Niagara Falls: just the name conjures up images of glassy, bottle-green water thundering over the rocky edge, cascading down to the gorge below, clouds of damp spray hanging overhead. Lost in the mesmerizing flow of water that never stops, you can spend hours staring and listening to the incessant whoosh that is the Falls.
There are many ways to experience the Falls, and all of them bring a unique perspective and a memory that will last forever. Get up early and watch the sun rise over Horseshoe Falls; don your plastic poncho and take a trip aboard the “Maid of the Mist” and feel the spray and the noise; wrap up warm and take a walk behind the frozen Falls, or get a room with a view in a Falls-view hotel on the Canadian side, slip into your favorite pajamas, and watch the nightly light show that illuminates the Falls. (The Marriott and Hilton have prime spots, but pick your time carefully; Falls-view rooms can be very expensive during peak season.)
Whilst the Falls are the main attraction in Niagara, there are many others vying for your time and money, none more so than the Clifton Hill entertainment area. Throw off the years, buy a fun pass, and spend a few hours in the arcades, enjoy fun rides, or play mini-golf. Visit the waxworks and go for a spin on the Ferris wheel. For more serious arcades, visit the Fallsview Casino Resort and take a chance Lady Luck will smile on you.
But if the bright lights and ka-ching, ka-ching of casinos or the fun and games of Clifton Hill don’t do it for you, or you’re suffering from sensory overload, there is a more peaceful and often overlooked side of Niagara Falls where you can slow down and catch your breath. Check out these perfect antidotes to the glitz, noise, and bright lights of Ontario’s touristy Niagara Falls.
1. Float Away In The Butterfly Conservatory
Just four miles from Horseshoe Falls, the Butterfly Conservatory is open daily and offers a warm, welcome escape from bitterly-cold winter weather. Located in the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, the conservatory is home to over 40 different species and some 2,000 individual tropical butterflies that float freely around their large, airy home. Imagine any color, and there will be a butterfly sporting that shade flitting in and out of exotic, lush rainforest plants. They flutter from plant to plant, congregate at the sugar water and oranges feeding stations, and will land on your hand if you wait long enough. Be careful as you stroll along the winding paths -- an iridescent blue morpho may well be sitting on the ground around the next corner.
The entry fee includes a not-to-be-skipped six-minute introductory video that explains the lifecycle of a butterfly and how they are transported to the Butterfly Conservatory from across the world. Watch the development in real-time at the Emergence Window, where chrysalises, pupae, and eventually butterflies develop and hatch. Educational and calming, delicate, warm, and colorful -- there is no better antidote to a few hours at the Casino.
Pro Tip: It’s warm and humid inside -- leave your coat at the cloakroom. Allow 1.5 hours.
2. Find Peace At The Cham Shan Buddhist Temple
For a spot of quiet reflection, visit the Cham Shan Temple on River Road, located a quarter-mile beyond the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. The Temple was built in 1993 on the site of a former car sales lot. There are two main buildings; the two-story temple (which also includes sleeping quarters for the solitary monk and two nuns who make this their home) and the seven-layered Chinese-style pagoda, which is used for educational purposes and contains precious collections of Buddhist arts and artifacts.
Cham Shan Temple is also known as the Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, and as soon as you enter the temple, it’s obvious why. Arranged around the walls, from floor to ceiling, are shelves and shelves of identical 8-inch bronze Buddha statues -- ten thousand of them. Each Buddha has a hand outstretched as a sign of welcome, the other hand offering a blessing. As a sign of respect (and to keep the place clean -- the monk and nuns are, after all, in their later years), remove your wet shoes before walking around the temple. We were introduced to Rev. Kwon, who was instrumental in setting up this Temple some 27 years ago. This diminutive, gentle man exuded the serenity often associated with Buddhism. There are no formal tours offered, but he is keen to inform and answer questions. We chatted at length about the site’s history, his life, and the precepts of Buddhism.
During our visit, a family with two younger children arrived. Rev. Kwon immediately went off and, with his gappy smile, brought the children a tangerine. Simple, kind, nice.
Take a moment to find peace and tranquility and let the silence speak to you. You do not have to be religious, just a little curious, to learn and benefit from visiting. There is no entrance fee, but donations are appreciated.
Pro Tip: Allow one hour, and don’t be in a hurry.
3. Smell The Roses At The Floral Showhouse
No more than a half-mile from Horseshoe Falls, located on Niagara Parkway, you will find another haven of tranquility, a place where nature’s colors and textures combine to bring you a natural, feel-good experience. Welcome to Niagara Park’s Floral Showhouse. If you have green fingers, you will love this place. During the winter months, stroll through the main building and two display houses among the stunningly scarlet poinsettias, vibrant lawn-green ferns, stark cacti, and delicate orchids. Many varieties of succulents and other colorful and exotic plants are on display, depending on the season. A further 13 glasshouses are used throughout the year to grow and nurture plants ready for future displays.
In the summer months, wander around the outdoor gardens and enjoy this tranquil retreat just a short distance from the main drag.
Entrance to the showhouse is around $10 per person.
Pro Tips: There are no cloakrooms in the showhouse, and the houses are warm, so you might want to dress accordingly. Allow 1 hour for the glasshouses.
4. Pray And Drink At The Monastery Cellars
Who said religion and drink don’t mix? Monks have been brewing ales and making wine for centuries, and right in the middle of Niagara Falls, you have the chance to see the combination of wine and worship.
Located on Stanley Street, just a few minutes’ walk from the Falls, Mount Carmel Monastery stands as a place of Catholic worship and home to Carmelite monks and retired priests. Built in 1894, with the addition of a chapel in 1925, this spectacular building is worth visiting in its own right, though be sure to enter the grounds to see the building in its full glory.
Take time to reflect in the silence of the chapel -- a relatively simple construction adorned with magnificent stained-glass windows that project a colorful mosaic of light -- before heading to the attached wine boutique. Three monks and three retired priests currently live above the chapel and wine boutique -- I suspect the wooden stairs down to the chapel and the boutique are well worn!
Vines (predominantly vidal grapes) were planted in the adjoining local vineyard in 2013, with the first vintage sold in 2018. The boutique is open all year round, and around $5 buys you a tasting of the three wines -- red, white, and ice wine (allegedly discovered by German monks in the 18th century).
Pro Tip: Don’t be in a hurry, and pray before you imbibe. Allow 1.5 hours.