butterfly-on-HollyMany of us living in southeast Michigan have taken a road trip or two to Canada, whether to visit Windsor, Ontario, at the other end of the Ambassador bridge, or to drive deeper into the country. My family recently packed up and made the roughly five-hour drive to Niagara Falls for three days and two nights, where we found more than just the typical honeymooners’ vacation spot.

Niagara Falls provides many activities for kids and families of all ages. What’s more, admission to many of the Niagara Parks attractions is free for children age 5 and under.

Welland Canals Centre and St. Catharines Museum

We began at the Welland Canal, just outside of Niagara Falls in the city of St. Catharines, where we watched a massive freighter make its way through the locks. Along with several other families, the grown ups and kids alike watched the massive ship inch its way through and marveled at its size. A viewing deck provided a look at the ship from above, while the sidewalk let us get a closer look at the ships and walk alongside them. There’s also an indoor viewing area on the second floor for rainy or cold days. Best of all, admission to view the ships is free.

St-Catharines-museum-outside

Botanical Gardens and Butterfly Conservatory

The Botanical Gardens is located on the Niagara Parkway, a scenic 10-minute drive from the Falls. The garden includes the Butterfly Conservatory, home to more than 2,000 butterflies at any given time. After a short video, visitors are brought into the conservatory to experience the butterflies – and maybe even have one land on them! Kids will love seeing the butterflies feeding on sliced oranges and other fruits, as well as the two-story waterfall and lush flowers throughout the butterflies’ home.

The Botanical Gardens are maintained by students attending the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, which was established in 1936. The 99-acre property includes formal gardens, herb gardens, perennials, and shade, as well as a bird house and walking paths throughout. Spend some time on the paths or pack a picnic or snack and enjoy the natural setting.

Whirlpool Aero Car

Down the Parkway from the Botanical Garden is the Whirlpool Aero Car, an antique cable car that takes passengers across the Niagara River and back. The 10-minute ride provides a bird’s eye view of the water, which abruptly changes direction and creates the natural phenomenon known as the Niagara Whirlpool.

White Water Walk

Also on the Parkway is the White Water Walk, where visitors can view the Whirlpool rapids on a 1/4-mile boardwalk or from a viewing platform. The rapids travel at 30 mph, making them “Class 6 white-water rapids” – too dangerous to maneuver. An elevator takes visitors down 70 meters, after which you walk along a 73-meter-long tunnel to the platform, and can continue down the boardwalk.

Elements on the Falls at Table Rock Centre

Many dining choices are available in Niagara Falls, from familiar chain restaurants like Tim Horton’s and Burger Town to several casual and fine dining restaurants under the Niagara Parks umbrella. Elements on the Falls, located on the upper level of Table Rock, offers panoramic views of the falls and provides dishes incorporating local ingredients. Try one of several wraps offered, or a salad with the fresh raspberry vinaigrette.white-water-walk

After lunch, visit the Shops at Table Rock, where you can also find life-sized taxidermies including a wolf and a bear, as well as t-shirts, treats, and toys for the tots. For a multi-sensory experience, take in The Journey Behind the Falls and Niagara’s Fury – two attractions that will have you see, feel (yes, you will get wet), and hear the magnificence of the falls.

Be sure to also take time to enjoy the falls in person – follow one of several walking paths to take in the sights, and take a drive along the Niagara Parkway. Day passes to the People Mover shuttle buses are available, which can avoid parking hassles and provide you and your family a chance to see the area and explore its many attractions without tiring out.

Note: My family and I were provided with complimentary admission to the Niagara Parks, as well as lunch at Elements on the Falls.

Teresa Shaw writes about family travels in and around Southeast Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @Teresashaw or visit her website at teresajshaw.com