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By the Cup

 
 

 

Sir Winston Churchill dubbed this route 'the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world!

Jordan to Buffalo via Niagara-on-the-lake

I part the chintz curtains at daybreak, hoping that last night's icy freeze is intact. It is. Under snow-threatening clouds, we depart Jordan and hightail it back to Niagara-on-the-lake on the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way). Sitting down to breakfast at the Oban Inn, I see four golfers heading out to the lakeside course, and any hopes I still harbor of seeing the falls frozen are dashed.

Driving out of town, we head south on the Niagara River Parkway, passing two massive cannons that mark the site of Fort George, a base for the British during the War of 1812. Sir Winston Churchill dubbed this route 'the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world,' and, at this time of year anyway, its beauty is shockingly primordial.

Suddenly, the blue grape clusters reappear, and we slow for an ice wine sign at the region's famous Inniskillin Vineyards. Over a tasting of dessert wine in a barn designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (at least that's the story), our guide explains the laborious process that produces the Canadian version of Germany's eiswein: The grapes are handpicked at night (sunshine might defrost them) after three consecutive days of freezing have sufficiently heightened their sugar content. The result: a fruity bouquet and a finish as sweet as sorbet.

Our ice wine education complete, we continue south, climbing the Niagara River Parkway past a dramatic vista of the Niagara Gorge and its ice-glistened walls of layered sandstone, limestone, and shale. Far below, the great green Niagara rushes along its course.

Now on a straightaway, we speed past the towering, naked trees of Queenston Heights Park and the oversized Floral Clock (all sculpted evergreens this time of year), and pause briefly to watch the gulls soar at the edge of the gorge.

Minutes later, we stop again for winged creatures of a more dainty order at the Butterfly Conservatory. Inside its tropically warm and humid rooms filled with frangipani and day lilies, millions of exotic butterflies flutter about. Bejeweled in brilliant blues, yellows, greens, and oranges, the lepidoptera have the run of the house and freely alight on our heads, arms, and shoulders as we amble through. 'Do they ever escape?' we ask Angela, the teenage ticket taker.

Yeah, they like the gift shop.'

Back on the parkway, the Botanical Gardens and the roiling Whirlpool Basin offer an unadulterated glimpse of natural beauty before the inevitable commercialism of the falls: signs for helicopter rides and the antique Spanish Aero Car that crosses the gorge on a cable; the gaudy neon of hotels and the Niagara Casino. In the nineteenth century, the falls were home to countless taverns and souvenir stalls, so making a buck off a natural wonder is certainly nothing new.

As we near the cascades, the mist kicks the S500's automatic wipers into action. Across the gorge, we see the mighty chutes of the American side, which are but a prelude to the expansive grandeur of Canada's Horseshoe Falls, not frozen today but raging.

It was in December 1683 that the French missionary Father Hennepin stumbled on the falls in his quest for the Mississippi. They say he was so overcome by their awesomeness that he ripped the portable altar off his back and fell to his knees. We park at the Canadian Falls—an impossibility during any other season, and join the other pilgrims snapping pictures of the cataracts. These foamy torrents have inspired much strange behavior over the centuries: In 1901, 63-year-old schoolteacher Annie Taylor plunged over the brink in a barrel, and in 1851, the world-famous tightrope walker Charles Blondin did his high-wire act over them, pausing midway to prepare two tasty omelettes on the stove he ported.

The falls are hypnotic and hard to leave, but on we go, past the barge that has been snagged for 85 years in the whirlpool rapids. The sight of it makes me wish, as I did when I visited as a girl, that it would finally break free so I could see it go hurtling over.

Canada's cataracts are just a memory as the parkway leads us south along the Niagara River, here as undisturbed as a pond and lined with million-dollar homes and snowmobile trails. From Fort Erie, where the Niagara empties into lake Erie, we can see Buffalo across the river, at the other end of the Peace Bridge. 'Welcome to the United States' a sign greets us, as does the first sight of snow in days.

The next time I journey to the Niagara peninsula during winter, I'm bringing my clubs.          [to next page]


Reprint of Concierge article North of the Border. Original found at http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/5479?pageNumber=1

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