On Labor Day weekend 2014, spur of the moment, I decided to check something big off my life goal list: Niagara Falls. I’m thankful to have visited some beautiful places all over the world, but I’m far behind where I should be when it comes to my own backyard. So I grabbed my buddy Andrew—who is always up for some spontaneous adventure—and drove up from Washington, D.C., to see what there was to see. Our time was very limited: we had only about five hours on the ground to fit in what we could. It was well worth the effort.
Crossing the border. We chose to stay on the Canadian side of the falls simply because I’d heard the views from there were more spectacular. The US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world—5,525 miles (8,891 km)—and it’s relatively easy for citizens of the two countries to go back and forth. For many years, a driver’s license sufficed as identification. However, since 2007, a passport, passport card, or enhanced driver’s license has been required. The drive across the Rainbow Bridge, connecting the United States and Canada at Niagara Falls, was quick and easy. You can check wait times on the website of the Canada Border Services Agency.
Lodging. Downtown Niagara Falls offers several hotel options very close to the falls and all the city’s other attractions. Since we had a car, we chose to stay a few minutes away from the crowds at the Hilton Garden Inn Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Here’s my review.) I used a free one-night reward from Hotels.com (sign up, if you haven’t already!). We were pleased with the accommodations and would recommend it for anyone with a car.
Evening in Town. We got into the city around 6 p.m. Traffic was ridiculously heavy. We found parking for the evening for $20 on one of the side streets just a few blocks’ walk from the tourist district, which centers around Clifton Hill. To be perfectly honest, I was immediately turned off by the area, which I describe as a mix of Times Square, Disneyland, and Vegas. The streets glow with neon signs for every possible theme restaurant, wax museum, and other gaudy attraction. If you’re looking for an Elvis impersonator, a glitzy arcade, or a casino, you’ve found the place. Add to that crowds so thick you couldn’t walk together without stepping out into the street and you get a mix I’d rather avoid. But all that was overcome by the views as we descended the hill. The falls are incredible. First to come into sight were American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Spectacular!
We turned right at the bottom of the hill and followed the boardwalk all the way down to Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three. Every few steps we stopped for a photo. We tried to imagine what it would have been like to stumble across these falls back in the day—to emerge from the forest, hear the roar of the waters, and come across this wonder. Although these falls aren’t as high as other famous cascades, they are very wide. And powerful. As you approach Horseshoe Falls, the mist carries up the gorge and covers all the passersby. (It felt great on a warm summer afternoon, but I think you might want to be bundled up a bit in late fall or winter.) On the way back, to avoid the throngs along the boardwalk, we walked through beautiful Queen Victoria Park, which is right across the street. The city has done a great job with its parks.
Hunger was setting in, so we headed back up Clifton Hill and then took the second left onto Victoria Avenue, passing the Niagara SkyWheel, and found Smoke’s Poutinerie on our right. I’d never tried poutine, a uniquely Canadian (Quebecois) dish made with french fries and cheese curds. Sounds good, eh? Smoke’s is a chain of poutineries (poutine restaurants) that apparently is spreading quickly. The girl behind the counter recommended their bestseller, the bacon cheeseburger poutine, and we ordered two regular-size boxes. The “wow” size looked like more than we could handle. Smoke’s Niagara Falls (read my review) only has a few seats, so we took our boxes and found a place to sit outside and people watch. Later that evening, after our cruise (see below), we found Oakes Garden Theatre, which is a beautiful garden/park at the foot of Clifton Hill, and wished we’d eaten on one of the benches there with a view of the falls. Stop at Oakes Garden Theatre if you visit Niagara Falls, Ontario. The crowds magically disappear and peace descends when you enter the garden. (Read my review of the park.)
Boat Cruise. Before leaving DC, I went online (www.niagaracruises.com) and booked the 9:30 p.m. Falls Fireworks Cruise with Hornblower Niagara Cruises. It’s pricey at $35 per person, but the experience was worth it. The boarding process was simple, Hornblower provides all its guests with free rain ponchos, and the views were unbelievable. For those who drank, there were drink tickets available for purchase before boarding to save everyone time. Although the cruise lasts only about 30 minutes, you’re probably on the water for about an hour total, feeling the power and mist of the falls, seeing the huge spotlights illuminate the water, and watching the fireworks high up in the sky. People of lots of different nationalities were aboard, but the “oohs” and “ahhs” were universal. Read my review of the cruise.
Bottom line: We loved the falls. I had a bad impression of the city, but would like to try it at a different time of year. I’d also love to see what the New York side has to offer. Next time! Please leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts.