The Niagara Region is a perfect destination for boats big and small
By Steven Bull
More than two centuries ago my brother-in-law’s ancestors first dug into the soil atop the Niagara escarpment and laid the foundations of a family farming tradition that thrives to this day. While I love him and my sister as people, and visiting their beautiful home and their farm is always a cool experience for a city boy, the idea of sacrificing a weekend on the boat to be landlocked at the ranch has always been a point of contention for me.
This summer my wife, Jay, suggested a perfect compromise: we take our boat across Lake Ontario to Jordan and St. Catharines to show my sister, Shauna, and her husband, Dave, their own “backyard,” but from our perspective.
It worked out well for us. We got to spend time on and around the water, we all got to explore the region and experience some “must dos” and, as Shauna and Dave are dairy farmers, being close to the farm chores meant they were happy to stay put. Win-win-win!
Our crossing from Toronto, nearly due south, was smooth sailing, with almost no wind, very flat waters and warm sun. It was a perfect day on “Worth the Wait” and anytime the journey is as relaxing as the destination, you know you have the boating gods on your side.
Stop one was Beacon Harbour Marina in Jordan. It was the perfect meeting spot for all parties involved; our cameraman who was filming for PowerBoat Television was planning to stay in the lake view rooms of the Ramada Beacon Harbourside while we were able to spend the first night in the marina it overlooks. Plus, it was very close to Comfort Farms.
If you miss the break walls or the 105 slips, there’s a giant pirate-inspired shipwreck replica that you certainly won’t miss.
For cruisers like us, it was basically home as we could plug in and call it a night. For trailer boaters, there’s a boat ramp and trailer parking on site if you want to make this your base of adventure and stay in the hotel. For those who like to fish, there are some quality opportunities along the south shore, especially towards Port Dalhousie just east of here.
The next morning as we wandered about waiting for Shauna and Dave to arrive, we saw an intriguing sign: Flyboard Niagara. It was intriguing in that I had no idea what flyboarding was, so naturally, I wandered over and said I wanted in!
Turns out, it’s all about hovering above the water and, if you’re skilled, doing tricks. The board itself is part wakeboard, part fire hose, and all kinds of fun. You slip your feet into the boots that are similar to a wakeboard set-up, just on a smaller board that has a big hose running to it. Two jets shoot straight down from either side of the board to propel you up and out of the water and a rider on a PWC controls it all.
Since we had some time to kill I gave it a go and, surprisingly, it was easier than I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong it’s not simple. It’s just not as impossible as you might think when you watch it. It comes down to basic balance, not panicking and learning how much to bend your knees and ankles.
After spitting on the surly bonds of gravity and it exacting swift retribution by slamming me back into the water over and over (and over) again, I had enough of flyboarding for the day. Since they are based right in the Beacon Marina, near the shipwreck, it was a short walk back to the boat to dry off and change in time to meet Shauna and Dave at the Beacon Restaurant, again right on site.
It’s a regular spot for them when they have out-of-town visitors, especially at night, because on clear days you can see the Toronto skyline across the water. Today it was hazy, but that didn’t matter as we had just left the Big Smoke and were focused on where we were not where we were before.
Water-based was the overarching theme of the visit, but not hitting a winery or a golf course while in the Niagara region is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower – you have to do it. Not wanting to spend our whole weekend on the course, but not wanting to pass up some of the best of the region, we found the perfect stop for boaters.
A quick 10-minute drive and we were pulling into Rockway Vineyards. Their Golf-Wine-Dine offer is the only such combination in Ontario. We were lucky to have Shauna drive us, but the cab ride for cruisers would not be long, or expensive. For trailer boaters it’s an easy drive. In any event, the fact you can play golf, experience a winery (read: tastings!), and have a delicious meal in a scenic restaurant all in one stop makes this a great destination for boaters of any sort. No wasted hours hopping from location to location.
You may have heard of Rockway Glen Golf, but that name has since been changed.
“The main reason for that was we’re very well known as a great golf course, but weren’t really known as a winery,” Rockway’s Shelley Traver told me, not far from the 18th green. “We had people think ‘Oh does that golf course make wine?’ so we wanted to branch out and be the award winning winery, which we are, that happens to be situated on a golf course, so the name changed.”
In the basement of the one main building, that houses the restaurant, pro shop and wine shop, is a small museum of wine history. Inside there is a collection of implements used in the cultivation of wine over the years that segues nicely into the tasting.
As our guide led the four of us back up to the shop and tasting bar. Jay, being pregnant, sadly had to opt out and I, volunteering to drive back, joined her and we headed down to the pro shop to rent some clubs.
Meanwhile, Shauna and Dave insisted that, for the sake of research for future visitors, they should taste as many wines as possible and stayed put.
The golf course, regardless of name change, is as stunning as always – though I’m pretty sure there are some significant design flaws here. It’s that or my golf game needs a lot of work. I was awful! Jay and I had a blast nonetheless.
After a delicious dinner the sun started sinking and we took off. Again the boating gods were smiling on us as we cast off from Beacon Marina. It was a stunning dusk run eastward.
With only a few big lakers, patiently waiting anchored not far from the mouth of the Welland Canal, we had the rest of the lake to ourselves. As we ran on a gentle arc around the breakwaters of Port Weller the iPhone photos were being snapped at near-record pace of the stunning sunset.
As the sun disappeared below the horizon we slid into St. Catharines Marina and into one of the 180 slips of this quiet and friendly spot, with just enough light to put the canvas back up and call it a night.
The next morning we had a bright-and-early start to head to Niagara-on-the-Lake, again by car. You can boat there if there’s docking at the sailing club, but space is very limited. If there is room, as a bonus, it’s directly beside our morning adventure: Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours!
I’ve wanted to do this for years and am clearly not alone. In operation since 1992, they take as many people on rides in a single day now as they did in their whole first year.
“We have kids as young as four and we’ve had guests on our boat as old as 80. Families, grandparents, corporate groups, and schools,” Jessica DiCarlantonio explained as we stood in front of one of the famous boats. “The great thing about jet boating is that everyone can enjoy it.”
Before our group boarded she let me have an up-close look at this bright orange beast. There are eight of these custom boats departing from three different locations: here, at the main dock in Niagara-on-the-Lake, down river in Niagara Falls and across the river in Lewiston, New York.
We were set to go out on the biggest of their fleet, the 54-seater, powered by three 1,500-horsepower Volvo Penta turbo diesels.
The hull is almost flat, so 180-degree spins are done with ease. Given the kind of ride, the self-bailing design is key.
“Hundreds of thousands of gallons go over Niagara Falls every minute and it gets funneled into the narrow Niagara Gorge and it creates the white-water rapids that we take our trips on,” DiCarlantonio said. “More water goes down the Niagara River than goes through the Grand Canyon so you will get wet on this ride!”
With that, it was off to the safety briefing from our guide. Then we were marched, en masse, back to the dock to get our lifejackets and obligatory photos before boarding. Again Jay’s pregnancy meant she had to sit this one out and I got the sense as we settled into our second row seats that Dave wished he had the same excuse.
The first bit of the run is slow because of the sailing club and the Youngstown Yacht Club across the river, though a number of pleasure boaters didn’t provide the same courtesy and kicked up huge wake, rocking the moored boats. It’s a nice chance for a little bit of history delivered by the guide who points to Fort George which still stands watch over this section of river, two centuries after the War of 1812.
Once we got to Queenston/Lewiston we could open it up. We were racing upstream. The water started to get lively as we neared the hydroelectric power plants that flank both sides of the river here.
At the helm, Captain Mike expertly glided us in a slalom style route to what seemed incredibly close to the outflows of the Adam Beck Generating Station where the water churned and bubbled as it escaped from the turbines buried within the massive walls of concrete. Safety, of course, is paramount and it’s only because it’s so far out of the ordinary that it seems dangerous. These guys are pros with years of experience and it’s most certainly a “do not try this in your own boat” kind of thing!
From here things slowed down a bit, but only in terms of speed-over-ground. The river narrows here and the immense volumes of water that thunder over the Falls come rushing through the section known as the Devil’s Hole creating the famous rapids.
As we slowly eased our way upriver we had a chance to look up the sheer cliffs of 175-feet of the Niagara Gorge. But then, as the boat eases to a halt and the captain pushes the starboard throttle to spin us around, all eyes are forward and the class five whitewater rapids start getting closer.
More thrilling than any roller coaster I’ve been on, the bow – and us three in the second row, gripping the handrail so tight we thought we’d dent it – rides up the first rapid and comes floating down just in time to stab the next one right in the middle. The resulting wave that came flooding over 50 of my newest friends was something I wasn’t expecting. Splashed, sure! Slapped in the face by the Niagara River as if I owed it six bucks? No, sir, I was not expecting that!
If once wasn’t enough – and it could be, it’s an absolute thrill ride – back up we went and crashed and splashed our way down through the rapids a few more times.
After that we headed up to the whirlpool itself, racing towards the shore just to have the boat thrown into a 180-spin at the perfect moment. Waves from onlookers at the cliff-top were answered by us below. Then, we were back through the rapids one last time before cruising casually back to the dock calmly, as if nothing had happened.
With that Dave announced he had to head back to the farm to do some chores. I think that after putting him through the ringer, he just wanted to get off the water for a little while!
Jay, Shauna and I got back to St. Catharines Marina and immediately headed back out on the water and cruised over to Port Dalhousie.
We slid in past the historic lighthouse and pier, past the small, but busy, beach and towards the Dalhousie Yacht Club. It has long been a popular spot for boaters and is very welcoming of transients, but be sure to call ahead because in the height of summer it can fill up fast.
Looking for one last amazing meal we went to the waterfront Pier 61 restaurant on the recommendation of many fellow boaters. We were not disappointed. As we toasted ourselves for cramming the best of Niagara – from whirlpool jet boats to golf to wine – we decided we had explored the shore quite enough and made plans to spend the next day on the boat, which we did.
We putted from St. Catharines to Jordan and back, stopping only to swim. In fact, neither Shauna nor Dave really wanted the mini-staycation to end. I was worried I’d have to physically kick them off the boat – always the sign of a successful trip!
The next morning Jay’s parents met us at St. Catharines Marina and we headed over to the American side for a few days, stopping first at the Youngstown Yacht Club. It had looked so enticing from the jet boat dock.
A quiet, small town, we happened to be there on the day that both pubs were closed. What a travesty! Friends at my home marina assure me that it’s a great time. We plan to go back next year.
After a relaxing couple of days just hanging out, exploring the town and enjoying not having to run around, we cast off. Heading down river with the current to where Lake Ontario swallows the Niagara River up, causing some tidal-bore style currents and waves, nothing too daunting in a cruiser, we took off further east to Wilson, New York.
It was here we ended our trip, fishing for perch off the swim platform. We wandered around another quiet, but friendly, marina and town, enjoying the parks and restaurants that dot the waterfront.
It only occurred to me as we left that we spent so much time exploring the Niagara region, we hit just about everything a tour book would say to do, except visit the actual falls. Oh well, you can’t boat there!