The kitschy shops selling sweatshirts, snowglobes and slabs of fudge are still there. So are the misty mornings and rainbow-colored nights.
Niagara Falls is just as you remember it as a kid: The must-do boat tour, the museums commemorating the War of 1812 battlefields and the daredevilish aerocar that brings a bird's-eye view of the raging waters to its passengers all of these remain prime tourist attractions.
But today there's more to Niagara Falls, Ontario, than the falling water and all that goes with it. There's the glitzy world of Casino Niagara and the charms of nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake. Since the exchange rate is $1 United States currency to $1.50 Canadian, your vacation fund goes further in this family-friendly town.
Ah, the Falls
Of course, experiencing the magnificence of the Falls themselves especially on the Canadian side is worth the four-hour drive from Cleveland. The Horseshoe Falls crest at 2,200 feet before plunging 171 feet into the Niagara River below. (The adjacent American Falls on the New York side are higher at 184 feet, but have a shorter crest of 1,075 feet). Although barrels are strictly prohibited, there are plenty of opportunities to see the Falls up close.
Since 1846, the world-famous Maid of the Mist (5920 River Road, 905-358-0311) boat and her descendants have taken passengers to the base of the American Falls and the basin of the Horseshoe Falls. Such luminaries as Princess Diana and President Theodore Roosevelt have donned slickers (today's version is a take-home plastic poncho) to experience the half-hour trip. Boats depart every hour, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week, from May through October. Cost is $12.25 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 6 to 12.
For those who still yearn to shoot the rapids, a stop at the IMAX Theatre (6170 Buchanan Ave., 905-358-3611) is the next best thing. Now playing on the six-story screen is Keith Merrill's "Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic." The Academy Award-winning director (also the talent behind the IMAX production of "Amazon") relates the epic history of the region, which includes early Indian settlements and the War of 1812. The film also spotlights the Falls in their year-round splendor, complete with death-defying views. "Niagara" is screened 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Tickets are $10 for adults and $6.50 for children.
On the Canadian side, downstream from the Falls, the Niagara River passes through a narrow gorge and the tumultuous 60-acre Whirlpool Basin. The Niagara Spanish Aero Car (3850 Niagara Parkway, 905-356-2241) carries passengers 250 feet above the Niagara Gorge and back via cablecar. The car operates from 8 a.m. to dusk. Cost is $6 for adults, and $3 for children.
If you want to see the rushing waters from the inside out, venture on a Journey Behind the Falls (6650 Niagara Parkway, 1-877-642-7275). An elevator takes tourists 125 feet down to the base of the Horseshoe Falls, where they can stroll through 650 feet of manmade tunnels to the Falls' edge. An observation plaza provides close-up views. The attraction is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Admission is $7 for adults and $3.50 for children. (Warning: Only the sure-footed should make the trek, as the walkway is slippery when wet.)
A Bit of History, A Bit of Gambling
Those looking for drier fun can find it at Casino Niagara (5705 Falls Ave., 1-888-946-3255). From the excitement of blackjack and roulette to the thrill of trying your hand at the Double Diamond and Blazing Sevens slot machines, the 100,000-square-foot casino features 2,700 slot and video-poker machines and 130 gaming tables. The action takes place 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you're interested in Niagara Falls' place in history, you will want to visit the massive memorial to Sir Isaac Brock, Canada's first military hero. The 185-foot-tall monument towers over Queenston Heights Park (14276 Niagara Parkway), the spot on which a decisive battle in the War of 1812 was held. On Oct. 13, 1812, Brock was killed by a Yankee sharpshooter, but not before he rallied British troops to ward off American invaders. A winding staircase leads to an observation deck offering scenic views of the Niagara River.
The history lesson continues at Fort Erie (350 Lakeshore Road, 1-877-642-7275), situated on the site where the Niagara River and Lake Erie meet. Built by the British in 1764, the fort was captured by the Americans during the War of 1812. After the troops departed, it fell into disrepair until restoration efforts ensued in 1939. The fort is open to visitors from May to September. Guides dressed in period costumes conduct tours and re-enact battles. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $6.50 for adults and $4 for children.
For 40 years, theatergoers have flocked to the picture-postcard town of Niagara-on-the Lake to attend the Shaw Festival. The current season, which runs through Nov. 25, includes William Inge's "Picnic" (through Sept. 21), Shaw's "The Millionairess" (through Oct. 28), J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" (through Oct. 28) and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (through Nov. 10). Ticket prices and times vary. Call 1-800-511-SHAW.
Settled in 1776, Niagara-on-the-Lake is filled with quaint bed-and-breakfasts and specialty stores. Located just 15 miles downriver from Niagara Falls, the area is an ideal spot for day-trippers to lunch and shop. Check out authentic Hawaiian wear at The Prospect (92 Queen St., 905-468-0400) or pick up a jar of Three Fruit (grapefruit, orange and lemon) marmalade at Greaves Jams & Marmalades (55 Queen St., 905-468-7831). Lunch Henry VIII style at The Buttery Theatre Restaurant (19 Queen St., 905-468-2564), where the bill of fare includes lobster sandwiches; cornish pasties filled with beef and vegetables; and steak, kidney and mushroom pies. (Be sure to save room for dessert. The blackberry and apple crumble and fresh lemon tart are not-to-be-missed menu mainstays.)
Unlike it was in your grandparents' day, Niagara Falls is no longer all wet when it comes to hotels and restaurants. From fast food to fine dining, motel chains to one-of-a-kind penthouses, a trip to the Falls fits every budget.
Talk about rooms with a view. The newest gem on the hotel horizon is the brand-new Ramada Plaza Hotel Fallsview (6732 Fallsview Blvd., 905-356-1501) atop the 30-story Minolta Tower Centre. In June, the tower's top four floors were refurbished into 42 guest rooms containing wall-to-wall windows offering panoramic, in-your-face views of the American and Canadian Horseshoe falls. (When the rainbow-colored lights go on at dusk, the scene is breath-taking.) The plush rooms are decorated in a Victorian style, replete with canopy beds and gilt mirrors. An observation deck on the 25th floor of the Minolta Tower offers shutterbugs some of the best camera angles in the city. Room rates range from $140 to $340. The best time to make reservations is during the fall and winter.
The 1-year-old Radisson Hotel and Suites Fallsview (6733 Fallsview Blvd., 905-356-1944) offers the familiar tastes of such chain eateries as Outback Steakhouse, Tony Roma's and Pizza Hut, all accessible from the lobby. Sporting Southwest decor in shades of turquoise and brown, many of the one- and two-room suites feature Jacuzzi tubs for two that face the Falls. Room rates range from $90 to $350 per night.
One of hottest meal tickets in town is a reservation at The Pinnacle Restaurant (905-356-1501), located on the 26th floor of the Ramada Plaza Fallsview. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the menu focuses on steak and seafood entrees, including charbroiled black Angus steaks, prime rib, sole and Canadian snow crab. The wine list spotlights varieties grown and bottled in the Niagara region. Entrée prices range from $13.55 to $35. Top off your meal with a slice of chocolate fudge torte or the Pinnacle Pear, French ice cream shaped like a pear, filled with Kahlua, dipped in dark chocolate and garnished with raspberries.
Baby-boomers who grew up in the '60s will feel right at home at The Secret Garden Restaurant (5827 River Road, 905-358-4588). Housed in a former bus station (Marilyn Monroe sashayed down its steps in the 1952 thriller "Niagara"), the eatery echoes with hits by The Beach Boys, Neil Diamond and British Invasion bands. Pastel watercolors by area artists dot the walls and are featured in the extensive gift shop, which sells every trip memento imaginable. (On a recent visit, a lifelike, three-dimensional "moving" painting of the Canadian Falls couldn't help but catch the eye.) The menu features an ample assortment of chicken and beef dishes, such as chicken Marsala and braised beef, as well as soups and salads. Dinner prices range from $15.95 to $34.95. The restaurant is also open for breakfast and lunch.
Long known for the award-winning wines the region produces, Niagara-on-the Lake offers visitors countless chances to sample the fruits of its vines. The newest way to do so is by touring the Peller Estates Winery (290 John St., 905-468-4678). The winery, which opened in May, is surrounded by 25 acres of vineyards. Peller specializes in premium, single-varietal red wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. You don't need to be a connoisseur to appreciate Peller's hourly tours, which conclude with a complimentary tasting of the estate's ice wines. The winery's à la carte menu features such specialties as house-smoked black cod fillet lightly braised in Riesling and sorrel broth ($24) and Atlantic monkfish on puy lentil salad with Chardonnay and sage butter ($22).
The winery is open year-round, seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, log on to www.peller.com.
Avid golfers are no strangers to Niagara's Oak Hall, Whirlpool and Public Par 3 courses. Next June, yet another venue will be unveiled. Legends on the Niagara (9233 Niagara Parkway, 1-877-642-7275), a 45-hole facility featuring two 18-hole championship courses, one nine-hole course, a 360-degree circular driving range, an 18-hole putting course and a golf academy for children and teens. For more information about Niagara Falls, Ontario, call Niagara Falls Tourism at 1-800-56FALLS or visit www.DiscoverNiagara.com.