Niagara Falls, one of the most popular tourist destinations in North America for generations, brings millions of visitors to this part of the US/Canadian border. However, there is so much more to Ontario than Niagara Falls — and much of it is far, far more calming than the tourist confluence that now surrounds the beautiful falls. Here are five adventures on water in and beyond Niagara Falls.
A world away from the urban center of Toronto (but an easy flight from the Toronto City Airport) is the scenic lakefront city of Thunder Bay. The backdrop of the city is dramatic forested cliffs on one side and the wide-open expanse of Lake Superior — the world’s largest freshwater lake — on the other. The city is home to one of the largest Finnish populations outside of Finland (over ten percent of Thunder Bay’s residents have Finnish ancestry), and a half-dozen Finnish restaurants, shops and even a sauna serve the Finnish community. While most visitors have traditionally come through Thunder Bay for the surrounding natural beauty, the city’s urban redevelopment is turning this historic city into a destination in and of itself.
Time your visit to Thunder Bay to coincide with one of the many summer events — a Blues Festival (July 5-7 of this year), Wednesday evening ‘Summer in the Parks’ concerts, and festivals celebrating Thunder Bay’s Finnish and Italian heritage. Or if you want to get the chance to learn how to sail, just show up on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday afternoon all summer long, when boats pick up willing crew to sail for the evening.
1. Sailing on Lake Superior
You want a pristine sailing experience a world away from Niagara Falls? Take a day or multi-day sail with Captain Greg of Sail Superior out of the Thunder Bay Marina Park. There are few freshwater experiences quite like sailing Lake Superior. The largest surface area of any lake on Earth, Lake Superior is, well, superiorly big. Like, oceanic big. You can’t even begin to see across to land. In fact, the largest island, Isle Royale, is so large, its lakes even have their own islands.
On an overnight jaunt from Thunder Bay, Sail Superior will often stop to dock for the night at tiny Thompson Island, just a few hours’ sail from the city. Remember, of course, this is a city built by Finns, so of course, on this island straight out of Middle Earth — dripping with moss-covered trees and a shale beach perfect for rock-skipping lazy days — is a community-built wood-burning sauna. Bring your own firewood and prepare a few hours in advance for a classic Finnish sauna. After a day of hiking the challenging rope-strewn hikes, the sauna is a welcome way to unwind.
2. Canoe Moose Safaris and Private Islands
Every once in a while in an urbanite’s life, it’s important to get away, totally leave the modern world and get back to nature. No better spot in which to get away than Algonquin Provincial Park. The enormous park is an easy drive from Toronto and, with 2400 lakes and myriad outdoor activities from maple tree tapping to kayaking, the park is known as an outdoor paradise.
On the western edge of the park just three and a half hours north of Toronto is Voyageur Quest, an outfitter with everything from luxurious solar-powered cottages to adventurous camping moose safaris.
You’d think the place would be dead in the middle of winter, but the only slow season is November, before the snow creates a winter playground, and early May, when mosquitoes are the main residents. Voyageur Quest has canoe-and-camping adventures in the summer and snow shoeing, snowmobiling or even dog sledding in the winter. They’ll pick up future adventurers from Toronto, so you don’t even need a car. Go camping for three days or, if you have a bit more time and like to end a trip in a bit more comfort, add on two nights in the log cabin. Or visit one of the cottages, the most luxurious of their lodging options. From the cottages, you can paddle out to their floating sauna. (Yes, that’s right: a floating sauna.) If you want a bit more of an adventure, become a moosafarian — canoe out on crystal clear water at 6am or 6pm to photograph moose as they chomp on water lilies.
However, if you really want to get away from it all, there is no better option than your own private island. The solar-powered cabin is on an island you could jog entirely around in 15 seconds flat. Besides an outhouse (which is extremely tidy and surprisingly bug-free), the cabin feels like a luxurious private retreat. There’s hot running water in both the bathroom and kitchen sink, and a shower as good as you’d get at home. Put a fire in the wood-burning stove and curl up with a good book and the antique oil lamps, and you’ll be ready to head back a century or two for the night.
Be warned: When you go to Niagara Falls itself, best to just accept what you’re getting yourself into and just go with it. Yes, there are three wax museums, several arcades, and enough souvenir shops to keep tacky alive for another few generations. But, dang, are these waterfalls impressive.
Although Niagara Falls is one of the wider waterfalls in the world, they’re not nearly one of the tallest. However, the flow rate of the three combined falls produces more water than any other waterfall. And the result is a pretty impressive deluge of water, crashing loud enough to drown out conversations above the falls.
3. Maid of the Mist
Maid of the Mist boats have been operating continuously since 1846, first as a ferry and then tourist attraction, plying the waters every 15 minutes from both the American and Canadian sides. They go past the smaller Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls until it reaches the flurry of noise and waterfall spray of the grandiose Horseshoe Falls.
Although you won’t find any nature within the city of Niagara Falls (the tourist zone is known as Clifton Hill and can be heaven or hell on Earth, depending on your tolerance for non-stop fun and flashing lights), you can taste it. The AG Restaurant at the Sterling Inn and Spa features dishes based on local ingredients. Think local meats and seafood, farm-grown veggies, and desserts with locally tapped maple syrup. Plus, two words: Bacon jam.
One of the best hiking trails is the Niagara Glen, a 2.5-mile trail off of the Niagara Parkway. Lots of rocks make this a somewhat challenging hike (you’ll need a sturdy pair of hiking boots), but the surrounding forest and view of the raging river below makes it well worth it.
4. Canoeing and Kayaking in Downtown Toronto
Even if you stay in town, you can still get a taste of the Ontario great outdoors. The Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and canoes just a short stroll from the center of downtown Toronto. The outfitter faces the Toronto Islands, a group of 13 islands dotted with sailboats, trees and even an amusement park. Paddle around in a voyageur canoe modeled after the centuries-old model used for war and transportation by the First Nations tribes or rent kayaks and paddle to the islands on your own.
5. Toronto City Airport
Flying to Ontario from the northeast or within Canada? You wouldn’t think an airport would qualify as a water-based adventure, but you also wouldn’t think that a major city would place its secondary airport on an island only accessed by a slow ferry. By 2014, the Billy Bishop Airport will have a pedestrian tunnel with a moving walkway, but for now, feel like it’s 1912 again as you board the five-minute ferry ride from downtown to the airport on the island.
Thanks to Thunder Bay tourism and Voyageur Quest for sponsorship.