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.
About 50 wineries are strewn around the southern and western shores of Lake Ontario within an hour from the falls hub, some little more than family farms and some as elaborate as the well-known Inniskillin. Somewhere in the middle, the picturesque, plushily green 13th Street Winery offered some palate-popping examples of the region's signature offering — ice wine — along with flatbread pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven and topped with peaches picked on-site. Take that, Planet Hollywood.
Along with explaining to our wives why we went to a winery together, my traveling companion and I also had to downplay the honeymoon aspect of me and him spending the night beside the falls in a crushed-velveted, Jacuzzi-equipped room at the Space Needlelike Tower Hotel, opened in 1962.
Curved and tilted in a way where you always sort of feel like you're teetering off the ledge (not the best sleeping scenario), the Tower was a when-in-Rome kind of lodging choice that offered impressive views of the falls. Which proved to be redundant.
If you're not a newlywed or into wax museums, you probably will — and certainly should — spend most of your time in Niagara Falls getting as close to the water as you can. And can you ever.
Kissed by the mist
"Here we go!" someone shouted as the soft pelting of water turned into a downpour aboard the Maid of the Mist.
The high point of our trip, no question, the Maid of the Mist cruise is the kind of universal experience that blends together people of all ages, shapes and nationalities — partly by the humbling grandeur of the falls, and partly from the humiliation of the plastic blue rain slickers everyone must wear.
Casting off from a riverside dock that lies an elevator ride below Queen Victoria Park in the heart of town (boats also leave from the American side), the cruise lasted only about 20 minutes and found us fighting for elbow space along the rails with 599 other passengers. But anywhere you stand, the falls will floor you.
First comes the American Falls, Niagara's flatter and more easily picture-framed falls. The big splash, literally and figuratively, is a few hundred yards upstream at Horseshoe Falls, where you can feel some of the 680,000 gallons of water that pours over the ledge each second. Talk about a powerful experience.
Maid of the Mist is part of a quartet of riverside attractions that can be combined into the $47 Niagara Adventure Pass — a steep price given the brevity and relative simplicity of each "adventure," but the money at least goes to Niagara Parks preservation.
We did two more of the adventures, one of which proved to be a dud: The Journey Behind the Falls tour takes you down another elevator into a couple of tunnels under the falls, where you can look out at door-sized open windows of the falling water. It sort of looks like a fogged-up window.
Much more exhilarating, the White Water Walk a couple miles downstream offers a boardwalk for an eye-level view of the Class 6 rapids in Niagara Gorge created by all that water rushing off the falls. It's here that you can learn about some of the daredevils and just regular folks who've perished in the river's fury, like the honeymoon couple who were sucked in off an ice floe.
White Water Walk is also one of the few places along the Canadian side of the river where the towers and the neon and the Arnold Schwarzenegger wax figures are out of sight, and all you see is the natural beauty of the place (other options include the Niagara Glen Nature Area and Niagara Parks Botanical Garden).
As it is, though, it's pretty easy to tune out the man-made scenery even when you're staring down from the Table Rock Visitor Center and other lookout points right in the heart of town. That's the strongest testament to the falls' power.