Niagara on Ice Niagara Falls, United States and Canada Having only been during the sweltering, sweat-drenched months of summer, when the mosquito is king and the entire population of India converges on American Falls like college kids to Cancun, I thought it'd be nice to see what Niagara Falls looked like in January. Despite warnings from Dave, my travel companion and a native of the area, I could never have imagined we would find ourselves braving cold that would make a yeti cry uncle, or that we would be the only ones brave enough. With the fair-weather competition out of the way, I was able to take pictures without strangers in them, read historical markers without binoculars, and enjoy all the beauty of the area as if it'd been created just for me.
Of course, first we had to get there, which we did the hard way by choosing the cheaper flights that connected in O'Hare instead of Toronto. We soon learned of our mistake by a long delay on the runway due to the "lake effect", where winds from the north build strength across Lake Michigan and hit Chicago with some seriously vertical snow. There is a reason Chicago has picked up the "windy city" moniker. By the time we got to Buffalo it was after one a.m. and the airport was deserted. We hailed a taxi to Niagara (fifty bucks standard), said a quick hello to Dave's mother, and crawled into bed as the snow fall continued outside.
We awoke the next day to a white wonderland, and the snow was still coming down. It fell like sugar or like baby powder; it was so light and dry that you could sweep it (which we did) as well as shovel it (we did this, too) from the driveway. It did not stop us from venturing out to satisfy our culinary yens, for in every region there is something you can't get anywhere else. This one-of-a-kind snack, for Dave, was the Viola's cheese steak sub, a sandwich he'd hungered for since we booked our flight. I've always wondered why the cheese steak has not caught on in the west, as it is tasty, cheap, fattening, and fast. After we ate I insisted that Dave and his mom, Diane, pose for a picture out front, not noticing the telephone pole blocking the "V" in Viola's through the blowing snow…oh well.
Back in our warm car, we headed for "Little Italy" to grab some cannolis and coffee at the Di Camillo Bakery, which we enjoyed leisurely while watching the passing traffic fishtail its way down Pine Avenue as if the bars had just closed. Just recently the city had erected arches at either end of a certain stretch of Pine Avenue reading "Little Italy" in an effort to make one Niagara's most prominent streets more attractive. Though the buildings between these two arches are nothing to photograph, what lies inside is food fit for a king…or Don.
One such example is the Como Deli, a popular lunch stop serving up gnocchi, spaghetti with tripe sauce, antipasto, or any number of other hearty winter warmers done cafeteria style. Di Camillo, where we took refuge, is a local chain bakery whose claim to fame is their phenomenal Italian bread. Dave's uncle says, "it's the water here," as he toted some of their bread mix back to San Jose and found the end result to be a disappointment. Latina's, next to Di Camillo, is an import Italian grocery featuring a large selection of deli meats and cheeses. Fresh grated Romano fills a five gallon plastic bucket behind the counter next to trays of olives, hunks of Salami, sopressa, capicollo, and prosciutto; as well as wedges of sharp provolone, parmesan, and mozzarella plugs. They have cannolis too, but Di Camillo's does 'em better. Across from Latina's is La Hacienda pizza, serving New York style thin-crust pizza with a unique taste of its own alongside other Italian classics. The décor and name is strangely Mexican, but nobody seems to notice. With our toes frozen and our bellies full, we finally returned Diane to her house and headed for the falls before it got too dark; I was eager to see them again and walk off some of the day's culinary indiscretions.
Driving over the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side (where the view is the best), we were amazed to pull right up to an open customs window instead of waiting in a hundred-car line. In the summer we usually opt to walk across and avoid the lengthy wait. Using our passports instead of our driver's licenses saved the hassle with the customs agents, who now sometimes give those using the latter a hard time (likely since 9/11). Following the "parking" signs towards Horseshoe Falls, we were the only car on the road and quickly delighted in the fact that the parking was free (as well it should be) for the winter. The lot was slushy and unplowed, making me happy to be wearing water-proof boots.
The falls were as I'd hoped them to be: still flowing but half frozen too. Varying shades of white and blue were painted to the rock walls of the gorge; magnificent icicles as big as telephone poles dangled from every outcropping and a transparent glaze coated every branch and railing. Table Rock Visitor's center, where you take an elevator underground and walk through tunnels that lead you to viewing portals behind Horseshoe Falls, was astonishingly open. This would be my first Niagara Falls tourist attraction ever, as I had never had the patience for the long lines of summer. The Maid of the Mist tour, for example, usually has a line so long that people lay down blankets and have picnics while they wait; at Cave of the Winds, honeymooners die of old age before they even have a chance to divorce…as for the Table Rock visitor's center, I didn't even know the building existed behind the crowd that gathers here in July.
We walked right in, bought our tickets (seven bucks Canadian), and went right down the elevator. I started to get the picture: Niagara's not even on the radar in the winter! The viewing portals, although they sounded neat, amounted mostly to an up-close view of giant icicles against a white backdrop, but it was worth doing even if to read some of the local history placards along the wall. Back up the elevator and through the gift shop (they always funnel you that way) we came out the other side of the building and walked down to the edge of the falls, just inches away from where all that water takes the big plunge. If you reach through the railing and stick your figure in, you will feel the raw power of gravity and H2O, but don't be surprised if it scares you. On average, approximately 150 gallons go over the edge every second, making me wonder what it must have been like before so much of the water was diverted for the power plant.
I took advantage of my new camera while there was still some light in the sky, especially since there was nobody else around (I mean nobody!) to block my view. I felt like a celebrity who rented out an entire theme park, just to keep the crowds away. You can only get this close in July if you're willing to use your elbows like cattle prods, but the serenity would never be achieved.
It was now just a few minutes before sunset and seventeen below zero, so after strolling the park and snapping a shot of King George's statue, we scurried back to the car and headed for Sammy's Pizza on Pierce Avenue for a pint of Labatte's Blue and a plate of crispy wings. The bar was nearly full with what looked like the usual after-work line up, all of them discussing the snow like it'd never snowed before. The wings came out quickly and were a lot bigger than we expected them to be, and the blue cheese dressing was clearly homemade. I honestly meant to stop after I'd downed ten…really I did.
The next morning we headed for Niagara on the Lake (CAN), a charming little tourist town just fifteen minutes from the falls. In the summer it is a mob scene like the rest of Niagara, but what we found was ample parking (though they still charge, hmf!) and deserted sidewalks. About half of the businesses were open, including the visitor's center and Greaves Jams and Marmalades, a popular tourist stop. Everybody there was gearing up for the Ice Wine Festival's weekend celebrations, where there would be wine tasting and an ice sculpting competition. For their sake I hoped the weather would improve.
For lunch we made tea reservations at the beautiful Prince of Wales Hotel, and then headed to Greaves where I bought my mother some relish and jam for her birthday. For lack of anything else to do and back out in the cold, I headed for Lake Ontario to get a glimpse of my first Great Lake; Dave and his mom opted to wait for me at the Prince of Wales. It was truly the coldest weather I'd ever experienced, but I felt okay; the lake was only a few blocks away and I had on a good parka.
Along the way I admired the old houses, which had names like The Storrington House and The Wilson-Blanely House, referring to their original owners; many of them had been made into B&Bs. The lake was grey and placid. Icebergs gathered at the mouth of the Niagara River and the water was frozen from the shore to forty feet out. It was impressive, but I had to cut my viewing short. I began to feel underdressed as the wind gusted off the water and my denim-clad legs started to stiffen, making it harder to walk. In all, I lasted about 15 minutes before having to seek shelter, not exactly as long as I thought I would.
Back at the Prince of Wales, we asked the hostess if we might bump up our tea reservations an hour, having done as much exploring as we were going to do in the frigid air. She said, "No problem," as no one else was dining. Before our tea arrived, we roamed around and found the entire place to be quite stunning. The inlaid wood patterns on the floor of the lobby caught my eye, as well the large Victorian mural providing the backdrop for a very intimate sitting area. We ventured down the hallway admiring the oil paintings that lined the walls and soon found the pool and Jacuzzi room. The steam was thick and beckoned our cold, weary bones to forget the suits and jump in, but the elegant décor would never permit such wild abandon. Even the restrooms were done up in royal fashion with luxury filling every corner; a blue theme carried out in tile mosaics and painted sink basins. We poked our heads in the spa entrance; the tune "stranger in paradise" found its way into my head and stayed with me the rest of the afternoon.
Tea in the drawing room was perfect. With our choice of tables, we sat by the window and enjoyed the white wonder that had chased us inside in the first place. The tea was excellent and the sandwiches and deserts were good, and while not as decadent as one might expect – I had the Buschart Gardens in mind – were more than enough to fill us up for the moment. As we sat chatting, tea cups in hand and pinkies in the air, a nice-looking car pulled up to the curb and two women stepped out into the snow wearing stiletto heals and floor-length furs. Clutching their designer purses but leaving their bags for the bellhop, they trotted up to the front desk to check in; they might have been arriving for the Ice Wine festival, or perhaps they were merely here to spend a few hundred at the Secret Garden Spa. Sigh.
After finishing our scones and polishing off our last sips of tea, we bundled back up for the mad dash to our car and hit the road. On the way back we stopped at the Laily Vineyard and the Iniskillin Winery to taste some of the celebrated Ice Wine that everybody was so hot for (had I known this area was the Napa of Canada I would have been making the grand circuit from day one!). Lailey's Riesling was delicious; you could actually taste all those fruity notes that are usually imagined in other wines, ripe pear being the most prominent. At thirty-five dollars a bottle, though, it should be good – especially since a bottle only gives you two full glasses. Iniskillin's ice wines were even pricier, but they offered up a nice alternative to buying a whole bottle in the form of gift-sized souvenir packs, where you could sample several varieties for the same price.
At last, a few pennies poorer and with the taste of the good life still lingering on our lips, we headed back home for what was supposed to be our last night in town, only to learn that the Buffalo airport was closed on account of the blizzard. Again, if we'd flown through Toronto we would not have been detained – of course – Dave would have never ran into an old acquaintance at Mr. B's Tavern and I would have never won 50 bucks on Keno, so perhaps there is a reason for everything.
Luckily the clouds parted by the time we left for the airport as the storm charted a course for New England; if only it could have been this clear the whole time! I got what I wanted, though, as the falls do not disappoint. In five months, hordes of tourists would descend upon New York. A thousand fudge shops would throw open their doors as the beer gardens rolled out the kegs; colorful lights would dance across the face of Horseshoe falls; jet boats would run screaming up and down the canyon; flocks of fanny-packing trinket seekers would shuffle in an out of t-shirt shops as the heat of the summer dripped off their brows and melted their sno-cones, and newlyweds would stroll the parkway, falling in-love with each other as I did with Niagara's winter splendor. Next time I will bring a bigger budget for ice wine, treat myself to a night at a B&B, and invest in a pair of flannel-lined jeans before I go walking.