Lake Erie Circle Tour Journal: Day #6 Niagara Falls, Ontario

At 3 a.m. I was awakened by a loud humming. Excited to see what was happening, I went out onto our balcony. It was the middle of the night and on my side of the street everything was dark and quiet. I stood alone on my balcony watching the scene at the lock. Lights blazed. Men arrived and later went, driving around in white pickup trucks, looking like albino ants scurrying across a floor. Men in yellow hard hats were handling ropes and operating systems. One man tossed a rope down to the ships deck. He did it slowly and so matter-of-factly, as if he had performed the same action a million times. And he probably had. This process that was so new and exciting to us was likely “just another day at the locks” for them. The “men in white (trucks)” as we had dubbed them, seemed unaware that the rest of the world was asleep. 3 a.m. or noon, it made no difference. The lockmen were always awake and waiting.

The 3 a.m. ship had sailed in from the north, disguising itself below the lock wall. It rose quickly and it didn’t take me long to discover that it was a large luxury cruise liner. The name “Victory” was emblazoned on its side. It was the same ship we had seen heading south a day before. This time her passengers were all sound asleep in their beds and her decks were quiet and empty. I stood watching until she slipped quietly out of the lock and sailed away.

The “men in white (trucks)” walked along the edge of the lock, crossed a bridge, and came up the near side of the lock to the place they had parked their two white vehicles side by side when they had arrived. They stood talking for several minutes too far away for me to hear anything but the hum of the electric lights that lined the lock turning night to day. I wondered, what did lockmen talk about at 3 a.m.? Were they planning a weekend fishing trip? Maybe Joe was telling Larry that his wife was expecting a new baby. Or maybe Earl was complaining that the boss had chewed him out last night for being late again. The two men climbed into their driver’s seats and started their engines. One truck followed the other, circling around to exit a gate and enter the highway where both disappeared, driving off to the north. Watching their comings and goings these past two days had made my curiosity grow. I became more and more fascinated by these men. Who were they? Where did they go when they left the lock? I knew that as soon as another ship was expected the “men in white (trucks)” would reappear. It was a scene we had seen repeated each time a ship passed through the lock. Where DID they go when the lock was empty and quiet?

It was a second morning started at The Early Bird Restaurant. The waitress, after only one day, remembered what we had had to drink the day before. Amazing. She may have also remembered our breakfast orders but we didn’t give her the chance to try and we all ordered something different. Tired of a week of bacon and eggs, I ordered oatmeal and toast. I was happy to find that it wasn’t the instant oatmeal served by many restaurants but traditional old-fashioned hot cereal. The serving was huge and accompanied by sides of milk, brown sugar, raisins, assorted berries and two thick slices of toast. Yum. I was a happy Early Bird!

Most visitors to Niagara Falls, especially first-time visitors, make a beeline straight for the falls and spend the remainder of their time on Clifton Hill. Once the kids see the family trappings of Clifton Hill all hope is lost. Mesmerized by things like the House of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Castle, Wizard Golf, Zombie Attack, Niagara Speedway, and a few dozen more fun and flashy tourist trappings, any chance you once had to see any of Niagara Falls really great attractions (and any cash you may have had left in your wallet to do them with) will be gone.

Those of us who live within daytrip distance of Niagara Falls however, have seen it many times. We grew up visiting the falls with our families, friends, school field trips, college clubs and more. While we always stop to take a look at the world’s grand waterfall– it is way too spectacular not to spend at least a few minutes gazing at it – it isn’t necessarily the first thing we do. (And we don’t do Clifton Hill at all).

North of the falls, along the Niagara Parkway, are some lesser known but interesting gems. We made a quick stop to view the floral clock – a giant garden disk planted with spring pansies. A large set of hands keeps the time. The clock chimes on the quarter, on the half, and on the hour. Walking around to the back side of the clock a doorway allows you to enter and see the inside of the clock workings.

Floral Clock, Niagara Falls

Another of the Niagara Parkway’s great attractions is the Butterfly Conservatory where, regardless of the temperatures outside, the weather is always tropically warm and the flowers are always blooming.

Our visit to the Butterfly Conservatory started with a short film which explained the stages of the butterfly and the processes used to bring them to adulthood. When we entered the large glass house butterflies were flying everywhere. They were all sizes and all colors. Some landed right in front of me and spread their wings, as if posing for my photographs. Others (those big blue ones) were so flighty I couldn’t begin to catch them with my camera. We walked among delicate flowers and towering trees with huge green leaves. A waterfall splashed onto rocks a floor below. Butterflies soared high at the ceiling. Butterflies fluttered before us at eye level. One landed on the back of a man standing beside me. Kay gently placed her finger in front of one and it climbed onto her hand, resting there just long enough for Rory to snap a picture.

Outside the glass house are the Niagara Botanical Gardens which can be visited for free whether or not you have paid admission to the Butterfly House. We purchased tickets for $20 per adult to take a 30-minute horse drawn carriage tour. The carriage can’t leave the main trails, so in order to see most of the gardens you must still walk through them. The tour however, led by Tom and his horse Tom showed us things we would have missed on our own. Tom told us about the school that operates the gardens and the students who design and maintain them.

Following our carriage tour, the Butterfly Café in a nearby building was a convenient place for lunch. It served its purpose but that’s about all that can be said about it. The $10 cheeseburger was dry and dull. The coleslaw was good.

A tip about parking.   The Niagara Parkway parking lot at the falls was charging $25 per day. We had paid $5 to park in the Niagara Parkway lot at the Butterfly Conservatory. That parking pass was good all day in most Niagara Parkway lots. With our $5 parking pass we were able to enter and park in the $25 lot at the falls for no additional charge.

We did the typical walk along the wall to view the falls—the four of us and about a zillion other tourists in Niagara. It was crowded, but it always is crowded. Being able to get so close to the falls, watching the water thunder over the edge and crashing to the rocks below, is an unforgettable experience that every visitor expects to have.

We were scheduled to arrive at Butterfly Manor, our lodging for the night, between 3 and 4:00 p.m. We arrived a few minutes early. The first thing I noticed was that the lawn hadn’t been mowed in quite some time. We pulled in and parked in a grassy guest parking area. There was nothing very interesting about the outdoor area. There were no chairs. No outdoor seating of any kind. No barbecue grill or picnic table. Nothing but a clean paved driveway and grass. It was tidy but looked unlived in and lacked typical B&B charm.

A young man greeted us at the door and checked us in. This is a newer house, right on the Niagara Parkway and advertised as a B&B. The owners are attempting to pass it off as such. But it isn’t a B&B in the traditional sense. The house appears to have been entirely designed for the sole purpose of renting rooms. No one lives in the house which is why it looks unlived in. It is set up to accommodate guests while making the care of the house low maintenance for the owners.

Unfortunately, operating a B&B is not a low maintenance business. Most owners do it as much for the love of hosting guests as for the money they make. They go out of their way to add the little extras to their homes that guests will find useful and interesting. Some will add libraries filled with books a guest can take with them or a stack of games to play in the evening. They display favorite collections or choose other décor for the home that will be interesting to the eye rather than easy to care for. The Butterfly Manor is clearly a money making operation. That doesn’t make it a bad place to stay and it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for what these owners are trying to do. But it is more of an efficiently run guest house with breakfast added rather than a homey B&B.

More attention had been paid to our individual rooms. Our room was very nice with two beds and a large bathroom. It even had its own refrigerator and an electric pot for making hot tea or coffee in our room. Coffee and tea supplies were “help yourself” in the kitchen. Rory and Kay had their own pretty room halfway down the hall. The house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

After dinner at a fast food Mexican place we were back in our room where we watched a little TV. Available channels were very limited but we aren’t TV watchers anyway. After a few minutes we chose to relax and read instead. I made notes in my journal. Although other guests were in other rooms, we didn’t hear so much as a whisper the entire night.

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