Peter Morrell goes to Canada and enjoys a fascinating blend of culture, cuisine and natural beauty.
Standing next to one of the great natural wonders of the world is always an awe-inspiring experience but there is something about the sheer, unbridled power of the Niagara Falls that makes them so special. I was on a tour of Toronto, Canada’s largest city and the Niagara Peninsula where The Falls is only part of the area’s overall attraction.
After a comfortable direct flight and overnight stay in Toronto I was in Niagara at 9:00am after a relaxed 90 minute drive down the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) from the city. Reason for my early arrival was to take a flight over The Falls with Niagara Helicopters. However low clouds thwarted my mission, the good news was that it gave me more time to explore the area.
Driving to The Falls from the heliport I stopped at a vantage point to see the rapids and whirlpool, a vortex of water created where the river makes a sharp turn right. Continuing on, a large cloud of water vapour rising into the air announced the closeness of what I had come to see.
Donning a plastic poncho my first look was behind The Falls. At the bottom of a lift a tunnel, hacked out of solid rock, has portals that give you a very close-up view. There is also an outside balcony right next to the water but beware, you will get wet.
The Falls are split into two distinct sections, a straight smaller cascade on the U.S. side and the much larger horseshoe shaped torrent which straddles the border between the U.S. and Canada, the best views are from the Canadian side.
For an even closer look I pulled on another poncho and boarded ‘Maid of the Mist’ a boat which gets you up close and personal with the horseshoe. It’s extreme and exciting, a drenching spray, a stiff wind and water that looks like the top of a boiling cauldron all create an unforgettable experience.
With slightly wobbly legs I went to the Visitor Centre to take a look at Fury. This is a new adventure ride which tells the story of The Falls creation, it’s good fun but has got a lot of competition from outside. Lunch was in the beautifully positioned Elements restaurant, good family food is served against the backdrop of a panoramic Falls view.
The drive to my hotel was along the Niagara Parkway, and this started to reveal some of the other attractions of the area. The houses and gardens along the way are as pretty as a chocolate box and they are interspersed with neat rows of vines which produce some of Canada’s most impressive wines. I stopped off at Inniskillin, one of the best known makers of ice wine. This is produced by allowing the grapes to freeze until their very essence is concentrated into a tiny amount of juice. The end result is an intensely flavoured wine that, as I discovered in a tasting, elegantly pairs with both puddings and cheese.
A couple of miles from the winery, along the Niagara River, is Fort George. Part of the area’s rich history, it played a significant role in the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain. Time didn’t permit me to stop so it was on to my home for the night, the luxurious Queens Landing Hotel. This is a beautiful white pillared, red brick property with sumptuously appointed rooms and, as I found out the next day, serves a delicious breakfast buffet.
The hotel is perfect situated for a stroll in to Niagara on the Lake, a town so pretty that even the term picture perfect doesn’t do it justice. Each summer a George Bernard Shaw Festival is held there and I took the opportunity to see Peace in our Time, an adaptation of Shaw’s Geneva.
Next morning it was time to go back to Toronto but low and behold there was a clear blue sky. A quick call to the heliport and within an hour I was airborne. Flying over The Falls has got to be one of the most breathtaking life experiences you can have. We started over the whirlpool before flying up the river, circling both sets of Falls, for any visitor it’s a ‘must do’.
Back in Toronto I start to get the measure of the place. Like all international cities it’s very cosmopolitan with a mix of traditional and new Canadian cultures and this is reflected in the cuisine, for example there is a thriving Chinatown with all types of Asian restaurant.
The Group of Seven and their spiritual leader Tom Thomson started Canada’s most influential art movement in Toronto. One of their most extensive collections is in the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) so I went to take a look. The art is highly impressive and extends far beyond works by Thomson and the Group. Add to that some great views of the city from the stairwell and it is well worth a visit.
Moving around the city is quick and simple, there is an efficient subway system that offers a day ticket which includes local buses and trams for about $10. If it’s wet or cold on the street you can go underground. PATH is a network of walkways which run for 17 miles under the city, you will find shops, bars and restaurants down there in a totally weatherproof environment.
Wandering around I came across the historic St Lawrence area with its large and very interesting covered food market. Stalls offering seafood, local, seasonal vegetables, cheeses, sausages and hams make it the destination of choice for the avid foodie, and it’s a great place to pick up a snack on the move.
A few minute’s walk south brought me to the shores of Lake Ontario. From here I walked in the general direction of my hotel, passing places to eat and drink al fresco and boats offering mini cruises on the lake. The promenade is a laid back part of town where the locals come to relax and socialize.
In the evening the downtown area comes alight, on one night of my stay the Blue Jays, the local baseball team, were playing at home. Large groups of good natured people were enjoying a beer before the game. With the start time approaching the bars emptied out leaving die-hard ice hockey fans watching their preferred game on big TVs. Watching and trying to understand what was happening I quickly learnt one basic rule, all hockey players must grow a beard.
My time in Toronto was made even more pleasant by staying at the Fairmont Royal York which offers an almost superhuman level of service and by the friendliness of the Canadians, who were always there with a warm smile and a helping hand.
Although only in the area for a few days it had been an amazing trip with a wealth of memorable sights and experiences.
Peter Morrell flew Air Transat to Toronto with Canadian Affair