“I feel like we’re playing hooky,” my friend Karen says as the train rolls out of Union Station. It’s a Friday morning and we’re off for a girls’ weekend. Niagara Falls is not an obvious winter destination but it fits our criteria: majestic scenery, great food and pampering!
On Top of Clifton Hill
Our first stop is the usually touristy Clifton Hill with its loud arcades and souvenir shops, but on this chilly day, it’s our private amusement park. We begin by double-daring each other to enter Nightmares Fear Factory, the oldest haunted house in North America. “We’ve had people soil themselves,” owner Frank LaPenna says. There’s no chickening out now so we inch hand-in-hand through pitch-black hallways narrowly escaping electrocution, suffocation and a car fatality. We are given “I survived” cards which says it all.
Not even our next stop, visiting George Clooney (sigh) and other wax Hollywood stars at Movieland can compete with the greatest attraction—the falls. We climb into a heated gondola on the SkyWheel as its solo passengers (did I mention that winter’s a great time to visit?). Suspended 175 feet, there is a bird’s eye view of the cascading water, the city—and dinosaurs (in the adjacent mini-putt attraction).
But we’re not done with the falls yet! We descend Clifton Hill and take a 15 minute walk along the scenic Niagara Parkway, passing the American Falls on our left, and make our way to the Canadian falls.
The Falls – 365 Days of the Year
Journey Behind the Falls is the oldest local attraction. “It’s the best” says Chelsey Tobin from The Niagara Parks Commission, lamenting “not too many people know it’s open in the winter.” We descend into a long tunnel, the thundering noise of the falls directly above us. We stop to take in some historical photos (including Nik Wallenda, the first person to walk a tightrope over the falls) along the hallway to the observation deck. Leaning against the railing for a photo op, icicles glisten above and a rainbow appears in the mist behind us. Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, the experience is magical.
After a busy (and scary) morning our stomachs are rumbling. We stop for lunch at Elements on the Falls Restaurant securing a window table beside the falls. The restaurant sources over 35% of its food from local producers which makes us feel less guilty ordering Spanish Coffee after our Great Lakes Fish Sandwich. “No one makes these anymore,” my friend says with glee, licking the sugar from the rim of her glass.
Spa, Dinner and a “Show”
No girls’ weekend would be complete without some pampering, offered in a unique setting by the Healing Salt Cave, with lounge chairs on a bed of pink salt, surrounded by the glow of orbs in the darkened “cave”. Breathing the therapeutic mix of minerals to the background of cascading water soothes us to slumber. After a penetrating treatment of heat from salt stones, the clinician Eva confirms what we feel: “Your eyes have more sparkle.”
Dinner at Weinkeller (a craft wine brewery) is the perfect sharing experience. Our choice of succulent beef filet in an espresso rub with truffle oil and parmesan frites goes well with glasses of cabernet franc (the pampering continues!). We eat dessert next to a roaring fire, bracing ourselves for the cold.
After dinner, it’s a short walk to Queen Victoria Park, full of trees aglow with holiday lights from which we watch a spectacular firework show (part of the Winter Festival of Lights). Across the street the falls are illuminated with LED lights – a new addition to the majestic view that transform the frozen falls through a rainbow of colours.
Strolling Back in Time
After a packed, well-spent day, the Orchard View, an 1899 Victorian B&B, is the perfect place to rest. In the morning, owners Antoinette and Brian share tips to explore local history over pancakes and coffee.
Their Culp Street home, with its pretty Queen Anne Revival and Cottage Gothic residences, is a short walk to Drummond Hill Cemetery. We are the first to leave foot prints in the virgin snow as we visit the graves of heroes of the War of 1812 including Laura Secord, her profile immortalized in stone.
Following a history-packed morning including visits to Morse & Son (Canada’s first funeral home), Niagara Falls History Museum (where you can see Laura Secord’s bonnet and other war relics) and a British Methodist Episcopal Church (founded in 1814, and a site on the Underground Railroad)—we have earned high tea at Queen Charlotte Tea Room. We drink a pot of Scottish Caramel and take our Victorian-dressed server’s suggestion to put Devonshire cream on top of the jam on our scone: “If you go to meet the Queen that’s how you do it.”
Later, pulling out of the Victorian Gothic Revival train station we feel re-energized. Though Niagara Falls is usually a summer destination for honeymooners and families, it’s been a magical winter get-away for us.
(image: Vanessa Deeg and Kyla Pennie)
Top image credit: Cu Van Ha