Niagara Falls: Mother Nature at close range is not just for honeymooners
With all the rules in life – chew with your mouth closed, don't talk to strangers, look both ways before you cross the street – there's another that should probably be added to the list: don't propose to your girlfriend while 170 million litres of water a minute is hurtling over a 52m precipice next to you.
I can see why the young German backpacker thought it might be a good idea: get down on bended knee as the catamaran approaches Niagara's Horseshoe Falls and his beloved will be so overawed by the majesty of the spectacle, she'll have to say yes.
But when you get this close to one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it's a little like being in the spin cycle of a washing machine.
As the rest of us watch from inside the safety of the vessel, vast curtains of water douse the couple on the aft deck. The poor girlfriend is even knocked over at one stage. But then she smiles, mutters something we assume must be a yes and drags her fiance in out of the wet.
Drenched and looking like shrivelled raisins, they smile exuberantly as the passengers clap.
It's probably not what we were expecting on a day trip to Niagara Falls, but then nothing can quite prepare you for this place. The falls are actually not one but three giant waterfalls, straddling the frontier between Canada and the US: Bridal Veil Falls, American Falls and the stunning Horseshoe Falls, where 90 per cent of the Niagara River roars past. The first two are on the American side but the biggest and most spectacular (and the one with the best views) is on Canadian soil. It's why most of the 13 million who come to ogle the falls each year bypass the American side and head straight to Canada.
We arrive after a two-hour drive from Toronto, threading through the flat, fertile plains of southern Ontario and past a million Tim Hortons cafes, a chain which our driver proudly tells us was started in 1964 by the eponymous Canadian hockey player (they're now owned by Burger King, which is why he refuses to stop at any). But his stubborn patriotism is our gain: instead, we detour to the Niagara College Teaching Winery to sample the local drop.
This is the heart of Canada's wine-growing region and the specialty is ice wine, which basically means turning frozen grapes into wine. As you'd expect from Canada's only fully-licensed teaching winery, there's much to sample but 10am is a little early, even for me, so we sip and spit, make the appropriate noises (it's not bad, as it goes) before getting back on the bus for the short drive to Niagara.
We're at the rump end of our Adventure World Western Explorer Rocky Mountaineer trip and in the last week and a bit, as we've travelled the girth of this vast nation, we've seen the most astonishing sights. From snow-speckled mountains and plunging valleys lined with enormous maple, cedar and Douglas fir trees to unspeakably cool cities, thick with man buns and ironic cafes. We've blistered our camera fingers with glaciers, vast lakes carpeted in ice, even a Grizzly bear cub, which was adorable as you'd expect.
So by the time we get to Niagara, we're a little jaded. But the first glimpse of the fearsome arc of water and its halo of mist has our mouths open. Nature announces her presence when you stand at the low railing above Horseshoe Falls: more water pours through Niagara than any other cascade on Earth. It's a sight that had missionary Louis Hennepin, who brought back word of the falls to Europe in 1697, calling it "An incredible waterfall which has no equal".
By the 1800s, the falls were famous enough for Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Jerome to honeymoon there. Cue the area's reputation as the honeymoon capital of the world; today the 50,000 or so honeymooning couples who visit every year are rewarded with a certificate signed by the local mayor.
But it isn't just loved-up couples and selfie-takers who come to Niagara: 16 people have risked life and limb going over the falls, some – famously – in wooden barrels, with 11 surviving the ordeal. One of those was French adventurer Charles Blondin who, in the 1860s, walked a tightrope across the falls for the third time; midway he stopped to cook an omelet on a portable grill and then had a marksman shoot a hole through his hat from a boat 50m below.
The fine for "unlawfully performing or attempting to perform a stunt in the park" is around US$10K – if you survive, that is. There are those for whom it all goes terribly wrong, such as the wannabe daredevil whose parachute failed to open in 1995 as he rode a jetski over the edge.
For those of us who come just to gawp, the locals have ensured we don't get bored by dreaming up various ways to view the falls. You can helicopter over them (the only way to see all three at once), catch a cable car or even enter tunnels in the rockface behind the cascade.
Or, like us, you can line up with tourists in top-to-toe warm clothing and head out on the Hornblower Niagara Cruises Catamaran (the Americans run similar cruises from their side of the river).
The 20-minute ride takes us from the Canadian docks past Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls, which are pretty spectacular, then upstream towards the main attraction: the swirling waters at the base of Horseshoe Falls, where great sheets of water roar towards us like an angry monster.
Those of us silly enough to venture outside get completely soaked, by the water's bounce and the clouds of mist. The plastic red ponchos they've given us prove effective only in protecting our cameras.
But it's thrilling and also sightly unnerving being this close to the thundering water. The great outdoors certainly doesn't get any more in-your-face than this. And, of course, our trip is enlivened by possibly the wettest proposal of the year.
Niagara doesn't really have any attractions to rival the falls (unless you count the Vegas-style casinos, haunted houses and Ripley's Believe it or Not!), so once you've Instragammed yourself silly, a better option is to head 26km downstream to the charming historic town of Niagara-on- the-Lake.
Once the capital of Upper Canada, Niagara-on-the-Lake was the scene of several key battles, including being destroyed by the marauding US Army in 1813. Having remained largely untouched since it was rebuilt, it has now been preserved as a National Historic Site. Niagara-on-the-Lake is also notable for having Canada's first library, newspaper and golf course, as well as some of the best maple (what else?) icecream in the world.
Think wide leafy streets, expensive interior shops and eateries that make liberal use of the words "locavore" and "artisanal", sort of like the Hamptons but without the pretension. It's easy to imagine myself living there.
Then it's time to slide into the peak-hour traffic heading into Toronto, tired but ecstatic from having eyeballed Mother Nature at close range.
More information: Hornblower Niagara Cruises: www.niagaracruises.com
Touring there: Adventure World's curated eight-day Western Explorer Rocky Mountaineer. Priced from $3705 a person, the trip includes two days on the world renowned Rocky Mountaineer. Price includes hotel accommodation, many meals, local guides, sightseeing and more. For more information visit Adventureworld.com
The writer was a guest of Adventure World.