Fall in Love With Golf in Niagara

Niagara Falls Ontario (Image: Niagara Tourism)

Niagara Falls is the totemic heart of a region that accounts for approximately 40 per cent of the province of Ontario’s tourism revenues. (Image: Niagara Tourism)

Every year many of the more than 14 million people who visit Niagara Falls stay on to sample the Niagara Peninsula’s wineries, theatre offerings and all-star roster of golf courses by Stanley Thompson, Tom McBroom, Doug Carrick and other top architects.

(Last updated August 2018.)

Though not so dramatic as plunging over Niagara Falls in a barrel (a once popular stunt), John Daly’s attempt to become the first person to drive a golf ball across the world’s most famous waterfall thrilled the thousands of spectators on hand.

“Long John” failed in all 20 attempts, his golf balls lost in the heavy, wet mist that rose from the bottom of the gorge. But his stunt in 2005 generated a cascade of publicity for both Canada’s Niagara Peninsula tourist region and his new Thundering Waters Golf Club, a course Daly designed with Canadian architect Bo Danoff less than 1,500 yards from the roaring falls.

Drawn by perhaps the most breathtaking of all the natural wonders of the world, 14 million travellers annually visit a region that also offers more than 35 golf courses, award-winning wineries, War of 1812 battlefields, one of North America’s most acclaimed summer theatre festivals, and gambling at Fallsview Casino.

Thundering Waters Niagara (Image: Thundering Waters GC)

Thundering Waters Golf Club comes as close as 1,500 yards to the falls. (Image: Thundering Waters Golf Club)

The gateway to the Niagara Peninsula for many international travellers is Toronto, about 130 kilometres northwest of the falls on the shore of Lake Ontario. Canada’s largest and most vibrant metropolis is well worth a stopover if time permits. Renowned as one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, Toronto offers world-class theatre, nightlife and restaurants, beautiful parks, waterfront concerts, baseball and other major-league sports, and the ever-looming CN Tower, at 1,815 feet the third tallest tower in the world. On a clear day, hawk-eyed visitors to the observation deck can see the mist rising above Niagara Falls far across the lake.

One-day bus tours to Niagara Falls are available from hotels throughout Toronto’s downtown. But a better idea is to rent a car and properly explore the province of Ontario’s most popular tourist destination over at least two or three days and nights.

Golfers, however, should seriously consider making at least one stop en route. About 30 minutes west of Toronto, just off the main highway leading to Niagara, is one of Canada’s must-play public courses. Jack Nicklaus-designed Glen Abbey Golf Club has hosted 30 Canadian Opens. With tight traps, fiendishly contoured greens and water hazards that come into play on 11 holes, Glen Abbey is a championship test in every sense. This is also where Tiger Woods made one of his most famous shots, an astonishing 213-yard bunker shot over water to the 18th green to seal his victory in the 2000 Open. Ever since, few golfers have been able to resist the temptation to drop a ball in the same bunker and try their luck.

Back on the road, the landscape changes dramatically as you enter the heart of the Niagara Peninsula just past the city of St. Catharines. Urban sprawl gives way to vineyards, peach and cherry orchards, century-old houses, bucolic small towns and tree-lined bicycle paths.

Niagara is one of Canada’s two premier wine regions (the other is the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia). The fertile, sandy soil and the temperate climate are ideal for growing grapes. Oenophiles can follow a well-marked Wine Trail to more than 40 wineries, estates and cellars open to the public. A local specialty is German-style Eiswein—or icewine—a dessert drink touted as Canada’s “liquid gold.”

Marilyn Monroe Niagara poster

Marilyn Monroe stayed at the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls hotel while filming the 1953 thriller Niagara.

Anticipation builds as the kilometres tick off and you finally enter the City of Niagara Falls, a community of 83,000 whose lifeblood has always been the tourists who come to gape at the wondrous, roaring cascade at its heart.

The first European to visit, missionary and explorer Louis Hennepin, described the falls in 1678 as “an incredible cataract or waterfall without equal.” But it was Charles Dickens who best expressed the grandeur of the falls when he wrote, “I seemed to be lifted from the earth and to be looking into heaven.”

Collectively known as Niagara Falls, three falls tumble 2,200 feet into the churning Niagara River here on the border of Canada and the United States. Both the American and Bridal Veil Falls are situated stateside. But Canada’s single cascade, the Horseshoe Falls, is larger than the other two combined and is opposite a long and beautifully maintained riverbank from which to marvel at the scene. No wonder a large majority of visitors head straight for the Canadian side.

Most are content to view the waterfalls from the serenity of the riverbank. Far more thrilling is the Journey Behind the Falls adventure, which wends through the damp tunnels bored behind the Horseshoe Falls to an observation deck where, donned in a raincoat, you’ll experience close up the shuddering power of 2,800 cubic metres of water per second crashing to the basin below.

Famous as the Honeymoon Capital of the World, Niagara Falls offers accommodations that range from lavish hotel suites with heart-shaped beds to cozy bed-and-breakfasts. The Sheraton on the Falls Hotel is in demand for its jaw-dropping views and indoor and outdoor pools. And a favourite of film buffs is the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls, built in the 1920s. Marilyn Monroe stayed in room 801 while filming the 1953 thriller Niagara.

Niagara-on-the-Lake (Image: Niagara Tourism)

Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of Canada’s prettiest and most sophisticated small towns. (Image: Niagara Tourism)

Another popular option is to stay in the lively town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, 24 kilometres north of the falls at the mouth of Lake Ontario. First settled in 1781, Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of Canada’s prettiest and best-preserved historic communities. It’s the hub of the local wine industry and host to the Shaw Festival, which stages acclaimed theatre productions throughout the summer season. Recommended hotels include the Oban Inn, the Pillar & Post, and the Charles Hotel.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is also home to the oldest golf course in Canada. Opened in 1881, Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club is a nine-hole parkland-style jewel on the edge of Lake Ontario.

But it was the 2002 launch of the $27-million Legends on the Niagara golf complex on the outskirts of the City of Niagara Falls that finally established the region as a rising star of North American golf.

Determined to grab the attention of serious golfers, the Niagara Parks Commission recruited two of Canada’s top golf architects, Doug Carrick and Tom McBroom, to design sister 18-hole courses. Carrick took the north section of the property, closest to the protected site of the War of 1812’s Battle of Chippawa, where, in 1814, 200 soldiers lost their lives during the last American military invasion of Canada. Known as Battlefield, Carrick’s course is accented by dozens of his trademark flash-faced bunkers. McBroom’s course, called Ussher’s Creek, is more of a traditional parkland layout, taking its cue from the natural contours of the land.

With more than 35 courses scattered throughout the Niagara Peninsula, golfers can tee off till they drop. But having come so far, smart visitors budget enough time between rounds to do justice to the many other attractions.

Battlefield Course Niagara (Image: Niagara Parks Commission)

The Doug Carrick-designed Battlefield Course at Legends on the Niagara helped establish the region as a major golf destination. (Image: Niagara Parks Commission)

Like most tourist towns, Niagara Falls has its kitschy side. The Clifton Hill district is a carnival of crass attractions such as Castle Dracula, the House of Frankenstein and Movieland Wax Museum. Yet even out of sight of the falls, there is considerable beauty in a city that accounts for approximately 40 per cent of Ontario’s tourism industry.

The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens feature acres of roses, perennials and flowering shrubs. Equally beguiling are the Butterfly Conservatory and the Floral Clock, a unique outdoor timepiece adorned with 16,000 bedding plants. Also check out the Skylon Tower, an icon of the Niagara skyline since 1965. The tower’s observation deck and rotating restaurant fill to capacity every day at dusk when 21 coloured spotlights dance across the falls.

With the United States beckoning just beyond the gorge, it’s tempting to make the trip across the international border on the Rainbow Bridge. While cars sometimes line up for hours, on foot it’s an easy and wondrously scenic 10-minute stroll. U.S. customs agents will insist on seeing your passport before letting you pass into Niagara Falls, New York, a gritty and largely uninteresting tourist town. Better to leisurely stroll the pedestrian path that starts just past the bridge and loops along the fast-charging upper Niagara River and through the meadows of Niagara Falls State Park.

About a fifth of all the freshwater on the continent eventually tumbles over Niagara Falls, shaping both the landscape and the visitor’s experience in so many ways.

At the aptly named Whirlpool Golf Club, the Niagara River whirlpool and gorge provide a stunning backdrop for a brilliant 18-hole design by the legendary Stanley Thompson. Opened a short distance downriver from the falls in 1951, Whirlpool was one of the last courses built by the designer of such iconic Canadian courses as Highlands Links in Nova Scotia and the Banff Springs in Alberta. Thompson’s layout features tree-lined fairways, his trademark linked bunker complexes, and greens left open at the front in the classic style.

Rees Jones Course at Grand Niagara (Image: Niagara Parks Commission)

The Rees Jones Course at Grand Niagara is one of the area’s top courses. (Image: Grand Niagara)

Deciding where to tee off next gets tougher as your schedule tightens. Royal Niagara Golf Club, the Rees Jones Course at Grand Niagara, Peninsula Lakes Golf Club and Hunters Pointe Golf Course all number among Ontario’s most popular public courses.

But impossible to resist is Thundering Waters Golf Club, the course made famous when John Daly tried mightily to drive a golf ball 345 yards across the misty gorge to Goat Island in the United States. A mere 1,500 yards from the Horseshoe Falls, Daly’s layout is a mix of parkland and links-style holes that together make a formidable test of golf.

Daly, who had once hit a shot with a 1-iron some 310 yards over the Grand Canyon, thoroughly enjoyed himself despite falling short. “It was like coming down the home stretch winning a PGA Tour event,” he said.

Best of all was the sudden and awe-inspiring appearance of a rainbow over the Horseshoe Falls—yet another of Niagara’s signature attractions.