Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Absolutely Necessary Things to Pack for a Visit to The Falls

Travel Tips

Each destination has its unique peculiarities, which means  when deciding what you will pack for a visit, there are particular things that will make your time there easier, or more fun, or more rewarding.
For a vacation in Niagara Falls, you need to pack all of the usual suspects – er , objects – that you would for a typical trip, but there are some things that will really make a difference.  Add the following things to your packing list, throw them into your suitcase and you’ll thank me for it!

1.A large clear plastic bag.  Why? If you own a good camera, you will want to protect it from the mist that is an almost permanent fixture at The Falls.  I like to have my camera ready, and I often carry it around my neck, but cover it with the plastic bag to keep it dry.  Sometimes you can use the plastic to shield the camera while you take a shot.  Also bring along some soft dry cloths to wipe any wayward water drops off the lens.  It is particularly important to protect your camera if you take a ride on the Maid of the Mist.  It is such a dramatic occaision for pictures, but the spray is intense.

2.  A folding umbrella – not for the rain, but for the spray if you are going to spend some time at the edge of The Falls and do not want to get soaked. (Actually, on a 30  degree day, it feels pretty good!)
3. A copy of the Frommers Niagara Region Guide that will tell you the best places to visit, eat and stay, and reveal insider tips you would never otherwise discover. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the guide, but trust me when I tell you that it is a thorough and detailed guide, with lots of useful info.)

4. Your ipod or iphone – the Niagara Falls Adventure Pass lets you download a lively commentary for all of the places on the tour, with the history and lore you need to really appreciate what you are seeing.

5.  Some blank postcards and a good pen – for collecting autographs.  Niagara Falls attracts famous people like flies to honey.  There is seldom a week goes by without a notable character showing up Falls side.

6. a good pair of binoculars – that way you can visit the Canadian side of The Falls, but use your binos to get a close view of the American Falls, as well as the birds, Navy Island and the details of the rocks and islands at the top of The Falls.

7. Motion sickness pills – if you stay in The Tower Hotel – which stands atop a 500 foot tall tower – you might need them.  One whole wall of each room is all windows, and the tower will sway slightly if the wind is a bit agressive.  Very exciting, but maybe a bit queasy for a delicate tummy.

8. Your lucky rabbit foot, four leaf clover, or lucky charm – you will want to visit the glamourous Fallsview Casino, and with luck you may leave richer than you arrived.  (You will have a good time even if you loose a bit of coin.)

9. Your favourite mantra – the  Cham Shan Budhist Temple (aka The Ten Thousand Budha Temple of Peace) is a special building that you will not want to miss.  A little contemplation and some time to appreciate the truly special architecture here will put you in a Zen state of mind.

10. An easily washed, stain resistant t-shirt .  Niagara Falls is a surprising hotbed of Italian cusine, due mostly to extensive Italian immigration after WWI and WWII.  Places like Antica Pizza, or Mamma Mia’s offer up slurpy family-style plates of pasta, meatballs  and pizza – messy but delicious and affordable  and not to be missed. Just like Mamma used to make, – if Mamma was named Gina or Serafina.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bargaining eh?

Niagara Falls for the Bargain Hunter

Regretably, we are a nation of non-hagglers.

Canadians, in general, are not good at bargaining.  It’s somehow – well – not polite to badger someone into cutting their prices.  Bargaining is not a Canadian thing.

But paradoxically, there is no one who enjoys a bargain more than we do.  So what we are good at is searching out the best places, best prices and best buys.

Here’s five of the best buys in Niagara Falls, no bargaining or bartering required. (Now that’s a real Canadian deal.)
1. The Bundled Attractions Pass: The Niagara Falls Adventure Pass is a great way to save money.  The pass costs 40% less than if you bought four attractions seperately. For $46.95 per adult, and $34.95 per child, between April and October, you get admission to the Maid of the Mist,  Journey Behind the Falls,  Niagara’s Fury and White Water Walk, along with two day’s rides on the Peoplemover, an all day on-and-off shuttle service along the Niagara Parkway. Also, you’ll receive reduced price admission to the Butterfly Conservatory, Sir Adam Beck 2 Generating Station Power Tour, Whirlpool Aero Car, Old Fort Erie, McFarland House, Laura Secord Homestead and the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum. An added bonus of the Pass: visit a Niagara Parks Welcome Centre and staff will reserve your times to see several attractions, allowing you to bypass line-ups and feel like a real VIP. You can buy your pass online and print your own, and you can even arrange to download a guide to your MP3 player. Great Value!

2. Free Light Show: The Falls are illuminated 365 days of the year and they are a spectacular sight.  Smart visitors find a good spot in Queen Victoria Park to sit on the grass and just enjoy the view. Costs nothing.

3. A Night on-the-town Bargain ( if you are a female) Rumours Nightclub welcomes all females on Friday night. No cover charge all night for ladies at this popular dance and drinks bar.

4. Gamble on a Great Night Out for 25 cents ( and up): The people watching is great at the Fallsview Niagara Casino.  You could spend a night just roaming through the gaming rooms watching the action.  But you can gamble yourself – you can bet the minimum amount in one of the one-armed bandits (slots) -  25 cents.  If the stars were aligned correctly, you could go home with more money than you spent.

5.  Even a Bargain Hunter Has to Eat: Dining in Niagara Falls can be expensive, but if you are willing to go a little bit away from the Falls area, there are some real dining bargains.  For a delicious. filling and affordable meal, try the calzones at Johnny Rocco’s Italian Grill on Lundy’s Lane.  Have a glass of wine, a salad, one of the best calzones in town, and you’ll be out of there for under $20.

So, get set for an affordable visit to the Falls! A real Canadian Bargain.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Snow Thrill on the Downhill 

in Charlevois, Quebec:

Rodelling at Le Massif 


I stood at the top of the hill, shivering in my helmet and new Ugg boots. Ahead of me was the first leg of a colossal snow slide.
“Don’t worry,” laughed Giles, a twenty something kid I’d met in the snow tractor on the way along the top of the mountain, and who obviously couldn’t wait to attack the hill.  “Your fear will keep you warm.”
In a way he was right.  While the fear dissipated quickly, the adrenalin kept me warm.

If as a child you experienced a Canadian winter, you will share the collective memories of sliding down icy hills on toboggans, sleds, flying saucers or even pieces of cardboard.
That childhood descent was intoxicating, but would only last ten seconds, if that, and then you would have to drag your sled back up the hill to do it again.  I remember wishing that the downhill thrill could go on for ever.
If you shared that feeling, rodelling is for you.  It’s a ‘piste de luge’ experience featured at Le Massif in the Charlevois, the only place in North America that offers this winter adventure. It’s a sledding dream come true, providing a professional hand-crafted sled, a long uninterrupted and challenging groomed track, and at the end, a gondola to take you back to the top.  The 7.5 kilometre track winds through natural forest, twisting its way down the mountainside to end at the edge of the frozen St. Lawrence River. In total, the rodelling experience takes about two hours, and it is a cool winter thrill, an exhilarating alternative when skiing becomes old hat.  Or old tuque.

So, now I have snow down my neck, leaking into my gloves and glued to my cheek. My tuque is ascue and the fir trim on my new boots is heavy with ice pellets.
So why am I smiling?  Because, even though I was going too fast, missed the turn and ended up inbedded in a snowbank, this is the most winter fun I've had in years.

The attraction has proven so popular for the resort that it has expanded its hours and is often fully booked. Any winter sports' lover, especially one who is finding skiing and boarding a bit ho-hum, will want to try rodelling.

At the end of the hill, you can glide up to the top to the ski resort in the gondola and enjoy white linen dining in Mer et Mont at the chalet. 

Afterwards, you can take the train back to Baie Saint Paul, and warm up with a night in Hotel La Ferme, or return to Quebec City.  
Rodelling - my idea of a cool winter sport!

Le Massif

Le Massif de Charlevoix Ski Resort 

Phone : 1-877-Le-Massif (536-2774)


To the Summit (+/- 75 km from Québec City):
  • Follow signs for Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
  • From Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, continue along Route 138 for about 45 km
  • Turn right at the sign for Le Massif, located on the right-hand side of Route 138, 15 km BEFORE the town of Petite- Rivière-Saint-François
  • Drive 6 km… You’ve arrived!
To the Base (+/- 110 km from Québec City):
  • Follow directions for Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
  • From Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, continue along Route 138 until you see the sign for Petite Rivière St François, located about 15 km past the sign for the summit of Le Massif
  • Turn right, drive to Petite-Rivière-St-François
  • Continue along Principale St. for about 15 km
  • Turn right at the sign marking the entrance to Le Massif, onto the access road
  • Proceed to the parking area… You’ve arrived!

Follow The North Star to Freedom: Niagara Tours

For many slaves fleeing a life of endenturement in the United States, Canada represented freedom.  It was the shining Northern star at the end of the Underground Railroad, the secret network of helpers and hiding places that aided runaway slaves on their journey.

Niagara Bound Tours is a tour company that custom designs tours that will explore the history and heritage of Black immigaration in Niagara, with particular emphasis on the slaves who arrived here as a result of their journey along the Underground Railroad.
The tour features several places of interest, including Hariet Tubman’s church, the crossing sites of freedom seekers on both sides of the border including the Canadian site of for the crossing of Josiah Henson (Uncle Tom’s Cabin character), and the Welland Canal Centre – home of  the permanent Black history exhibit.
Tours can be individual or in groups. The customized tours include a step on guide who is a direct descendant (fifth generation) of a freedom seeker from Kentucky who came to Canada in 1850 settling in the Niagara Region.   Recently added are tours of the Buffalo-Niagara Underground Railroad as well.
87 Masterson Drive
St. Catharines, ON  L2T 3P8

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cruising The Canals of Europe

Sail The Canals of Europe 

European Waterway's elegant barges, and the independently owned Nooit Volmaakt, sail through the authentic villages of Europe.



Published Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012 06:00AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Sep. 06, 2012 11:48AM EDT
I spent the night in a room that was once full of sugar beets.
Drifting in through the small open window above my bed is the sound of ducks circling in search of breakfast. Soon, little white furry legs will scuttle past the window – Teddy, the barge dog, out for his constitutional – and the smell of fresh coffee will seep under the door from the galley. I know I can scramble up on deck with my camera and notebook, take some shots and a quick sketch of the mist on the river before the sun burns it off, but the bed is warm, and we were up late last night, lingering over a bottle of premier cu wine from nearby Chablis, lovely stinky local cheese and old stories from school days.
This is morning on the Nooit Volmaakt, a restored Dutch barge that once transported sugar beets along the waterways and is now owned by two Canadians from Victoria, Mary Koyl and Marc Pakenham, and their dog, Teddy. Over our first bottle of wine, we discovered that the skipper, my husband and I were undergrads at the same university at the same time long ago.
Together, we drifted along the canals and rivers southwest of Paris.
Touring on a barge is one of the most personal and intimate ways to explore Europe. The Nooit Voolmakt is only one of many barges that offer trips through the less populous areas of England, France, Germany, Italy and other countries. The small size allows passengers to indulge in their own personal interests while sailing through historic routes that are still navigable – canals that once served as the superhighways for commerce, opening trade routes that would become the foundation on which the Industrial Revolution would be built. Those canals and waterways still wind past villages, under stone bridges and straight through the bucolic farmlands of old Europe.

Barge cruises allow guests time to do what they love best. I am a food writer and an amateur artist, so the twin pleasures of time spent on deck with a mug of hot tea, continually replenished by Mary, and daily visits to markets, food shops and fine restaurants, were perfect for me.
In Moret, we moored just below the town bridge that French impressionist painter Alfred Sisley painted in the early 1890s, little changed today. I walked and cycled where Sisley and his friends did, ogled his house and sat in the main square in front of a pretty storefront that was signed, “Les Amis D'Alfred Sisley.” Perhaps he had no friends left as no one was ever there to open the shop. But no matter. This town, this itinerary, was ideally matched to my interests.
Other barge itineraries can inspire the photographer, the cyclist, the wine lover or the historian. Antiquarians can troll through a vide-grenier, French for empty attic, the Gallic version of a garage sale.
For the travelling gardener, this spring is perfect for a barge trip: to witness one of the more spectacular floral displays in the world. Holland will explode with tulips, hyacinths, irises, scillas, crocuses, muscari – it is visual fireworks that everyone must see at least once in a lifetime, and one of the best seats for this show is on a barge. The canals snake through fields that in spring are striated with bands of vivid colour created by thousands and thousands of flowers. The expanses of intense colour, in fields that unfold like well designed quilts, is a wonder unlike any other.
Many of the barge cruises include bike tours, as the terrain is flat and the scenery compact. If you bike along the paths through fields of flowers, expect to be ambushed by the perfumes of narcissus or hyacinth.
Some of the tulip barge tours stop at Aalsmeer for the flower auction and almost all of them, in April and May, include a visit to the Keukenhof, Holland's famous spring gardens in the town of Lisse, the centre of Holland's bollenstreek (bulb district). In this 32-hectare garden, bulb growers display their best and newest along pathways lined with acres of manicured gardens. There are more than seven million tulip bulbs planted here each year and the growers strive to outdo each other in the originality and impact of their displays. Blue muscari spill like rivers, daffodils grow in geometric designs, blue and white flowers mimic Delft pottery. I spent a happy afternoon drawing the antique tulips in one small historic garden, bulbs whose history stretched back to the early 1500s and whose story is the precursor to Europe's bourse (stock exchange) and North America's stock market.

While the Netherlands in spring is always a pleasure, last year was special: Floriade was on. It's the world's largest international floral show and gardening exposition, held once every 10 years. It's the Olympic Games of flowers for gardeners around the world and runs from April to October.
Ten years ago, I wandered Floriade for a whole day and didn't see it all. From landscaped display gardens to flower features to environmental innovations, there was something to beguile or inspire every few steps. You can even buy the latest hybrid bulbs for your garden. (I bought an amaryllis bulb the size of a large grapefruit, which produced eye-popping blooms that summer.)
For this sixth Floriade, held in Venlo, near the Belgian border, several barge cruisesscheduled shore excursions. Sure, visitors could do independent trips from several centres in Europe, but one of the best ways, leisurely and easily, is as a day trip from your barge. (Maybe you should be planning for your tulip barge trip in 2022!)
For, instead of design details, the emphasis on a barge cruise is on the quality of the experiences, the interaction between guests and crew, and the food, which is often larded with local specialties. It is, essentially, a slow meander down a lovely waterway with many seductive reasons to stop along the way.

There are still mornings when I wake up and imagine I can hear Teddy and the ducks. I can almost see the reflections in the water, and I wonder where Mary is with my tea.

Dutch flower cruises
European Waterways runs barge tours in several countries. Spring flower tours in Holland aboard the 12-passenger Panache, above, will include trips to Floriade. Prices start at $4,690 a person and include all meals, wines, excursions and local transfers. 877-879-8808; gobarging.com
The Barge Company runs the Magna Carta, an eight-passenger barge that cruises the Thames, including Hampton Court and stops at the Chelsea Flower Show. From $3,000 a person for six nights. www.bargecompany.com
River cruise lines such as Avalon Waterways, Azamara Cruises, Scenic Tours and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises have added excursions to Floriade.
Bike and Barge
Bike & Barge Holland offers 13-night cruises with bike excursions, including tours to Keukenhof Garden and the tulip fields, for $3,195. bikebarge.com
Van Gogh tours include six days of barging and cycling from Amsterdam to Bruges, Belgium, from $1,14. vangoghtours.com

Tulip time
Timing is everything if you want to see the tulips at their best. A late winter or early spring can shift the blooming time. The most dependable time to see the flower display in full flush is mid to late April.
This year, with a late and cool spring, tulips are delayed and will probably last until mid May. Head to the Keukenhof Gardens from March 22 to May 20 for a concentrated floral hit. keukenhof.nl

For more information, visit Holland.com.

Special to The Globe and Mail