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Are you going to the Canadian side? You must go to the Canadian side -- it's much better!
Just about every time I mentioned that my family and I were planning a trip to Niagara Falls, that was the response. I was taken aback because I'd always thought of Niagara Falls as an American, not Canadian, icon, similar to Mount Rushmore, replete with both grandeur and kitsch. And then there's its reputation as a classic -- OK, clichéd -- American honeymoon destination.
The theme running through comments from friends-in-the-know seemed to be that the American side was too full of schlocky tourist traps, chain restaurants, casinos and even urban blight. So we departed Winona for Niagara with this question in mind: Is the Canadian side really superior?
Wanting to make the most of our two-day experience, that's where we headed first, with plans to visit the American side on Day Two. Niagara Falls actually consists of three waterfalls -- the American Falls, the relatively tiny Bridal Veil Falls, and Canada's Horseshoe Falls, which is about twice as wide as the American Falls. The entire panorama lay before us, with what looked like toy boats motoring along in a large, oval pool. Nice. Now I was really eager to see them up close.
Take a poncho, please
At the information booth, we picked up the Adventure Passes we'd bought online ($39.95 for adults, $27.95 for kids; www.niagaraparks.com). This is a package deal that got us admission to four attractions: the Maid of the Mist boat tour, Journey Behind the Falls walk, a 360-degree movie called "Niagara's Fury" and White Water Walk along the rapids a little downriver.
We started with Maid of the Mist, and if you have limited time, this is the one attraction you should hit. These boats have been carrying passengers from both sides of the falls since 1846. I don't know how long they've been issuing blue plastic ponchos, but you'll get absolutely drenched if you don't wear one. Our visit coincided with a heat wave hitting the East Coast and I welcomed the gentle cooling mist that awaited. But as we soon learned, it's not really mist so much as driving rain, so I was glad I had that poncho.
We then hopped on the People Mover (free with our Adventure Pass) and rode along Niagara Parkway to a building opposite Horseshoe Falls and were issued our second blue poncho of the day. That confused me, since we were there to see a movie. It starts with an animated short about a beaver struggling to write an essay about the falls, then segues into a kid-geared documentary that describes its formation in the Ice Age. We filed into an adjoining room for a 360-degree film that takes you over and around the waterfalls, and the purpose of Poncho No. 2 became clear -- protection against the spraying water designed to make the cinematography more realistic.
You access Journey Behind the Falls in the same building. We waited in a long line and finally packed into an elevator that took us down to a tunnel behind Horseshoe Falls -- but not before receiving our third poncho of the day. You can peer at the back of the waterfalls from several passageways -- and 750,000 gallons per minute of falling water is impressive, not to mention loud. It was hard to imagine that anyone ever survived a plunge over the brink, with or without a barrel.
We then strolled about half a mile along the boardwalk, starting just opposite Goat Island, which separates the American and Canadian falls, back to our hotel. A rainbow hovered below us, while the mist billowed up from below.
In the good ol' USA
On Day Two, we hit the last of our four attractions -- White Water Walk. We took the shuttle down the parkway, past formerly grand mansions converted to B&Bs, the downtown and motels reminiscent of Route 66 back in the day.
We had almost bagged the rapids to allot more time to the American side. But I'm glad we didn't. All that water from the falls (fed by four of the five Great Lakes) gets squeezed into a gorge, and the result is rollicking torrents that are frightening to behold. I also enjoyed the informational placards about the daredevils who crossed these currents on tightropes in the mid-19th century, a practice outlawed in 1912.
Afterward, we drove across the Rainbow Bridge to the U.S. side and parked at Niagara Falls State Park (1-716-278-1796; www.niagarafallsstatepark.com; fee: $10). The visitors' center contained a helpful exhibit about the history and geography of the falls. We then emerged in the lovely Prospect Park -- designed by the same man responsible for New York's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted -- and there could see the water rushing toward the American Falls.
We paid $1 each to walk out onto a 280-foot observation deck built in the early 1960s that juts into the gorge. From here, you can get a side view of the American Falls and see part of Horseshoe Falls. Maybe this is why some prefer the view from Canada -- from its vantage point, you can enjoy a fuller vista of all three cataracts.
We were running short of time and feeling the effects of another sweltering day, so we bid the falls farewell. I would have liked to have visited Goat Island and Cave of the Winds, where you see the American Falls up close. But we'll have to save those for next visit.
So which side is better?
I have three pieces of advice. One: Visit the falls -- either of them -- in early autumn, when it's cooler and less crowded. Two: Avoid the kitschy attractions that you'll find in abundance on either side of the border. And three: Go to both sides. You be the judge.
Elizabeth Hayes is a writer living in Winona.