It was time for a day trip. I was picked up at the hostel just after 9am by a tour bus and driver called Louie, a large, jovial man. He had an easy humour that got the group on side. As I was last to be picked up, I sat on the only single seat beside a Swiss girl called Daniela. She had been working in America for a year and this was her last day of her subsequent holiday before her return to Switzerland.
We got a little bit of guidance from Louie as we looped around to pick up the final two passengers before heading off to Niagara. He pointed out a little bit about the Toronto landmarks we passed on the way there, and then put on a video talking about the falls. He was very friendly but at times a little eccentric, like when he kept being interrupted by phone calls from his boss and muttering weird asides. Every now and then, Daniela would look at each other and do our best not to laugh at the reactions of the rest of the tour bus. They oohed in astonishment when Louie pointed out a bridge that spanned what was a fairly underwhelming river width, and we just giggled.
Our first stop was at a vineyard that was home to ice wine, a variety pressed from grapes that are left on the vine into winter, until they are all shrivelled. It makes a very sweet dessert wine (in both white and red varieties), but it was a bit sickly to my tastes and felt like sipping cordial. After the rest of the group had dawdled and made their purchases, we cracked onwards towards Niagara-on-the-Lake, a small village where we stopped for lunch. After that, it was past the Floral Clock, a large clock seemingly made of leaves rather than flowers and thus utterly underwhelming. It did make us seem a bit like the rebel tearaways of the tour, always having a go at the sights, but oh well. Both spoilt by Switzerland, I guess.
We finally reached Niagara Falls, whose first impression was a little spoilt by the video we'd been shown driving in. We disembarked and were herded down into the Maid of the Mist boat cruise entrance. With ponchos on, we eyed the offloaded passengers as they waddled past, and they didn't seem too soaked. In fact, in the 27 degree heat, it was a bit sticky and felt rather like being wrapped in newspaper plastic.
We boarded the vessel and were rather mechanically motored out past the American falls. This smaller display onto rocks would be okay in its own right, but with the huge Canadian ones around the corner, it's out a little outclassed. We continued on without much fanfare and approached the big horseshoe falls. These are the real deal. The plume of mist was huge, thrown up by the sheer force of the water pouring off the edge. At a certain point you cross a line and all of a sudden it is just howling with rain and noise and water. You can't see, you certainly don't want to risk using your camera, and it's deafening. That's what makes it worth it.
All those people flying in helicopters over the thing or seeing it from up a tower are missing the point. You know what it looks like. What you take from the experience is what it feels like: the noise, the vibration, the damp. After the boat cruise we walked along to the tour behind the falls. You can take tunnels right alongside it and stare out at it from the other side of the torrent of water. That's how you experience Niagara Falls - dwarfed by it, engulfed in it, drenched and deafened by it. It was great.
We hunted for an ice-cream but settled for a Starbucks on the way back to the bus. The return journey was more direct and uninterrupted by Louie's talking, but because I was basically the last to be picked up, I was basically the last to be dropped off again - almost an hour after saying goodbye to Daniela. I walked the last stretch home before heading back a bit later to Chinatown. The traffic even surprised Louie, I think.
Walking through the twilit streets, I admired the vastly different feel of the place. The graffitied, street restaurant, music-filled bar scene was cool, and like a snapshot of Jamaica or something. There were dry spice stores and home ground peanut butter on sale. At Chinatown the stalls were closing up for the night and beggars were on the street. After a decent, cheap meal, I exited to discover a man had been arrested and was being subdued by police in the street, possibly with pepper spray. He was screaming, that's for sure. Interesting area. Tomorrow, I'll be back in the city centre to do the CN Tower with Jim, after he suggested as a local it was probably something he should have done before.