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Wintertime Festival Lights Up the Niagara Sky

November 04, 1990|LYNNE MULLER and PHILIP TOWEY | Muller and Towey are free-lance writers/photographers living in Pittsburgh

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — At twilight on Goat Island, red squirrels scurry over a light covering of snow. Scampering about in their fluffy winter coats, the little animals help fashion a post card of Christmases past as the lights from Canada's Victoria Park twinkle in the background.

Surrounded by the Niagara River, Goat Island separates the American and Canadian Falls, better known as Horseshoe Falls. Here, at the top of the thundering, 180-foot cataracts, ice crystals pile up like stalagmites in the rushing torrent. As winter dusk settles and white snow turns to blue, steam rises into the crisp air, coating skeletons of trees with glistening rime.

Formerly called Iris Island, Goat Island was so named in 1778 when a herd of goats was pastured here to keep them safe from wolves on the mainland. Not surprisingly, the goats froze to death during their first winter in residence.

The island has a colorful history. It was once home to the legendary Hermit of Niagara, the nature-loving Francis Abbott, who wandered the island for three years in the early 19th Century with his dog, flute and drum.

Since 1834, the Cave of the Winds trip has originated here--then by stairs, now by elevator. During summer months, the trip takes you down to within 25 feet of the base of Bridal Veil Falls, the slim ribbon between the two major cataracts.

In 1869, the island's beauty inspired two Americans--artist Frederick Church and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead--to persuade the Canadian and U.S. governments to reclaim and preserve the Niagara frontier as park land on both sides of the river.

Goat Island is accessible only by bridge from the New York side of the Niagara River. It's a popular place to picnic in the summer, though in winter the winds can be nose-numbing. There are good views of the lip of the falls and both Niagara Falls cities.

This year, during the 10th anniversary of Niagara's Winter Festival of Lights, both cities will continue the relatively new tradition of illuminating parks, houses and buildings on each side of the river with sparkling lights and flashy neon, while the falls themselves glow through a dazzling mist spotlighting the colors of the rainbow.

On the Canadian side, the four-mile strip of park land along the river has lavish, imaginative light displays embracing such themes as the Canadian Mounties and traditional Christmas villages.

The Old World charm of the park buildings, some of which date to 1895, are enhanced by the lights, making the park itself look like an under-tree display, especially with the 775-foot Skylon Tower--decorated in thousands of lights and described as "the world's largest Christmas tree"--in the background.

Celebrations begin on both sides of the falls Nov. 24, and continue daily through Jan. 6. In Ontario, the festivities continue on weekends until Feb. 16. Lights glow from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.

Miss Canada switches on the lights on Clifton Hill in Ontario Nov. 24. Museums and other attractions are discounted to $1 that evening, and the mime group Theatre Beyond Woods performs "Night Train to Foggy Bottom." The Santa Claus Parade starts at 1 p.m. the next day.

Monte Carlo casino nights begin Nov. 30 and continue on selected evenings through Feb. 16, when there's a Mardi Gras celebration at the Victoria Park restaurant and Kids' Day at Skylon Tower.

Tours and tastings at two wineries, including Brights, the largest winery in Canada, are offered every weekend. Other Canadian events include a multicultural weekend, the Jack Frost Golf Tournament, ice carving competitions and dances.

At any time of year, Clifton Hill is a true paradise for kids, a whole street devoted to fun houses, haunted houses and video arcades.

A preteen's version of downtown Las Vegas, Clifton Hill rises from the Niagara River near the departure point for the Maid of the Mist boat trips and extends to Maple Leaf Village. Just follow the neon.

Maple Leaf Village is a l7-acre amusement, shopping and hotel complex topped by the landmark 35O-foot Kodak Tower. It includes the Elvis Museum, home of the world's largest private collection of Presley memorabilia.

North America's largest Ferris wheel, measuring 175 feet, is also in Maple Leaf Village, as is the "world's largest wreath," visible during the Festival of Lights.

Shops and arcades also fill the complex at the base of the nearby 525-foot Skylon Tower, with two restaurants--one revolving--and an observation deck above the falls. It is said that you can see for 80 miles in clear weather, taking in both the Buffalo and Toronto skylines.

The Niagara Falls IMAX Theatre, adjacent to Skylon Tower, presents "Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic" on the six-story-high screen.

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