Niagara Falls in winter (photo: Niagara Parks Commission)

Win at Winter in Niagara Falls

By Liz Fleming

In the summer of 1803, in spite of his bad-boy brother and his own reputation as a scandalous ladies’ man, Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger sibling, managed to convince Baltimore society girl Elizabeth Patterson to marry him. How?

He promised her a honeymoon in Niagara Falls.

That famous duo was one of the first ever to travel to the “Honeymoon Capital of the World.” Today, more than 50,000 couples come each year to celebrate their own nuptials—and they represent just a small fraction of the 12 million people who visit annually. Two cen-turies on, Niagara is still the place to be.

Though spring, summer and fall are the seasons when tourists arrive in droves, winter offers the most striking views and exciting outdoor activities. Hotel rates are lower, restaurants have shorter queues and the whole place glistens with an icy welcome.

The wintry sidewalks beside the Niagara Gorge are a great photo vantage point, but total immersion in the raging water is what you want. Journey Behind the Falls takes you 45 metres down into a tunnel bored straight through the bedrock. Emerging onto covered terraces, you find yourself in the heart of the watery action. The cold mist turns your cheeks red and the sound reverberates in your chest as if the churning white water has not only surrounded but also invaded you. Your heart beats in time with the pounding of the torrent.

You might be cold, but the pull of the water is irresistible. Stroll along the walkway beside the raging Niagara River to really feel the power of its roaring current. Standing at the railing at the brink of the falls, with spray misting your face, consider Roger Woodward. The seven-year-old was swept over one July afternoon in 1960 when his family’s fishing boat capsized. Imagine the shock on the faces of Maid of the Mist tour-boat passengers when the boy bobbed up to the surface—unhurt in the raging maelstrom. But please don’t try to recreate Roger’s adventure—it’s potentially lethal and quite expensive, carrying a fine up to $10,000.

Winter in Niagara Falls Journey Behind the Falls
A frozen Journey Behind the Falls (photo: Niagara Parks Commission)

At the swirling base of the drop, the river is 52 metres deep—the same height as the falls themselves. The churning creates impenetrable walls of mist, another heart-pounding soundtrack, and even more reasons to be awed. You won’t even begin to notice the chill until ice starts to form on your jacket.

Sure, Niagara Falls has its kitschy, cheap-t-shirts-and-fridge-magnets touristy side, but the jaw-dropping wonder of the place explains why it tops so many bucket lists. Even Niagara’s Fury, the blatantly Disney-style attraction in Table Rock Welcome Centre, shakes you to your core with its 4D recreation of the birth of the falls. Grinning animatronic characters deliver all the facts and figures, but the moments you really remember come after you’ve entered the darkened special effects chamber.

For a few moments, you’re transported 12,000 years back in time to the end of the last Ice Age, when glacial melt water ripped through the earth, creating the world’s most spectacular waterfalls. Water surges up and over walls that surround the room, the floor shakes and shimmies, the temperature drops 20 degrees, snow and rain fall inside and the mighty roar of splitting rock fills the air as the simulated birth takes place—with you as midwife, in the centre of it all.

Those waterfalls are never more stunning than during the Winter Festival of Lights—another much-loved winter tradition in Niagara. From mid-November through to late January, the buildings, trees and parklands of Niagara Falls are draped with millions of tiny lights, twinkling along the scenic bends of the Niagara Parkway.

Some light lovers choose to see it all from the cozy comfort of their cars, but purists bundle up and catch the glow from the much less cozy sidewalks. Wherever you sit or stand, the reflection of the lights hitting the ice on the buildings, railings and trees near the falls is spectacular. A giant stream of colour also radiates from the top of a nearby tower, coating the falls and the surrounding ice in brilliance.

On Friday evenings, fireworks explode over the falls. Locals and visitors alike clamour to reserve window seats at restaurants over-looking this dazzling light show. For the best views—not to mention locally sourced dishes and wine—you can’t beat Elements on the Falls.

The biggest party of the year happens on New Year’s Eve, when thousands of revellers stamp their feet to the music—and, presumably, to keep those feet from freezing off—at the outdoor celebration in Victoria Park. International stars rock out the old year and roll in the new. The illuminated Horseshoe and Bridal Veil Falls provide a gleaming backdrop for the annual NYE blowout.

Everyone loves the big water and light shows, but the quintessential Niagara way to toast the snow and cold is with a glass of ice wine. Discovered centuries ago by German monks (who accidentally left grapes to freeze on the vine), ice wine is a rare delicacy that can only be produced in a few places in the world. Luckily, Niagara is one of them. When temperatures drop to –10 C for three consecutive days, volunteer grape-pickers pluck the frozen fruit from vines. The grapes are then pressed in an unheated chamber. The intensely sweet, highly concentrated juice that results becomes ice wine: Liquid gold to warm up winter nights.

Winter in Niagara Falls Icewine Grapes Harvest
Harvesting frozen grapes for icewine (photo: Inniskillin Estate Winery)

When the precious harvest is in, the mid-January Ice Wine Festival warms up the vino-loving communities of Jordan and Niagara-on-the-Lake. No matter how low the mercury drops, serious oenophiles rub parka-clad shoulders as they belly up to ornately carved outdoor ice-bars to savour Niagara’s finest from frosty ice-glasses. Live bands heat up the frigid street parties and, once the crowds have had a few glasses of the intensely, seductively sweet ice wine, they’re dancing their boots off. Ice doesn’t get any cooler than that!

Don’t worry if you miss the festival: Many of the Niagara’s 100-plus wineries offer ongoing ice wine tours and tastings so you can sip, sample and savour in any season. In fact, many Niagara wineries also have cafés and chef-run bistros whose creations incorporate ice wine and many of the vintages for which the region is so famous. One of the season’s greatest joys is settling in for an afternoon of sampling Niagara’s best cuisine while winter winds whistle outside.

That Jérôme Bonaparte was really onto something. He knew the attraction of one of nature’s most stunning creations when he captured Miss Patterson’s heart. And it’s been a lasting attraction, still going strong centuries later.