Niagara Falls

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Roll out the barrel! Niagara Falls is an oddball combination of awesome natural beauty and man-made cheesiness-in other words, great family fun. And in the off-season, prices plunge

One Sunday morning on Clifton Hill, a street on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, a middle-aged woman with waist-long blond hair pulled up to a traffic light on her Harley. A couple dashed out into the street, and by the time the light changed they had plopped their four-year-old son on the woman's lap, taken a "happy snap," grabbed the kid, and retreated to the sidewalk. Twenty feet away, a 10-foot-tall alien with huge eyes and long fingers handed out flyers for the Alien Encounters wax museum. A few steps to the left, others filed into a museum featuring wax figures of famous serial killers, and kids headed into a hokey year-round haunted house. Welcome to the tawdriest, tackiest street in (otherwise subdued) Canada. Ever since Napoleon's younger brother, Jerome, honeymooned with his Baltimore-born bride here in 1804, Niagara Falls has been synonymous with heart-shaped tubs and dreamy gazes into the mist. Newlyweds still come to Niagara-the local tourism board gives away about 14,000 free certificates and discount booklets to visiting honeymooners each year-but nowadays you're apt to find more families in the summer, and seniors and gamblers throughout the rest of the year. People still feel the need to illegally fling themselves over the falls, not so much in barrels (the survival rate is just 66 percent), but by Jet Ski with a rocket-powered parachute (that guy didn't make it either). But there's a lot more plummeting in Niagara than a million bathtubs of water every minute. From late autumn to early spring, prices plunge.

The decision to visit in the off-season doesn't diminish the experience; Mother Nature never turns off the tap. Some smart travelers prefer the dead of winter, when mist frosts the trees and giant chunks of ice create spectacular formations at the base of the falls. Year-round there's the dramatic nightly illumination of the falls, and on the Canadian side, from November 22 to January 20, the Winter Festival of Lights-with more than a hundred light displays, parades, and fireworks.

You'll want to head straight to the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Be a traitor to the U.S.? Yes: The American side may have decent state park facilities, but the tiny downtown of Niagara Falls, New York, is somewhat derelict and abandoned, even on a summer holiday weekend and despite the presence of a large, year-old casino in the former convention center.

The two small cities face each other across the Niagara River, less than a mile apart, and the tourist districts are linked by the Rainbow Bridge, which you can drive or walk across. (The long lines at the border, a result of 9/11, have diminished. For U.S. citizens, a passport is preferable to enter Canada, but if you don't have one you can use a photo ID and birth certificate.) Both towns are fronted by parkland along the river's edge. From the Rainbow Bridge, on either side, it's less than a 30-minute walk to parkland viewing platforms within feet of the crashing cascades of water. On the Canadian side you get a full-frontal gawk at the three major sections of the falls. For a view so close you'll feel the spray, head to the Table Rock viewing area at the brim. Since 1885 the Niagara Parks Commission (877/642-7275, niagaraparks.com) has maintained about 4,250 acres of riverside parkland along the 35-mile route from Fort Erie (across from Buffalo) to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. You'll find biking/walking trails, restaurants, wading pools, historic sites, and gardens.

The Canadian side also offers a favorable exchange rate-prices in this story are in U.S. dollars-and most of all, there's a whopping 14,000 rooms to choose from, with a new second casino and another 1,000 rooms being added within a year. The U.S. side? A measly 2,000 hotel/motel rooms in downtown Niagara Falls.

The Rainbow Bridge pours visitors into Canada at the base of Clifton Hill, neon-lit and filled with quirky museums, amusements, and fast-food joints. On a busy summer afternoon, teeming with travelers, it takes on a carnival atmosphere. Among the attractions: the Criminals Hall of Fame, one of six wax museums; Ripley's Believe It or Not!, where you can see an eight-legged buffalo for free in the foyer, but you'll have to pay $8 for the shrunken human head from Ecuador ($4 for kids ages 6 to 12); a 250-game arcade; haunted houses; and more cheap souvenir shops than you can shake a refrigerator magnet at. Canadians can clearly give Americans a run for their money in the kitsch department.

Many activities remain open on the Canadian side in the winter (weather permitting), including Journey Behind the Falls, viewing platforms below and behind the Canadian Horseshoe Falls; the Niagara Parks Greenhouse; North America's largest Butterfly Conservatory; White Water Walk, where you can go to the observation point beside the Class VI rapids, but the boardwalk is closed when it's wet and dangerous; and the Whirlpool Aero Car, an aerial tram across the gorge.

The Yank side of the falls does offer some attractions, namely a smaller Niagara Falls State Park and a casino. For just $1 you can purchase an all-day Niagara Link trolley ticket that services the sites (kids 12 and under ride free). Along with commercial concessions (an American Maid of the Mist boat cruise, Cave of the Winds falls walkway, aquarium, observation tower, and historical film), the park offers several good views. At Terrapin Point, you're within feet of the massive, thundering Horseshoe Falls. Walk to the very end of the footpath on Three Sisters Islands-beneath the trees is a popular spot where you can sit on the rocks just above the falls. A hop-on, hop-off trolley service ($5 adults, $3 kids ages 6 to 12) comes to the rescue of those who don't want to hike the three-mile route around the park.

Come summer, which is prime season, congestion on the Canadian side gets challenging, so consider stashing the car at the Rapids View parking lot one mile south ($7.30 all day) and taking the free Table Rock shuttle. While at Table Rock, get the ultimate free souvenir-a photo of the kids at the falls with a real Mountie. Throughout the day, Friday through Sunday, from July 1 to September 1, you'll find an accommodating Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer wearing his classic red-jacket uniform.

Niagara Falls gets surprisingly hot in the summer. Cool down with a local beer at the Niagara Brewing Company, which offers free tours and tastings year-round on Saturdays (call for appointments; 6863 Lundy's Lane, 800/267-3392). Across town, peek through the picture window at the Thai Buddhist temple (4694 Morrison St.) to get a glimpse of one of the world's largest pieces of jade (16 tons!). On summer weekends and holiday evenings at 8 p.m., there's a free concert followed by fireworks at Queen Victoria Park.

For the best deals, visit Monday through Thursday. Catch lodging bargains online, at sites hosted by Niagara Falls Tourism (discoverniagara.com) and Tourism Niagara (tourismniagara.com-link through to the individual properties); Canadian Niagara Hotels and Niagara Resorts (niagarafallshotels.com); Info Niagara (infoniagara.com); and the travel section of regional newspapers.

Through December 31, Air Canada is packaging round-trip airfare as well as three nights' hotel and car at the falls. The rate is $339 from New York (based on double occupancy), $351 from other eastern cities, $477 from Texas, $532 from San Francisco and Sacramento, and $587 from Los Angeles and San Diego (800/254-1000, aircanadascanada.com).

In January and February both the Hampton Inn at the Falls and the Skyline Inn on Bender Street will probably reprise a deal from last spring: two nights' double room accommodation, dinner for two, and breakfast both mornings for $73. What made these two offers so special is that both hotels are owned by Canadian Niagara Hotels and Niagara Resorts (800/263-7135, niagarafallshotels.com), owners of the pricier Sheraton on the Falls and Brock Plaza. That's where you get to enjoy your included dinner for two, served against the backdrop of a fabulous falls view. Slow-season two-night packages are also offered at the company's two Niagara Falls, New York, hotels.

The most coveted lodging area on the Canadian side is obviously on Clifton Hill, for convenience and services. Off-season, the hotels wheel and deal. For example, Thriftlodge at 4943 Clifton Hill (800/668-8840, falls.com) runs fall and winter Family Fun packages of two nights' lodging, dinner for two, and breakfasts for as little as $87. (Two kids under 12 stay and eat free, and you get four passes to Clifton Hill attractions.) Across the road at the Quality Inn, 4946 Clifton Hill (800/263-7137, qualityniagara.com), two-night weekday packages with breakfasts and an $18 dinner voucher were sold last spring for $109. And after the foliage drops, you might even get a view of the falls from your room. From mid-October to mid-May, the Days Inn properties (800/461-1251, niagarahospitalityhotels.com), one at 7280 Lundy's Lane, and the other, a new, seven-story hotel at 5657 Victoria Avenue, offer two nights' room for two, dinner for two, and breakfast from $94. Kids under 12 stay free. As a bonus, the Days Inn offers autumn visitors a free shuttle to the casino, the falls, and local wineries.

The B&Bs in Niagara Falls (contact Niagara Falls Bed & Breakfast Service at 905/358-8988 or vaxxine.com/bb/nfbb) range from $65 to $131 in summer. But when demand is down, some of them-like Butterfly Manor at 4917 River Road-offer two nights for the price of one. B&Bs at neighboring Niagara-on-the-Lake are more expensive.

For the most reasonable rates, check out independent hotels a little farther out, such as along Victoria Avenue, Ferry Street, Lundy's Lane, and River Road (ask about free parking and shuttle services), or even some of the communities within a 30-minute drive, including Fort Erie (888/270-9151, forteriecanada.com) and St. Catharines (905/688-5601, ext. 1722, stcatharines.ca).

Watch where you're lured to eat. Promotional discount coupons can tempt you to visit overpriced restaurants, and even familiar chains raise their rates close to the falls. For a big Clifton Hill breakfast (or brunch), there's the $5 breakfast buffet from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. daily at the Wedgewood Restaurant ($2.90 for kids 10 and under; 5234 Ferry St., 905/374-0113). An equivalent value for lunch and dinner is the cozy Falls Manor (7104 Lundy's Lane, 905/358-3211). A 50-year-old institution with pine furniture and filled with locals, it serves a salmon dinner for $7.25, and has special deals for kids and seniors (60 and older). Children get a kick out of the Flying Saucer Restaurant (it's shaped like one; 6768 Lundy's Lane, 905/356-4553). A falls favorite for nearly 30 years, it's a little rough around the edges but still famous for its 72¢ breakfast (eggs, toast, hash browns). At the end of the day, head to the tiny lounge area at Table Rock Restaurant and try a glass of local Niagara wine for $4.40; a spectacular view of the falls is included (6650 Niagara Pkwy., 905/354-3631). Be prepared to make a slightly damp entrance because of the mist rising for hundreds of feet.

Winston Churchill called the scenic 20-mile parkway along the Niagara Gorge and River to Niagara-on-the-Lake "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world." As you drive north, you'll pass the magnificent seven-mile Niagara Gorge on your right, created as the falls eroded their way backward over 12,000 years. There are trails, fruit and vegetable stands, wineries, galleries, gardens, historic sites to explore, and free parking.

Continuing north, you can visit the Cham Shan Buddhist Temple, with its six-ton bell in the front yard, and Thompson Point, to view one of the world's largest whirlpools, created as the river takes a 90-degree turn. Take a break for a riverside hike at Niagara Glen Nature Reserve, and then drop into Niagara Park's 100-acre Botanical Gardens. A mile north is one of the world's largest floral clocks (its face is made up of more than 20,000 plants). Make your way to the top of Queenston Heights, a War of 1812 battle site (with free Sunday concerts and a spectacular view), and drop into Queenston's RiverBrink Gallery-the collection includes works by many well-known Canadian artists (905/262-4510, riverbrink.com; open late May to mid-October, or call for appointment; $3.65 adults, kids under 12 free). As you approach Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Fort George National Historic Site is on your right (visitors center open April 1 to October 31; $5.85 adults, $3.65 kids 6 to 16).

The charming village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (905/468-1950, niagaraonthelake.com), less than a half hour from Niagara Falls, served as the first capital of Upper Canada from 1792 to 1796. In late January, Niagara-on-the-Lake holds a free winter Ice Wine Festival (niagaraonthelake.com), with a 20-foot outdoor bar carved from ice on the main street. The town's George Bernard Shaw Festival (800/511-7429, shawfest.com) runs April to November, with free Sunday morning concerts.

An unbeatable bargain

From mid-May through October, Niagara Parks packages its key sites that charge admission into a single-day Niagara Falls & Great Gorge Adventure Pass. You get unlimited People Mover transportation for one day only to all the key sites; a ride on the famous Maid of the Mist to the base of the falls; entrance to the Journey Behind the Falls and the Butterfly Conservatory; and discounts on Old Fort Erie, the Whirlpool Aero Car, Sir Adam Beck Generating Station Number Two (a power plant still open to the public even after the big blackout), and more. Best of all, you get to bypass the lines. It costs $23 for adults and $14 for kids ages 6 to 12 (5 and under are free). You can save 15 percent by purchasing the pass at niagaraparks.com. Because some of the activities close down, autumn and winter bring a different pass, the Niagara Falls Attractions Pass. Offered from November until mid-May, it includes entry to the Butterfly Conservatory, Sir Adam Beck power plant, and Journey Behind the Falls. From November 1 to December 31 and April 1 to mid-May, the pass costs $15 for adults, $9 for kids 6 to 12 (5 and under are free). From January through March, that price is usually discounted further when access to some attractions, including Journey Behind the Falls, is reduced because of the weather.

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