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Niagara Can Still Make Me All Misty

By Angela Matusik
updated September 29, 2021
0510_niagara
Chad Hunt
Sure, the falls are nice and all, but it's the kitsch that wins this local's heart

By the time I was growing up there in the '70s and '80s, Niagara Falls had ceased to be the honeymoon icon of yesteryear. The region was economically depressed and famously polluted. Forget the 1953 Marilyn Monroe movie Niagara; my experience was better captured in the 1982 made-for-TV movie Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal. The chemical dump, which the government declared a hazard in 1978, was right in my family's backyard.

Though I happily escaped from the city about a decade later, I return for visits all the time. During the '90s, while the rest of the country was booming, Niagara seemed to sink deeper into a slump. Factories closed, storefronts were boarded up, and unemployment soared. It's only been the past few years--after some much-needed cleanups--that things are begining to improve. Now when I go back, I find myself in the middle of big crowds of tourists, rediscovering what makes the place so great.

There are actually two towns named Niagara Falls: the one in New York, where I grew up, and the one across the river, in Ontario. The grass is greener on the U.S. side, thanks to a state park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. I've always been amazed at how close you can get to the Falls. In several spots, the edge is just a few feet away, with a guardrail that's only waist-high. I remember being a teenager, gazing into the churning rapids while listening to the Cure on a Walkman, dreaming of a more exciting life--like the one on the other side of the border. Niagara Falls, Ontario, had all the action: year-round amusement parks, wax museums, neon lights. As I grew older, I amended that list to include better music, stronger beer, and a lower drinking age.

A couple months ago, I brought my boyfriend, Chad, along to visit my family. The big news on the U.S. side is the Seneca Niagara Casino, in what used to be the convention center. But we figured we'd get a better return on our money at Twist o' the Mist, an ice cream stand next to the Rainbow Bridge. It's only been around for 11 years, but there's a retro charm--the building is shaped like a squat soft-serve cone--that the rest of the town is missing. Locals and tourists line up for oversize scoops of flavors like Super Hero, a mix of cherry bubblegum, lemon, and blue raspberry.

Chad and I rode the elevator down to Niagara's most famous attraction, the Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you right to the grandest crashing point, Horseshoe Falls. I hadn't been onboard since high school, and I was sad to see that the sturdy yellow slickers have been replaced with blue, cellophane-like ponchos that made us look shrink-wrapped. But I was grateful for the protection at the turnaround, where it felt like we were in a typhoon. We did our best to blink through the billowing mist, while watching courageous geese dive for fish. It really is awesome.

Niagara may have lost its top-tier reputation in this country, but it still carries international appeal. Throughout the years, the area has drawn hordes of South Asian tourists, and its popularity has caught the attention of the local population, with savvy entrepreneurs opening curry stands near the Falls. On our boat ride, Chad and I were impressed with the number of nationalities aboard. One Syrian family told us that because of stricter visa laws since September 11, they weren't allowed to cross over to Canada. (That, along with the new casino, could explain a surge of visitors on the U.S. side.)

For Americans, the passage over the border remains a breeze--answer a few quick questions at the tollbooth and you're in. We planned to spend the night in Canada. All my life, I'd seen advertisements for heart-shaped whirlpool tubs, yet I'd never experienced one firsthand. Before settling into our motel, the Chalet Inn & Suites, Chad and I took a spin around Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls' version of Times Square. As a kid, I used to test my bravery at Canada's many wax museums. I'd force myself to shake hands with Frankenstein or get up close to gory historical scenes; I'll never forget Marie Antoinette's grisly beheading. I credit them for instilling in me a keen love for all things kitschy or macabre, like luaus and zombie movies.

Our visit coincided with the reopening of Louis Tussaud's Waxworks. Louis was the great-grandson of Madame, and his wax museum was the first one in town. Admission is $11; if you're in a silly mood, it's worth every penny. The glass barriers are gone, so now you can casually mingle with the assorted celebrities, examining every waxy pore on John Candy, Celine Dion, Pamela Anderson, and several versions of Mike Myers. (Canadians love nothing more than reminding people which stars are Canadian.) Despite the fun we had at Louis's place, we found Clifton Hill a bit overwhelming. Every inch of the short, steep strip is occupied by a splashy billboard or neon advertisement. It's hard to find a restaurant--or anything else--that isn't part of a franchise. We opted for one of the more charming ones, Montana's Cookhouse, a Western-themed smokehouse that serves decent barbecue.

Other than the wax museums, the Canadian side does have one thing going for it: the better view. Rainbows are a constant, and at night giant lights turn the Falls all sorts of colors. I was happy to see that the leaf-themed cast-iron guardrails are still there--I remembered them from the Marilyn Monroe movie, and they're one of the few remnants from the city's golden age. That and the heart-shaped tub: As we fought our way back to the motel through the throngs, it became more enticing with every step.

Lodging

  • Chalet Inn & Suites 5577 Ellen Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont., 866/287-1110, chalet-inn.com, from $49
  • Food

  • Montana's Cookhouse 5657 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont., 905/356-7427
  • Twist o' the Mist 18 Niagara St., Niagara Falls, N.Y., 716/285-0702
  • Activities

  • Maid of the Mist Niagara Falls State Park, 716/284-8897, maidofthemist.com, 30-minute tour $11.50
  • Louis Tussaud's Waxworks 5907 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont., 905/374-6601, $11
  • Seneca Niagara Casino 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls, N.Y., 877/873-6322, senecaniagaracasino.com
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    Inspiration

    Secret Hotels of South Beach

    South Beach has seen it all. The 1.7-square-mile strip in Miami Beach has more than 125 hotels, most of which are art deco gems from the 1920s and '30s. In the 1940s, when it was a virtual military base, many hotels were converted into barracks and training facilities. By the 1980s, there was enough questionable activity to form the backdrop for Miami Vice. Today, things have come full circle, and then some--the neighborhood is a full-fledged hotspot. South Beach still has the country's largest collection of art deco buildings, and the owners of these five hotels intend to keep it that way. Thirteen years ago, Lisa and Pascal Nicolle bought the Villa apartment complex at Collins Avenue and 14th Street. The couple, who had previously made a living flipping residential properties in Miami, gave the place a dressy new name, Villa Paradiso, and started off doing weekly and monthly rentals. "We bought some $2 lamps at a thrift store and sort of scribbled a room for rent sign outside," Lisa recalls with a laugh. "We couldn't believe it when people called!" As South Beach became more of a vacation destination, the couple gradually transformed the Villa into a proper hotel. They outfitted the 17 bright and spacious apartments with chaises, whimsical leopard-print pillows, and bright white scrims that hang between the bedroom and kitchen areas. "We want it to be your own little home away from home," says Lisa. The Nicolles have one full-time resident. A stray black cat checked into the lush courtyard a while back and hasn't budged. 1415 Collins Ave., 305/532-0616, villaparadisohotel.com, from $99 low season, $139 high. In 2001, the Nicolles purchased a second apartment complex five blocks south of the Villa and converted it into the Villa's younger, hipper sibling, The Loft Hotel. In the middle of the Collins Avenue action, the 22 apartments sit in a two-story line perpendicular to the street (the farthest--and quietest--rooms are the highest-numbered ones). Even the rooms near Collins seem serene on the inside, however, with tile or blond wood floors and wrought-iron headboards. All have full kitchens and cute breakfast nooks with a round café table. Throughout, Lisa placed bouquets of dried milky-white flowers that she and Pascal had brought back from France. "Sometimes people call up and want to know which hotel is better," Lisa says. "How do you choose? It's like having two kids! I say the Villa is a little more Key West, while at the Loft I feel like I need to put on lipstick." 952 Collins Ave., 305/534-2244, thelofthotel.com, from $109 low season, $149 high. In South Beach, paying for style usually means staying in an Ian Schrager-inspired den of predictable minimalism--white duvet, track lighting, cement floor, bare walls. Not so at the Hotel Impala, a worthy splurge more in the style of a Mediterranean villa. The gated entrance, on Collins at 12th Street, immediately sets a warm tone; a curving Italian saturnia-stone path leads through a tropical garden into the cozy lobby. "It's like a private retreat from the craziness of South Beach," says general manager Ros Gottuso, who is the face of the place (the proprietor is a silent owner). The sun mosaic inlaid in the lobby floor was a gift from Gianni Versace, who was friends with the five men who opened the Impala 11 years ago. "We pride ourselves in being helpful without being overly intrusive," says Gottuso. The 17 rooms have new armoires, sleigh beds, and wrought-iron fixtures. And the terra-cotta roof, interior archways, and local coral rock in the bathrooms are all original details. A free continental breakfast of fresh orange juice, toast, and croissants is served in the adjoining Spiga restaurant. 1228 Collins Ave., 800/646-7252, hotelimpalamiamibeach.com, from $145 low season, $195 high. Swiss-born Beatrice and Matt Morell decided to try their hand at the hotel business in 2001, after a stint in California where he operated a car-repair shop and she waited tables. They drove every inch of the Florida coast before coming across a place in South Beach that seemed like kismet: a 1937 apartment complex, designed by architect Henry Hohauser, resembling a Swiss chalet. In the process of transforming it to the Atlantica Hotel and Suites, the couple gutted the interior, updated the plumbing and electricity, and added IKEA-like spare furniture and bright blue bedspreads. The 26-room Atlantica is decidedly more spic-and-span than sleek, but where else in South Beach--especially in SoFi, the hip South of Fifth Street section--can you get a reliably nice room in high season for under $100 a night? "We are not a party hotel," reminds Beatrice. "We are quiet and simple, and we get many repeat guests because of that." A simple breakfast of croissants, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt is free, and the Morells will also gladly lend out their supply of beach chairs and umbrellas. 321 Collins Ave., hotelatlantica.com, 305/532-7077, from $69 low season, $89 high. Vilma Biaggi, a Miami-based doctor, bought the 1941 art deco Cadet Hotel 20 years ago. Over time, the hotel has become her pet project; Biaggi just finished an extensive two-year renovation. Mint-green hallways are now lit by lamps with parchment shades, and the 40 rooms all have orchids and framed black-and-white photos by local artists. After studying historical photos of the hotel, Biaggi preserved the building's nautical-themed facade, a porthole-style window near the lobby bar, and an inlaid compass design in the lobby floor. A poster of Clark Gable reminds visitors that in the 1940s, the screen star--then a cadet commander--occasionally stayed in room 225. (The building used to be a way station for West Point cadets.) For breakfast, guests have their choice of waffles, omelets, or yogurt and muesli, which they can eat on the wide porch. The Cadet is only two blocks from the busy Lincoln Road mall, but sitting behind a thick curtain of foliage, you'd hardly know it. 1701 James Ave., 305/672-6688, cadethotel.com, from $89 low season, $125 high.

    Inspiration

    Extra Mile Awards 2005

    Anyone paying attention to the news might get the impression that travel is in an unpleasant downward spiral. Bankruptcy! Amenity cutbacks! Security hassles! Privacy violations! Lost in all the hubbub are the companies throughout the industry that are making sincere efforts to improve travel. Our philosophy is that if you don't give a little positive reinforcement, these companies don't have much incentive to keep up the good work. And so, we're thrilled to announce our first-ever Extra Mile Awards. We looked back at a 12-month period--August 1, 2004, to July 31, 2005--and argued endlessly over which companies deserved a pat on the back. We tried not to overlook minor improvements: The first time a housekeeper placed a mint on a hotel-room pillow, it probably didn't seem like something that could significantly brighten your night. The prize? Good press, first and foremost--these days, it can be hard to come by. Second, an invitation to our fancy-pants awards dinner at New York City hotspot The Modern. Finally, winners receive an Extra Mile Award snow globe: After all, there's no better way to commemorate the folks who are really shaking things up. --The Editors The 10 winners The runners-up: close but no snow globe!

    Inspiration

    Why Haven't You Heard Of...Sanary, France?

    On the Cote d'Azur, visitors lingering over a glass of rosé generally gasp for two reasons: They've just spotted P. Diddy, or they've just been handed the check. Neither makes for real relaxation. But 50 miles southwest of St.-Tropez, and about an hour from Marseille by train, the tiny fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer has all the beauty of the Mediterranean coast--steep cliffs, sapphire sea--with less pretension and sticker shock. Sanary is the kind of French Riviera destination that the French choose to vacation at. As in St.-Tropez, Sanary's port is the hub of all the action--yet in place of sparkling white yachts, there are red, blue, and green fishing boats gathered at the wharf. A handful of patisseries selling napoleons and opera cakes line the cobblestoned streets. Outside, older men engage in rousing games of pétanque. Throughout, it seems the only rush is that of people trying to get home while their recently baked baguette is still warm. Sanary truly comes alive at dusk. Young couples park their scooters and settle in over aperitifs at the portside cafés--Coquillages Philippe, a shellfish bar with terrific oysters, mussels, and sea urchins, or L'En K Fé, a restaurant known for its Moroccan tagine of chicken and dates. Whatever the food, it pairs beautifully with rosés from nearby Bandol. Arguably the most famous wine region of southern France, Bandol is a 10-minute bus ride away. Most of the vineyards are about three miles from the town center, up the surrounding hills. Rent a scooter in town, or stay put and taste at Maison des Vins du Bandol, which has bottles from 29 of the region's producers. Wednesday mornings, Sanary shakes off its sleepiness with a grand market. More than 300 stands overflow with foie gras, baby artichokes, and strawberries. Fishermen empty their nets of loup de mer, sea bass, and blowfish--so fresh they still flop around. The market also draws purveyors of the South of France's famed products: scented soaps, sachets of herbes de Provence, olive oil, and of course, string bikinis. Not that you'll want to spend too much time on the beach. True to Mediterranean form, the beaches are rocky, and they don't cover them with sand like the ones in Cannes. It's better to take in the view from the Hotel de la Tour, run by the Mercier family. Many of the large, simple 24 rooms have windows onto the harbor. After a lazy dinner, you'll realize that sometimes, spending a day watching the light shift on the water can be as subtly thrilling as a celebrity sighting. Transportation   Littoral bus company 011-33/4-94-74-01-35   Bandol Scooter 141 avenue Onze Novembre, Bandol, 011-33/4-94-25-06-57, scooter rental $42 a day Lodging   Hotel de la Tour 24 quai Général de Gaulle, 011-33/4-94-74-10-10, sanary-hoteldelatour.com, from $86, with breakfast Food   Coquillages Philippe 8 place de la Tour, 011-33/6-23-95-77-56, six oysters and glass of rosé $10   L'En K Fé 13 rue Louis Blanc, 011-33/4-94-74-66-57, chicken tagine $16 Attractions   Maison des Vins du Bandol 22 allées Vivien, 011-33/4-94-29-45-03, maisondesvins.free.fr

    Inspiration

    A Night Out in Buenos Aires

    10 p.m. to midnight Most restaurants don't fully get swinging until at least 10 p.m. The classic place to go is a parrilla, a barbecue restaurant where tender cuts of beef are seared over wooden coals by a parrillero in a bloodstained apron. Bife de chorizo (sirloin), morcilla (blood sausage), and chinchulines (tripe) are all liberally slathered with either chimichurri (sauce of parsley, garlic, olive oil, lemon, and other assorted herbs) or salsa criolla (finely chopped tomatoes and onions). The casual Desnivel, in the historic San Telmo district, is always packed with locals. With a cheap glass of wine, the bill usually comes to about $7 a person. An imposing man named Carlitos serves whatever he feels you should eat at Don Carlos, a parrilla in the shadow of La Bombonera soccer stadium in the Boca neighborhood. He'll begin by putting down plates of croquettes, marinated peppers, or pizzas. Then he'll ask how hungry you are. To Carlitos, "a little hungry" means very hungry, and anything else means you're a Texas rib-eating champion. Either way, it's wise to have skipped lunch. Carlitos keeps an eye on the sizzling bife de lomo (filet mignon) and juicy sweetbreads while watching the televised horse races. He'll focus on making sure you're finished before placing down desserts--tiramisu, bread pudding, and the Argentine version of flan: crème caramel garnished with whipped cream and dulce de leche (a spread of caramelized condensed milk). Finally, he'll scribble the price he feels is right on the tablecloth. For people he doesn't know, it's usually around $15; friends pay about $5 less. The buzzy neighborhood of Palermo has more chic places to eat and drink than you can keep track of. Bar El Diamante, a tapas restaurant in a converted house, is more cozy than aggressively hip. On warm nights, the rooftop makes an ideal setting for enjoying small plates of delicious grilled meats, fish, and pastas (a four-course meal with wine is $18). Nearby, at Thymus, the chef is trained in the classical French tradition. He turns out artful dishes such as wild mushroom salad, grilled loin of venison, and chocolate soufflé. A three-course tasting menu starts at $13. For a little more of a splurge, Oviedo, in the posh Recoleta neighborhood, serves Spanish-style seafood in a room with warm bistro lighting. A three-course prix fixe is $20 to $25, depending on the wine. Midnight to 3 a.m. The next few hours are best suited to laying low over drinks. At the old-timey locals' bar Lo de Roberto, dusty bottles, faded photos, and worn lyric sheets line the walls. Order a bottle of Vasco Viejo wine ($4), some seltzer ($1), and a bucket of ice-and mix it all up. Guitarists and tango singers wander in after midnight, and the owner Roberto will sternly shush anyone who dares to talk while they play. For better quality wines, Gran Bar Danzon is a downtown lounge favored by sommeliers. Danzon sells dozens of Argentine wines by the glass, most of which are hearty cabernets and malbecs from top labels such as Catena and Weinert. Each glass comes with a ticket, in Spanish, explaining the flavors and properties of the wine. The Faena Hotel + Universe is a year-old boutique hotel in Puerto Madero, the docklands district. Rooms start at $300, but the scene's what you come for anyway, and you can get enough of a taste at the patio pool bar, open in summer. The drink list leans heavily toward champagne, and white-cushioned banquettes provide a comfortable place to sit back and scope out all the beautiful people. From 3 a.m. on In a Palermo warehouse, a dance club called Niceto has a Thursday night international hip hop/electronic-music party called Club 69, where a campy mix of breakdancers and transvestites find common ground ($7 cover for women, $9 men). Club information is always changing, but the free monthly Spanish-language magazine Wipe, found at most Palermo stores and restaurants, has up-to-date bar and party listings. With all the overproduced tango shows advertised around town, it might seem like tango is a tourist trap. Do as locals do; avoid Vegas-style productions for a traditional, under-the-radar milonga (dance hall). Different milongas take over clubs on various nights. One lively weekend spot is La Viruta Tango, in a Palermo community-hall basement ($2 cover). To the tune of squeezeboxes and violins, you might find yourself pressed up against locals, sweeping around the dance floor, as the light of morning erases the darkness. Food   Desnivel Defensa 855, 011-54/11-4300-9081   Don Carlos Brandsen 699, 011-54/11-4362-2433   Bar El Diamante Malabia 1688, 011-54/11-4831-5735   Thymus Lerma 525, 011-54/11-4772-1936, thymusrestaurant.com.ar   Oviedo Beruti 2602, 011-54/11-4822-5415, oviedoresto.com Nightlife   Lo de Roberto Bulnes 331, Plaza Almagro, no phone   Gran Bar Danzon Libertad 1161, 011-54/11-4811-1108, granbardanzon.com.ar   Faena Hotel + Universe Martha Salotti 445, 011-54/11- 4010-9000, faenahotelanduniverse.com   Niceto Niceto Vega 5510, 011-54/11-4779-9396, nicetoclub.com   La Viruta Tango Centro Cultural Armenio, Armenia 1366, 011-54/11-4774-6357, lavirutatango.com Bo-Bo Hotel, Buenos Aires Last year, Mariano and Pablo Gimenez opened the Bo-Bo Hotel in a 1920 mansion in the Palermo district. Six of the seven rooms--all of which have free Wi-Fi--are themed to modern art movements. The Minimalist Room has ecru walls and white bedspreads; the Pop Room references the 1960s with a plastic orange chair and a photo of a Ford Falcon. For the seventh room--on the top floor, with a terrace and a skylit Jacuzzi--the brothers abandoned the art theme and named it the Argentina Room (left, $120). Each morning, a free breakfast of croissants, yogurt, and café con leche is served in the restaurant. Guatemala 4882, 011-54/11-4774-0505, bobohotel.com, from $80. --Celeste Moure