We’re talking Party Central. Come nightfall the street’s lit up like a Vegas variety show. Head shops and cigar shops, fast food joints and tattoo parlors. T-Shirt outlets. Wax Museums and thrill rides.
Now the crowd flows to the lip of the gorge. American Falls dead ahead. Canadian Falls hard to starboard.
Now the Falls are spotlit, painted red and green and blue.
By day people march to Table Rock, mere feet from waters that plummet a hundred seventy feet in a tympani roll roar, your vacation’s sound track – competing in vain with the cacophony of Clifton Hill: throbbing bass grooves from beer gardens, pinball clangs and clinks, screams of kids spinning on a Ferris wheel.
You plunge into another stream of people, shimmering and scarlet in their plastic ponchos. You follow them aboard a Hornblower cruise, embarking on a boat that pitches and yaws two football fields from the base of the Falls. Winds howl with the roar of a thousand tigers, mist swirls about you like whirling dervishes, like screaming banshees.
You’ve discovered another side of Niagara. And you’ve only just begun.
Two sides here, for starters. The Canadian and American towns share the same name. There are actually three Falls. The Canadian one (called Horseshoe Falls) is bigger and longer than the two American ones put together.
But these are hardly the only differences. Atmosphere on the U.S. side: forlorn, weather-beaten. Atmosphere on the Canadian side: sheer carnival.
And Niagara has another other side.
Head north along the Niagara Parkway. Winston Churchill called this the most beautiful Sunday drive in the world.
Stop at the Butterfly Conservatory; gaze skyward at butterflies floating graceful and iridescent as pheasant feathers in a rainforest setting that could hold its own in Costa Rica, weightless creatures dipping into great orange flowers for a sip of nectar.
I am smitten.
Continue north to Niagara Glen Nature Reserve where trails crisscross like a Manitoba snake den in May. One trail begins halfway down the gorge wall, plummeting through limestone passages, past huge boulders like Henry Moore sculptures, ending at river’s edge.
A couple suns on a great slab of riverside rock.
Keep going north: greet Niagara-on-the-Lake, a dowager queen.
Here the river glides like a debutante at a ball. Here she sashays past Victorian mansions and historical cottages.
A Tuscan villa reclines beside a green tree-shaded park. Stores two centuries old line the main street.
The town is peaceful as a June morning. Other than the wind whispering in the trees overhead the only sound you hear is the clip-clop of horse’s hooves as it chauffeurs a pair of tourists in a black buggy, past art galleries and boutiques, past gourmet restaurants.
But just outside town sharpened wooden palisades scowl at you from the shadow of green earthworks. You gird your loins; you march into Fort George.
“American forces invaded early in the morning in May, 1813,” says staffer Dan LaRoche. “They took over the town and bombarded this fort into rubble. So this is just a recreation.” LaRoche wears a scarlet tunic, a sword suspended from his belt glitters in the sun.
He points toward the town. “The Americans occupied Niagara-on-the-Lake until December. Then they burned it down.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake is pretty and charming. But her elegant visage hides the scars of history.
And there’s still another side to Niagara.
Arms outstretched, an Inniskillin Winery docent indicates the rows of grape vines marching across a vast green plain.
“Special microclimate,” she says. “The escarpment protects the plain and the lake moderates the temperature.” She stoops and picks up a handful of dirt. She grins. “And the same limestone that made the Falls makes for perfect soil.”
Take a wine-tasting limo tour or ride your bike; learn the essentials of a fine wine. And pack some in your picnic basket.
Then repair to the Shaw Festival – home to the work of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, live professional theatre in three distinct venues.
The polished wood auditorium of the Main Theatre’s auditorium buzzes with conversation then lights fade to black.
For an hour and a half I am transported.
Now the curtain opens. The crowd rises in a standing ovation, the cast acknowledges it, bowing to the orchestra, to the mezzanine, they bow to one side, then to the other.
To the other side of Niagara.