In terms of my free time in Toronto, the Afternoon Niagara Falls tour that I did was a highlight! Some of my friends were going to blow off Tuesday's meetings and educational sessions to do the full "day" tour (10 hours) but I simply could not justify it. I could, however, make the afternoon tour on Monday since the conference schedule was pretty wide open to include a three hour "lunch and expo" slot right in the middle of the early afternoon.
I booked with Toronto Tours rather than Gray Line because of their pricing and what looked to be a nice offering of stops during the day. While I don't know what they did on the other company(ies) offering Niagara Falls tours, I can tell you that several in our group of 17 felt like Toronto Tours did a lot of nickel and diming especially at Niagara Falls. I will get to that shortly.
The tour company's shuttle service picked me up at the Hilton Hotel and took me to the departure point at the Fairmont Royal York. Given the close proximity to the convention center, had I known that was the plan I could have walked over from the center to the pick up point rather than hustling to my hotel to meet my shuttle driver. No worries, though.
We departed the Fairmont shortly after 1:00pm for our ten hour adventure. Niagara Falls is roughly 80-85 miles from downtown Toronto, probably a 90-100 minute drive under normal driving conditions (no traffic, weather or accidents). Our tour vehicle was a comfy 24 passenger mini-coach. For our group of 17, it had just the right amount of room and comfort.
Our first stop was at the Niagara College where they teach wine making and business management. It was a small campus that had limited onsite dormitories and a full teaching kitchen for their culinary school. Of course, to teach wine making, they also had a vineyard with both red and white varieties of grapes.
Inside we were treated to a tasting inside their wine tasting laboratory. It was there that students learn to recognize the color, aroma and taste of wines produced in this region of Canada. On the day of our visit we sampled a chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon. While both were very good, what I enjoyed most was the "ice wine" . . . a sweet but potent wine made after the grapes had been frozen on the vine for approximately three days. Picked while still frozen solid, the sweetness of the grapes' juices are held creating the extra sweet flavored wine.
With an opportunity to buy in their store, several folks took advantage of supporting the local college!
From Niagara College we were about 20 minutes from the entrance into Niagara Falls Park. With no admission fees charged to enter, you need not worry. They find plenty of ways to make money off the tourists and visitors!!!
Our first stop inside the park was for those who may want to take a helicopter tour of the falls. At approximately 12 minutes for $95 (CDN) nobody in our group was interested . . . so we headed on to the Niagara Whirlpool. It is here that the Niagara River flows into a U-turn of sorts, which creates the whirlpool action at the bend. Folks who would like to see the area from above may take the cable car across the river gorge for $11 (CDN). Most in our group did participate in that activity. For those of us who choose to stay ashore, there was a gift shop, snack bar and restrooms to occupy the 30 minutes or so.
With cable car rides and photos taken, it was on to the world famous Canadian Falls, also known as the horseshoe falls because of their horseshow shape. The roar of the water and the mist in the air, Niagara Falls never ceases to amaze me. I have been here three or four times, dating back to the early 1980's and each time, I leave in awe of the experience.
At the stop here (known at Tablerock), folks had another opportunity for an ala carte experience, the Journey Behind the Falls. At $13 (CDN) per person, the ala carte prices were beginning to mount! It was nice that our tour guide Wayne was able to take us through the "tour groups only" entrance bypassing what appeared to be a good hour wait.
Donned in our slick yellow rain ponchos, it was down into the bowels of the walls of Niagara Falls. The tunnels provided an opportunity to go right up and under the rushing water, less than five feet in front of you through an open portal. It was very loud!
Around the other direction, there was a walk-out and landing area where you could see the waterfalls a bit more up close, to include the Maid of the Mist boats below. (More on those to follow.)
The yellow rain ponchos didn't seem to do much good as I seemed to have gotten pretty wet just from the water that splashed my face and ran down my neck.
After we all completed this portion of the tour, we climbed back aboard the tour bus and headed for the Maid of the Mist boat launch. Finally something that was included in our tour package price! For those who are visiting independently, this was also a $13 (CDN) experience.
Unfortunately no cutting through to a "tour groups only" entrance, but the long line did seem to move pretty fast. I think we were lined up for roughly 30-45 minutes before it was our turn to climb onto the Maid of the Mist for our 20 minute ride into the mist of the rushing falls. It was very exciting to be that close to the water and to feel the turbulence beneath the boat. Again, ponchos (this time blue) were no match for the amount of water in the air.
With the boat tour and excitement pretty much over for the day, it was off to the Riverview International Buffet for dinner at 7:30pm. Not much as a buffet, it was nice to be inside and enjoying a bite to eat with others in the group. An ice cold beverage after being out in the 90f + heat & humidity, was right on time.
After our dinner it was approaching nightfall and time for the illumination of the falls. What a treat our group got, getting to go up into the lighting tower and serving as the "Niagara Falls Illuminators" for the evening. We even got certificates to prove it!
The lighting equipment looked like something out of a 1940's movie, although today the colors are controlled and orchestrated by computers. It was fun, however, creating our own beautiful light show on the falls.
With the evening coming to an end, we headed back to Toronto. I was dropped off at my door step at 11:15pm. WHEW . . . what a long day!
Toronto Tours charges $169 (CDN) for their 10 hour Niagara Falls tours (day or afternoon). If you book online, however, there is a 25% discount available. Some in our group booked through their hotels and paid a premium so if you're considering doing this tour, be sure to do your homework on their web site and book direct!
All in all, a great experience and fun day.