During the first week in September, we traveled to Canada. My mom talked us into taking a week-long bus tour from Alabama to Niagara Falls, Canada. We ended up being on a bus with 50 grandmas and grandpas, which was, in itself, an adventure. But I’m going to spare you the details of traveling with a bus load of seniors and give you the highlights about the actual destination.
The tour was a private charter that a local group booked through Diamond Tours. Diamond Tours provided a lovely, modern bus with an onboard bathroom and DVD player. The driver, Ron, was great and really bonded with the group. He ate dinners with us and really became a part of the “family.”
The trip was well organized and we had THE BEST step-on tour guide, Duane, from All About Niagara. In addition to striking an uncanny resemblance to a certain former U.S. President, Duane was the best tour guide a homeschooling family could ask for – he was a high school history and geography teacher in his former life and was obviously still very passionate about both those subjects!
Duane really went out of his way to bring a rich experience to the tour members. He even added stops that were not on the itinerary, including a visit to Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, the church attended by Harriet Tubman while she lived in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. This stop obviously meant a great deal to a bus load of Southern Black folks. Even more special, was that the woman who spoke with us was a direct descendant of one of the enslaved people whom Ms. Tubman brought to Canada.
The thing I appreciated most about Duane was his ability to discern the needs of the tour members. He was patient with the seniors as they s l o w l y made their way around, but would always give the kids and me extra tips on where to go, what to do and what to see when we stopped (and while we waited for the seniors to catch up). He was really great with the kids - they even said they missed him after we left Canada.
Where We Stayed
The bus left Alabama on Sunday morning, stopped in Cincinnati, Ohio, overnight and we arrived in Port Erie, Ontario on Monday evening. We stayed at the Comfort Inn in Port, Erie. The great thing about staying in Port Erie is that we were just across Lake Erie from Buffalo, New York, which meant my phone still received a good signal from my wireless carrier in the U.S. This meant that all my messages would download to my phone once we got to the hotel and I didn’t have to pay roaming charges. The hotel WiFi was also strong.
The bad thing about where we stayed is that the hotel was in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t walk to any shops or anywhere. So once you arrived at the hotel, you were there until the bus got rolling the next morning. The hotel was very clean, old, but obviously a remodel, and definitely on the lower end of the Comfort Inn spectrum. And we were about 20-30 minutes from Niagara Falls.
Niagara on the Lake, Ontario
On Tuesday, Duane boarded the bus at the hotel and had Ron drive us through Niagara Falls, to give us a preview of the falls, on our way to Niagara on the Lake. Of course, along the way, he gave us all kinds of history – both events and geological. His narrative was so interesting.
While in Niagara on the Lake, Duane gave us time to walk around and eat and look at the shops. He then offered a walking tour for those who wanted to join. During the tour he told us the history of the area from the time of the indigenous peoples, through the Revolutionary war, the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. We ended the walking tour over looking beautiful Lake Ontario, across which sat Fort Niagara at Fort Niagara State Park, New York (at which time my phone jumped on to my wireless carrier network and downloaded all my messages – yay!).
Welland Canal, Ontario
After leaving Niagara on the Lake, Duane took us to the Welland Canal. On the way there, he described the canal and the locks in detail. We made it just in time to see a ship pull in, raise 40 feet in the lock and then continue on its way. The kids and I had watched videos about the Panama Canal but it was so enriching to actually see a lock in action!
After watching the boat (in the rain), we went inside to the museum, where Duane gave us more history, geology and geography.
Dinner at Betty’s
At some point during the day we stopped at an outlet mall. This was to satisfy the shoppers in the group. I could have done without the stop but it was only for an hour. We got rained on again but were back on the bus in no time to head to dinner at Betty’s.
Betty’s is apparently a favorite among locals and tourists alike. We had 3 dinner options to choose from – Roast beef, baked chicken and fish and chips. My family had the fish and the beef. Both were “OK.”
Casino and Journey Behind the Falls
Our last stop for the day was at a casino in Niagara Falls. The kids, my parents and the other kid on the trip went to falls instead. We paid to see a 4D move on the formation of Niagara Falls and to explore “Journey Behind the Falls,” which put us just next to and then, literally, down a tunnel to view, Niagara Falls from behind. I’m going to be honest and just say that this whole thing totally creeped me out but the kids loved it and it really helped to put into perspective the awesome power that is Niagara Falls.
Hornblower Boat Tour
On Wednesday, Duane took us around Niagara falls and we finally ended up at the falls themselves to embark on our Hornblower boat tour. Having been behind the falls the evening before, we were provided an equally wet adventure, but from a different perspective. Floating by the two falls – the American falls and the Canadian falls – really puts you in touch with the beauty and power of nature.
After spending time doing some personal touring in Niagara Falls, we drove around and learned more history and made a few more stops, including to the Niagara Whirlpool, where you can board the Whirlpool Aero Car and travel across the whirlpool, which was formed at the end of the Niagara River rapids where a gorge has been created where the water turns abruptly and heads in a different direction. We had watched the 4D movie movie the night before (at Niagara Falls) about how the falls and gorge were formed so it was great to actually see it. Of course, it rained on us a few times during the day.
Floral Clock, Niagara Falls, Ontario
Of course, no trip to Niagara Falls can be complete without the obligatory picture in front of the Floral Clock. I pulled out my fancy camera and snapped some pics while I was there.
Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church
On Thursday, our tour of Niagara Falls behind us, we set our sights on Toronto. But before making our way there, Duane had us take a detour to this awesome little church, Salem Chapel. We learned more history about the area, Harriet Tubman and the local African American community than I ever learned in school. I was really pleased that the kids got an opportunity to experience so much history in person.
Casa Loma, Toronto
On our way to Toronto, Duane brought out maps (maps!) to show us where we had been so far and then, where we were going. He pointed out all that we’d seen so far and brought everything together from a geographical standpoint. He had basically made sure we followed the flow of the water from Lake Erie and, over the course of two days, we had followed the Niagara River all the way down to where it emptied into Lake Ontario. We were now going to Toronto, which was on the other side of Lake Ontario from Niagara on the Lake. Did I mention this guy was awesome?
Once we got to Toronto, Duane took us on a driving tour of the city. Because we had made some unscheduled stops, we didn’t have as much time at Casa Loma as I would have liked. Honestly, having visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, the kids and I were a bit underwhelmed by the “castle.” That notwithstanding, we could have spent a few hours there but we ended up having only an hour and 15 minutes. And the stables were closed so we didn’t to get to see the famous car collection we’d heard about. And, of course, it rained so I didn't get to look out back. But of course, in an exercise in efficiency, Duane told us to skip the movie at Casa Loma because he conveniently had it to play on the bus DVD. We watched it on our way to the last stop of the day, the Rockway Vineyards Winery.
Rockway Vineyards Winery, St. Catherine’s, ON
Did you know there are several wineries in the Niagara Falls area? Did you know the Falls area, geologically known as the Niagara Excarpment, used to be the bottom of a glacial ocean and has uniquely fertile soil? Did you know that in addition to grapes, soft fleshed fruit is grown extensively in orchards throughout the region? Well I had no idea.
We had our last meal at Rockway Vineyards Winery, one of the many regional wineries that happened to also be located on a golf course. Again, the food was OK but the view was beautiful. We didn’t get a chance to tour the place but we did get to taste a Canadian delicacy called “ice wine.” It was super sweet and is made from wine grapes that have had a couple days of frost on them. It was also super expensive.
Because you only get 1 drop of wine from a frozen grape, it takes a lot more grapes to make a bottle of ice wine, hence the fact that the wine was about 2 or more times the cost of a typical bottle of wine.
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
On Friday we packed up and headed back to the States. On our way to our stopover in Cincinnati, we stopped at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Again, we had limited time but we could have spent all day here. I won’t go into detail about the museum but I am definitely putting it on my list of must visit again places in the future.
Overall, it was a great trip. I will probably not do a bus tour again because I am more of a free spirit when I travel and it did grate on me that I couldn’t spend the amount of time that I wanted to explore locations. I also am one to chase rabbit holes and chafed at not being able to wander around and explore.
The long hours on the bus were also very hard for the kids. We were on the bus for several hours on Thursday, both due to the fact that we did a driving tour of Toronto and the fact that the traffic in Toronto was horrendous, thereby extending what was already a long day on the bus.
The kids were able to get some school work done on the bus and I encouraged them to run and play whenever we got off, but it was still a very hard trip for them. They did really well but I wouldn’t want to subject them to such a trip again.