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Misty About Niagara Falls

A viewing platform near Bridal Veil Falls.
Carrie Boretz for The New York Times
A viewing platform near Bridal Veil Falls.


Published: August 22, 2004

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Niagara Falls (NY)

Travel and Vacations


Carrie Boretz for The New York Times
Tasting the spray from Horseshoe Falls. Parkas are standard gear.

Carrie Boretz for The New York Times
Along Clifton Hill Street on the Canadian side.

WHEN I finally saw Niagara Falls, I felt, inevitably, let down. The falls were certainly impressive, but after looking at them in countless photos, calendars and tourist brochures, I was destined to be disappointed. I was soon to change my opinion. The falls really do deliver; given the hype and overdevelopment of the surrounding area, it just takes some effort to fully appreciate them.

Appropriately enough, it was a late-spring wedding, in Rochester that took me, my wife, Carole, and our kids, Maggie, 14 and Jack, 12, to the falls. Since we'd be flying to upstate New York anyway, we decided to add a minivacation in the region. A family-friendly destination and affordable budget were prime considerations. Niagara Falls fit the bill, especially since we'd be staying on the Canadian side, where the United States dollar is still quite strong.

We started on Goat Island, on the New York side, where most of the interesting activities are centered. After our initial viewing, we signed on for the Cave of the Winds tour. The $8 admission price ($7, ages 6 to 12; prices at $1.25 Canadian to the U.S. dollar) includes a plastic parka and sandals, both of which you can keep, our first clue that we'd be getting seriously wet. (Getting seriously wet turned out to be a theme of this trip.)

We rode an elevator down 175 feet through a rock cliff to the base of the spectacular Bridal Veil Falls. A tour guide led us along a sturdy wooden walkway, past thousands of noisy seagulls, many of them nursing fluffy, gray chicks on the cliffs, to a spot just 20 feet from the falls, where we began, tentatively, to climb steps directly toward the cascading water.

And that's when I began to get it. You have to feel the bone-rattling power of all that water up close to understand the awesome natural wonder that is Niagara Falls. Thoroughly drenched, chilled despite the bright sun and not a little unnerved by our proximity to the thundering water, we all felt perilously small and mortal, which is perhaps the real point of visiting the falls, to put nature and mankind in proper perspective.

We dried off and headed into town for lunch, remaining on the United States side of the border. The Misty Dog Grill, a quick drive from Goat Island, serves very satisfying food at low prices, including 25 varieties of hot dogs. Jack pronounced the Misty Dog's Buffalo wings (about $7) among the best he's had. I boldly tried the Niagara Dog ($2.46), which comes topped with cheese and bacon. Next door, crowned by a kitschy giant ice cream cone, Twist o' the Mist offers 50 flavors of locally made Perry's Ice Cream as well as superb vanilla custard.

To work off lunch, we hiked around the Three Sisters, tiny forested islands just south of the falls where you can explore a variety of surprisingly secluded paths to the edge of the Niagara River and watch the water rush headlong to the falls a few hundred yards downstream. It's a more intimate experience than viewing the cataract from above. The only obstacle to this otherwise pristine encounter with nature is the clutch of hotel and casino towers on the Canadian side. Imagine imposing a mini-Las Vegas smack in the middle of Yosemite Valley, or next to Old Faithful in Yellowstone, and you have some idea of the spectacle.

Like Niagara Falls itself, a ride on the Maid of the Mist, sheathed in another plastic poncho, is one of those tourist activities that can't possibly live up to its reputation and somehow manages to. As we approached the Horseshoe Falls, the buildings above faded in the mist; the roar of the cascading water grew deafening; huge, cartoonishly perfect rainbows appeared. With Niagara Falls, nature trumps tackiness, gallon after cascading gallon, day after day.

We were ready for warm showers and dry clothes. For travelers on a budget, the challenge of visiting here is that once you exclude the luxury hotels overlooking the site, you're firmly in the land of motel-chain dreariness or wrong-side-of-the-track seediness. But about 20 miles north, along a very pretty road on the Canadian side, is the quiet and charming town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Home of the renowned Shaw Festival Theater, Niagara-on-the-Lake sits at the juncture of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. A remarkable collection of beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings now houses inns, restaurants and boutiques. The lushly planted public gardens along the main boulevard, Queen Street, were in full spring glory, and quiet side streets lined with fine old houses felt light-years away from the hurly-burly of Niagara Falls.

The inns along Queen Street are charming but quite expensive. We were lucky that an online search turned up the King George III Inn, facing the town's small marina a few blocks away. Our spacious, nicely decorated room, one of only eight, included a king bed, queen pull-out sofa, modern bathroom and, best of all, a roomy porch with a view of the Niagara River. The cost, including a breakfast basket of muffins and juice, was about $103 a night, with taxes.

For dinner we walked to the Olde Angel Inn, which bills itself as the oldest continually operating inn in North America. The pub in this charming clapboard-sided inn, which dates back to 1789 but was rebuilt in 1826 after a fire, has dark paneling, a low ceiling, and a cozy, 18th-century atmosphere. We enjoyed the traditional pub fare, including shepherd's pie ($8), in the bar, seems to attract as many locals as tourists; there's a slightly more expensive restaurant behind the pub.

On most of our vacations Maggie and Jack manage to persuade us to try an activity that we would normally avoid. Invariably this activity is noisy, stomach-churning and very expensive. This time, it was a jet boat tour on the Niagara River. At $35 a person, we needed some convincing. Their case was bolstered by the fact that the company that runs the boats is housed on the first floor of the King George III, so we could hardly plead inconvenience. They won, and we were glad they did.

Once again, the uniform was plastic parka, this time with the addition of a waterproof jumpsuit, wool sweater, rubber boots and life jacket, and we climbed aboard the jet-powered boat with about 30 other passengers. The scenery along the river was spectacular, particularly at the Devil's Hole Rapids, where the river slices through sheer cliffs as high as the famous falls, just one mile downstream, and the Niagara Whirlpool. After our guide warned us to stow eyeglasses and tighten hoods, the boat turned headlong into the rapids, showering us with huge swaths of freezing water. It sounds dreadful but was actually more exhilarating than any roller coaster I've ever been on, and with the scenic tour thrown in, a worthwhile splurge.

A more serious and less costly pursuit awaited at nearby Fort George. We took a self-guided tour through the fort, most of which was destroyed during the War of 1812 and rebuilt in the 1930's. The view from the ramparts across the river to the Fort Niagara was especially evocative: nearly two centuries ago the English and Americans exchanged cannon fire from their respective sides of the river in order to claim this strategic location. The Americans prevailed, briefly occupying the fort in 1813 before abandoning it to the British.

From the fort it's a short walk into Niagara-on-the Lake, where we had an inexpensive lunch at Old Towne Restaurant; the fish and chips, at about $10, was especially good.

The lovely Niagara Parkway, which connects the falls with Niagara-on-the-Lake, is bordered by a long, flat bicycle trail and passes numerous wineries. We had time for just one winery tour. Inniskillin was a good choice; helpful signs throughout the property describe the winemaking process. The area is famous for its ice wines. Grapes are left on the vines until the first deep frost, which concentrates the sugars and flavors of the grapes, resulting in unctuous, sweet dessert wines. A generous tasting of Inniskillin's strawberry ice wine was $4; a nice fruity pinot noir was $1 for a smaller taste.

We returned to Niagara Falls to see the nighttime light show from the Canadian side. Finding a reasonably priced place for dinner that isn't a fast-food outlet wasn't easy. Clifton Hill, the epicenter of the town's tourist life, is lined with all manner of kid-targeted entertainment, from a dinosaur-themed miniature golf course to a Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum. We didn't succumb. Instead, we headed out of town and discovered Frank's Tomato Pie, a rare locally owned restaurant. Large, raucously decorated and very casual, it specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, and is more popular with locals than tourists, according to our waitress. The wood-oven pizzas, at under $10, were very good, and a tasty T-bone steak (about $18) could easily serve two.

After dinner, the falls beckoned. At night, giant multicolored lights are trained on both the Horseshoe and American Falls. The view from the Canadian side is much better than that from the New York side, a comparison that is a bit unfair; from Canada, the gaudy hotels of the Canadian side are behind you, and most of the more modestly scaled American development is hidden by trees.

A gradually changing palette of pastel colors bathed the cascading water during the light show. But ultimately the falls themselves won us over, more beautiful when unadorned by colored lights, infinitely more majestic than we had imagined.

Visitor Information

We spent an average of $205 (U.S.) per day for our family of four, including hotel and meals. Our midsize rental car from Avis, which we picked up at the Buffalo airport, was $152 for four days. All prices are in U.S. dollars, reflecting the exchange rate at the time of our visit in May, about $1.25 Canadian for the United States dollar.

Getting There

Niagara Falls is about 370 miles by car from New York City. JetBlue offers several daily flights between Kennedy Airport and Buffalo Niagara International Airport; our fare was $97 each way, plus taxes.


Quaint, quiet Niagara-on-the-Lake, in Ontario, is a 20-minute drive from the falls and a world away. The staff at the King George III Inn, 61 Melville Street, (905) 468-4800,, was very helpful; our double room was $108, including breakfast and taxes.

Another affordable option in Niagara-on-the-Lake is the charming Olde Angel Inn, at 224 Regent Street, (905) 468-3411; on the Web at Standard rooms start at $103.


In Niagara-on-the-Lake, traditional pub fare at the Olde Angel Inn, like steak and kidney pie, is very satisfying (about $45 for four).

One of the prettiest spots for lunch is the patio looking over the Niagara River at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, 143 Front Street, (905) 468-0479, which bills itself as North America's oldest course. Hamburgers, hot dogs and sodas for the four of us were about $25.

On the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, the Mediterranean entrees and individual pizzas at Frank's Tomato Pie, 6889 Lundy's Lane, (905) 371-9111, are well prepared; dinner for four runs about $80.


To experience Niagara Falls close up, begin on Goat Island on the American side, where all-day parking is $8. The Cave of the Winds tour is $8 ($7 for children 6 to 12). Passage on the Maid of the Mist is $11.50 ($6.75 for children). A "Passport to the Falls" from Niagara Falls State Park includes both of these activities as well as a trolley tour and other attractions: $24.50 ($17.50 for children 6 to 12). Information:

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, a visit to Fort George, (905) 468-4257, is $6.40 ($4.80 ages 6 to 12). Whirlpool Jet Boats, (905) 468-4800,, depart several times a day from 61 Melville Street for the one-hour Wet Jet Tour. The $44 cost ($37 for those age 7 to 14; those younger are not allowed) includes use of several clothing items intended to keep you dry, none of them completely effective.

SETH MARGOLIS is a novelist who writes frequently about travel.

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