Open the airlocked doors to the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory and it's like walking into a fantasy land.
You'll be greeted by a mesmerizing flurry of activity that dances about your head then swirls around your body. (The instinct is to swat your arms, but avoid that at all costs.) Your eyes will be dazzled by bursts of color: bright blue, orange, yellow and red.
It's a sensory overload of the most whimsical kind.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the conservatory has around 2,000 of the colorful creatures free-flying throughout its 11,000-square-foot-facility. Up to 40 different species of butterly are bred at the conservatory; the remainder are from butterfly farms from Costa Rica, El Salvador, the Philippines and Florida.
The conservatory is on the grounds of the Niagara Parks 100-acre Botanical Gardens. After parking your car, you'll pass an area where you can get food and drinks at the Butterfly Cafe and an outdoor cart in a covered seating area.
A well-manicured walkway leads into the gardens and the conservatory. There are plenty of black iron benches for sitting and enjoying the outdoors. Horse-drawn carriage rides are available for a fee to tour the gardens.
Once inside the Butterfly Conservatory you can watch a short introductory video or head right into the main attraction.
The lush, tropical habitat is comfortable for all of its inhabitants and guests. We visited on one of the hottest days of the summer and it was cool enough for our heat-intolerant group; friends have touted how wonderful it is to spend a cold winter day in the climate-controlled facility where it's always refreshingly warm as a nice summer day.
A 600-foot pathway circles the conservatory. It's a reasonably easy walk on which you can enjoy small waterfalls, exotic plants and other visual delights along the way. A brick wall lining the pathway makes it easy to sit for a moment or take photos. When you come to the "end" of the walkway (that opens right toward the gift shop), you can take another stroll through, as we did.
Look for the many fruit-filled dishes placed throughout the conservatory to feed the butterflies. It's a wonderful chance to sit and leisurely admire the winged beauties. They are so close, you'll be tempted to lean in and touch one of them. Don't. A human's touch can be harmful.
Don't be surprised if a butterfly lands on you, just enjoy the momentary gift from nature. One woman dressed in a light green outfit was the center of attention after a butterfly took residence on her leg. "It won't come off," she repeated to the many visitors who were in awe of her new friend. It was several minutes before it took off on its own.
The star of the show and the perennial audience favorite at the conservatory is the Blue Morpho butterfly. Even in the conservatory's lush, colorful setting, the Blue Morpho stood out from everything else. Visitors maneuvered around the trails waiting for it to rest long enough for a photo. (It never did that we could see.) A native of Costa Rica, the shimmering blue creature has a wingspan of 3 3/4 to 4 3/4 inches. Its popularity is evident in the giftshop, where its likeness is found on photographs, displays, dishes, towels and other items.
While the gift shop had a fun and often lovely selection of butterfly-inspired items including jewelry, purses, educational toys and clothing, it also had a nice selection of other items including gardening sets and wind chimes.
Framed butterfly "specimens" started at about $37.95 (Canadian); other insects encased in a clear glass were also available starting at around $15. The "Butterfly Celebration" selection of fine porcelain -- cups, teapots, frames and boxes -- were reasonably priced and quite beautiful. Sunblock, drinks and some food items were also sold.
Along the way
The conservatory is four miles north of the Rainbow Bridge off the Niagara Parkway. As you drive along the parkway, called "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world" by Sir Winston Churchill, look for the butterfly on signs that will guide you toward the conservatory. There are other attractions along the way, including the Whirlpool Aero Car, White Water Walk, the Journey Behind the Falls and a helicopter ride over the falls.
A sign touting "Chocolates of the World" tempts drivers to stop at Souvenir City, where you'll find a chocolate store, food area and the Niagara Artistic Glassblowing Studio.
The glassblowing studio, with its shelves filled with vibrantly colored glass creations, was a great match for visitors to the butterfly conservatory. Glassblowing demonstrations were held in a back area with seating for families.
We laughed in the large souvenir shop where we found the book "Buffalo Soul Lifters," a collection of inspirational stories with Buffalo connections by Frank Thomas Croisdale; nearby were such items as a fun moose salt and pepper shakers and "Anne of Green Gables" merchandise.
If you want to make a day out of it in Niagara Falls, Ont., consider buying the Great Gorge Adventure Pass. It includes admission to the Butterfly Conservatory, White Water Walk, Maid of the Mist and Journey Behind the Falls. Coupons for other attractions such as the Whirlpool Aero Car are also included.
The pass includes all-day transportation on the People Mover Bus and Incline Railway. The People Mover travels a 19-mile loop starting at the Falls, stopping at all Niagara Falls attractions, so you can park by the falls and hop the bus to the conservatory.
The cost is $39.95 adults, $24.95 ages 6-12; children 5 and under are free. The pass is available through www.niagaraparks.com. For information: (877) 642-7475.
For more information:
Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory: Open daily, 9 a.m.; closing hours vary by season. Adults, $11; children 6-12, $6.50. Info: www.niagaraparks.com; (905) 356-8554.