Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Good and the Bad on a Not so Bad Trip

As most of you know, my only sister lives in Montreal. Most of my family and her in-laws usually travel to Niagara Falls every time they visit her. It’s sort of a ritual, sort of a “must see”. Although I have visited her plenty of times, in the past seven years since she’s lived there, I have never had the privilege to see The Falls. In a way, from all the pictures I have of my family under the falling water, I have always felt I have been there before. But nothing is quite the same as when you see it for yourself.

My husband and I decided to take my mother-in-law to Niagara Falls for her 70th birthday. She lives in Michigan, so we were to fly into the Mitten State, and then drive to Niagara Falls, ON, “the Canadian side”. We knew, from family and friends stories, from The Wiki and google images, that the Canadian side is more majestic than the US side. Sorry, US, ya have to let them have that!

And so we did: flew into Michigan and drove Northward the day after getting there. This was maybe not the ideal time of the year to visit The Great North, I’d have to say. The weather was cold (low 40’s and high 30’s for the most part), rainy, and foggy. We had a room with a view of the Niagara river, but we could only see the mist from the falls from our window. It was, however, beautiful!

The first day we went sightseeing was so foggy we could not see even the river from our window. We could not see the river, even from the park right above it! It was pure milk! And rain, and wetness. And cold. A lot of cold. We had breakfast at Coco’s and then we started the walk towards the Niagara Falls park. We could very much hear the falls, loud and roaring, angry, and we were almost drenched in a mist, we could feel the wind pulling us in, but we could not see it very much.

The first day: fog and water. Mostly fog. Looked like Ireland (I think)

Another reason why this was not an ideal time to visit was that a lot of things were closed for the season. Some restaurants were closed, and even the boat that takes you to the bottom of the falls was retired for this year.

I guess this is what Jim Cantore must feel like!

We visited the Visitors’ Center and the shops (just to shelter ourselves from the big wet nature out there), and then we did the “Journey Behind the Falls”. They take you down on this elevator to the bottom of the Canadian Falls and you get windows into the waterfalls, and you get to see the outpouring of water from behind the rocks. The noise it makes is unreal! It feels a bit claustrophobic, dark and menacing down there, but it is a unique experience. How much can you really let go in order to observe a miracle of nature?! Test yourself! Your stomach might be in knots, but at the end it’s so worth it!

The elevator assistant was very dry (pun not intended). She looked serious and bored. One tourist asked her “how many times do you go up and down in this elevator, a day?”. She answered promptly with a shrug and a half look: “I don’t know, Sir. I never counted. I have more important things to worry about. The only one worrying about such things is you”. No one laughed.

After seeing the falls, or, again, hearing them from underneath and behind, we came up for air again, and started driving along the Niagara river, North bound, towards the Botanical Gardens. They were, once again, closed for the season. But the jewel of the gardens, the butterfly conservatory, was open. So, we strolled in.

60 species of butterflies, from all over the world, and 30,000 individual insects greeted us, literally. Some of them as large as a humming bird, and all of them dressed up in their Sunday best! They would fly everywhere, land on your hair or clothes, and just offer the most beautiful spectacle for the eye that I have ever seen. The conservatory is landscaped beautifully, as a tropical paradise, with palm trees, coconut trees, a waterfall in the middle and various exotic plants. It’s like a giant green house, full of life and freshness. This stood in stark contrast to the dreary world of the outside. It was alive and warm.

After this, we continued to drive North, along the river. What I always adore about any town in Canada is their parks! Even in the most humble neighborhoods, the parks have wide and clean alleys, with lawns that are impeccable and always lush! We drove through parks and high end neighborhoods, through vineyards and along stone walls, protecting the pedestrians from falling into the rapid river below. Oh, the view one would have from their sunroom along this path!

The glitz and glamor of Niagara Falls, Ontario

After a short drive, we reached the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. If Niagara Falls struck us as touristy and extra loaded with unnecessary cheese (like Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and The Frankenstein House), Niagara-on-the-Lake is a quiet, beautifully architected old town! Reminded me in parts of Quebec City, and in some others of England. It is quaint and classy, with lots of brick and stone houses, large trees and quiet roadways. Although it rained the entire time we were there, we walked the streets for a couple of hours, in ponchos and umbrellas, visited boutiques we never get a chance to visit anywhere else, bought local foods, jewelry, presents for friends, and compared wine prices with the rest of the world.

The quaint charm of Niagara-on-the-Lake

I almost forgot how important the wine industry is for the Niagara region, so we enjoyed visiting the various wine shops. We never bought even one bottle though, and I am not quite sure why! The rain got us in a damp mood, I guess. I did have Canada ice wine before, and it’s delicious, and it appeared, from it being showcased everywhere, that it’s one of their specialties, here, as well. I do, wholeheartedly, recommend it to anyone who likes wine. It’s delicious, and worth the $30 price tag for even a small, skinny bottle!

The second day we were there, we took the elevator up The Skylon Tower, as the fog had lifted and we could now see the falls. I always love views from up high, and this one was as impressive as any I have seen. You can clearly see both the American and the Canadian Falls, in all their splendor and they are correct – the Canadian ones, with their horseshoe shape, look much more interesting. Although, if you only had the American ones to look at you’d be as impressed, too, I am sure. The quantity of water they put out and the speed with which they flow are breathtaking – overwhelming and humbling all at the same time.

Looking across the border into the US was an opportunity for me to stop and think about the relativity of life, in general and of people-made things, in particular. What’s a border, after all? Just a very relative, and almost imaginary line separating two worlds. And people often forget that “relative” is the key word here. No one is more special than the other person, intrinsically, just because they happen to have been born on either side. But, oh, how people forget that!

Apart from the weather not giving us our best shot at seeing the sights and the rainbows, we have enjoyed just being away, and seeing a piece of the planet that was new to us. If I were to go back, I would probably try to sleep and eat in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The touristy violence of Niagara Falls was sort of disappointing. That, and the very high prices, for not so much of quality as you might think. In one of the restaurants, I ordered poutine, a very Canadian dish, but it was nothing like the Quebecois poutine I fell in love with in Montreal! No curd fresh cheese, and thick gravy, no sautéed potatoes! Just gravy from a pack, plain tasting, and shredded cheese from a bag. And probably bagged fries, too … The prices are huge everywhere, for frozen meals reheated sometimes – or maybe we didn’t pick the places right! I did enjoy the tomato bisque at Kelsey’s, the first night we were there. And be prepared to pay for parking anything from $2 and hour to $10 a day! And we needed to move the car a lot, since it was raining the whole time and we could not walk anywhere, really.

The American Falls, with Niagara Falls, NY in the background

The Canadian Falls, ON

But the beauty of nature, and even of man, when he’s thinking before building, was refreshing and warm. And now I, too, can say, like the rest of my family, that I have been to The Falls. The Canadian ones, you know – the only ones that matter!

This was one of the plainest butterflies, but one of my favorites! Click on it to see all the pictures from this very beautiful trip.

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