In the last edition of "A Fatty's Guide to Traveling and Eating the World," a monthly travel and food column here at Salon that's dedicated to helping travelers of all sizes find adventure, I detailed my love of Toronto, with its long streets filled with lots of little shops and restaurants, alongside the parks and greenery.
Oh, and some seriously good, delectably crisp Jamaican ackee and saltfish bites.
During that same trip, my wife and I also managed a quick visit to the Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake region. It was a fun-filled stop packed with wine, weed and apple fritters.
Things to Do
I've been to the zoo before, but I have never been anywhere with the number and variety of birds that are at the Bird Kingdom in Niagara Falls, the largest free-flying indoor aviary in the world.
The Bird Kingdom includes elements of the museum it once homed, which you can peruse on the first level of the attraction where you'll also find tortoises, snakes, bearded dragons and even a tarantula.
Once you get to the top floor, you'll enter the indoor aviary. The Bird Kingdom is designed in such a way that visitors walk down ramps from the top floor to the bottom; this mimics the descent from the top of the rainforest trees to ground level. As visitors descend, they come face-to-face with the birds that would live at that level of the rainforest.
There is so much to see! Everywhere you turn in the Bird Kingdom there is something else remarkable. And don't forget to stop at the Lorikeet Landing to feed the lorikeets and get a souvenir photo.
You're sure to see a few rainbows while on the Voyage to the Falls, a boat tour operated by Hornblower, that takes you into the mist and up close to the Niagara Falls. For a relatively simple experience, it's truly magnificent. It doesn't require you to do anything other than be in the moment and experience the power and beauty of Niagara Falls.
Want to be first on the boat? Take Hornblower's full walking tour, which includes the Journey Behind the Falls — an experience packed with underground tunnel and cave openings — and you have that opportunity. Either way, be prepared to get wet!
Maple Leaf Place
The Maple Leaf Place looks like a typical tourist trap, with loads of souvenirs as soon as you walk in. But if you keep walking towards the back, you'll find a newly renovated space dedicated to maple syrup. In addition to an audio tour (which is completely free) to teach you about the history of maple syrup and its intersection with that of First Nations people, you'll find a tasting bar and a maple taffy making station. At the tasting bar, you'll learn about the different types of maple syrup, and get to try all of them. The Maple Leaf Place also bottles and labels maple syrup in full view, which you can buy once you've figured out which one you love.
Every time I plan a trip, I look into the helicopter tours, and every time I'm disappointed because of the weight limit. That is until I saw the listing on Viator for the Niagara Helicopter tour.
It had no weight limit and was only 12 minutes long — the perfect length for someone like me who is still a little afraid of heights. The view of the Falls from the air is breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking. As a bonus, the tour is complete with narration as you fly across the Falls so you know exactly what you are looking at as you watch from the helicopter.
Squish factor: We did have to weigh ourselves and include our weight when registering, but it wasn't confirmed at check-in or anything of that nature. You are required to wear a chest harness seatbelt, and you will be buckled in by someone. The seat belt fit comfortably, and it seemed like it could easily fit someone larger than me, although I couldn't see the slack since I was buckled in.
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It had been a while since I'd seen a play in a theater. It used to be a tradition when I was traveling to look up local performances, but over the years, I've grown away from it unintentionally. As I was researching the Niagara region, I came across the award-winning Shaw Festival, and just had to go and watch a play. It was such a blast, and so worth it. We attended "Just to Get Married," written by Cicely Hamilton, which was about a young woman growing up in 1910, a time when you "had" to be married to be whole. The play takes you through her engagement, family "drama," preparations for the wedding, and ultimately calling it off before ending on a surprising high note. Do yourself a favor and build a visit to Shaw Festival into your itinerary for a magical theater experience.
Squish Factor: The seats were surprisingly larger than I expected, but I still felt a little squished. Choose a seat at the end of the row to have a bit more of a more comfortable experience. What was surprising was how narrow the interior doorways were. I had to turn and go through them sideways to get into the theaters. The bathroom is also in the basement, only accessible by stairs.
Where to Eat
It is hard to put into words the warmth that was the service at Casa Mia, a family-owned restaurant that's been in Niagara Falls for over 30 years. Every single bite we ate at Casa Mia was marvelous. Our meal was expertly paired with wine, and despite my general dislike for a lot of wine, they managed to nail it. The bread was served with olive oil and butter, so you can enjoy it according to your preference, and it was amazing! We started with a creamy, rich burrata, served on top of a thick slice of heirloom tomato and sliced peaches.
Eggplant parmigiana isn't usually my go to, but the mother-and-son duo in the kitchen just knocked it out of the park. The rigatoni is made in-house, making for a finger-licking good rigatoni bolognese. I can confidently say that in my opinion, having been to Niagara Falls multiple times and eaten at many of the restaurants, Casa Mia is my current all-time favorite in the region.
Fritters on the Lake
Do you remember the old Starbucks pastries? Before they changed bakeries? They used to have an apple fritter on the menu, and much to my surprise, I fell in love with the silly pastry. After Starbucks did away with them, I never had another apple fritter until I walked down Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake and stumbled into Fritters on the Lake (there might have been some of the perfectly legal green stuff in play).
The little shop smelled like heaven, the staff welcomed us in with open arms despite being a few minutes from closing. We immediately ordered some apple fritters. This was the best fritter I've ever tried. Starbucks never even came close to the pure magic that is Fritters on the Lake. Scratch that — this was one of my top ten pastries of all time! In fact, it was my favorite sweet bite I had in Canada, period. The fritters are a perfect balance of dough and apples. Their acidity complements the sweetness from the sugar and cinnamon that dusts the made-to-order piping hot fritter. Make sure you get caramel drizzle on top and get a few. One is definitely not enough!
Niagara Falls Weed & Wine Tour
Niagara's wine and wineries are a must-visit while in the area, and if you like to indulge, Venku's Weed and Wine Tour is the way to do it. It's a private tour, the only one of its kind in Niagara Falls, and family-owned and run. You'll start the tour at Niagara's largest dispensary, learning more about cannabis in Canada, before heading to the Niagara River to smoke with the most wonderful view of the rapids.
Then, you'll hop back in the Ford Transit, and head to the wineries. It's such a relaxed tour, and you'll learn so much about the region, wine, and just have a really wonderful time. Make sure to pace yourself. There was a lot of alcohol and a lot of weed, and by the end of it, my wife and I were so, so, so, so tired. Each winery will offer you a selection of wine samples, including the Niagara region's famous ice wine, fruit wines and of course, white and red wine.