When newspaper headlines going into New Year’s Eve make your teeth chatter just reading them – “Cold snap!” “Arctic blast!” “Near-record cold!” – you don’t exactly feel wise throwing your luggage into a car and driving to Canada.
But wisdom and adventure do not always go hand in hand.
Kacey, Allison, and I left New Jersey in a flurry, the kind that delivers fat, lazy snowflakes onto highways and eyelashes. It was a slow trek up through Pennsylvania and New York, with mercurial weather all the way: one second it’s clear and sunny, the next you’re putting your hazards on and crawling along cautiously.
We rolled up to the Canadian border around 7pm and were greeted by an attractive, polite fellow who collected our passports and asked if we had anything more than warm clothes in the car. Luckily, Allison had put away the penny whistle by this point.
Once in the town of Fallsview, we found our hotel — and our first taste of Niagara prices.
“There’s no self-park left,” said a freezing parking attendant. “You can valet for $40 or park across the street at the casino for $20. It’ll be a cold walk across, though.”
Not a tough choice to make. We pulled into the casino parking garage and located an elevator that took us to the casino main floor, which led to a pedestrian walkway that deposited us directly in the Hilton. Why he’d said it would be cold was a mystery to me.
The casino, it turned out, was a sort of hub for Fallsview. It was large, featured walkways leading to numerous locations, and sat atop a large parking garage. We would venture through it on more than one occasion so we could limit our exposure to the cold.
That evening, we called an Uber to Niagara Brewing Company. The place was less than a mile from our hotel, but we’d been driving for 7+ hours and were all pretty cold and tired, which felt like a perfect excuse to be lazy.
The brewery was the perfect balm for our delirious, exhausted souls. Two stories high, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a talented musician on guitar, the brewery served up gut-pleasing sandwiches and a buzzy 8-beer flight. We worked our way from a crisp, tasty peach beer to some wintery, oatmeal stouts and finished with an unfamiliar but sweet icewine beer.
After, we braved the cold and walked back to the hotel through Queen Victoria Park, where Christmas-light creatures illuminated the darkness and the light snowfall. To our left, the falls boomed over bright purple and green lights. It was impossible to snap a photo: my phone, as spoiled as me by tropical weather, gave up and died at 50%. Pathetic.
We passed a few other bundled folks as crazy as us for venturing this far north in the winter and rejoiced once we set foot in our warm hotel. The hot bath with the pounding jets was a fitting end to our long journey north.
On New Year’s Eve, we woke to breakfast in the room and a foggy view of the falls. Clouds had moved in and made them barely visible. Our phones flashed the temperature outside: 2F. With windchill, it was in the negatives.
Still, we resolved to layer up and stroll along the walkway that traces the falls. It was cold. Oh, so cold. Kacey and Allison had been smart and packed leggings to wear under their jeans. I had done no such thing. I’d also forgotten a scarf. By the time we reached the visitors center, I’d decided that any amount of money was worth a second pair of socks and a scarf.
We made our way back along the falls and ventured to the parking garage to retrieve our car and journey down to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Rick had told me that this town was consistently voted the most beautiful in Canada. A wink of charm and rustic village would be a welcome departure from the hotel and casino-dominated city on the falls.
Before we could leave, though, we had to pay for parking. We were alarmed to find that the pay station demanded a hefty $50. This was astounding. A sign outside the garage flashed “$50 parking / $20 self-park”.
We took up our case with the valet desk, where a rather smug man smiled at us knowingly.
“We parked last night when it said $20, and now it says $50,” I told him.
“What’s your question?” he asked. After an awkward pause, he shrugged. “This is private property. They can do that if they want. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the parking price goes up on the weekends anyway.”
“But it doesn’t say that anywhere.”
“They don’t have to advertise it.”
“But it still says on the sign outside that parking is $20.”
This roused him. He looked irritated and immediately stood up and swiped a card into his computer, typing furiously. When he spoke again, he was a different person.
“You planning on going down to the falls for New Year’s Eve?” he asked with a smile.
“It’s going to be cold! Make sure you dress warm. The concert will be great, though. Starts about 8.”
In the end, he gave us a card that allowed us to pay $20 for parking, though we left feeling rather bitter toward the casino and the town. Jacking up prices without advertising felt like a jerk move targeted at squeezing more money out of tourists. And trust me – the town had squeezed enough already.
Niagara-on-the-Lake was located at the end of a long, scenic road that wound through dozens of vineyards. This is either advantageous for the little town, or dangerous. How many others had been distracted from their end-goal by promises of wine tastings and glimpses of icy grapes on vines?
We stopped first at Riverview, where the wine expert (is there a name for this?) explained ice wine. You leave the grapes on the vine until the temperature drops to about -8C. When the grapes are harvested, the ice and cold has shriveled them so that most of the water is gone, leaving only the sweet, sugary grape behind. We sipped the Vidal ice wine, which was served in a fancy flute. So sweet!
Next, we made our way to Reif, following a group of people who had opted to ski from vineyard to vineyard. In Reif, we were assisted by a connoisseur named Peter, who not only taught us about wine, but instructed us in how to clink our glasses in cheers. He told us how drinking wine is an experience that activates all five senses. He explained what effect oak barrels have on the wine, where to hold the glass. I found him intimidating at first, until I realized that he is just a man who loves his wine and is passionate about sharing his knowledge with others.
We left and made our way to Lailey, a little ways down the road, followed by the posh estate of Two Sisters, which made me feel a little like a commoner as I walked through its lavish doors. We bought bottles there – a Cabernet Franc among them, something I’d never heard of. (Allison’s Baco Noir, from the first vineyard, is by far my favorite, though, with smokey notes that reminded me of my grandparents.)
The girl at Two Sisters encouraged us to end our vineyard tour at Big Head, a quirky winery tucked off the main road, but when we got there, it was closed. Satisfied, we headed back to the hotel to nap and get dressed for dinner.
Kacey had booked us into the Skylon Tower for dinner at 8pm. None of us had been in a revolving restaurant before, and we were all excited and nervous. We’d watched elevators coast up the sides of the tower from our hotel window. The heights seemed dizzying.
The three of us made our way out of the hotel, bundled in sweaters and heavy coats. Apparently, there was a New Year’s party in the Hilton, because we passed dozens of women dressed in sequined skirts that left their legs almost entirely exposed, a sight that made me shiver. Who could possibly go out into the cold like that? It made sense when they all disappeared into one of the ballrooms on the lobby level.
“This is definitely not my most flattering New Year’s Eve outfit,” said Kacey.
Flattering outfits do not mesh well with cold climates. (That day, we’d encountered multiple people at the vineyards and a Starbucks that told us we were nuts for celebrating down at the falls. The radio weather forecast kept uttering, “High of zero.” It was cold.)
The Skylon Tower was a strange place that mixed arcade with elegance. We made our way through Skeeball machines and air hockey tables up to the ground floor, where a long line of people waited to pack into the elevators that would whisk them up to the observation decks.
We got in line, until a woman explained that we had to check in first, then get back in line. It was 8:05. Our dinner reservations were for 8. We got back in line, but noticed that the line first deposited you in front of a green screen where your photo was taken and later cropped to feature you and your friends in a barrel going down the falls.
“We don’t want our picture taken,” I told another woman. “Can we just get in line for the elevator?”
Once the elevator arrived, we were herded in with about 20 other people and packed tight so the door could close.
“Uh…what’s the capacity on this thing?” I heard a woman ask meekly. We all laughed nervously as the elevator shot up, its glass walls providing views of the falls and the casino diminishing as we flew higher and higher.
The doors pinged open and we were dumped into another line at the hostess stand. Harried-looking hosts warily regarded us and organized us into groups of 2, 3, and 4. I watched as the diners at their tables slowly revolved around the platform on which we stood.
We got lucky and were seated at a table right beside the windows. It was cold, and the windows had fogged up considerably, at least on the side of the tower that faced over the city. A man at the table behind me was drawing faces into the frost on the window. Children had slapped their hands against the windows and people had scrawled graffiti into the fogged panes. Allison read to us from plaques on the wooden ledge, most detailing gruesome battles from 1812 or fatalities of people dying in rock slides or going down the falls in barrels.
Despite all of this and the expensive prices, the food was excellent and the views were good when the windows were clear. As luck would have it, our rotation landed us right over the falls at 9pm, when the daily fireworks went off at the park.
“Well that worked out well,” said our waiter.
We were all feeling a mixture of warm and content and a little dizzy from the rotation, but we made it back to our hotel and resolved to go down to the park at 11:30. Even though we’d been warned that it would be freezing down there, with the wind chill off the falls adding to the biting cold, it wasn’t so bad.
A band played a free concert in the park – how on earth their fingers could accurately play chords is a phenomenon to me – and people gathered along the falls walkway, bundled in scarves and fur hoods.
The fireworks were short but sweet, beginning over the falls and then joining with a separate display from the Skylon tower.
I’d like to say that we partied with the bedazzled women and men at the Hilton, but we’d done that last year in Iceland. 1am found us all tucked into our beds, passed out.
The next morning, we packed our things to head home via Buffalo, with a quick stop at the observation deck on the New York side. It was not well-signed, so we ended up circling the area for a while before parking on a street and then wandering a frozen park in search of the deck. It was closed.
We did, however, glimpse a handful of rainbows over the falls, a stunning sight against the snow-covered tree branches and the bright sunlight.
I was glad that we all felt equally numb and frozen and satisfied. We piled into the car, cranked the heat, and enjoyed an easy ride back to New Jersey.
It was a whirlwind trip: 3 days, 2 of which were mostly driving, plunging temperatures, half-frozen falls. But it was worth it.