While Niagara Falls’ sheer majesty will blow your hair back, be sure to check out Toronto’s ever-changing constellation of attractions. By David Whitley
In theory, this is a tremendous view. The sky is clear, the sun is shining and it’s possible to gaze out over Lake Ontario, then 360 degrees across the city and beyond. You’ll have to forgive me for not fully appreciating it, though. I’m 116 stories above the ground, and all that’s between me and a 1,168ft fall is a thin rope.
The CN Tower has long been Toronto’s icon. Once the tallest structure on earth, it has now become the unlikely home of adventurers trying to test their nerve. Where once standing on the observation deck was enough, now the Edgewalk allows intrepid visitors to step out onto the platform above the tower’s revolving restaurant and face the open air from high, high up.
And it’s still not sufficient to just stand on the platform — the Edgewalk experience is about going to the very edge and having total faith in the rope and harness. Shuffling toes so that I’m in a half-on, half-off position is a real mental battle. The brain senses the danger and will not shut up about it. And then, when the next stunt is leaning over the edge and making Superman poses, that internal screaming only gets louder.
The CN Tower is in central Toronto, and there are plenty of cultural attractions to make a break there appealing. But the city’s strengths lie to the east and west of the centre, in a series of neighborhoods that have their own character and an awful lot going on. These are perfectly good places in which to be a tourist and just hang out.
These ’hoods include the Distillery District, a ginormous former whisky distillery that’s now home to galleries, specialty shops, microbreweries and audaciously decorated Mexican restaurants. There’s also West Queen West, where the slaughterhouses nearby and a lunatic asylum managed to keep rents down until the creative types moved in. It’s now gentrified beyond all recognition, and is crammed with galleries, hot restaurants and quirky bars.
But it’s arguably Kensington Market that sums up Toronto the best. In 2016, a BBC Radio study named Toronto as the most diverse city on earth, taking into account factors such as foreign-born population, number of nationalities represented and the breadth of languages spoken. Kensington Market is where this diversity is most obvious.
According to Jason Kucherawy, who runs walking tours around the area for The Tour Guys, these seeds were planted when, in the early 20th century, the Jewish community started moving into the handsome gabled houses formerly owned by the British. “They saw no need for the parlour rooms that the British loved so much,” says Jason. “So they moved their kitchens upstairs into self-contained apartments and opened shops on the ground floor.”
In time, the wealthier Jewish residents moved elsewhere, and rented out their Kensington Market properties. “The Jewish landlords didn’t care who they were renting to, as long as the rent was paid,” says Jason. And when the new immigrants, who came in waves from wherever the latest global trouble spot happened to be at the time and were met with suspicion elsewhere, Kensington Market’s friendly, welcoming arms became the obvious base.
Wind forward a few years, and this means Kensington Market has a wonderfully eclectic collection of hybridised cafes, food shops and restaurants. We venture past Rasta Pasta, which has a Jamaican oil drum barbecue at the front and serves up jerk chicken panini and pasta. There’s also Hungary Thai, which serves up both schnitzels and red curry as a nod to the home countries of the married owners. But Jason leads us into the most archetypal Kensington Market spot, a shabby pseudo food court that remains nameless. Here, several people have their own tiny stall, doing one or two things really well. At Alfonso Segovia, there are empanadas with fillings ranging from spinach and feta to kimchi. Elsewhere, there are ceviches, paellas and garish Filipino desserts.
If Toronto comes across as a city where borders don’t matter, then about two hours’ drive away is a border that really isn’t to be trifled with. The Niagara River connects Lake Ontario with Lake Erie, and forms the border between the US and Canada. Around halfway along its journey, however, the river goes over Niagara Falls. And no photos can do these falls justice.
The Canadian Falls at Niagara aren’t anything close to being the highest waterfall in the world. But it’s not the height that counts here — it’s the power and flow of the water. The Journey Behind The Falls is the most intimidating close-up experience here. It’s a network of tunnels built into the cliff, with a viewing platform from which visitors happy to get absolutely drenched by the spray can observe. There’s not an awful lot to see beyond the world’s most effective power shower doing its thing. But it’s possible to go further inside until you’re directly behind the falls. A wall of water comes rushing past the window, tumbling at the equivalent rate of one million bathtubs a minute, getting up to speeds of 68mph.
The roar is deafening, like some sort of demon animal raised from the fieriest pits of hell has had its foot stamped upon. Incredibly, some people have survived going over this monster, and the display on the history of daredevilry inside Niagara Falls’ IMAX theatre gives a fascinating insight into those who have taken it on.
The cavalcade of tightrope walkers, rapids riders and extreme kayakers started in 1901, when a 63-year-old teacher from Bay City, Michigan took the first tumble. Annie Edson Taylor figured the publicity from the stunt would set her up financially for life. She lined a barrel with cushions and a pillow and plunged over the Canadian Falls. Incredibly, she survived with only a small gash to the head — and she was a lot luckier than some of those who followed her.
More stunters have survived going over the Falls than have died, and many of the barrel-like contraptions they used are on display. Alas, one of them belongs to someone who wasn’t so lucky. In 1930, George Stathakis fitted his barrel with a three-hour oxygen supply, a mattress and his pet turtle, Sonny Boy. He survived the plunge, but hadn’t accounted for what would come next. The barrel got trapped behind the wall of water for 18 hours, where it was buffeted as rescuers looked on helplessly. George suffocated to death, but Sonny Boy made it out unscathed.
It’s the approach to that wall of water that provides Niagara’s greatest experience, and Hornblower Cruises runs a boat tour that heads over for a look at the American Falls, then slowly chugs towards the intimidating horseshoe of the Canadian Falls. It’s a comical sight as a full deck of people in plastic coats are slowly ferried towards the spray.
It’s right up close that the ferocity and magnificence truly hits. The rate at which the water comes over the edge is scarcely believable. And the tumult it causes as it hits the river at the end of the drop is cataclysmic. Whereas at Toronto’s Edgewalk, the simple process of taking a few steps seemed like the most terrifying thing in the world, here it’s the thought of going for a swim.