Robin Garrett could never identify with those poor souls who shudder at the thought of another morning commute to work. Hers, you see, follows the Niagara River Parkway, which features some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere on the continent.
In fact, when Sir Winston Churchill traveled this route during a visit to Canada in 1943, he declared it “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.”
Garrett, CEO of the Tourism Partnership of Niagara, can affirm that it’s enthralling on weekdays, too.
“I have the pleasure of driving the Parkway every morning on my way to work,” she says. “It’s spectacular no matter the weather. You get to go by the Botanical Gardens and Niagara Falls, and you see the river at times and all the trees and the greenery. It is undeniably an absolutely exquisite drive. And to ride your bike along the recreation trail [that parallels the road] is wonderful as well.”
Tourists who come to Canada’s Niagara Region and limit their activities to the falls are missing out, for the Parkway — a 35-mile-long, two-lane road from Lake Erie in the south to Lake Ontario in the north — passes colorful gardens, picnic areas, vineyards and wineries, fruit stands and golf courses, not to mention the tiniest church in the world. Travelers can truly savor the sights since the maximum speed is 60 kilometers per hour (a leisurely 37.5 mph).
And if the scenery fails to impress, the diversity of attractions along the route surely will.
“Niagara as a region is so much more than the falls,” says Tony Baldinelli, acting director of communications and marketing for the Niagara Parks Commission, which manages the parkway and dozens of properties along the route. “What’s quite impressive is not only the beauty of the falls, but the range of things there is to do within the park setting itself. We’ve got our heritage sites — we have the greatest concentration of War of 1812 sites anywhere in Canada.
“We’ve got a beautiful park system with over 1,300 hectares [about 3,200 acres) of property that we maintain and protect for future generations. You pass some of the prime wine country in Canada. We’ve got the Niagara Glen, a beautiful nature preserve. We’ve got two golf courses. So there’s a little bit of everything for people looking to come for a great getaway.”
The highlight of any trip to the region is, of course, the falls themselves. Visitors crowd the railing at the edge of the 2,500-foot-wide Horseshoe Falls and stand transfixed as the water rushes over the precipice and plunges 176 feet into the frothy cauldron below, creating a deafening roar and signature mist. The experience is as spellbinding for visitors today as it was in 1678 when Father Louis Hennepin, a Belgian monk who accompanied La Salle on his expedition to the New World, became the first European to see the falls. He immediately fell to his knees, awestruck by the spectacle before him.
“There is an incredible Cataract or Waterfall, vast and prodigious, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its Parallel,” Hennepin wrote. “The Waters which fall from this vast height do foam and boil in a fearful manner, making an outrageous Noise.”
Niagara Falls can mesmerize even the most jaded of travelers.
“When people see it for the first time they’re absolutely astonished, it’s so beautiful,” says Janice Thompson, chairwoman of the Niagara Parks Commission (along with her duties as executive director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce). “And then I think people are amazed that, you know, the falls are such a great and grand attraction, but that there’s so much to do along the parkway in either direction, so many things to discover.”
Here are some sites along the route no traveler to the region should miss:
• The Niagara River gorge narrows dramatically 2 1/2 miles north of the falls and the floor drops 50 feet in a mile, creating one of the world’s wildest stretches of whitewater. Visitors to the White Water Walk attraction descend 200 feet in an elevator to river level, where a 1,000-foot-long boardwalk affords close-up views of the raging rapids. The water almost seems alive, undulating and dancing and shooting spray into the air, accompanied by a constant roar.
Matthew Webb, clad in the red bathing suit he wore when he became the first to conquer the English Channel in 1875, attempted the swim through these rapids eight years later. Thousands of spectators lined both banks of the river to watch, but Webb was no match for the power of Niagara. His battered body was pulled from the water four days later.
An earlier daredevil, Frenchman Jean-Francois Gravelet (stage name Charles Blondin), crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope 17 times, both above these rapids and nearer the falls. When his performances became too routine, Blondin spiced up his act by crossing while blindfolded, walking on stilts, carrying a small stove on which he cooked an omelet and, before members of Britain’s royal family in 1860, pushing a wheelbarrow. Afterward he approached the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. “Do you believe I could take a man across the tightrope in this wheelbarrow?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” the prince replied. “Hop in then,” Blondin said, cheekily. The prince politely declined.
• The river makes a sharp 90-degree turn less than a mile north of the rapids, where the water forms a slowly revolving whirlpool that moves in a counterclockwise direction most times but, oddly enough, reverses course when nearby hydroelectric plants divert more water than usual. Overlooks on the rim of the gorge provide good views of the whirlpool, but for the best vantage point hop aboard the Whirlpool Aero Car, a 40-passenger cable car that crosses from Colt’s Point to Thompson Point and back, a 1,770-foot trip 250 feet above the swirling water.
• Niagara Glen, home to unusual birds, plants and wildlife, is located five miles north of the Horseshoe Falls and is accessible by stairways that lead down into the gorge. Two and a half miles of trails pass through pristine forest that feature ferns and mosses evoking a primeval age. Take heed when visiting: The terrain is steep and extremely rocky.
• The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, located a half-mile north of Niagara Glen, cover nearly 100 acres, highlighted by a world-famous rose garden with more than 2,400 flowers in a wide range of colors. Stroll through the property or take a horse-and-carriage ride. The site is also home to the Butterfly Conservatory, which features more than 2,000 free-flying exotic butterflies. A 600-foot-long path leads through a lush, tropical environment.
• The Niagara Parks Floral Showhouse, just south of the falls, features collections of orchids and roses set in the midst of waterfalls and pools with tropical birds flying overhead. The showhouse’s most distinctive attraction is the titan arum, a flowering plant that can reach 10 feet in height. When in bloom, you’ll discover why it’s known as the corpse flower.
• Interpreters in period dress conduct guided tours of the restored McFarland House, a Georgian-style home 15 miles north of the falls that was built around 1800. Visitors can enjoy home-baked scones, sandwiches, crackers with icewine jelly and tea in a relaxing atmosphere.
“I just love that house,” Thompson says. “It has a tea room in the back and it looks out onto the recreation trail, so you get to see all the people just enjoying the park. It’s a nice place of respite.”
• Fort George, just north of McFarland House, offers visitors a glimpse of daily life at the fort when it served as a regional headquarters for the British Army. Costumed staff fire muskets, bake bread in the kitchen and lead tours of reconstructed buildings. A stone powder magazine is the only original structure on the site.
• Fort Erie, at the opposite end of the Niagara River, offers visitors a similar experience, but with a twist. Because Americans occupied the fort for four months in 1814, individuals portraying both British and American soldiers conduct tours and give musket demonstrations. Visitors can inspect the guard room, officers’ quarters, soldiers’ barracks, the powder magazine and the gardens.
• The Battle of Chippawa took place on a farm about five miles south of the falls, and visitors to the battlefield site can follow a walking path marked with interpretive panels that describe the events of July 5, 1814. A memorial cairn is dedicated to those who gave their lives here and commemorates the nearly 200 years of peace that has prevailed between the U.S. and Canada since the War of 1812 ended.
• Queenston Heights Park, 7ﾽ miles north of the falls, provides a commanding view to the north of vineyards, farmland, the Niagara River and, beyond, Lake Ontario. The view is even better from atop Brock’s Monument, which honors British Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, who died in the Battle of Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812. Brock is interred at the base of the 184-foot monument.
“Last October we had the re-creation of the battle, and there were a thousand re-enactors there and over 10,000 people showed up just to watch,” said Thompson. “You really did feel like you were in a different era.”
• The Laura Secord Monument, which stands only a few hundred feet from Brock’s, commemorates her role as the Paul Revere of Canada. When Secord overheard plans for a surprise U.S. attack, presumably from American soldiers billeted in her home in occupied Queenston, she embarked on a perilous 20-mile journey through the wilderness to Thorold to warn British Lt. James FitzGibbon, whose forces repelled the invaders two days later in the Battle of Beaver Dams. The Laura Secord Bicentennial Walk, which retraced her steps, took place June 22.
“We had about a thousand participants,” says Caroline McCormick, president of Friends of Laura Secord, the group that organized the trek, and a descendant of Secord. “We had people from as far away as the Yukon, British Columbia, California, even Norway. And Laureen Harper, the wife of the prime minister (Stephen Harper), walked the entire 32-kilometer route.”
The restored Laura Secord Homestead in Queenston is open for tours.
• The Floral Clock, seven miles north of the falls, has been a must-see tourist stop since it was constructed in 1950. The sloped clock face measures 38 feet in diameter and consists of more than 24,000 colorful carpet plants, arranged in intricate designs. A 10-foot-wide water garden curves 85 feet around the base of the timepiece, which does indeed keep time. Westminster chimes greet each quarter hour.
• An abundance of wineries, from small family-run operations to large state-of-the-art facilities, dot the landscape in the Niagara Region. It’s a year-round destination for oenophiles, who flock to the two-week-long Niagara Icewine Festival every January. In the warm-weather months, it’s not unusual to see long lines of connoisseurs on bicycle tours that visit multiple wineries — so-called grape escapes.
“There are about 80 wineries in the Niagara Region,” Garrett says. “We are the most southern point in Canada, and we have as a result a tender fruit market, so that brings in the wine element. The wine experience is hugely popular.”
The region is regarded as Canada’s answer to Napa Valley.
• The Living Water Wayside Chapel — the smallest functioning church on the planet, according to Guinness World Records — is just south of McFarland House, at Walker’s Country Market. The chapel consists of two pews (seating for six) and measures 10 feet by 10 feet. Weddings are occasionally performed here. Very small ones, no doubt.