Over the edge at Niagara Falls

Ontario’s view of Niagara Falls is powerful enough to wash away travel woes and tourist kitsch.

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It was one of those days. The flight out of Minneapolis left nearly three hours late. It took two shuttle buses and a full hour to get the rental car in Toronto. Then came the miles and miles — or kilometers and kilometers, rather — of bumper-to-bumper traffic. On a Saturday.

By the time the towering casinos and observation decks that skirt the Niagara River came into sight, I was ready to tell the world to take off, eh.

And then I saw them. That first glimpse of Niagara Falls is like one of those movie scenes where they show a leggy bombshell from the heels up.

The shapely curves of the river above the falls come first, followed by the sharp, waistline-like rocky edge, and then the billowy blouse of mist. Finally, you see the elegant ribbons of water flowing to the bottom like a finely bobbed hairdo hitting a neckline.

Like all loves at first sight, the falls implore you to drop everything and focus on nothing else. Which was just what I needed, not only to cap off a hellacious travel day, but to endure the tacky, sensory-overloading tourism sprawl that floods both sides of the river-cum-U.S.-Canada border.

A bucket-list destination of mine ever since I saw “Superman II” as a kid — the godawful one where Lois Lane jumps toward the falls to test Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent — Niagara Falls beckoned as a very worthwhile, 80-mile side trip from Toronto.

The falls lived up to my lofty expectations. The Ontario city of Niagara Falls, on the other hand, didn’t quite live down its reputation as a smaller and more family-friendly (read: boring) version of a Canadian Las Vegas.

Still, I was able to find some hidden gems tucked away amid the neon, and the falls themselves were spectacular enough that I’d walk over hot coals — or past scores of souvenir shops and chain restaurants — to see them again.

Where the Tony Roma’s roam

The juxtaposition of natural beauty vs. human blah on both sides of the river is as sharp as the falls’ drop-off point. It’s like a battle front between God’s wondrous creations and man’s blundering developments — if you call having two Tony Roma’s restaurants less than a mile apart downtown and three different wax museums “development.”

Known to offer better views of the falls but not the wet, in-your-face experience of the American side — that would come later aboard the Maid of Mist boat tour — Ontario’s city of Niagara Falls has seen more of a makeover in recent years than has its faded New York sibling.

The Canadian side, for instance, boasts the newest and grandest of the gambling palaces: The 30-story Fallsview Casino Resort, which would rate a 7 on a scale of 10 in Vegas casino pizazz — and which ate up $10 of my newly acquired Canadian money in about 7 seconds via the Michael Jackson slot machine. So, yep, I beat it out of there.

Another candescent place to hastily lose money, the Clifton Hill amusement area is also a main draw for tourists to the Ontario side. It dates back to the ’50s but has come of age in recent years with many new/brighter/louder attractions.

Among Clifton Hill’s offerings are the aforementioned wax museums (Louis Tussaud’s, Movieland and Rock Legends), the 4D Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Moving Theater, the 175-foot Niagara SkyWheel ride and a mini-golf course with towering dinosaurs. Families could probably kill a couple of days and a thousand bucks there trying every option.

With Boston Pizza and Planet Hollywood among the more prominent eating choices downtown, the best clue that I was in Canada and not America came when I strolled past Coco’s Grill outside the Holiday Inn and heard the lounge singer covering the Tragically Hip (Ontario rockers famously unfamous stateside). One more clue: The bar there and most others carried Molson and other watery Canadian beers.

Turns out, though, one of the best-reviewed new restaurants in town happens to be a brewpub, the Syndicate, where both the beer and the grass-fed steak were thick and savory. The catch, of course, is you have to get away from the tourism center to get there (it’s about two miles away on Lundy Lane).

I only had to drive about 20 minutes to experience what has more and more become a popular, nearby getaway for Niagara-goers: winery hopping.

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