It is time to start sharing all the details and history of this year big Summer Holiday. We had quite the adventures, seeing a full loop of the upper northeastern portion of the U.S. and the some of the lower portions of Ontario, CA. I already talked previously about the requirements to enter Canada (I believe I did in my Montreal post), but I’ll touch on them again. These may or may not be up to date when you are reading this post (as they still change day to day), so I would recommend checking the Canada travel site HERE for the most up to date information. To enter Canada as an adult you must be fully vaccinated and fill out the ArriveCAN app on the phone (you can do this via we browser and print the certificate as well if that is easier for you I believe). Kids aged 5 & Up are required to be vaccinated unless they are traveling with fully vaccinated adults. For the vast majority of Ontario, we were not required to wear masks.
A couple things to note before we get into these posts…in some places I’ll be sharing our hotel and food options, but in others I won’t. To be honest, I treat most hotels as a place to lay our head for the night and what I mean by that is, I don’t always have to be in the heart of downtown, best of the best, right in the action accommodation. Sometimes the best for us is valet parking, close to public transport, or best bed configuration. The same goes with food, though we are a bit pickier about that. However, with food I find that this is a personal varied choice. If a restaurant really stood out for me, I’ll share it, but otherwise I don’t have much in the way for either of those recommendations.
Ok, so now on to the actual vacation (I’ll post the rules and restrictions once again when we enter back into Canada later on in the trip…). A brief overview of our route of sorts: Niagara Falls, Canada Detroit, Michigan Mackinac/Upper Peninsula Region, Michigan Sudbury, Ontario Toronto, Ontario Kingston, Ontario Home. We took a total of 14 nights/15 days to hit everything, usually spending a minimum of 2 nights in each place, except Kingston which is close enough to our home (aka we can see it whenever) that we didn’t need to do more than a single night. Today kicks everything off with a post on Niagara Falls.
We started our time in Niagara on the American side at Old Fort Niagara. This fort is unique in several different ways; the oldest structure in North America between the Appalachian and Mississippi, was manned by three different countries, and expertly shows the way in which military life and conflict has changed over time. The region was originally occupied by the Seneca in the 17th century as a seasonal hunting and fishing spot. When the French took charge in 1679, it was a key access point for the Great Lakes. The fort passed from the French, who built the oldest building- the “French Castle”- in 1726, to the British in 1759. The British held it from 1759-1796, and again from 1813-1815. The Americans finally got a piece of the Fort (aside from that little loss 1813-1815) in 1796, and then permanently in 1815. While the War of 1812 was the last conflict at the Fort, it has been used in some shape or another through major conflicts in our history. In World War One it was used as an Officer Training Camp, In World War Two it was used Induction Center for troops and a POW Camp. In the Cold War it housed Anti-Aircraft troops. In 1929 & 1934 restoration projects went underway to fix the French Castle and other encampments and buildings within the fort.
The fort itself is pretty cool if only to see the ways the natural resources and land were used to create an effective barrier. The French Castle also is a really great way of showing how they secured items and lived in an age that we can’t even fathom (wooden nails for example). They’ve also got the originally US colony flag that flew over the fort. If you are into war history, battle or forts, this is a really great stop.
From the Old Fort we headed over the Niagara State Park and Goat Island. I’m not going to get in to too much of the history of the Falls as I feel like most of us know what Niagara Falls is (I feel like I say this and then go on and on and on), but I’ll give a couple fun little nuggets that I learned and found interesting. First off, Niagara Falls is over 12, 00 years old, but is considered “young”. The Falls are comprised of three separate falls: Bridal Veil, American, and Horseshoe falls. Together they produce 2.4 million kilowatts of electricity for the U.S. and Canada. 90% of the Great Lakes (that would be Superior, Michigan, Erie and Huron) drain into Niagara River, and then on to Niagara Falls, before hitting Lake Ontario. Two more facts and then I promise I’ll stop…maybe. Niagara Falls was the first state park in the U.S., designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the same who designed Central Park). The water has only stopped once, in 1969 at the American Rapids so that scientists and Geologists could come in and study the effects of erosion. During the Winter Freeze and Spring Thaw a little bit more of the rock face is eroded away.
Now, we started our trip to the Falls out on the American side, which is cool in its own way. We went to the overlook of the Bridal Veil and American Falls, where you can see above the falls and look down. We also visited the “Cave of the Winds”, which is located on Goat Island. This attraction originates back to the 1800’s when there was a cave of sorts just under Bridal Falls. Tours to this “cave” began in the 1840’s (though people visited prior to that) before rock fall forced it to close in the 1920’s. It reopened for a time in 1924 where visitors could visit the “front” of the falls and cave. However due to more rock falls and erosion, engineers decided that the cave was no longer a safe destination and dynamited a portion of the rock under the fall. The visiting area was then replaced by what we see today- a grouping of stairs and standing decks at the base/slightly in front of the falls.
This was easily the must do thing on the American Side. Not only from the observation deck you not only get a really neat view of the falls, and, on a sunny day, the rainbow, but you can also feel the full blast of the falls with hurricane force winds and water spray as it rushes down.
From there we headed across the border and to our hotel for the evening to check in. We stayed at Old Stone Inn Boutique hotel and found that to actually be a really good option. It’s just outside the hustle and bustle of Clifton Hill and Niagara proper, but not far enough that you can’t walk. After checking in we headed back down the Falls, this time on the Canadian Side for the Illumination of the Falls and the Fireworks show. The Illumination is a year-round show, started in 1860 and utilized for a long time for royal and foreign dignitary visits before becoming a permanent attraction in the 1920’s. The fireworks are a summertime special and are every night in the Summer at 10PM. Both a worth seeing and we loved being able to experience it. I would, obviously, suggest getting there early, but if you show up about 15 minutes before 10, you’ll still get a good viewpoint to watch them. They lift off from the same area as the Voyage into the Falls on the Canada side, so closer to Horseshoe falls would not be a bad spot to pick. Likewise, a spot by Queen Elizabeth Gardens or in between the three falls is good too.
The next day we were up and off for an early morning Voyage to the Falls. A little clarification before I get into the history, Maid of the Mist (of the U.S.) used to be the only operator on the boat tours to get up close to the falls. They initially launched in 1846 as a ferry between the U.S. and Canada but was swiftly closed down in the 1850’s when the suspension bridge was completed. The company then launched with tours in 1854, but was, once again, swiftly closed when the American Civil War started. It re opened in 1885, this time going closer to Horseshoe Falls than previous. The U.S. added boats in 1892, but those burned on the Canadian side in an accident in 1955. In 1960 during a voyage, the Maid of the Mist rescued and saved a young boy who later became the first to survive a jump over Horseshoe Falls only wearing a life jacket. Finally, in 2013 Maid of the Mist split in to two separate entities, Maid of the Mist on the U.S. side, Hornblower Niagara Cruises (later Niagara City Cruises) on the Canadian Side. These days the boats are electric powered with zero emissions- which is great!
In my honest opinion, whether you choose to do Maid of the Mist or Niagara City Cruises does not matter. They both map roughly the same route and one does not do less than the other (and I can tell you that factually as I watched them sail day in and day out from above- it is the same). It’s really going to be whichever you choose. But you SHOULD do it. It’s truly just incredible and awe inspiring to be able to stand there…in this belly of the beast of sorts and just…revel in mother nature. Truly just incredible.
In all honesty though, if I could tell you one thing about visiting Niagara Falls, it is to view it from the Canadian side. You are able to actually view the falls from the “front”, rather than above or beside. It is truly a stunning view and one I am so glad we got to see. Once we finished touring the falls from boat, from below, we decided to wander through the gardens and slowly over to where we could go under the falls.
Journey Behind the Falls started as this…competition between two businessmen. Located at Horseshoe Falls, in the 19th century, the only way to get down to the bottom of these falls was to take a steep hike down, over a rocky path filled with boulders and questionable rope ladders. It was dangerous and other spots that were accessible were covered up by “entrepreneurs” trying to make a quick buck and charge to look through a small peep hole. In 1818, the first set of stairs down closer to the bottom were built, followed by a spiral staircase to go lower. This was great, however it kicked off a feud between two businessmen that led to staircases being purposely broken and people being injured (unintentionally). This lasted until 1855 when Niagara Falls Park Commission was formed and took control. Shortly after the first elevator was installed and then in 1889 the first tunnel was opened to give lucky tourists a chance to go under these legendary falls. The tunnel as they exist now were created in 1944 and the observation deck was added in 1951.
While I found this to be really cool and gave us a chance to see below all three waterfalls, I don’t know if the tunnels are absolutely necessary. This could have just been an off moment when we visited, or maybe just shining a light on the society we’ve turned in to, BUT the lines to see the portal under the waterfall were awful. If I had to do it again, I would probably have just gone to one portal and then out on the observation deck.
Our final day in Niagara we spent the day on Clifton Hill. Originally Clifton Hill was a sprawling mansion property lived in by both the “owner” of the city and then a U.S. Senator. However, as tourism grew, when Sir Harry Oakes purchased the land, he had business in mind. Before slowing turning Clifton Hill into the fun tourist spot it is now, he created a small quiet garden oasis in the parks, gardens, and outdoor theatre at the bottom of the hill. However, the Hill itself is now basically a carnival park. With Put-Put Golf, a racing speedway (of the go kart variety), arcades, bowling, and haunted houses, you can spend a full day just playing all the games. It was a good way for us to “treat” the boys and ourselves- we did a good amount of the games by purchasing a “FUN” pass- which gave us the Ferris wheel, put-put, and several “roller coaster” 3-D games (including a zombie apocalypse, ghost hunt, and outer space extravaganza).
All in all, this was the perfect stop to kick start our trip! While Niagara Falls as a whole is very much do able in two whole days, having that half day to explore the American side before going into Canada was fun. If you didn’t want to do anything beyond the actual falls stuff (no fort, no Clifton hill, or if your kids were a bit older and able to withstand later nights better) I think you could easily just do two nights. For us though we’ve learned that sometimes taking the extra time, being able to travel a little bit slower is worth it.
See you next time…in Detroit!