Niagara Falls is best known as a summer destination. Hot days when you can get right up to the falls on the Maid of the Mist or through the tunnel behind the water are a wonderful way to experience the wonder of nature. But thanks to all of that green electricity and a whole lot of lights, winter in Niagara Falls can be just as magical. Even if you're arriving in the middle of one of the worst winter storms in years.
Though I'm a Maritimer born and raised, I'd been to the falls on more than a few family vacations. Of course, those were all in the summertime But my wife is from much closer. She's the one who brought up the idea of visiting the falls in the winter. She remembered the winter light shows from her childhood and wanted to revisit some of that nostalgic magic.
It's that magic that has us landing at Pearson International Airport six hours late and freezing cold. Well, ok, it's the weather system that blew through the country and took a pre-Christmas reindeer poo on holiday travel plans that has us in so late, not any magic, but you get the point.
We were both worried. Would the more than a metre of snow that had just fallen on parts of the region put a stop to the festivities? Would the power be back on and the highways reopened by the time that we arrived? The answers were sort of, maybe, and yes.
The Subaru Outback is the perfect winter sled
The one thing I wasn't worried about was getting to Niagara Falls. That's because the vehicle I had waiting for me was a Subaru Outback
Premier XT wearing a new set of Bridgestone Blizzak tires. If there's a better combination for going charging into the remains of a winter storm, I'm not sure what it is.
Warm heated seats and a fast-acting heated steering wheel were the best part of this long-delayed flight. Subaru fixed Android Auto for 2023 as well, so now it's full-screen. I still managed to take a wrong turn leaving the airport, but at least I could quickly see where I needed to turn around.
Winter Festival of lights
We arrived in the city on Boxing Day to find the roads a bit snowy, but everything open. Where was the road-closing deep snow? It turns out that the weather in this part of the country can change dramatically in just a stone's throw, but we'll get back to that.
The 2022-2023 season is the 40th anniversary of the Niagara Falls Winter Festival of Lights. The event brings the wonder of summer's fireworks shows to the cold of winter. The 8 pm pyrotechnic show is held on weekend nights from early November through to late February. Over the Holidays, the show runs every day except for Christmas Day.
Every day except for the nights we were there, that is. The shows on those nights were cancelled because of damage cleanup after the storm. We were disappointed, but just look at how cool they would have been in this photo from the tourism department! The fireworks were meant to be the highlight of our trip, but The Falls had plenty for us to do instead.
With a light coating of snow on the ground and temperatures just below zero, it was perfect weather to go exploring the lights. Most of the installations are along the Niagara Parkway, which made the tour an easy stroll from our downtown hotel.
Niagara Falls Tourism boasts that there are more than three million lights in the displays - good thing we're close to a clean power source. An hour or two of walking was plenty of time to explore from Clifton Hill to Queen Victoria place and take in most of the displays.
More than 50 giant displays of twinkling lights, a hint of snow in the air, and plenty of laughter and awe. It's all a bit magical, with the mist of the falls aglow and enhancing the effect. There were plenty of people checking out the lights earlier in the evening, but by around 9 pm, it had cleared out. Perfect for Instagrammers (there were many of them), and perfect for us getting plenty of space by ourselves along the railing overlooking the falls.
Hot Chocolate Trail and the Great Canadian Midway
It's a small city, but Niagara Falls stays open late. So after our fill of lights, it was time to warm up on the Hot Chocolate Trail. 17 stops around the city are offering their take on the classic warm drink, with choices for people who are driving and choices that add a little more warmth to the mug.
After getting warmed up, we took a ride on the Niagara Skywheel. This 60-meter-tall Ferris wheel gives you a spectacular view of downtown as well as the falls. In 15 minutes we took a handful of trips around the loop, getting to check out the city from a whole new angle. It was also a great place to watch the display of lights that the Parks Department projects onto the falls itself, using this wonder of the world as a movie screen.
And yes, the Skywheel's cars are heated (and cooled in the summer).
Our last stop for the night was at the Great Canadian Midway. With more than 300 arcade games, it was still hopping at midnight. After unloading a bucket full of tokens we ended up with enough tickets to take home the big prize. Ok, make that the smallest prize. A tiny pull-back racecar.
Niagara Parks Power Station
The next morning we had planned to head to the Niagara Parks Power Station. Opened in 1905, this was the first major power plant on the Canadian side of the river. Now a museum, the massive hall is filled with exhibits showcasing generation and the power system.
One of its newest exhibits is The Tunnel. A newly re-opened tunnel that was dug by hand and with explosives, it was originally where water would leave the power station and flow back into the river. You can walk down the tunnel and see the falls from the base, right up and close to the water. Expect, you guessed it, on the days we were there. The Tunnel was damaged in the storm, though it reopened quickly just a few days after.
So instead we went back inside to the Niagara Bird Kingdom. This is the largest free-flying indoor aviary in the world and houses more than 350 exotic birds. The highlight, aside from getting to spend a few hours in an indoor forest, was Lorikeet Landing. There, we got to feed some of the Rainbow Lorikeets that live inside. With a bit of nectar, they'll land on you and hang around for a while. It's as special a feeling as it sounds.
The middle of our day was spent driving the Niagara Parkway, and this is where I learned about the region's oddball weather. Locals probably already know about the phenomenon, but driving south (yes, upriver is south) meant colder temperatures and more snow.
With the Outback's seat heaters turned up, we were bundled up and warm inside on the scenic drive up the Niagara River. Outside of the car, snowmobilers were having a blast on the fresh snow. Plus they could go a lot faster than we were allowed to.
By the time we drove under the Peace Bridge and reached Lake Erie, the snow drifts were roof-deep. Every surface close to the lake was covered under several inches of ice.
Driving on back roads, we were looking for beaches to visit (every Maritimer knows the beaches are best in the winter), but downed lines and trees plus all that snow kept us away from the water. And kept me inside the car instead of out taking pictures.
So instead it was time for more lights! This time by car, at Safari Niagara. By summer, this site near Fort Erie is a zoo. In early winter, it is transformed into Safari Lights. A three-kilometre drive past animated motion-changing lights, under fantastic light tunnels, and loads of holiday displays. As much as we enjoyed our walk the night before, seeing the lights from inside the car was a nice treat. We picked up a pizza to eat as we drove around (the speed limit is 3 km/h), making it a very special dinner.
I've talked about magic a few times already, and maybe that's because I knew our next stop was a magic show. You can't go to Canada's Las Vegas without going to a Vegas-style show, so we saw Greg Frewin and Christian Mascia disappear, reappear, and cut their assistants in half. Was it a little cheesy? Yes. Was it a fun evening? Absolutely.
On our final morning, the temperatures had once again plummeted so it was time to find something to do indoors. The tunnel was still closed, so we went to the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory.
The massive butterfly house is home to more than 2,000 tropical butterflies. Tropical butterflies mean tropical temperatures, so spending an hour in the heat and humidity is like a mini-vacation inside your holiday. You can spot the butterflies as they zip around the dome, eat voraciously, and even land on you.
From the Conservatory, we headed north along the Niagara River. The drive is beautiful and you'll pass many historic sites from the War of 1812, including the Laura Secord Homestead. There was no chocolate store, though.
Heading north also meant no snow. Just minutes outside of Niagara Falls the weather turned warm and the snow vanished. By the time we reached Niagara on the Lake, it was downright balmy and the quiet little main street was packed with other tourists.
The Outback's long station wagon body had us thinking about antiquing. Oddly drawn to it. Even with a week's worth of luggage in the back, there was plenty of space. On the other hand, checking anything large or fragile later seemed like a terrible idea.
It's no wonder that almost every field we saw here is a vineyard, and every other barn seems to be a winery. Rainy winters are ideal conditions for the wine industry. And if you want to get out of the usual Ontario cold, the region is great for you, too.
Our last stop before heading back to the dreaded airport is the Welland Canal. Opened in 1932, the current canal is the fourth water link for shipping across the Niagara Peninsula.
Why are we stopping here? This critical bit of infrastructure lifts (or drops) freighters by just shy of 100m, allowing cargo to pass between Lakes Erie and Ontario. But as important as the canal is, that's not why I'm here. I'm here because I've always found it fascinating to be several stories below a 222-meter-long ship hauling 30,000 tonnes of cargo like ore or wheat.
Looking up at the bottom of a ship is something unnatural. You might even call it magical.
Winter did its best to get in the way of our holiday adventure. But millions of twinkling lights, some hot cocoa, and a little bit of magic made sure that this was a trip we'll always remember.