Monroe, who made this her home as she filmed “Niagara.”

Soon, our bus was spiriting us back to Toronto. I dozed off. Meeting the Mighty Falls was a thrill, despite the crowds. I would love to explore the American side one day.

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5 thoughts on “Niagara Falls, by Land, Air, and Boat

  1. I’d heard about Niagara Falls for years and always thought of it as a cheesy tourist trap. But I got to see it a few years ago and it turned out to be absolutely spectacular. I would love to go back. We stayed on the Canadian side, in a hotel (I forget its name) with the perfect view of the falls. Definitely a place I’d love to go back to someday.

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