On a city tour through Toronto during last year’s Rendez-vous Canada convention, our guide, Frank, said the area isn’t a melting pot—it’s a mosaic.
And that tour provided a hint of what I was about to see firsthand in the province’s Niagara region.
I boarded a bus pointed south with our group leader, Kathy Utigard, and a group of 12 on the RVC post-fam trip. While I had never seen Niagara Falls before, I’d heard tales of barrels and beautiful sights. My mother-in-law had visited the U.S. side when she was pregnant with my husband (that’s a funny thought), and she told me I would be simply wowed by the magnitude of the falls.
“You just don’t realize just how big it is,” she’d said.
And big falls were just the beginning.
Our group members hailed from Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montréal, China, Mexico, India, and the Okanagan region of British Columbia. The bus rides were filled with the harmonic sounds of varying languages and accents—including my own Bluegrass vibrato—all singing to the tune of the road beneath us.
We stopped first in Waterloo, Ontario, just an hour and a half outside of the Niagara region at the St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market. The huge, buzzing market can accommodate 40 buses with dedicated coach parking, and visiting groups receive coupons and maps.
At the nearby Waterloo Central Railway, we hopped aboard the train built over 100 years ago and traveled through Mennonite country, peering out the windows at farms with clothes on the line and lush purple lilacs in the fields. The company offers many themed rides that can be packaged as a group experience.
In the town of St. Jacobs, we visited The Mennonite Story (a multi-media interpretive center) and the Model Railway—both are gems. The Model Railway was a large room of wall-to-wall model trains in every kind of set-up imaginable. I thought about how much my now 4-year-old would love it.
Before departing the next day, we visited the impressive Waterloo Region Museum and Doon Heritage Village in Kitchener. With a colorful, modern exterior and an interior full of the past, the museum housed multiple galleries of stories about the area’s settlers. Just outside, we saw the heritage village—60 acres of living history showing life in the Waterloo region in 1914.
Then we headed to our next big adventure. And when I say big, I mean high up. We arrived in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake for our flight with National Helicopters. I was about to see Niagara Falls for the first time! You should know that I’m a little fearful when it comes to flying—but game for anything.
They put me up front in the helicopter (no biggie) next to the pilot, and we flew over the many vineyards of Niagara-on-the-Lake before we reached the falls. The sight was breathtaking, and it was there I learned that the water below the falls was even deeper than their massive height. A rainbow stretched over Horseshoe Falls, and tiny boats putted back and forth across the jewel-toned waters. The falls were majestic, especially from the sky.
Back on Earth, during a scenic drive through wine country, we learned from our step-on guide about the three wine festivals in the area throughout the year. The largest one is in January: the Niagara Icewine Festival, a three-weekend event of galas, tastings, and street events with more than 40 participating wineries. Christina Marcotte with Niagara Falls Tourism said winter is her favorite time of year in the area.
“To see the falls covered in ice is incredibly magical. There are 2 million Christmas lights (that are put up) around the parkway. And it’s the Icewine Festival and the gala,” she said.
Only 40 years ago, there were no wineries in the area. Now, there are 25 in Niagara-on-the-Lake because of the perfect microclimate (80% of the world’s production of icewine is made there), and more than 50 in the region.
The drive along the Niagara Parkway through the Heritage District and out to the countryside was simply gorgeous. The town has so many quaint shops, including one called “Just Christmas.” Niagara Falls Tourism’s Becky White said Winston Churchill called it the most beautiful drive in the world.
“It’s a good way to get a dose of nature,” White said.
After visiting three lovely wineries, it was time to see the falls from the ground.
We arrived at Table Rock Centre just in time to see another rainbow appear over Horseshoe Falls. The water was so grand and powerful that I felt simultaneously overwhelmed and at ease. I could see the American flag atop a New York building just over the horizon. What a beautiful sight it was, bringing together my home country with this land that welcomed all of us with open arms.
We dined at Table Rock House Restaurant—mere steps from Horseshoe Falls—and enjoyed great company, including Christina, Becky, and Niagara Parks, Restaurants, Attractions' Jennifer Thomas. Plus we had the amazing view through the evening hours. As darkness fell, the falls lit up bright red in support of the Toronto Raptors, then playing in the 2019 NBA finals. Throughout the year, though, groups can climb to the top of the tower above the restaurant and change the colors themselves, Marcotte said.
We then watched a massive display of fireworks over the water. It was one spectacular way to end our first night in the city.
The next day’s itinerary was jam-packed with a variety of ways to see the falls. We started by riding the Niagara Skywheel in Clifton Hill, which offers amazing views of the area some 175 feet in the air. The Skywheel’s enclosed gondolas are heated and air-conditioned year-round. Passengers can see the falls during the day and ride at night for views of city lights and the evening sky.
We made our way down to the dock via funicular (which, to my disappointment, is not a play on the word ‘fun’) and boarded a 700-passenger boat with Hornblower Niagara Cruises. It was about 50 degrees F on that early June day, and our ride into the falls was destined to be a cold one. With Hornblower alternating cruises with Maid of the Mist from the U.S. side, we slowly boated past the American Falls, taking in views of the rocky gorge covered in lunching gulls. We then moved into the center of Horseshoe Falls, its veil of powerful water encircling the boat. I was right in the middle of this natural spectacle in its surreal glory, getting soaked, but I was unminding. We floated there a while, breathing in mist and experiencing the falls with every sense. It was a magical 20-minute journey. Hornblower also offers a nighttime fireworks cruise.
After a wonderful tour with Journey Behind the Falls (a walk through an underground tunnel to a landing just beneath the falls), we prepped for our adventure with WildPlay Zipline to the Falls. I searched my soul for some extra courage approaching the platform that rose 220 feet into the air overlooking the gorge. I’d wanted to try treetop zip lining, but I’ll just say it: I was nervous as heck. But as we reached the top, the combination of exquisite panoramic views of the American and Canadian falls and the pep talks from my very adventurous travel mates, Jenny and Britta, had me pumped and ready by the time I was geared up and dangling on the edge.
In seated positions, we were able to go side by side. We sped down the gorge some 2,200 feet, and a refreshing sense of freedom replaced my fears. I could hear nothing but the laughter of my new friends. I closed my eyes and felt the wind on my face—my arms wide open—and I just existed with those simple elements for one minute until we reached the bottom.
Hungry after that busy morning, we headed to the Skylon Tower for lunch. It was a clear, sunny day with blue skies, and we could see as far as the Toronto skyline once we reached the top. The falls were a beautiful backdrop to the lovely meal we had, and we were able to dine with Sales Director Anita Pang Hrepic. The dining room revolved, so our fantastic view was always changing and delighting.
Becky says if travelers have 24 hours to spend in Niagara Falls, she recommends the Hornblower cruise, zip lining, lunch at Skylon, time at Clifton Hill, and a winery visit in the afternoon. Most people spend an average of two to three days in the area.
“There are so many little gems of things,” she says.
Our post-lunch adventure was with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, and we were fully warned (and prepared) to get wet. I strategically placed myself in the back center of the boat, as the people in the front absorb the most water. There was no real escape, though; it poured in and filled up to my ankles as we dashed upriver at 55 miles per hour through the beautiful Niagara Gorge and into some Class V whitewater rapids called Devil’s Hole. By the end of the exhilarating 45-minute ride, I wished I’d sat up front. The company offers open and closed boat rides that leave from Niagara Falls, Ontario; Lewiston, New York; and, beginning this year, from Niagara-on-the-Lake. It also offers special rates for operators with groups of 10 or more.
On our last day, we enjoyed delicious food and beer at Niagara Oast House Brewers and shopped at the Outlet Collection at Niagara before saying our goodbyes.
Seeing the quaint corners of the Waterloo region and finding thrills by land, water, and air at Niagara Falls found me longing to return with my family. The places we visited felt welcoming, and with so much adventure, unique history, and picturesque landscapes, I’ve now discovered why the area is a popular spot for travelers—and why they keep coming back.
Top photo: Hornblower Niagara Cruises
Photo by Kendall Fletcher