Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Niagara Falls (among others)

An invitation from new friends made over the summer, coupled with an old desire to visit the famed Niagara Falls, plus the chance to reconnect with a high school pal 21 years later, and the opportunity to get out of the house once more before autumn hits, adds up to – you guessed it – a quick trip north of the border to Canada.  Southern Ontario, to be exact.

Just across the river from Detroit, the area around Windsor – the most southern city in Canada – claims to be the country’s automotive capital.  Sure enough, there seems to be a Ford, GM or Chevy assembly plant or parts facility at every turn.  And in tune with southern hospitality, we were very well received by our dear friends in Belle River, right on the edge of Lake St. Claire.  [by well received I mean pulling all the stops, all the way to the ‘best stuffed cabbage rolls’ my daughter ever had and fresh polenta (mamaliga) prepared at 4 AM;  true connoisseurs of this culinary delicacy would fully understand what a warm welcome this was!!].

Toronto barely noticeable in the background...
Next day, the 3.5 hour drive to Niagara Falls cut through Ontario Wine Country, which in my innocence [or ignorance, sure…] I knew nothing about.  Apparently, however, the area winemakers produce high quality wines (which makes sense, given the optimal climate).  The ultra-sweet Ice Wine (made from grapes frozen while still on the vine) is quite a delicacy and comes with a hefty price tag (due in part to the harvest conditions and the relatively reduced production).  Other varietals – red and white alike – can easily compete against the best of California, Germany or France.  Next time it would surely be worth a stop.

View of the Falls from the hotel balcony
The Niagara Falls itself is a solid 10 on the “WOW” scale.  Sure, there’s all the cheesy, touristy stuff one would expect around this beautiful natural setting – after all, commercialism recognizes that after a few minutes the jaw retracts but the hand has to keep reaching for the wallet (back to that aspect later) – but the experience is definitely one for the ‘bucket list’.

By sheer magnitude, it is impressive.  And if it looks so from a distance, the effect is exponentially enhanced the closer you get to it.  And close to it you can get (all for the appropriate fee, of course).  Yes, the Maid of the Mist (the local 165 year old monopoly when it comes to navigating by boat right under the Horseshoe’s drop) gets you as close as you can imagine.  Plastic ‘raincoat’ and all, you’ll still get drenched no matter what.  And the deafening noise, the curtain of water dropping at an amazing 600,000 gallons/second, swirling wildly under the boat, leave no doubt about the fact that only a true miracle can save anyone that manages to be caught in the plunge.  Quite frightening, actually.  The ever-present rainbow, however, makes for a guaranteed Kodak moment.

US Side - American Falls and Bridal Veil
The Maid of the Mist against the Horseshoe Falls 
The Maid of the Mist venturing under the Horseshoe
That ever-present rainbow...
Skylon Tower
For those wishing to get even closer, or get a different perspective, there are other options as well: the Cave of the Winds walking tour on the American side (where every spring an intricate wooden structure of scaffolds and stairs is assembled, only to be dismantled in the fall – you’re right… ice would destroy it otherwise) gets you right under the Bridal Veil.  The Journey Behind the Falls, on the Canadian side, gives you access to a couple of platforms and tunnels behind the Horseshoe. 

From the ground level, only a few short feet and a railing that’s not much taller than the average 8 year old separate you from the raging 20 miles/hour current that is barreling down the 175 feet drop.  And then, there’s the top view from the 520-feet tall Skylon Tower… the Merry-go-Round… the multiple ‘Falls-View’ restaurants at the top of every hotel in the area… etcetera… etcetera…I’m sure they’ll think of many other ways to exploit the view in the near future.

Right under it all...

A "little" wet...
...or fairies?

Light show over the falls (from the Skylon Tower)
Despite all that, IT IS a pretty impressive natural monument!  Light-shows and fireworks at night add another dimension to it altogether.

At ground level again, there’s every tourist gimmick, trick and trap in the book:  Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Wax Figures Museum, Dracula’s Castel [yeah, that’s right!], arcades, mini-golf, water park (a big indoor one to maximize year-round revenue), cheap [meaning quality, not price] souvenir shops… you name it, it’s there.  All ‘loud’ (both to the ear and the eye), cheesy, overcrowded, chromatically uncoordinated, a distasteful [mad] man-created ‘cacophony’ of sound, color and style, in complete and utter contrast to the natural wonder on display only a few hundred yards away…

Every hotel and restaurant chain is present.  A couple of casinos as well, just to keep the adults busy.  You’d have to venture quite a bit off the beaten path in order to find some peace and food choices above par.  But that’s always good advice around any heavy tourist setting: wonder off a few blocks.  We stumbled upon such a place where an older Greek (her) - Italian (him) couple ran a decent ‘Mediterranean’ place.  Sandstone I think it was called…Yet, in the end, I’m not sure if it was as much the food (still very authentic), the wine (from the local Ontario vineyards I mentioned earlier) as it was the company: making new friends and reconnecting with a high-school buddy I have not seen in 21 years.  Pretty much one of those Master Card ‘priceless’ moments!

...and new!
Old friends...

21 years later ... on the other side of the world...
Earlier that day, the kids enjoyed the Marineland amusement park; with countless rides, dolphin, walrus, sea-lion, killer whale shows, a mini-zoo, the whole ‘nine’ , which proved to be a lot more fun than the ‘stupid waterfall’.  Case in point that the local entertainment-providers are hitting the right chords with a certain demographic.  After all, what normal kid wouldn’t rather play while vacationing in Niagara Falls?!?  And what adult wouldn’t rather contribute a few dollars to the Canadian economy while rolling dice, flipping cards or clicking buttons?  Need another clue?  No?  I didn’t think so!  ;-)

Miniature 'Davy Crocketts'
But with all that (or maybe because of it) people visit every year in millions; 28 or so last year alone.  And despite it all, it is worth the trip.  Once.

An old tram downtown Toronto:
a throwback to Romania, circa 1975
A little over an hour north, around the tail end of Lake Ontario you’re in Toronto – the biggest city in Canada, the economic engine of the country.  I can’t provide much commentary since we barely passed through, with the obligatory stop at the CN Tower and a nice early dinner at a very authentic Chinese restaurant.
The city itself has a very European metropolitan feel to it.  High-rise apartments (expensive from what I hear), plenty of attractions and the proximity to the water give it a nice character [I’m partial here, since - for me - even a ‘dump’ that’s by the water has character] …

Driving into downtown Toronto
The CN Tower: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all:  whether it’s almost and identical copy (Space Needle in Seattle) or giving you a similar perspective from up high (Sears Tower, Empire State Building, etc.), every major city has a similar tall structure that allows vistas from the top.  This particular one just happens to be the 5th tallest in the world (and apparently tallest in the western hemisphere).     Still, it’s another one of those places where once is enough… apologies to our friends for making them ride up with us (I feel for people in the Toronto area that have to do that every time friends are in town ;-)

There.  Southern Ontario in a [small] nutshell.  A nice place to visit, but not sure about living there.  Not with the current gas prices, expensive booze and sub-zero temps [nearly] year-round.  Kudos to all of you who have adapted to those conditions!
PS: a million thanks to freelance photographers Laura and Mari who have enhanced the visuals for this posting.  For additional video footage check out these links: