If ever there was a place to stop and smell the roses, lilacs, lavender and hundreds of other blossoms, it’s Niagara Falls.
Upon arriving at the famous cascades, my wife, Lian, and I, like many other RVers, began debating the best way to experience the falls and the rapids. We could view them from boat, helicopter, platforms above and below, tunnel behind, various towers, boardwalk, cable car, Ferris wheel and even at an IMAX theater. Toll-free viewing points at the railings are all-time favorites at this busy spot though gazing from behind the misty windshield of a motorhome is always a possibility despite tangles of summer traffic. That’s all in addition to visiting historic sites, theme parks and the usual assortment of amusements.
We took in the falls from five different viewpoints and, in rushing about to do so, nearly overlooked the least expensive, least intrusive and least promoted attraction in the area: the flowers. Were the falls to dry up tomorrow, Niagara would still be a worthwhile destination because of its 4,250 acres of gardens and greenery. The Niagara Parks Commission has been tending the foliage on the Canadian side of the Niagara River for more than 120 years and it does so with class. The unheralded floral route follows the manicured 35-mile Niagara Parkway that runs right beside the rampaging river. Both river and parkway connect Lake Erie and Lake Ontario as well as the towns of Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Next to the route are greenhouses, botanical gardens, a floral clock, a school of horticulture, a butterfly conservatory and a half-dozen parks that could stand on their own as attractions were they not overshadowed by larger gardens, the thunderous falls and a variety of more widely advertised tourist magnets.
Whether pedaling a bicycle along the riverside path or steering a 45-foot motorhome, the Parkway is one of the great drives in North America. We found it to be a leisurely drive in mid-September, for there is never a moment without something to gawk at or slow down for. The Parkway is not a throughway route so most of the drivers were tourists just like us, straining to see everything from hydro stations to scow boats to magnificent mansions. Even on the long weekends of summer when traffic comes to a crawl at the falls area there is no reason to get steamed — it just gives extra time to enjoy the environment.
Although the trip along the length of the Parkway could take an hour, allow at least two days. Yes, two days. That’s just to stop and smell the roses. Allow a week if you also want to smell the coffee and see the falls from above and below and from the front and from behind. Schedule two weeks if you want to take in every major attraction, all the historic sites and every tourist spot on the map — there are more than 100.
Seven campgrounds on the Canadian side provide about 2,300 sites so finding a spot for a few nights should not pose a problem, except on long weekends. While none of the campgrounds will perch you on the edge of the Niagara precipice or give you a view of the falls, most are close to the raging river. A KOA is practically within the city of Niagara Falls, Canada, and a sister camp sits on the American side about 25 miles distant. If you insist on a riverside spot, King Waldorf’s Park can accommodate you, but the waterway will be the Welland River rather than the Niagara River. Nevertheless, if you fall asleep on your rubber raft, the Niagara is where you might end up as the Welland flows into it above the falls.
If the cascading waters give you a desire to swim, try Shalamar Lake Trailer and Family Park, at the north end of the Parkway, with a transparent 40,000-square-foot pool that’s second only to the sandy beaches of nearby Lake Erie for swimming and sun soaking.
Driving upstream (heading south) from historic Niagara-on-the-Lake gives the best windshield vistas and the town — with bright souvenir shops, galleries and bakeries — is worthy of a walkabout. The quaint village, designated a Canadian National Historic Site, dates back to 1778. Its short boulevard overflows with flowers while the backyards of the old homes look as if they are ready for a horticultural competition. Niagara-on-the-Lake also hosts an annual eight-month theatrical celebration, the Shaw Festival. Showcasing the work of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the festival is housed in three different theaters, one of which, the Festival Theatre, offers extensive gardens through which the public is welcome to wander.
After leaving Niagara-on-the-Lake you’ll quickly find additional gardens at Brock’s Monument in Queenston Heights. Here, between late May and mid-June, 1,200 aromatic plants of 200 varieties bloom at the Centennial Lilac Gardens. The gardens and monument in Queenston Heights are worth a visit when the monument is open to the public; in addition to admiring the garden plantings, you can climb a set of steep, narrow stairs for a view from atop the 185-foot-tall monument. Check ahead, however, because the monument is undergoing lengthy structural repairs and could be closed during your visit.
A stop at Niagara Parks Floral Clock, which has been fragrantly telling time since 1950, should be on the agenda and, because you can see it on a drive-by, there is no need to park. Set amid gardens and pools, the 40-foot-wide timepiece is made up of 16,000 bedding plants. The intricate design changes twice per year.
Just a mile or so down the road (all the floral attractions are on your right) the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens serves as a classroom for students attending the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. The 99 acres include perennials, rhododendrons, azaleas, herb and vegetable plantings as well as a rose garden with 2,400 bushes. Footpaths wind past ponds and an arboretum with a collection of ornamental trees and shrubs.
Paths also lead to the adjacent Butterfly Conservatory, where the world’s largest glass lepidopterous display provides a home for 40 species of butterflies and moths that come mostly from Central America. In summer an outdoor nectar garden attracts many of the 120 butterfly species that are native to Ontario.
A rare glimpse of Niagara’s original vegetation awaits at the Niagara Glen where stairways and paths lead to the edge of the turbulent river. The 21.2 miles of trails are not steep, although the stairs are, and this is a majestic retreat with fascinating geology and botany. Allow about 25 minutes to reach the river and twice as long to return.
The meticulously manicured area around the falls is enhanced by the Oakes Garden Theatre, an amphitheater bordered by a fan-shaped arbor. Rock gardens, lily ponds and shrub borders are enclosed by limestone walls quarried at nearby Queenston. The site hosts musicians and provides a formal entranceway to the adjacent Queen Victoria Park, which boasts a collection of unusual native and international plants. The park also has a large rock garden, a hybrid tea rose garden and two carpet-bedding displays.
A cool, wet day is ideal for visiting the greenhouses, known as the Floral Showhouse, located just south of the falls. This hidden treasure has indoor collections of orchids, a cactus garden and numerous other tropical plant species. Eight floral shows are created each year to reflect the changing seasons while 70 tropical songbirds flit through the air.
At this point all but the most hearty horticulturalists are likely gardened-out, but there are more parks to explore. A good choice is the 10-acre Dufferin Islands that have been naturalized with the introduction of bird feeding stations and bird boxes, fish and indigenous vegetation.
All of the floral attractions mentioned, with the exception of the Butterfly Conservatory, are open to the public at no cost. Parking can be a problem and wielding a motorhome through congested entries can make it worse. One solution is to park at the Rapidsview Lot just south of the falls and make use of the People Mover. A ticket allows unlimited day travel along the 19-mile loop and includes a trip on the Incline Railway that climbs the cliff near the falls. Combination tickets include the bus trip and admission to many of Niagara Park’s historical sites and attractions.