Niagara Falls (Canada part II)

Date: August-September 2018

Continued from part I…

The morning after the wedding we drove over to the Old Town to spend more time there before we left Niagara-on-the-lake for Niagara Falls. With it being a Sunday morning in a small town, the pace of things was pretty slow, the roads weren’t crowded. Of course, are they ever crowded in a town that has a population of 20,000? Maybe not. Who knows.

Since I love my coffee, I of course wanted to find a local coffee shop for breakfast. Being in the center of town this was pretty easy to find. With it still in the mid-70s, we sat outside on the front of the building, under the huge leafy trees that were everywhere around here. A jet black squirrel or two ran by. How could you not sit outside on a day like this?

We sent some time exploring the old town. We found a great gift for a friend of ours that we should’ve bought, then forgot about it. We’ll have to order it on Amazon later, I guess. Oh well. After exploring Old Town for a bit, we headed over to The Irish Harp Irish Pub. By some method, an Irishman made his way to Niagara-on-the-lake and decided to start an Irish pub there. I was initially drawn to this place because it had over 2,000 reviews on Trip Advisor. All of them were rave reviews. So of course we had to try it. I’m happy to say it was as good as advertised. After exploring for a little while longer, it became time to leave this wonderful place.

One thing I noticed about our entire time in NOTL was that it never felt touristy. Were there visitors there? Absolutely, especially with it being maybe 90 minutes from Buffalo. But there weren’t any tacky tourist trap stores or anything like that. Very few chain stores, very few big-box stores, most independent places. Tons of greenery. Tons of wineries. Bike paths everywhere. A pretty awesome place.

We left Niagara-on-the-lake a little bit of a different way than we came in, destination a different part of southern Ontario, Niagara Falls.

The road was still two lanes. Greenery was still absolutely everywhere. We passed several more wineries that we hadn’t gotten a chance to visit. The temperature was still in the low 70s. This early in the morning it may have even been in the upper 60s. In early September. Six weeks later as I’m starting to write this post (and as it turns out not finishing it until literally the end of the year) my weather app tells me it’s 52 in Niagara-on-the-lake.

Anyway, to Niagara Falls.

With it being Labor Day (which is a holiday in Canada as well as the US), the road to Niagara Falls was packed. I don’t know if Labor Day is the busiest weekend of the year here, but it has to be one of the busiest. Cars were everywhere, and if you’re like me and don’t like driving as it is, driving at a time like this makes you want to pull all of your hair out.

From what we learned from locals, Niagara Falls is a sleepy town during the week, actually. The hotspot of town is of course right near the falls, where casinos dot the edge of the falls, only a few hundred yards away from the US-Canada border. But with it being Labor Day, it was one of the busiest days of the year here.

Our tour guide was supposed to pick us up at our hotel at 3:00. Sure enough, we went down to the lobby at 2:50 and there she was. Canadian by birth and from Ontario, she had never heard of Niagara-on-the-lake until she had started college. We ran into several people with similar stories, actually. People from Ontario who had never heard of Niagara-on-the-lake.

We got into the van, and found a couple from Mexico and a couple from Boston already inside. With our Canadian guide, our tour group represented all the countries of North America.

If you’re reading this and wondering, the view of the Falls from the Canadian side is way better.

Our first stop was Skylon Tower, the observation deck on the Canadian side. Even though we only had 6 people, we still qualified as a group tour and got to skip the huge line in front. Into the elevator and up we went, The view from the top of the tower was amazing, and it made for a pretty incredible set of photos and a breathtaking panorama. Informational placards at various points of the observation deck pointed out things of interest. The remains of a barge that got too close to the Falls and ran aground on a shallow part of the Niagara River in 1918 laid there even 100 years later, slowly eroding.

Part two of our tour was the Journey Behind The Falls. Before I did this tour I had no idea of this, but there are observation tunnels underneath and behind the Falls (at least on the Canadian side) that you can buy a ticket to visit. Something about Niagara Falls I also didn’t know is that the amount of water you see going over the Falls today is actually only 50% of the total amount of water that is capable of going over. The force of the water going over the Falls is so powerful that at the normal rate the Falls erode 10 feet every year. By diverting half of the water for hydroelectric power generation into tunnels dug along the side of the Niagara River, the Falls erode only 1 foot every 10 years. Not only does the diversion of water stop erosion and make the beautiful Falls last longer, but it also generates tons of power for the Niagara region in an environmentally-friendly way. Eventually though, the Canadian side of the Falls will erode, even with the water diversion, leaving only the American side.

Similar situation as last time, because we’re a group tour we get to skip the huge line at the front. After grabbing a plastic rain poncho we get into an elevator that takes us down about 50 feet below the Falls. Underneath and behind the Falls are a network of observation tunnels that allow you to get right behind the water. One section of the tunnels goes off to the side and opens onto ab observation deck. Even with the amount of water going over the Falls being scaled back to 50% capacity during the day the roar of the water is huge and it’s pretty easy to get wet from the spray. After about half an hour, maybe a little longer, in the tunnels below the Falls we came back up and headed over to the boat launch for the third and final part of our tour.

There was definitely a crowd control system in place. Niagara Falls may not be that busy of a place most of the year, but this weekend (Labor Day weekend, remember) was one of the busiest of the year. We headed down to the boat with dozens of other people, some on our boat, some on other boats. We were still on the Canadian side of the Falls. We boarded the boat, and off we went into the area below the falls (I’m not sure what this is called, exactly).

The Falls are way bigger on the Canadian side, and the roaring sound of the water only got louder as we got closer. We definitely needed the cheap plastic rain ponchos they handed to us on the way down to the boat. Out onto the boat we went, and we pulled away from the dock and headed out towards the Falls a few minutes later.

What we learned on the first part of our tour, that during the day they scale back the water flow to 50%, actually ended up being really important. Even with the water flow only being at half the natural capacity we both were still soaked! I don’t think I took any pictures of videos of the Falls while actually on the boat for fear of losing my phone to water, but I got some awesome pictures and videos during other parts of the tours. They’re at a better angle anyway since they’re looking down over the Falls instead of at the angle of looking up from the water.

Touring Niagara Falls was awesome and the tour was great, but I was happy we decided to only spend about half a day in Niagara Falls. We originally had planned to spend an entire day there and had booked a early tour and decided to move it to the afternoon and spend the first half of that day in Niagara-on-the-lake. All that said, I’ll definitely visit the Falls again the next time I’m in that area.

Niagara-on-the-lake (Canada, part I)

Timeline: August-September 2018

I feel like for most people, when they go to weddings they rarely travel outside the state where they live.

This was definitely an exception to that, because we were going very far north, to southern Canada. I’d only been to Canada once before many years ago when my family and I were in Detroit and we went across the bridge to Windsor, Ontario. This was back when you didn’t need a passport and just having your drivers license would suffice.

While you can drive in Canada with a US license, things had changed significantly since the last time I was in Canada and you’ll need a passport to enter Canada.

The quickest way to where we were going (a town in southern Ontario called Niagara-on-the-lake) was actually to fly to Buffalo and drive. All told, the drive would take about an hour including time spent waiting at the border. The drive itself was pretty uneventful, apart from the stress of driving in a completely unfamiliar place and driving an unfamiliar rental car (which, might I add, got incredible gas mileage that I now miss dearly).

The town of Niagara-on-the-lake is pretty much a hidden gem of southern Ontario. Even people from Ontario don’t know about it, but it is a beautiful, beautiful place. The population is around 20,000 people and though it’s popular with tourists the town has clearly placed a huge emphasis on retaining its small-town character and you won’t find any “touristy” gift shops or things like that. Nice, large houses, excellent restaurants, greenery is everywhere, and the people are incredibly friendly. I guess it may be what you think of when you think of a stereotypical New England town.

Something I also didn’t know about this area is that southern Ontario is very famous for wine. The Niagara region of Canada produces the vast majority of a specialty wine called icewine, a dessert wine made from grapes that are picked off the vine when they’re naturally frozen. Because the temperature range for picking the grapes off the vine is very small, icewine is very hard to make, but yields a wine with a very rich, sweet taste. The Niagara region of Canada is at the ideal latitude for conditions required to make it. Germany is the other major country that produces icewine.

I would say the drive was pretty uneventful, but that wouldn’t really be true. There was stress and anxiety from driving an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place. After getting the car rental sorted out (originally they wanted to give me a truck, I said no) we were at the border after maybe a 40-minute drive involving nearly all interstate, and toll roads. We don’t have toll roads where I’m from, so that was new. Really, the drive wasn’t bad. I just was stressing too much.

Crossing the border didn’t take very long at all, and after only a few minutes and answering a couple of questions we were in Canada.

The Niagara region of Canada is basically is the slice of southern Ontario between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, but a small portion of the region extends across the border into New York. The first thing I noticed is how much greenery there was. Trees and other plants were absolutely everywhere. Compared to the New York portion of the drive being mostly interstate, the Ontario portion of the drive was predominantly two-lane roads bordered by rows and rows of trees.

We drove into Niagara-on-the-lake, one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen, on such a two-lane road. With a population of around 20,000 people, the town sits on the shores of Lake Ontario about an hour from the border. Dotted by tons of parks and wineries, even though the town is popular with people from Ontario and New York, the town hasn’t lost any of it’s colonial character. I ran into several people who grew up in Toronto who had never heard of the town. For someone like me who hasn’t really spent much time in the northeastern US, not to mention Canada, it was what I imagined a quaint New England town would be.

Coming from a larger city it was a nice change, really. But I’ve also learned that visiting a place and living in a place are very different things. Whether you move across town or across the world, there are many parts of life that don’t go away. Still though, I loved the small town, the older but very nice buildings, and the quieter pace of life. The fact that it was between 70 and 75 every day we were there didn’t hurt either.

The first night, which was the night before the wedding, we had dinner at an amazing restaurant called Zee’s Grill downtown. Imagine a quant, colonial-style old town that you might find in New England. Being in southern Ontario, New York and the US were no more than 90 minutes away by car.

The wedding was in a beautiful inn called Pillar and Post. When it was built, the property was a cannery, then when the cannery closed someone bought it and renovated it into a very nice hotel and spa. The property is huge, the building is huge, and the interior is gorgeous. Even though our hotel wasn’t in the center of town, Pillar and Post was only 3 blocks away, and Old Town NOTL (as it’s known locally) was only about a mile and a half away. Wineries that produce some of the world’s best wine were only a couple of miles away. Greenery, bike paths everywhere, nice houses, nice temperatures, a cool thriving old town center, some of the world’s best wineries. What’s not to like about a place like this?

Oh, and the squirrels there are jet black. That was new.

Another thing about Niagara-on-the-lake is that it’s pretty bike-friendly. I’d already planned a bike tour for our first day there earlier in the day before the wedding. Armed with a couple of wine-tasting vouchers from our hotel, we rented our bikes and took off on a tour of the Niagara region’s wineries. We’re both bad at directions and did a self-guided tour, so this was probably somewhat of a bold move. But it was a ton of fun, we saw some beautiful scenery, and sampled some awesome local wines. We rode a pretty long way and went to three wineries. We didn’t get as far as we wanted because we ran a bit short on time, but it was super fun nonetheless.

The building the reception was in as well as the grounds where the wedding was held used to be a cannery. Then I guess at some point after the cannery closed someone bought the property, renovated it, and turned it into a nice B&B. After the wedding was done, the dinner following the reception was beautiful. Formal place settings, at least 14 tables (I know because I was sitting at table 14) and personalized, handwritten notes for every party who came. Every one. Being the only American party at the wedding, we of course got to meet a lot of new people!

After the beautiful wedding, reception, and dinner we made our way back to the hotel, walking by all the beautiful houses under the broad-leafed trees that even in southern Ontario on the first of September still had all of their leaves.

Sadly, the next morning it would come time to leave Niagara-on-the-lake and go to Niagara Falls. Hopefully though, I will come back to Niagara-on-the-lake one day.

I certainly want to.


Now that this trip has been over for a few weeks, I’ve finally processed this enough to where I think I can write about it. You see, sometimes I write really slow.

I’d been to Boston before, but it had been over 10 years ago and I wasn’t old enough at the time to really appreciate it. Having been back for a couple of weeks now, if you’ve never been to Boston before it’s an incredibly nice city. If you’re a history person like I am, then there might not be a better city in the US to visit. Since Boston was essentially the birthplace of the American Revolution, history is literally everywhere. Boston is also probably the most European-like city in the US, maybe even in North America. It’s compact, easily walkable, and the mass transit system is excellent.

I could probably write several posts on this trip, but I’ll condense it to one. For now, anyway.

Some of the highlights:

  • The entire North End. In addition to it being one of the most European-looking parts of Boston with cool architecture, the food in this area of town is excellent. Even though the restaurant Giacomo’s has tons of awesome reviews on TripAdvisor, the restaurant Ben Cotto right next door is awesome too!
  • AirBnb. Even though this may seem a bit odd to include this on this list, this trip was the first time I used AirBnb and I’m convinced that using AirBnB versus a traditional hotel made for a better trip, and saved us money in this case. I’ll probably write a post later on my first experience using AirBnB.
  • Bell In Hand. Designated as the oldest tavern in America (in continuous operation since 1795), this cool gastropub is also right next to the Freedom Trail, in the North End.
  • Union Oyster House. In addition to the restaurant itself being famous, the building this restaurant is in is so old that there are no records of when it was actually built. Just down the street from the Bell In Hand Tavern.
  • The Freedom Trail. If you are a history person, this 2.5-mile walking tour covering a lot of things related to the American Revolution and US independence is definitely something you need to do during your time there. We didn’t quite get all the way to the end, the USS Constitution was the farthest we got.
  • Mike’s Pastry Shop, in the North End.
  • A Red Sox game at Fenway Park. During my time in Boston, I was lucky enough to catch a Red Sox-Yankees home game that the Red Sox won on a walk-off home run to end the series. If MLB is in season while you are there, definitely try to catch a game.

The trip was a lot of fun, and Boston is a really cool city.