Image credit: Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation
Get a fresh perspective on Niagara Falls by visiting in winter
I can’t think of a single landscape that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of a delicate rainbow or a dusting of snow, so to have both – on a canvas as beautiful as Niagara Falls, no less – seems nothing short of greedy.
I’ll take all the good views I can get though, swooping high above the Canadian Horseshoe Falls in a helicopter, gazing down across a carpet of fresh white snow interrupted only by the furious torrent of the Niagara River.
I thought I’d seen the falls at their best from ground level – first standing at the top, watching a mind-boggling 600,000 gallons of water tumble over the edge every single second; then on the Journey Behind the Falls, where the sheer power of the icy-cold water can be heard and felt, as much as seen.
But as impressive as it was (and let’s face it, Niagara Falls is never going to disappoint, no matter which angle you’re at), I’ve definitely saved the best view for last.
Seeing the horseshoe-shaped falls come into focus from above, topped by a faint rainbow and surrounded by a snow-covered landscape glinting in the bright winter sunshine, seems positively magical.
Sadly, this is a view few Brits ever see. While Niagara Falls is undoubtedly Ontario’s top visitor attraction, fewer than 15% of UK visitors come during the winter – just 43,000 between last December and February out of an annual total of 300,000, according to estimates from Destination Canada.
Yet as long as clients are willing to wrap up, they’ll find the Niagara region just as enchanting in its chillier season, offering a surprising new perspective on Canada’s charms.
Fall for it
The exhilarating flight over the falls, a Canadian Signature Experience, is operated year-round by Niagara Helicopters at a cost of £71 for adults and £44 for children for the 12-minute flight. niagarahelicopters.com
Image credit: Niagara Helicopters
Yet there are plenty of ways to be blown away by the falls. In summer, Hornblower Niagara Cruises has taken over from the Maid of the Mist in getting visitors so close to the water that even a luminous plastic poncho won’t stop them getting soaked.
But when wintry ice flows prevent Hornblower’s 700-passenger ships from sailing, that task goes to the Journey Behind the Falls, taking visitors 150 feet down through a network of utility tunnels to see Horseshoe Falls from below.
It’s so close that the lower observation deck is often shut because of icy spray splashing up and freezing on the platform, yet it’s only from this perspective that the power of the 13-storey-high waterfall can really be appreciated. As beautiful as they look from above, these churning, ice-cold waters are a force to be reckoned with.
Journey Behind the Falls is included in the Niagara Falls Wonder Pass, a combination ticket also granting access to Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, Niagara’s Fury (a 4D animation that explains the geology behind the falls’ formation in a child-friendly way, with a few splashes and great cinematography to boot) and tourist bus WeGo.
It is priced at £10 for adults and £9 for under-12s, excluding tax, valid from November to April. niagaraparks.com
Lady of the lake
A 20-minute drive from the falls, one of the prettiest places to stay in the region – in the whole of Canada, one could contend – is the chocolate-box town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
On the shores of Lake Ontario, this historic town’s high street exudes homespun charm, full of gingham-tableclothed bistros, shops stacked high with homemade jams and bakeries displaying their butter tarts (an Ontario classic) – and even one establishment dedicated to selling Christmas decorations year-round.
Image credit: Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation
Step off the main street and the picture is no less quaint.
The town was rebuilt after being destroyed by the Americans during the War of 1812, and has kept its buildings in the same Victorian style ever since, so there’s a remarkable uniformity to the red-brick and clapboard houses with their wraparound porches and white picket fences.
That style doesn’t come cheap, with even the most ordinary house easily topping the million-dollar mark.
To push the sense of nostalgia into overdrive, there are horse-drawn carriage tours of the town which, while unashamedly touristy, do offer a captivating way to explore the pretty streets.
Sentineal Carriages offers guided tours on Saturdays and Sundays in winter, starting at £40 per carriage for a 30-minute tour, but be warned – a warm hat and gloves are as essential as a camera during the winter months. sentinealcarriages.ca
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also home to a host of quirky B&Bs and small-scale hotels such as the Pillar & Post country inn, which somehow manages to capture the warmth of a boutique property despite its deceptively large size.
It didn’t hurt that the Christmas decorations were still up when I stayed (they remain well into January), or that its fireplaces always seemed to be alive with roaring flames, but this property has bags of character no matter what the time of year.
And if that doesn’t convince clients, the enormous spa and outdoor hot springs should do the trick. vintage-hotels.com/pillar&post
Eat, drink and be merry
My visit also happened to coincide with the annual Niagara Icewine Festival, which next year runs from January 15-31, celebrating one of the area’s most distinctive products – a wine made from frozen grapes. grapeandwine.com
Technically, the temperature must have fallen to at least -8C for three consecutive days, ensuring the berries are frozen solid, for it to be called ‘icewine’, although it felt a good 10 degrees lower than that as I headed out into the vineyard at Inniskillin to try my hand at grape-picking.
This is about as far from the sun-kissed vineyards of Italy or France as you can get – these hardy varieties of vidal (the grape that accounts for about 85% of Canadian icewines) ripen in the midst of snow-covered fields, sounding more like marbles than soft fruit as they tumble into metal bins, ready to be pressed and fermented.
PR manager Debi Pratt – a 40-year veteran of the icewine-making business – is at pains to tell us they don’t refer to it as sweet, instead using words such as ‘texture’ and ‘depth’ to describe its velvety flavour.
And while at first sip I’m a little unsure – it has an almost syrupy feel – that depth soon begins to show itself when paired with smoky, strong flavours such as duck, mushrooms, bacon and (my personal favourite) locally produced cheeses.
Inniskillin makes about 50,000 bottles of icewine a year, less than a quarter of its total wine production, with citrusy rieslings, tropical vidals, berry-like cabernet francs and even a few sparkling icewines. Its converted barn-turned-bar hosts icewine tastings from £7.50. inniskillin.com
It’s not the only winery to have cottoned on to the tourism potential of its produce. Also worth a visit are the chic restaurant and superb food and wine at Trius Winery, the sweeping grounds and colonial charm of the grand Peller Estates, and Jackson-Triggs, where tours of the achingly cool Scandinavian-style winery run three times a day in winter for about £2.50.
Great food and wine abound elsewhere in Ontario, in keeping with Canada’s reputation for mouth-watering local produce and a dining scene that is inventive yet still accessible to the ordinary consumer.
One of the best examples is Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine, a contemporary restaurant just off Niagara-on-the-Lake’s high street that is run by London-born chef Stephen Treadwell.
The menu changes monthly and is packed with ingredients from local suppliers – all of whom are given a brief biography on the back of the menu – plus a selection of wines almost exclusively from the Niagara region. treadwellcuisine.com
Showing just as much passion for authentic Ontario produce is the family that runs White Meadows Farms, a 66-hectare forest of maple trees producing 5,000 litres of the sweet, sticky syrup every year.
There’s a sparkle in owner Ann’s eyes as she describes the first time she made maple sugar with the sap from her very own trees, feeling that timeless sense of being firmly rooted in the land around her.
While I’m somewhat sceptical about her assertions of the health benefits of maple syrup compared with refined sugar (it’s full of trace minerals, antioxidants and more calcium than milk, apparently, though I suspect not nearly as good for your teeth), this farm offers a whole new perspective on what goes into making that bottle of syrup to pour over your pancakes – and perhaps that’s what makes the on-site Pancake House such a treat to visit. whitemeadowsfarms.com
1st Class Holidays offers a self-drive package with two nights at the Delta Toronto, three at Pillar & Post in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and two at Relais & Châteaux property Langdon Hall, plus eight days’ SUV hire and a Niagara Falls helicopter ride, from £849. Flights extra. 1stclassholidays.com
Travel 2’s Toronto & Niagara Falls experience operates year-round, with two nights each in the Chelsea Hotel, Toronto, and Hilton Hotel & Suites Niagara, plus a city tour, guided tour of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Journey Behind the Falls, from £239, excluding flights. travel2.com
3 of the best Winter Festivals
Winter Festival of Lights, Niagara Falls, Nov 21-Jan 31
Illumination festival along the scenic Niagara Parkway, including a three-storey-tall Canadian and American flag, and a huge animated fountain. wfol.com
Winterlicious, Toronto, Jan 29-Feb 11
A foodie favourite with prix fixe three-course menus at more than 200 top restaurants, plus cooking classes, wine pairings and chef dinners. toronto.ca
Winterlude, Ottawa, Jan 29-Feb 15
Features skating on the Rideau Canal, ice sculptures and a Snowflake Kingdom children’s playground, plus hockey, food and wine pairing, and a ‘walkabout winter feast’. ottawatourism.ca
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