Niagara Falls: wondrous waterfalls, wine and heritage

Niagara Falls at sunset. Photo: Mike Lanzetta
Niagara Falls at sunset. Photo: Mike Lanzetta

1. DO – A HORNBLOWER CRUISE

There are certainly higher waterfalls in the world. Indeed, it's said that when former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw South America's mammoth Iguazu Falls, she exclaimed: "Poor Niagara!" But it's awe, rather than pity, that you'll feel when witnessing, close up, this epic force of nature on the US-Canadian border (every second, more than a million bathtubs of water plummet over Niagara's three waterfalls). On a wet, but exhilarating cruise, the Hornblower takes its poncho-clad passengers past the two smaller falls on the American side to within metres of the vastly more impressive Horseshoe Falls in Canadian territory.

2. SEE – TABLE ROCK

A raft of other wallet-emptying attractions promise dramatic falls vistas (think: scenic helicopter journeys, zipline rides, and the Journey Behind the Falls, which pours visitors through cliffside tunnels to a spray-riddled vantage point). But for a stunning free perspective, hit Table Rock, the lookout just above Horseshoe Falls' thunderous 53-metre drop. Crowds swell here, so come early – ideally by 10am, before most tour groups have arrived.

3. STAY – MARRIOTT FALLSVIEW​ HOTEL & SPA

For a guaranteed private viewing, bag a ''fallsview'' room at this, the pick of the towering ''panoramic" hotels to have mushroomed by Niagara Falls since it became a honeymoon hotspot in the 19th century (Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, apparently brought his bride to Niagara). Romantic feelings may peak at sunrise (when you can breakfast in bed while gazing at the falls' orange glow) and, after dark, when the gushing waters are illuminated in the colours of the rainbow.

4. SEE – NIAGARA DAREDEVIL EXHIBIT

From whichever angle you gawp at them, you'll wonder:  has anyone gone over Niagara Falls and lived to the tell the tale? They have, and you'll find evidence, such as the barrels and boats in which they tumbled over, in the Daredevil Exhibit at Niagara's IMAX Theatre. An accompanying film charts the falls' geology and the death-defying stunts seen here (notably Charles Blondin's groundbreaking 1859 tightrope walk over the falls).

5. EAT – AG INSPIRED CUISINE

Dubbed a "mini Las Vegas" thanks to its neon-adorned motels, amusements and casinos, Niagara Falls, the eponymous Ontario city beside the waterfalls, has traditionally been more about fast food than fine dining. But beyond the burger and poutine (chips-cheese-gravy) purveyors are sleek new eateries like AG, whose inventive menus showcase goodies sourced from the bucolic Niagara countryside. Tucked inside stylish hotel Sterling Inn & Spa, AG entices with fare such as roasted sea scallops with spiced pork belly, anise carrot puree and apple cabbage; and loin of autumn venison, with arugula pesto, choucroute and peach coulis.

6. WALK – NIAGARA GLEN

A 10-minute drive north of the falls' urban sprawl, overlooking the Niagara River gorge, is this enchanting nature reserve, where a network of rugged but well-marked trails thread through a rare, pristine parcel of deciduous Carolinian forest (which pre-dates the European colonisation of Canada and once provided shelter for local indigenous tribes). As well as fresh air and gorgeous gorge views, you'll stumble across huge boulders, native trees and wildflowers and migratory birdlife (gulls, woodpeckers and cormorants are spotted here). In spring and summer (April-October), the glen's Nature Centre runs twice-daily hiking tours.

7. DO – WHIRLPOOL AERO CAR

Just west of Niagara Glen, downstream from the falls, is the boarding point for this vintage cable car, which ventures over a turbulent part of the river known as the Niagara Whirlpool. This vaguely knee-trembling one-kilometre round-trip has been in operation since 1916 and you might hear it referred to as the Spanish Aero Car. Its designer, Leonardo Torres Quevedo, hailed from Spain.

8. CYCLE –  NIAGARA RIVER RECREATION TRAIL

Outside its freezing winters, the Niagara region is made for leisurely bike rides, with oodles of quiet back roads snaking past farms, wineries and orchards. To dodge motorised traffic, however, pedal the paved Recreation Trail, which meanders 56 mostly-flat kilometres by the river as it flows between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Split into four easily doable sections, the trail begins at the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is a quaint alternative base for savouring Niagara's treasures. Zoom Leisure has bike hire offices here and in Niagara Falls (they're 25km apart).

9. DRIVE – NIAGARA PARKWAY

Winston Churchill declared this road – which runs virtually parallel to the recreation trail – as the "prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world". There are more cars and tour buses now, but the route retains its picturesque allure, fringed with maple trees, manicured lawns and gardens, and grand, eclectic properties built by affluent 19th century tycoons and well-to-do families. The drive is particularly scenic during the brief but beautiful autumn foliage season (September-October).

10. DO – A WINE TOUR

The Niagara region's rich soils and mild microclimates have made it the heart of Ontario's wine country (ice hockey legend and oenophile Wayne Gretzky even has a winery here). Niagara Vintage Wine Tours' half-day wine and cheese tour takes in some of the area's noteworthy vineyards and underground cellars. Discover the science behind the myriad varieties and, with bites of locally made bread, cheese and charcuterie, try dry reds, fruity whites and super-sweet icewines (including a choice red version of this dessert tipple).

11. STAY – RIVERBEND INN AND VINEYARD

For a discreet food-and-wine fuelled getaway, stay at this elegant 1820s Georgian-style mansion, nestled amid five hectares of vineyards just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake. All 21 cosy rooms boast period decor and (gas) fireplaces, while the chefs mine seasonal local produce (including their kitchen-side herb and vegetable garden) to serve dishes like smoked duck breast with baby kale, spinach, chards and beet tops with wines reared on the estate (cabernet sauvignon, vidal and sauvignon blanc are among grapes grown here).

12. SEE – FORT GEORGE

Beguilingly tranquil today, the Niagara region became a battleground in 1812-1815 when American armies invaded British Canada. At Fort George, a restored military complex strategically perched where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario at Niagara-on-the-Lake, costumed guides regale the bloody conflicts, while fifers and drummers march, playing military music from this era. The best bit, though? The musket and artillery demonstrations (you can even dress in uniform, load and fire a musket yourself).

13. STROLL – QUEEN STREET

There probably isn't a prettier street in Canada than Niagara-on-the-Lake's main thoroughfare. Running west of the town's striking clock tower, it's lined with cherry blossom trees, flower beds and handsome heritage buildings that house cute cafes, bakeries, tea rooms, gift stores and boutiques. It's nice to amble at your own pace, but for some historical insight – the town was pieced back together after the devastating 1812-1815 war – join a 90-minute walking tour. Starting at Corks Wine Bar (19 Queen Street), they're held daily at 10.30am May-September, and on April and October weekends.

14. EAT – TREADWELL

Another Queen Street establishment worth stopping at – it's at No.114 – is this upscale "farm-to-table" bistro owned by father-and-son Stephen and James Treadwell (chef and sommelier respectively). Order dishes like chardonnay-steamed mussels with fennel pollen cream; sesame and hoisin glazed beef short ribs with mustard potato puree and pickled red onion; and lobster "club", on duck fat fried bread with goat's cheese and smoked bacon. The wine list is dominated by local organic offerings. People-watchers should book a table on the front patio.

15. DO – STAND-UP PADDLEBOARDING

Edged by a grassy, picnic-friendly park, the waters around Niagara-on-the-Lake are a serene spot to try SUP (stand-up paddleboarding). Paddle Niagara offers rentals and introductory lessons, as well as SUP yogalates (yoga and pilates) sessions and guided sunset tours. When the weather's clear, gliding along, you'll see Toronto's cloud-piercing skyline in the distance.

16. SHOP – THE ROMANCE COLLECTION GALLERY

Cuddly moose, maple leaf T-shirts and Niagara Falls snow globes are among your typical Canadian souvenirs. But for unique, local keepsakes, browse Niagara-on-the-Lake's independent shops and galleries. The Romance Collection is a stand-out. Occupying a prim Victorian building at 177 King Street, it sells the handiwork of Trisha Romance, a renowned Ontario artist who weaves timeless Niagara scenes – both snow-cloaked and sun-dappled – onto everything from watercolour paintings and coasters to ornaments and figurines.

17. SEE – THE SHAW FESTIVAL

The biggest crowd-puller of Niagara-on-the-Lake's crammed festival calendar is this six-month feast of drama staged in the town's theatres from April to October. Showcased are the plays of George Bernard Shaw and other Shavian playwrights (those, from past and present, who "share Shaw's provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity"). The 2017 festival will include Shaw's  Androcles and the Lion and Michael Healey's 1979 (a dramedy tracing the downfall of Joe Clark, Canada's youngest prime minister).

18. PAMPER – 100 FOUNTAIN SPA

Vinotherapy is all the rage at this revitalising retreat in Pillar and Post, a neat hotel set in a former canning factory for Niagara's peaches and tomatoes. Fruity aromas infuse the spa's signature treatments, which use products made from locally harvested grapes and wine. Options include facials, pedicures, body wraps and head-to-toe massages. For a soothing soak, there's a heated indoor saltwater pool and outdoor hot springs.

19. DRINK – NIAGARA CRAFT BEER

Beer lovers rejoice. Complementing the Niagara region's wine bounty is a burgeoning microbrewery scene that yields a range of hoppy golden ales, cloudy wheat beers and malty porters. Tours and tastings are held at Silversmith Brewery Company and Oast House Brewers – both on Niagara Stone Road, leading into Niagara-on-the-Lake – and at the new Exchange Brewery, which has a slick taproom at 7 Queen Street.

20. STAY – OBAN INN

A Niagara-on-the-Lake landmark, Oban Inn dates back to 1824, the one-time residence of Duncan Milloy, a steamboat captain from Oban, Scotland. Rebuilt after a fire in 1992, this 26-room hotel has a bright contemporary feel, with an in-house spa and gourmet restaurant, but wooden verandahs and Victorian portraits lend it an antique flavour. Nestled in luxuriant lakeside gardens, it's five minutes on foot from Queen Street, and next door to one of Canada's oldest golf clubs (non-members are welcome to play a round).

Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette

You get a taster of the Niagara region on Collette's eight-day Best of East Canada tour (which includes a day trip to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, as well as stays in Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Toronto). Priced from $2329, the tour ends in Toronto, giving you the chance to explore more of nearby Niagara's charms post-trip; gocollette.com.

This story Niagara Falls: wondrous waterfalls, wine and heritage first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.