Almost everyone visiting Toronto for the first time heads off to see the mighty Niagara Falls. A visit is a chance to explore the many attractions along the Canadian shores of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
It’s one of the great North American road trips]
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The Niagara Falls were first recorded by Europeans in the 1600s and were famous enough by the early 19th century that Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome took his bride to see them.
The arrival of the railway and then the boom in car ownership after World War II made the Falls a major destination, now attracting some 12 million visitors a year.
The water flowing over the Falls starts as rivers and streams into the four of the Great Lakes: Michigan, Superior, Huron and Erie. From Lake Erie, it flows into the Niagara River, part of the border between Canada and the USA.
It passes over the falls at a speed of almost 70 mph, heading north towards Lake Ontario. From there, the water makes its way to the Atlantic through the St Lawrence River.
These five Great Lakes hold one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water and are big enough to act as an inland sea, subject to fierce storms in winter that have sunk large ships.
The biggest was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down during a storm in 1975 with her entire crew of 29.
Like the river, the Niagara Falls also straddle the border between Canada and the USA. Going to see the “other” side helps makes this the busiest border crossing into the USA that’s not on the border with Mexico.
A hire car is an essential to see all of the lakeshore, although motorcyclists and cyclists are also a common sight on the scenic roads.
Sailors may also enjoy hopping from marina to marina along the lakeshore but local conditions are challenging as the shallow waters can create large waves at times.
In summer, there are a number of ferry services to and from the US side, which are a great way to see the lake, as well as more conventional Lake Erie cruise boats.
Remember to take your passport and check your visa status if you want to cross the border and return.
The three falls that make up Niagara – Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls – can only be seen as a whole from the air from the air but their power is maybe best appreciated from below on one of the tour boats.
The Falls have recently been enhanced with a multimillion-dollar investment in computerised lighting for the evening light show.
The Falls are famous as a honeymoon destination and there are a large number of hotels, a casino, Vegas-style shows and an IMAX Theatre.
Other entertainment options range from viewing tunnels that go under the Falls to golf courses.
Must-do: The Skylon Tower has the best views of the falls, short of taking a helicopter ride.
Where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario is this pretty town that thrives on the number of tourists who pass through.
Its central Heritage District is filled with well-preserved 19th century houses that are now shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, upmarket spas – and fudge and ice cream shops.
Must-do: Discover some of the nearby wineries and the unusual ice wines of the region.
The strategic location of Fort Erie means it has a rich history. In 1812, more than 3,000 troops were killed and wounded in a siege during the War of 1812, events commemorated in re-enactments at the Old Fort every summer.
And in 1866, a Fenian invasion from America was beaten off here during an attack on Canada designed to force Britain to grant Irish Independence.
Lying so near Buffalo, NY, the town was also an important stop on the Underground “Railway” that helped fugitive slaves flee America at the time of the Civil War.
Its major tourism draw, however, is Crystal Beach which draws visitors from both sides of the border to its sandy beaches, warm salt-free water and all kinds of water sports.
Between the lake and the Niagara River, there are some 20 miles of waterfront and the calm waters and mild winds are ideal for sailing.
Must-do: The town’s Historical Museum and Railway Museum are both worth a visit to learn more about its past.
The highlight of this resort town – named for the English original – is its pretty sandy beach, which even sports a set of palm trees that, happily, spend the winter under cover.
The long pier, with a quaint lighthouse on the end, is also a place to stroll with an ice cream and watch yachts putting out to “sea” on Lake Erie or fishing boats return.
The Port Dover Harbour Museum is a fascinating place, jammed with nautical artefacts that telling the story of the fishing trade and boatbuilding.
Must-do: Eat lake-caught perch or pickerel with celery bread in the family-run Erie Beach Hotel.
This town has several beaches and is popular with windsurfers and kite surfers, as well as families. Its twin piers protect Kettle Creek and its harbour, still a busy commercial fishing port, with the river crossed by the King George VI Bascule Bridge.
This is so finely balanced that it could be opened by hand in an emergency. There are four local golf courses and the 25-mile Elgin Hiking Trail.
Must-do: Ride the restored 1850s railway to St. Thomas and back.
Long Point Provincial Park
Jutting out into Lake Erie, this park has one of the largest bird and waterfowl migration populations in North America. Of as much interest to many visitors, however, is the wide, mile-long, sandy beach just outside it that runs to Port Rowan.
The warm waters of the lake shelve gently offshore and the beach is lined with attractive holiday cottages, shaded with trees. So far, the whole is mercifully free from commercialisation.
Must-do: Take a kayak trip through Big Creek National Wildlife Area, which has been called “Canada’s Amazon” for its thick forests and diversity of wildlife.
The roads that wind along the northern shore of Lake Erie are particularly scenic and popular with both drivers and motorcyclists.
They are also lined with pretty wineries that encourage tastings. There are dozens in this region, part of the largest wine growing area east of the Rockies.
The intense summer heat from southern exposure and moderating lake breezes create full-bodied wines, and particularly good whites.
Must-do: Try not to be the designated driver.
Point Pelee National Park
Attracting birdwatchers from around the world in spring, this area of marsh and woodland is a designated Ramsar site. More than 300 different migratory birds species have been recorded, with some 100 resident species.
Explore the boardwalk, walking trails (bring bug spray) or just enjoy the beach.
Must-do: Dip your toes in the waters of the most southerly part of mainland Canada, extending further south than California’s northern tip.
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Sip & Sizzle
Held every weekend in May, this is chance to explore some 20 wineries around Niagara-on-the-Lake with barbecued food and wine pairings. One pass gives access to every event during the month.
Prince of Wales Stakes
The second jewel in the Canadian Triple Crown is run in July at the Fort Erie Racetrack. The track dates back to 1897 and this race is the highlight of its season, which runs from May to October.
Every Friday the 13th – there can be up to three in a year – hundreds of recreational bikers descend on Port Dover for a good-natured day out. The traditions started in 1981 and numbers have been growing ever since.
Lake Erie Interclub Cruise
Held in June, this five-day regatta brings sailboats from both sides of the lake together to race between Erie, PA, and Port Dover.
Many lakeshore communities celebrate Canada Day on July 1 with their own events, with one of the most notable being the fireworks at Port Stanley beach. Parades, concerts, fish fries and baseball games are among the other small town attractions you might enjoy.
Fort Erie Friendship Festival
This four-day festival in July includes such diverse events as a British Car Meet – expect to see gleaming Jaguar and Austin Healys – and a Model Plane Air Show. There are also nightly concerts and a funfair.
Port Stanley Harbourfest
Live music, street performers, street fair, train rides and fireworks are part of this celebration of Port Stanley’s harbour during August. The biggest attraction, literally, is the tall ship – a two-masted square-rigged brigantine – that offers short cruises.
Traditionally celebrating the fruit harvest, this one-day event in August at Niagara-on-the-Lake brings music, sidewalk sales and lots of special offers in local restaurants. Expect to eat peaches in a bewildering number of forms, from pies to wines.
Three Port Tour Cycle Ride
This event in August takes riders on a scenic route through several villages, with lunch halfway at Port Bruce. Riders have a choice of 160, 100 and 50km routes and all proceeds go to local charities.
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