It may sound strange, but it all started with the Miami Dolphins. My husband is a huge fan of the fins, but we figured a trip to Miami for his birthday in early December was not in the cards. So i started to look around for other unique ideas how to celebrate his special day and checked the Dolphins’ road games schedule and realized that they were playing in Buffalo, barely two hours south of Toronto, on December 10. Sure enough I bought the tickets online and figured a nice birthday surprise was in the making.
Then i started thinking some more and given the fact that my husband likes to gamble every once in a while I thought why not expand this little getaway and spend a bit of time in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to do some gambling. Of course my insane curiosity never sleeps and I added a couple of extra days during which I would have a chance to discover the city and all its various attractions in order to develop an entire feature article series about the Niagara Falls experience.
So i got in touch with the experts at Niagara Falls Tourism who were extremely helpful and assisted me in preparing a detailed itinerary for my explorations of Niagara Falls, Ontario. We worked out a tightly packed program that would expose me to a variety of diverse attractions that this city has to offer.
Finally, my adventure was ready to start. I had booked my Via Rail train ticket to Niagara Falls online and my husband dropped me off early this morning at Toronto’s ven Niagara Falls Boat Cruise erable Union Station. I exchanged my online booking confirmation for a paper ticket, and shortly after 8 pm I was on my way to Track 13 where my comfortable train to Niagara Falls was already waiting. At $21 for the ticket it was also a very affordable and comfortable way of covering this two hour journey. With just a slight delay I arrived shortly before 11 am in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and moments later I picked up my nifty Budget Rental car. I had always found the Toyota Yaris very cute, but I was not so sure if i could ever get used to the location of the instrument panel in the center of the dashboard. In addition, this micro-car did not have sufficient space in the trunk, so i decided to drop off my luggage right away at my home away from home for the next two days.
I found my way to the best Western Cairn Croft, a 165 room hotel located centrally on one of Niagara Fall’s main strips: Lundy’s Lane. Along this road there are more than two miles of hotels, restaurants, shopping opportunities and various attractions. A friendly and humorous receptionist welcomed me and directed me to my room on the third floor where I got myself organized and relaxed a bit in one of the spacious Tower Rooms.
Just before I got too comfy I set off on my first real Niagara Falls adventure: I was about to go on my first helicopter flight in my entire life. The receptionist at the Cairn Croft drew me some directions and off I was to my destination, Niagara Helicopters, on Victoria Avenue at the northern end of town, close to the Niagara Parkway. I saw an attractive and very modern retail and administration complex, and in the background helicopters were taking off and landing. I walked in and got greeted by some of the team members at Niagara Helicopter. Lena, the Executive Assistant to owner Ruedi Hafen; Shea, the Guest Services Manager, and René, Operations Manager and one of the helicopter pilots, showed me around and gave me an overview of the company.
They took me through the attractive gift shop to an area upstairs that will be turned into a café and explained that the building that houses the facility is very new and was completed in 2001. Niagara Helicopter is very environmentally conscious and actually purchases carbon offsets against the greenhouse gas emissions that it creates. In addition, top modern boiler facilities, custom designed for Niagara Helicopter, heat the helicopter pads and keep them free from ice and snow.
Just before I was about to step foot into one of these flying machines myself the owner, Ruedi Hafen, came in the door so i had a few minutes to spend with him as well. Ruedi is an architect by profession and originally hails from Switzerland. Ruedi joined the company in 1981 and began to provide helicopter sightseeing services. In 1985 he finally purchased the company from the former owners, started revamping all the operations and has been responsible for the modernization and expansion of Niagara Helicopters which today is one of Niagara Falls’ premier tourist attractions.
Ruedi is one of those rare people who has truly managed to turn his passion into his profession. Today, the company operates five Bell 407 helicopters and has just placed an order for a sixth helicopter. 16 pilots take customers up into the air and pre-recorded in-flight audio tours are offered in 12 languages. The staff at Niagara Helicopters speak seven different languages. The company’s clientele attracts countless customers from many different countries all over Europe and Asia. For his entrepreneurial success and his community involvement, particularly his participation in police searches and helicopter rescue missions, Ruedi has won numerous awards over the years.
After getting a thorough introduction to the company and its owner, it was now time for my very own first helicopter flying experience in my life. My young pilot Rene, Ruedi’s right hand, took me to the helipad, and we got comfortable in this flying machine as the camera team snapped a couple of pictures of us. Then, with my video camera rolling, I asked Rene to explain the various controls to me. The entire helicopter is full of controls, even the roof panel houses all sorts of switches. Rene explained that in a helicopter the direction is controlled by a disk of rotors and in this Bell 407 helicopter, each blade can be individually controlled. These highly sophisticated and customizable flying machines run in the neighbourhood of $3 million, so they contain a lot of advanced technology.
Finally, all the explanations and safety checks were complete and Rene took off with me. After performing a little dance with the helicopter we lifted straight up and started to fly beside the Niagara Gorge. I was really fortunate to have a picture perfect clear day with blue skies; visibility stretched for miles. We made our way towards the majestic falls along the prescribed route beside the Niagara River. The cities of Niagara Falls, on both the Canadian and American sides, came into full view and I was mesmerized by the column of mist that was emanating from the Horseshoe Falls.
We flew over the Falls and had a good look at them from every imagineable angle, and I thoroughly enjoyed the aerial view of this thundering cascade of water. All the architectural highlights of Niagara Falls, the casinos, the entertainment areas and the hydro power plants were in full view. A helicopter flight allows you to stand relatively still and hover above a destination to get a really good indepth look at the landscape below. From a certain angle I even caught a rainbow stretching out from the mist of the giant waterfalls.
On our way back I got a good look over the residential areas of Niagara Falls and the famous Whirlpool further downstream in the Niagara River. The view extended towards the Niagara Escarpment and far across Lake Ontario. I could even see Toronto’s CN Tower! Safely Rene brought our bladed flying machine back and we touched down on the heated helipad. Ruedi was waiting with a framed photo of my helicopter adventure which would allow me to remember these exciting moments for a long time.
As my schedule was rather packed, I had to say goodbye to Rene, Ruedi and the team at Niagara Helicopters and race off to cover my next Niagara Falls attraction, which also had to do with flying. Except this time we were not dealing with man-made machines, but with delicate and colourful winged creatures – butterflies. I drove ten minutes up the road on the Niagara Parkway to the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, which is located on the grounds of the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens & the school of Horticulture.
A modern glass-enclosed pavilion opened in 1996 holds a gift shop and a climate controlled tropical biotope that holds more than 2000 butterflies. On this cold winter day, a little reprieve inside a warm and colourful sanctuary like this was just what the doctor ordered. A 7-minute video provides an introduction to the butterflies and plants housed in the Conservatory.
After taking off my jacket I walked inside the conservatory and was immediately enchanted by the fluttering brightly coloured creatures that were coming at me from all angles. Some of the roughly 45 butterfly species on display include the brownish Magnificent Owl, the Blue Morpho (featuring an almost neon blue wing surface), the orange and black Queen, the yellow and black Zebra Longwing, and the intricately patterned red, orange and black Red Lacewing.
180 metres of walkways snake through the conservatory, surrounded by an impressive tropical forest. Butterflies flutter all over the place, sit on the glass windows, on the walls and on several feeding stations that feature colourful plates with oranges on them. In fascination I watched some of the butterflies eat, who actually do not use a chewing mouth, but rather a structure that is reminiscent of a sucking straw which allows them to ingest nectar, pollen and fruit juices.
After having spent almost an hour in this tropical retreat I was ready to venture outside again and started driving back into town on the Niagara Parkway which was peaceful and quiet on this sunny yet cold winter day. I stopped at the Whirlpool Aero Car, a cable car that was built in 1913 by a Spanish engineer and that has been a fixture among the popular tourist sites in Niagara Falls, Ontario since 1916. During winter the entire complex is closed, but from about mid-March to mid-November the cable car offers a perfect aerial view the treacherous Whirlpool Rapids about 150 feet (more than 40 m) below. The view towards the American side of the Niagara River and towards the Robert Moses Generating Station in Lewiston, NY, is outstanding.
Well, I had not eaten since i had left Toronto early this morning, so by now I was dearly in need of a late lunch. I drove back into town and decided to park in the Fallsview Casino Resort, a $1 billion entertainment, hotel and gaming complex that was opened in 2004. Parking during the week is free and offers one of the most convenient ways to access the great falls. I walked upstairs onto the main floor which features the Galleria shopping concourse and a variety of dining options.
I stopped off at “The Famous”, which is a 24-hour upscale diner that features fresh foods in a casual ambiance. The decorating theme at the Famous is inspired by Art Deco, and a huge globe suspended from the ceiling represents the major attraction in this stylish eatery. The menu features a variety of all-day breakfasts, omelettes, fruits and salads, soups, hamburgers, hot and cold sandwiches, various meat and fish entrees and desserts.
Frank Scordino, one of the co-owners, joined me for a bit to give me more information about his dining establishment. Together with Robert Sniderman (son of Toronto’s famous Sam Sniderman of “Sam The Recordman” fame) he owns the Senator, one of Toronto’s most well-known fine dining establishments. His business partner Robert, an avid world traveller, picked up the globe during one of his international excursions and made it the visual anchor point of their Niagara Falls establishment.
When i asked him about what makes “The Famous” unique, Frank said that everything is freshly made on site, “nothing is bought in a box”. Even the famous cream pies and cakes are all made on site, and celebrities such as Regis Philbin and Wayne Newton have all stopped in here during their trips to Niagara Falls, Ontario. My stomach was really happy when my lunch arrived and I enjoyed my hearty potato leek soup as well as “The Famous” Club House sandwich with its freshly roasted chicken breast, accompanied by bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayo. To top it all off I had a slice of apple pie with a scoop of ice cream which hit the spot after a long day of excitement.