Niagara Falls in winter is spectacular. You can "visit the tropics" at the Floral Showcase, take in the Falls at their wildest, and delight in the magical Niagara Festival of Lights.
There’s something unsettling about standing in the midst of a sticky rainforest and peering out through a window at a winter day. Inside, all around me, tropical songbirds flit about, singing courtship tunes and playing hide-and-seek amongst the leaves and hairy trunks of palm trees.
Outside, the wind rattles the limbs of naked trees, whips the snowflakes in one direction, and stirs up the frothy white surface of the river. My mind panics, tottering between two realities, desperate to reject one as unreal.
The truth is, though, both are real. Visiting Niagara Falls in winter gives travellers the chance to experience two distinct biospheres - the frozen North and the tropical South - for less than the price of a taxi to the airport.
The secret? The Niagara Parks Greenhouse, part of the Floral Showcase, one of the great but overlooked Niagara Falls attractions. Managed by the Niagara Parks Commission since 1945, this venerable institution provides bedding plants for the 53 km of continuous parkland along the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Although it’s primarily a working greenhouse, it appeals to local residents and tourists in the know.
From the outside, with its clipped pyramid in the front, and low rectangular sun rooms in the back, the Greenhouse looks like something built by visitors from an advanced but quirky planet.
As soon as you walk through its doors, the scent of damp soil, greenery and a thousand flower blossoms hits you in the face. The humid warmth will have you peeling off your coat in no time.
Here you’ll find Jurassic-Park-style palms and Boston ferns on steroids, delicate hanging plants with blossoms resembling red caterpillars, potted trees sheared and dressed in ribbons like prize poodles. In a Victorian-style fountain, plaster cupids cavort with a sea monster.
The flower beds change frequently so, depending on when you go, you could find tulips, birds of paradise, or roses, as well as a hundred other varieties.
When you’re tired of basking in the hothouse surroundings, it’s time to trek off to the “other” reality: winter at the Falls. Since most of the 14 million tourists who visit each year come during the summer months, winter is a great time to visit if you like a lot of elbow room.
The best viewing spot for the Falls is the Table Rock Complex, which sits like a giant eagle’s nest on a precipice between the Canadian and American Falls. This centre houses a tourist office, currency exchange, shops, eateries, and a site-seeing attraction called the Journey Behind the Falls.
The central hall leads directly to an outside viewing platform with protective railing and coin-operated viewfinders.
On a winter day, you might find a dozen excited tourists braving the cold: teenage girls squealing as their flimsy nylon pants flap in the wind against their legs, toddlers clinging to their parents’ necks, seniors and honeymoon couples taking turns posing for pictures.
The view from Table Rock is justifiably famous.
To your right is the Horseshoe Falls, considered lucky because of its shape. To your left is the American Falls, so straight and sheer it almost looks like a hydro dam.
Beyond the American Falls is the Rainbow Bridge, which spans the Niagara River and joins Canada and the United States. Icicles as big as bungalows cling to both banks of the river. Although Oscar Wilde called the Falls “the second major disappointment of American married life”, most visitors are less cynical and tend to use, finally with some justification, words like “awesome”, “hypnotic” and “breathtaking”.
While it might be tempting to stay outside and enjoy the view, it’s much wiser to go back inside as soon as you start to lose sensation in any body part, no matter how trivial.
If you want to warm up but still gaze, try the Elements on the Falls Restaurant upstairs (this is the closest restaurant to the falls) with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Falls -- not recommended for those with vertigo.
Niagara Festival of Lights
The major winter event in Niagara Falls in winter is the Winter Festival of Lights which includes Christmas lights displays and concerts, parties and other activities.
The Niagara Festival of Lights features more than 120 animated characters from Disney and Canadian wildlife figures. Plus concerts, magic shows and old fashioned fun.
Note: Photos of the Niagara Festival of Lights are courtesy of the Winter Festival of Lights
How can you describe a Christmas light display featuring more than 120 animated scenes and 3 million sparkling lights?
This celebration of the winter season began in 1983 and has grown larger every year, attracting more than one million visitors.
The festival attracts people come from all over Ontario and many international visitors as well, from across the border in United States and even over the ocean. It's one of the main reasons why tourists come here to enjoy Niagara Falls in winter.
The lights run all along the Niagara Parkway from the Whirlpool Bridge out to and through Dufferin Islands Park. (Dufferin Islands Park is just past the Floral Showcase.) Although it's free to enter the park, the festival is a fundraiser for charities, so as you exit you'll find volunteers with buckets soliciting donations.
Many of the lights are animated and watching them move as you drive along is a delight to kids young and old.
Two of my favourite light displays are the Santa and the horse and buggy.
Many of the Canadian wildlife displays show a touch of humour. I love the Canadian version of Noah's ark where the first animals off the ark are the bear, the moose, the caribou (or is an elk?), the deer, the beaver and wolf. My sister's favourite is the moose!
There's a beautiful nativity scene, an illuminated Menorah display and, one of the newest lights, a Pilgrimage to Mecca display.
The Disney characters are a big draw for the kids. One of the prettiest new displays is the Disney Fairies.
When it comes to the Festival of Lights Niagara goes all out! Don't miss it.