Niagara has at least two sides. One is the mass-tourism attraction of the majestic Niagara Falls. The other is the lively, authentic core of a real town, based around the local businesses in downtown Queen Street. The tourist side is fun once you get over the cheap tacky side of large scale tourism – a bit like the neon glitz of a run down Las Vegas crossed with The London Dungeon. However the Falls themselves and the four main attractions surrounding them are fun to do and see, as long as you don’t mind getting wet. A four-event pass saves a substantial amount of money and covers all the major activities and you get the thrill of wearing various different-coloured raincoats, while you soak up (pun intended) the Falls.
First up is a walk under the mighty Falls themselves (yellow raincoat provided), when you get really close to the thunder and power of the water and get wet of course. Second is a really well-done simulated experience of the geological changes that created the Falls, aimed at helping children understand and using cartoon animals to chart the changes; first snow flakes fall on your head, then the floor shakes and moves, followed by heavy rain effected by water pouring down from above to simulate the great thaw. Needless to say you get wet but I loved it! Thirdly and most famously the ‘Maid of the Mist’ gives you a great view of the American Falls and sails just perilously close enough to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls to give you a thrill. And of course you get really, soaking wet (wearing a blue raincoat this time).
The last of the ‘big four’ sounds tame but it is worth doing. It is a half-mile boardwalk alongside the ferocious rapids (class 6, which is the highest) but on a torrid Niagara summer’s day it is a perfect cool and shaded walk next to a tumultuous cauldron of white water. Along the walk informative plaques notate the various exploits of tightrope walkers and intrepid individuals who went over the Falls in various barrels. I couldn’t help thinking how different we are today when almost every activity, even crossing the road in some countries, is surrounded by legislation to prevent any risk.
Well after a day of these wild, wonderful, and wet activities, fantastic fun though they are, I found myself in need of a little more grown-up entertainment in the form of a few good beers. The perfect place to find them and discover the other side of Niagara, is downtown in Queen Street which is the real heartbeat of the town and which is undergoing a renaissance. Full of galleries, cafes, arty shops, bars and restaurants it’s a lively community where you find a more authentic Niagara. One of these bars is the delightful Taps on Queen Brewhouse and Grill (www.tapsbeer.ca) which has a little microbrewery and brews its own beers. The fermentation tanks are immediately behind the bar so it gives you a feeling of authenticity. It’s a lively, vibrant place with great beers, excellent service and very good bar snacks. Among the 9 or so great beers on offer was a Vanilla Wheat beer, a Red Cream Ale, a Rye Knot ale, something called Chuck Noris (sic) Round-House IPA which sounded great but was off that night, a premium lager (hopped with lots of Cascade to give an assertive citrusy flavor), and Charleston Lager which quickly became a favourite, made from 100% two row barley with just a touch of Cascade hops.
If beer is not your thing they have a list of six Niagara region wines, milkshakes for the kids and a hot line in Martinis including: the Classic Martini, Apple Martini and several exotically named ones such as Purple Haze. Only human frailty and past experience stopped me from tucking into the Martinis having already enthusiastically sampled the beers.
There were also some great beer snacks – a really good quality pork and beef burger, calamari, Taps wings, mussels and many more. We tried the delicious Spiced Shrimp Martini (hot and juicy large scampi in Red Cream Ale batter served around a Martini glass with red curry mayonnaise inside for dipping) and a local specialty, Taps Poutine (hand-cut chips, curd cheese and beef gravy). The place had a great atmosphere and vibrancy and was definitely the place the locals wanted to drink. Taps is part of a whole alternative vibe which is an attempt to move away from the tackier manifestations of tourism and is partly a defiant response to the crippling combined effects of 9/11, SARS and tighter border controls which killed off the US tourist trade here for a while.
When it comes to accommodation there are alternatives to the big hotel chains that are more in keeping with the Niagara renaissance. I stayed in a fantastically stylish hotel a few roads back from the Falls themselves, The Sterling Inn and Spa (www.sterlingniagara.com), built in an old dairy (where they also made ice cream), the chimney of which is shaped like a milk bottle and forms a central feature of the outside of the building.
Inside the rooms are so spacious they have the feel of a New York loft. They are very tastefully decorated – dark mahogany floor and furniture, brown leather sofa, the darkness accentuated with cream leather art-deco style chairs and splashes of striking deep red in the form of throws and accessories. Rooms are very well-equipped with a full fridge, coffee maker and two big, flat-screen TV’s, one positioned to be watched from the enormous and very comfortable bed and one from the sofa. Another nice little touch is that continental breakfast (coffee, juice, jam, eggs, cheese and croissants) is included in the rate and brought to the room every day, served as breakfast-in-bed. There is a small gym with a weight machine, a treadmill and a bike. There is also a small spa where you can book a massage or other therapies. There’s also a great little bar, gorgeously decorated with red leather bar stools, shiny black surfaces and glass mirrors, which looks like a gleaming jewellery box at night. We didn’t manage to try the restaurant but it looked very enticing and had great write-ups in the local press. It’s a great place to stay and very reasonable by Falls standards in the height of summer at $224 (Canadian) a night.
I would definitely stay there again. I would love to spend a bit more time scratching the surface and getting to know the real Niagara – caught between the economic pressures of dependence on the tourist trade and stoically striving to express a more authentic self.
© 2010 – 2011, Susan Hulme MW. All rights reserved.