We approached it from the direction of Toronto, where we’d spent the first three days of our Canadian holiday; I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the big city, but I was looking forward to getting back to nature.
As we drove, we chatted about what we should be expecting – the quintessential image of the falls, that semi-circular curtain of tumultuous white water rushing and tumbling straight down into the mist and spray, was of course forefront in our minds.
But what, we wondered aloud, would the surrounding area be like? Would it be an over-busy tourist attraction, where we would jostle and be jostled for the best views?
Would it be built up and spoilt by looming buildings? Would it be quiet, in the middle of nowhere, with one solitary shop selling overpriced bottles of water?
It turned out to be somewhere in the middle of all of the above, with all the good aspects and none of the bad.
There are restaurants, souvenir shops and plenty of people milling around, but finding a good place to stop and watch the falls was easy, and when we wanted to take photographs you could quickly do so without getting in the way of someone’s else’s snap, or having someone else wander into ours.
There’s a long, wide promenade that takes you from the Canadian Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls, past the American Falls and some way further; it feels a lot like strolling through a park, so you never feel hemmed in by the town of Niagara itself – which is itself part of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area.
First glimpses of the world’s most famous waterfall
We had booked a hotel just over the road from the funicular that takes you down to the main Niagara Falls ticketing area and gift shop, so after quickly parking the car and checking in to our room we headed over.
The funicular appears to wait until it’s full, rather than leaving on a timetable, and as we were the first ones to board I imagine we’d just missed the last one, but I was quite content to sit and soak up my first sight of Niagara.
From where we sat, the waters of the upper Niagara River looked deceptively calm, until they inevitably tumbled down into the depths of the plunge pool – something we couldn’t quite see for ourselves just yet, but had seen a thousand times in pictures and on television.
Before too long, the funicular made its laborious way down, and we disembarked to pick up our tickets; from here we’d booked the Journey Behind the Falls and the boat tour to the base of the falls.
You descend directly down in a lift from the ticket office to the beginning of the Journey Behind the Falls, but we couldn’t resist stepping outside first to get our first good look at Niagara Falls in all its glory.
And glorious is exactly what they are - glorious, magnificent, incredible – none of these superlatives go too far when describing the sight that unfolds as you get closer.
But first, the noise. The sound generated by hundreds of thousands of gallons of water falling at the same time is intense, but not all-encompassing. It underscores the experience, without overwhelming it.
I was reminded at times of the ‘whum-whum-whum’ of helicopter blades; it never got so much that you had to move away, or shout to make yourself heard – not walking along the main promenade, at least.
I found the falls themselves to be somewhat of a paradox. At the same time, they were both larger and smaller than I thought they might be.
Larger in that you can’t really comprehend the sheer scale until you see it in person, but smaller because they were somehow more immediate and more accessible that I expected them to be.
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Behind the Falls
Of all the excursions around Niagara Falls that we’d booked, I was most nervous of the Journey Behind the Falls.
I can be a little claustrophobic at times, and I’m not overly fond of going underground, but I was determined to experience everything Niagara had to offer, and I’m glad I did.
It’s self-guided, so it’s as long or as short as you’d like it to be; but even if you lingered longer than most, I can’t imagine it taking you much longer than an hour to complete.
Once you leave the lift that takes you down, you’re funnelled with everyone who descended with you into a rocky corridor, with information boards interspersed at intervals on the walls.
These are quite interesting, but a bit difficult to read as the corridors aren’t wide and there are lots of people with you.
In fact, this was the most crowded I felt; however, even though crowds are another thing I don’t like much, I never felt panicked or anxious.
All the while you can hear the roar of the falls; you feel it coming up through your feet from the ground, and if you touch the wall of the corridor you can feel the hum. Here and there an opening will lead you away from the main corridor; these are your chances to see the falls from underneath, or behind.
Back in England when planning the trip, I’d envisioned this as a cave with one wall made of falling water, where you could make out different channels and rivulets making their way down, but in reality it isn’t like that at all.
These glimpses are like windows with a very noisy mist outside; all you can see is the white spray from the water as it hurtles past.
I wasn’t disappointed as such; it’s still incredibly impressive and a little scary – here you really can’t stand the noise for too long, which is good as it means there aren’t many people in front of you at the barrier.
It just wasn’t quite what I expected, which is really the whole point of exploring new places.
However, the best bit of the Journey Behind the Falls is the viewing platform that lets you get really up close to the water.
It’s at this point that you realise how grateful you are for the stylish free poncho you were given at the beginning of the tour; as soon as you step out, you’re drenched with spray that is at times fine and at times like being caught in a thunderstorm.
It’s invigorating, fun, and unforgettable, and as it comes out some way down the cliff it gives you a unique perspective of both the falls above and the boat tour below as it dips in and out of the mist.
Throughout the Journey Behind the Falls you must take care as the ground is perpetually wet – take sturdy shoes with good grip, and I’d recommend wearing your own rain mac under the poncho, to ensure you stay toasty warm and dry.
The Hornblower boat tour
When we told people at home we had tickets for the Hornblower boat tour, we saw a lot of confused faces. “Is that as good as the Maid of the Mist?” they’d ask, having heard of that boat but not the other.
That’s because the Hornblower is the Canadian equivalent of the Maid of the Mist – it takes almost exactly the same route, it just leaves from a different side of the river.
When we arrived there was quite a large queue, so large we considered coming back later, but it seemed to be moving pretty quickly, so we went for it.
I’m glad we did, as it felt like we were barely waiting at all before boarding, and we were soon heading back towards the falls.
We passed the American Falls, which is much more of a straight line of water tipping over the edge than the more iconic curved horseshoe shape, but has huge boulders and rocks that the cascade crashes on to, making this section of the falls in some ways more dramatic.
Before long we were under the mists of the Bridal Veil and Canadian Falls; I could see the viewing point that we’d been standing on not even hour before, and the people looked tiny.
From the boat, the falls are huge and imposing, and the spray quickly soaks you. The best thing to do is just accept your face will constantly be wet, and make sure you’ve got sunglasses to work as makeshift goggles, otherwise you’ll be squinting through the whole thing.
Afterwards, we stopped for a quick beer and some fruit from the little café on the side to wait for the rush of people queuing for the lift to disappear, which was a nice relaxing way to end the trip.
Again, you’ll need sturdy shoes and a rain mac, but if you had them for the Journey behind the Falls you’ll probably still have them, so you’ll be all set!
The Skylon Tower
We booked dinner up in the restaurant of the Skylon Tower; you can choose to dine in either the revolving restaurant, or the more affordable buffet dining room – whichever you choose, you’ll avoid having to pay an entry fee, often the case with revolving restaurants in the sky.
I’ll always go for this option, as I like being able to sit and relax, without being rushed or bothered by other people trying to get a better view; and because you’re sitting in one place in the restaurant, you won’t accidently miss a sight by moving around.
It forces you to really slow down and soak up the views, and I often find myself noticing something I simply wouldn’t have done if I weren’t sitting still.
We timed it so that we were taking the elevator to the top as the sun was setting, but sadly we were given a table on the opposite side to the sunset, so we missed it.
Where you sit is usually the luck of the draw unless the dining room is relatively empty, so my advice here is to get seated some time before the sun dips below the horizon, in order to at least catch a glimpse.
We didn’t mind too much though, because as soon as dusk sets in, the waterfalls are illuminated, turning them into rainbows of water. It’s beautiful in a wholly different way, and certainly not a sight you’ll want to miss.
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Helicopter ride over the Falls
I’m a little bit unnerved by heights, so although I was really excited about the prospect of taking a helicopter ride of Niagara Falls, I was concerned that I would have to back out at the last moment, and miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
I needn’t have worried; watching as people were helped in and out of the helicopters as we waited in the queue, I saw no blanched faces disembarking, only exhilarated expressions and big smiles.
Again, the queue moved faster than I thought it would, and before long we were being helped into the helicopter and being strapped in by people who couldn’t make themselves heard over the noise of the helicopter blades whirring overhead, yet still managed to imbue me with a feeling of security and confidence.
As it took off and swung steadily towards the Falls I found myself enjoying it a hundred times more than I’d anticipated; in high buildings I can barely look out the window, but in the helicopter I couldn’t look away from the sights below.
The river unravelled in all its beauty towards the falls themselves, which even from such great heights were still fabulously impressive. I have no idea how long we were up there for; I could have stayed all day but my cheeks were beginning to ache from all the grinning, so it’s probably a good thing that we eventually returned to earth.
It’s not a cheap excursion, but if you can afford it, I thoroughly recommend forking out for it – I wouldn’t change that experience for anything.
The Whirlpool Aero Car
I hadn’t heard of this attraction before I started looking into what the area around Niagara Falls had to offer; but its lack of fame is down to the overshadowing from some much more famous neighbours (ie, the Falls themselves) rather than any failing on its part.
And we arrived still on a high from the helicopter ride, so the fact that we enjoyed it as much as we did is more than praise enough!
The Aero Car is an antique cable car that slowly inches its way over a whirlpool caused by a sudden bend in the river gorge.
The fact that we’d taken the helicopter ride first probably helped me in this instance, as the height which would ordinarily bother me didn’t phase me at all.
The whirlpool is huge, and noisy, but once you leave the cable car, take a moment to watch from the clifftop – when you see just how tiny the cable car looks as it reaches its furthest point is when you really appreciate the sheer size of the gorge, and the waves kicked up by the rapids.
As we watched, we saw a large boat speeding round from the American side, which edged into the rapids and let them pummel it from side to side, in what I assume was a thrill-seeking ride.
It looked fun, but for me it really put into perspective just how massive and powerful the rapids were.
The White Water Walk
The elevator for this leaves from a fairly innocuous-looking gift shop on the side of the road and takes you down to the water’s edge. Here you stroll down a wooden path alongside the turbulent water until it’s time to turn around and come back again.
We spent about half an hour here; there isn’t too much to see once you’ve tired of watching the water speed past.
That said, it’s still a sight you won’t want to miss – once you’re on the same level as the waves you realise not only how incredibly high they are, and how frightening the immense power of it is if you get too close, but also how clear the water is.
I expected it to be muddy and churned up, but it was still a crystal clear, beautiful blue-green colour.
All in all, you won’t need to dedicate much time to this one, but you should still make time to do it, if you can.
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My top three experiences
If you absolutely have to limit yourself to only three of these, you must not miss the iconic Hornblower boat ride to the base of the falls, the helicopter ride, and the whirlpool aero car – they give you three fantastic, different perspectives of this fascinating place that you won’t forget in a hurry.
My choices might of course change had we visited at a different time; we visited in September, which was for us the perfect time to visit, with the leaves just starting to turn red and the weather mild but warm, so I would recommend that if you prefer to travel outside of peak season.
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