Cycling The Niagara River Recreation Trail: Ice Wine, War of 1812 History And A Back Door To Niagara Falls (Part 1)

niagara fallsI must have been absent from school the day we learned about the War of 1812. Growing up, history was my favorite subject, but as I sat in an office interviewing Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, who mentioned upcoming events to commemorate the bicentennial of the conflict, I couldn’t for the life of me recall who won the war (it was a stalemate) or even why it was fought. (Unresolved trade issues, the impressment of U.S. sailors into the British Navy and British efforts to halt America’s westward expansion.)

I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived and worked in the city for many years. Growing up, we visited the Falls often, usually when friends or relatives from out of town came to visit, but occasionally just to get out of the house.

But despite the fact that I’ve been to the Falls probably more than 100 times, I’ve never thought to ride a bike near this iconic natural wonder until I saw some cyclists on an organized bike tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Ontario, a distinctive, historic town 18 miles north of the Falls, last summer.They were on a wine tasting tour that brought them to several area vineyards mostly via the Niagara River Recreation Trail (NRRT) a 35-mile trail that hugs the river, starting in Fort Erie, just across the border from Buffalo, to Fort George, a key battleground in the War of 1812 located on the edge of NOTL’s historic district. I read up on the NRRT and decided that I could learn a thing or two about the war, have a bit of wine and get some exercise, all on one bike ride.

My wife and I set out from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on our ad-hoc NRRT tour on a warm, almost perfect Tuesday morning in July. We ditched our car at the parking lot in front of the visitor’s information office, where you can leave your car all day for just $5, and went inside to ask for a NRRT trail map.

A young man manning the information desk had no map and was surprisingly unfamiliar with the trail.

“Where does it start?” he asked, handing us a free map of Niagara Falls.

“We were hoping you would know,” I said.

He conferred with some similarly uninformed colleagues and they concluded that we should probably just ride down to the Falls and turn left to head towards NOTL. But as we flew down Clifton Hill, the Canadian side’s tacky street of video game parlors, tourist traps and motels, and saw the mist rising from the Falls, we decided to head right towards the Horseshoe Falls.

It was about 10.30 a.m. and there were plenty of tourists ambling about, snapping photos and queuing up for the Maid of the Mist boat trip, but it wasn’t crowded yet, so we were able to ride right past the tourists gaping at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, all the way down the Horseshoe Falls, where we got a delightful little cool down from the mist.

I’ve always loved Niagara Falls, but being able to glide by all the tourists and see the Falls at about 10 mph was a new thrill. Why had I never done this before?

As we headed north, away from the Falls, we passed the impressive seven-story Cham Sam Buddhist Temple, which sits incongruously amidst a string of cheap motels and shops catering to tourists, before the trail became a distinct bike path just beyond a Super 8 motel. On a gradual uphill section of the trail just outside the Falls, my wife tried to shift gears too abruptly and jolted her chain right off the bike.

I feared that our outing would be a bust, but she had it back on in ten minutes. With a lane of our own to work with, we picked up speed, cruising by the Whirlpool Aero cable cars, a pretty golf course, and the strangely appealing Sir Adam Beck II Hydroelectric Generating Station, which offers 40-minute tours for $9.95.

niagara river recreation trail

The U.S. and Canada share the longest peaceful border in the world, but two hundred years ago, many of the major battles of the War of 1812 played out in the Niagara Region. Shortly after cruising by the generating station, we stopped for a climb up Brock’s Monument, in lovely Queenston Heights Park, which offers a terrific view of the surrounding region, including the Falls.

Sir Isaac Brock was a British army officer who became a Canadian hero after being shot in the chest while leading British and Canadian forces into battle at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Only three decades removed from the Revolutionary War, Ontario had a large population of Loyalists who left the U.S. after siding with the British during the war, and Brock came to symbolize Canadian independence.

The first monument was bombed by an anti-British activist in 1840 but was quickly rebuilt. On October 12, last year, hundreds of reenactors marched on Fort George and recreated the momentous battle where Brock was killed.

Rejoining the trail, we hit its most exhilarating downhill slide right after the Brock Monument, and as I went flying down the shady path, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I realized I’d cycled down this section of the path before, as a child, but I couldn’t conjure the exact circumstance.

After leaving the park area, the trail jogs past the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, a well-preserved village that was founded in the 1780s and retains the loyalist leanings of its early inhabitants. Queenston Street is filled with historic homes, and many were flying flags to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Pretentious to be sure, but perhaps not surprising since the town was badly damaged by American troops in the War of 1812.

We made a brief stop to check out the home of Laura Secord, who is Canada’s Paul Revere. In June 1813, Secord became aware of American plans to stage a sneak attack on British/Canadian forces, and walked 20 miles to inform the British, leading to their victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Just outside Queenston, we started to pass enticing fruit stands, selling fresh cherries, peaches, apricots, blueberries and plums. And further up the path, a string of wineries dotted the Niagara Parkway – we passed Ice House, Riverview, and Inniskillin before stopping at the Reif Estate Winery, one of my favorite family owned wineries in NOTL.

When I was growing up on the other side of the border in the ’70s and ’80s, there were just a smattering of wineries on the Niagara Frontier but our regular visits to the Canadian side of the border always felt like excursions to another world. The wineries, the tidy, green parks, the Victorian mansions along the Niagara Parkway and the cutesy town of NOTL presented a classy juxtaposition from the dull suburb of Buffalo I grew up in.

Today, there are more than 70 wineries in the region, many of them specializing in decadently sweet ice wine, and NOTL is a major tourist attraction. Major corporations, like Vincor International, own some of the most popular wineries but I’ve always preferred the family run places like Reif, Pillitteri Estates and Konzelmann.

We tried three ice wines at Reif for $5, one more sinfully sugary than the next. Our bartender told me that my favorite – the Vidal ice wine was a 22 on the sugar scale.

“It’s got hints of pineapple, honey, pear and apricot,” he said.

My palate is never sophisticated enough to catch all the flavors it’s supposed to and I half think the barkeep was just making things up as he went along, but I had to admit – it was damn good.

Our appetites whetted, we made a detour from the trail, heading west on a road lined with vineyards simply called Line 1 to have lunch at the Pie Plate, a bakery and restaurant on Niagara Stone Road. Downtown NOTL is filled with cute little restaurants, but many of them are tourist traps. The Pie Plate is where the locals go for good local beer, wine, baked goods, pizza and sandwiches.

On this afternoon, two cute blondes, Josceyln and Alicia, were waiting tables and my wife got them confused.

“Everyone gets us confused,” Alicia said. “We used to live together and we even dated the same guy.”

I wondered who the lucky guy was but contented myself with a Steam Whistle Pale Ale and a wood fire pizza that I made short work of before heading east on Niagara Stone Road towards NOTL with a stop at Pillitteri Estates for more ice wine.

I’ve never been a fan of Queen Street, NOTL’s main drag. It’s filled with overpriced shops and restaurants hawking useless trinkets and mediocre food, and there are usually way too many tourists clogging the sidewalks, especially on weekends. But riding up and down NOTL’s quiet side streets is a joy.

We parked our bikes at Queens Royal Park, a beautiful little green space with views of Toronto in the distance, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, and spent a few minutes digesting a plaque that lists all the people who have swum across the lake.

Sixteen-year-old Marilyn Bell became a Canadian national hero in 1954 when she became the first person to make the crossing, completing the 51-kilometer swim in just under 21 hours. Two years later, a 36 year-old-man accomplished the feat but took 18 minutes longer than Bell. Over the years, strong swimmers from all over the world have shaved time off of Bell’s mark and the plaque still has space for those who are fit and crazy enough to attempt the crossing.

The trail ends at Fort George, a key fort controlled by the British during the War of 1812, and rather than retrace our route back to Niagara Falls, we paid $10 to take a shuttle back to our car. In taking a cab back to Niagara Falls, I felt like we cheated a bit and resolved to return to the area to cycle the first half of the trail, from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.

Nick, our driver, had no interest in ice wines or the War of 1812 but was plenty annoyed that our bikes were taking up space in his minivan.

“You really should pay double price,” he said, as we pretended not to hear him.

Click here for part two of this story, the ride from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.

Daredevil gets clearance to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope

Canadian officials gave final approval to daredevil Nik Wallenda’s bid to tightrope across Niagara Falls on Wednesday. The Canadian Parks Commission decided to grant Wallenda a one-time exception to the longtime “stunting” ban which prohibits such activities at the Falls. Tourism officials on both sides of the border believe that Wallenda’s crossing, which is likely to occur in mid-June and will be covered live on the Discovery Channel, is likely to boost tourism in the region.

In an extensive interview with Gadling in January, Wallenda said that if he didn’t receive permission from Canadian officials, he’d cross the U.S. portion of the Falls, but maintained that crossing the international boundary was his dream. He said that he had his own rescue team and insisted that the event would be a win/win for the region.
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Nik Wallenda: the daredevil who will tightrope across Niagara Falls

Nik Wallenda practicing on the Ferris wheel in Santa Cruz Beach

Nik Wallenda
is a 32-year-old Florida native who plans to walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls this summer. He’s a seventh generation daredevil who performs with his wife, and a dozen other Wallenda family relatives at venues around the world. We caught up with Nik to ask him about his plans, the potential tourism impact on the Niagara region, and his sanity.

Do people think you’re crazy for wanting to walk across the Falls on a tightrope?

They do, until they get to know me. People expect me to be crazy, but I’m a normal person who has an education but who just happens to do something else that’s run in my family for seven generations.

As I understand it, you’ve received permission to tightrope across the Falls on the U.S. side, but the Niagara Parks Commission on the Canadian side recently turned down your proposal?

That’s correct. But I’ve been invited by the Minister of Tourism for Ontario to meet with him, and Ontario’s Premier (Dalton McGuinty) said it was an extremely interesting proposal that deserved further review. So those are encouraging signs to me.

And if you don’t receive permission from Canadian officials, what’s your plan B?

I’ll walk across the American falls, starting at Goat Island. But I still hope we can walk across the international boundary, because it’s the 200 year anniversary of the war of 1812, and this is the longest peaceful border between two countries and I’ve always wanted to walk from one country to the other.

So one way or another you’re going to tightrope across the Falls this summer?

Definitely. It’ll happen in June or July of this year. (Press reports now indicate that the tentative date is June 15-17)

If you get permission from both countries where would your walk start and end?

I would start on the U.S. side on Goat Island, at the visitor’s center and I’d end on the Canadian side, right next to their gift shop, so I’d be walking directly over the Horseshoe Falls, which in the history of tightrope walking in the Falls, hasn’t been done in over 125 years. Actually no one has ever walked directly over the Falls.

So The Great Blondin and other famous 19th century daredevils didn’t actually tightrope over the Falls?

They did it over the Niagara Gorge, about a mile downstream from the Falls. There are a lot of myths about what those guys did. One of them is that the Great Blondin did a back flip halfway across. I’ve done this my entire life and its been in our family for 200 years and I can tell you that it is not possible to do a back flip on a walk like that.And there’s also a legend that the Great Blondin tightroped across with a stove, cooked omelets for people halfway across and then lowered himself down to the Maid of the Mist boat, where he served them to passengers.

Right, there are photos of him cooking eggs on the wire, but the stove came up on a tower that was lifted up to him. And his walks were about 60 feet above the water, whereas mine will be 160 feet above the water. But he did carry his manager across the wire on his back, so he did some amazing things and was a real marketing genius for drawing people to the Falls.

So you won’t be cooking omelets on your way across?

Probably not. But I’d like to do this several times, so I might build up to things like that.

The golden age of daredevils at the Falls ended around 1897 when a law banning “stunting” came into effect, is that right?

That’s my impression, but those early pioneers helped spark a tourism boom for the Falls. We’ve done an economic impact study for my event, and it showed that my walk would bring in about $120 million dollars worth of tourism over the next five years, with the day of the event itself bringing in about $20 million, just on the Canadian side. So it would be a huge impact. It’ll be carried live in primetime on the Discovery Channel and will be seen by about 600 million people worldwide.

And how many people do you estimate would actually turn up at the Falls to watch this live?

I did a walk in Pittsburgh where I walked across the Alleghany River, (see photo below) a few years ago where about 120,000 people showed up, so I’d say a very conservative estimate would be about 125,000 people on each side of the Falls.

If you’re able to walk across to the Canadian side, how long a walk is that?

It’s about 1,800 feet across and 160 feet high. My wire is about two inches thick in diameter, and it’ll be anchored to two construction cranes. I expect it’ll take 30-40 minutes.

You’re providing your own rescue team, so there is no fiscal burden on taxpayers in case you fall, right?

We have everything from rescue divers to our own rescue pilot that I’ve worked with before. There will be no environmental impact on the Falls whatsoever, and there’s no liability or risk for either side. I just broke a world record with my rescue team in which I hung by my jaw underneath a helicopter 260 feet above the ground. Realistically, the worst case is I grab down and hold onto the wire, and within forty-five seconds, they’ll pluck me off that wire. I train to hold my wire for up to 2 hours, and I train in high winds and rain, so I’m ready.

Why do you think “stunting” is banned at Niagara Falls?

Well, the Governor of N.Y. signed into law a one-time exemption to the stunting law for me and it passed 65-0 in New York’s senate- when else do you see Republicans and Democrats agreeing on something? The U.S. saw the value in it; they knew it would boost tourism in the area. On the Canadian side, the Parks Department told me they didn’t want a ‘carnival’ atmosphere and everyone laughs at that. Uhhhh, look around; there’s a huge Ferris wheel, and everything else a carnival would have. What I do is an art, it’s not even carnival or circus-like, so it’s kind of a joke.

Do you have insurance for this?

I do have liability insurance and life insurance. You can get anything for the right price.

What other records do you hold?

I hung by my jaw with nothing but my teeth- I bite down on something and hang. I also have the record for the highest bicycle ride on a wire, which is about 278 feet; the longest distance on a bicycle, which was about 260 feet across; my mom and I also have the record for the highest duel walk; I have the world record with my family for the 8 person pyramid on a high wire, and there are others as well.




Have you had nightmares about falling off the wire over the Falls?

I’ve never had a nightmare about performing. But I do dream about these things and that’s where I get some ideas from. For example, I have a permit to tightrope across the Grand Canyon and plan to do that in the next few years as well.

Will your family worry about you up on that wire?

I’m married and I have three children. My kids are 8, 10 and 13. They all walk the wire already; we’ve been doing this for eight generations, so it’s in their blood. I don’t think they’ll be too nervous. They’ve seen me doing this stuff their whole lives. If you’re dad’s a roofer, you’re not going to stop and watch in awe when he’s putting a roof on someone’s house. That’s what he does.

Will you do any of the normal touristy activities when you’re at the Falls this summer?

I haven’t been on the Maid of the Mist, so that’s something I’d like to do. I love the Falls. It’s one of the great wonders of the world. Niagara Falls is going to be like a second home to me in the future. I don’t plan for this to be a one-time event; I’d like to set up a summertime show there, so we can keep this going.

When you step onto that wire and look out at the Falls, will you be even a tiny bit scared?

No. I started walking on wires when I was two. I respect it and realize there is danger, but I train and I over-train for this, so once I get there it makes it that much easier.

You won’t even have a few butterflies?

I’m sure I will, but it’s hard to tell. The hardest part will be waiting for the camera crew to tell me it’s O.K. to go, because with all the pent up excitement, you just want to get out there and go. So there’s some anxiety and anticipation, but excitement as well. This is a dream and I’m living it.

But will you look down at all, or is that taboo?

Absolutely, I look down all the time. I plan to admire the Falls while I’m up there. It’s actually relaxing to walk a wire, believe it or not. My great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, said ‘life is on the wire, and everything else is just waiting,’ and that is so true to us. It’s peaceful and relaxing to be on that wire alone, just me and the maker.

Daily Pampering: Niagara Falls goes luxe

Presidential Suite
The Hilton Hotel and Suites Niagara Falls/Fallsview has just unveiled their new Presidential Suites, two 50th floor rooms with astonishing views to rival any in the world.

Hilton Hotel and Suites Niagara Falls/Fallsview“This new addition to our hotel is extremely exciting,” said Anthony Annunziata, VP of Marketing and Development, Hilton Hotel and Suites. “With the Presidential Suites, we are changing the way people see Niagara Falls, by offering guests superior accommodations, one-of-a-kind views of the Falls and exquisite décor, all of which are unavailable anywhere else in the area.”

The two 1,500 square foot rooms, which offer views of both the Canadian and American Falls, are adorned in chic shades of white, silver and black. The modern palette is made cozy with the use of lush wallpaper, elegant ornamental chandeliers and a king-sized bed with a striking warm brown headboard. Remote controlled blinds and an electric fireplace complete the modern theme.

The entire hotel recently underwent a $150 million expansion to include over 1,000 guest rooms, two new restaurants, and 40,000 square feet of conference and meeting space, as well as a 40,000 square foot recreational pool and spa. The stunning views from the 50th floor presidential suites can only be reserved for private guests or corporate functions by contacting Jim Graham at 905-353-7160.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

Cycling on rise: around the world, two wheels are being shed

In Canada and in Europe, according to the Toronto Sun, cyclists are seeing more bike paths built. New attractions and offers are being designed to appeal to cyclists, and challenging routes are gaining popularity. In honor of Toronto Bike Month, which runs until June 25, the Sun has offered a few ideas for pedal-pushers around the world.

La Route Verte (the Green Route) is the longest ride in America. At more than 2,500 miles, it crosses Quebec both north-to-south and east-to-west. Take on this challenge, and you’ll pass through 320 cities and towns on bike paths and quiet roads, enjoying attractions like the Laurentian Mountains and St. Lawrence River from a new perspective. Accommodations along the way with “bienvenue cyclists!” signs will be ready for you, including bike tools and a safe place to lock up your ride.

Also in Canada, the Toronto-Niagara Bike Train is a new program to help cyclists get out to the Niagara Region. Some VIA Rail Canada trains are now equipped with bike racks to make transport exponentially easier.

In Trondheim, Norway, look for the world’s first bike lift. If you prefer not to blast your quads attacking a hill steep enough to have a name (Bbrubakken), take advantage of the Bicycle Lift Trampe. Using an electronic key card (buy or rent), you gain access to the easiest way up.