Tips for Enjoying your Niagara Falls Trip

IMG_20170705_205930_090
View from the observation deck at Journey Behind the Falls

Niagara Falls is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. It’s like the Eiffel Tower, a grand monument that brings people from all over the world clambering for a closer look. As a major tourist destination, it’s easy to get wrapped up in over paying for things and miss out on some hidden gems.

So here are are couple points to consider when planning your trip to Niagara Falls

Don’t stay at the major hotels in the tourist district. Yes, there are some benefits to staying in the tourist area. Lots of things to see and do are walking distance. There are convenient bus stops. But that’s about it. Unless you’re really set on spending your days at the casino or need to be two doors down from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, there’s no reason to spend on a big hotel.

Just a short way away from the main strip is the residential area. Along the river there are dozens of charming b&bs. There are bus stops, super markets, and downtown restaurants within walking distance or a short drive away. B&Bs are typically cozier and much more cost effective. Even looking at deals on Groupon, the b&b we stayed in was about 1/3 the price of the large hotels even after a discount.

Try the local restaurants and super markets. Instead of hitting up Subway and Starbucks try some of the local favorites. Our b&b host had a list of recommendations and we also enjoyed wandering around Queen Street to see what looked good to us.

Our favorites on this trip were Paris Crepes Cafe  on Queen Street and Frijoles  on Portage Road. We did, of course have to try some poutine as well and made our one food stop in the more touristy district to do so at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

Visiting the local supermarkets is also a great way to save money on meals (most have some prepared food to grab for a quick lunch or dinner) and to see local culture. I love visiting supermarkets when I travel and finding all the surprising little differences. Local liquor stores are also a treasure trove. The local stores are a great place to get souvenirs too. Pure maple syrup at the tourist souvenir shop is easily twice the price you’ll find it at the super market. Local sweets and wines are also much cheaper where the locals shop for groceries.

Buy the Adventure Pass. Learn from our mistakes. We didn’t buy the pass and regretted it. If you want to spend a couple of days taking advantage of all the cool things Niagara has to offer, you might want to invest in The Adventure Pass. There are a couple different options, but each pass gives you discount admission to various activities and sights in Niagara and Niagara on the Lake. The pass also gives you a two day bus pass which will take you almost anywhere you want to go and save you money on parking.  Some areas near the Falls charge as much as $20 CAD for parking. Even free attractions will usually have a price on their parking. And certain attractions like the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist boat ride cost about $90 per person before the discount.

Enjoy the views and take your time. The Falls are a natural wonder. And the Niagara region overall has a lot to offer. If possible, spend a couple days to slowly enjoy and see the Falls from different angles and perspectives. This is also one of the few places where I would advise giving the museums a skip, or at least not spending too much time on them. Go out and enjoy the beauty of nature instead of simply reading about it. Journey Behind the Falls provides a bit of historical context if you read the placards on the wall along your walk through the tunnels. But if you really can’t help yourself, the Niagara Falls Museum has free admission on Thursdays.

We did a lot of research before our trip to find what there was in the area to suit our interest and we still ended up missing a few things. I guess we’ll just have to go back. Hopefully though, this will help you plan for your own trip to Niagara Falls.

Gardens and Wine in Niagara on the Lake

Niagara, Ontario is home to one of the most iconic natural monuments in the world. Millions of tourists flock there to get a look at the three waterfalls that make up the “Falls.” Around the falls are plenty of touristy attractions. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Niagara Casino, big hotels, gift shops, and chain restaurants. There certainly are plenty of things to do after you’ve had your fill of the falls, but if Casinos aren’t your style, Niagara on the Lake might be.

Just north of the falls, bordering Lake Ontario, is Niagara on the Lake. The quieter, less built up area is a short drive or bus ride away. On our trip, we dedicated one day to this part of Niagara. It has plenty to offer when it comes to nature and wine.

The Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture + Butterfly Conservatory:

The Niagara Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture is free and open to the public. The whole garden is 100 acres, so you can ramble around for as long or as short as you like. There is also rest area with bathroom facilities and food.

The gardens have some areas which are highly polished and manicured, such as their European style rose garden with a large fountain at the center. But other areas are left a bit more wild. Plenty of happy bees were enjoying the abundance of the garden on the summer afternoon we visited. The garden is not only for visitors, but is part of the School of Horticulture as well. Some of the beds will actually be student projects. The lovely herb garden features plenty of tags indicating student work, as well as an olive tree (ambitious in the climate) and many varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs.

While studying the tags in the herb garden, I ran into one of the grounds keepers. She explained to me that while certain plants will never reach their full potential in the Canadian climate, such as that olive tree, the garden’s goal is to educate. They enjoy showing people plants they have never seen before. The students grow vegetables in dedicated beds, so it’s a practical garden as well as an attractive one.

On the grounds, under a large glass dome, is the Butterfly Conservatory. Exotic butterflies from around the world enjoy a home there. On this trip, we decided to pass on the Conservatory, but it’s definitely something worth visiting with children. It’s a chance to teach them how to handle a butterfly gently (never touch the wings!) and it can be a great photo-op since the butterflies are a bit used to being handled and tend to land on visitors. There are tons of photos and videos online showing people enjoying the company of butterflies.

The Butterfly Conservatory and parking at the gardens is not free, though admission to the garden itself is. The Butterfly Conservatory is $15 CAD and parking is $5 CAD.

Inniskillin and the Niagara Wine Trail

Inniskillin is known as a pioneer in modern Canadian wine making. By grafting European vines onto North American roots, they grow fine quality wine grapes that are resistant to local pests. The vineyard was one of the first in the region and it opened in 1974. In 1991 they gained fame by winning first place at Vinexpo in the dessert wine category. They won with their now famous ice wine. One of the first major producers of ice wine in Canada, they set a trend in the area and now the Niagara region is famous for it even though the original concept came from the German tradition of Eiswein.

At Inniskillin you can have a brief tour and tasting for $10 CAD. On this tour you visit some of the vines and peek in the production rooms. There’s a video that explains the unique way ice wine is produced, and a tour of the cellar where they age both ice wines and table wines. The tour ends with a tasting of two table wines and two ice wines. Your tour ticket also serves as a coupon in their wine shop for $10 off your wine purchase.

I personally love learning about how things are made, so the tour was very interesting to me. The tasting was what we were all waiting for though. After trying a white and a red table wine, they serve you a still and then a sparkling Vidal ice wine. Ice wine is very sweet and usually a white wine, though it’s available in red varieties too. Some varieties have a syrupy, honey-like taste and consistency. A this tasting I was able to finally find a wine my husband will drink, so it was an especially successful day for me. If you want to taste more of the wines available at Inniskillin than the tour offers, the wine shop also has tasting sets of table and ice wines.

Because of Niagara on the Lake is set between the falls and Lake Ontario, the area has what’s called a micro-climate that makes it one of the best regions in Canada for wine growing. The micro-climate makes the region more temperate overall, and the soil has a high level of clay which reduces the need to water the vines. There are 25 vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, so if you’re very interested in wines and vineyards, you can take a trip down the Wine Trail. Check out their site for events and maps.

There’s a lot to do in Niagara beyond visiting the Falls. Personally, I think I need to spend a weekend just doing that Wine Trail. Niagara on the Lake is definitely worth putting on the schedule for your trip to Niagara, Ontario.