The long road trip – Niagara Falls

21_niagara_2HONEYMOON PARADISE  — A Mecca for newlyweds and tourists, Niagara Falls draws over 30 million visitors each year.  Photo for the I-O by Cindy Habets-Peterson

Special to the I-O by Cindy Habets Peterson

September isn’t considered summer in Montana – a cool fall chill is in the air most days, the kids are back in school and the summer blooms are dormant for another year.

As I look out my California window at the bright blue sky it’s hard to imagine fall here, I’m too busy being thankful for the sunshine after three months of fog, wind and summer sweater-weather here in San Francisco.  We finally get to enjoy our “summer months” of September and October.

So while you may not be expecting another summer road trip feature, I’ve decided one more is in order to celebrate the beginning of our summer.  It will be one to tuck away and think about for that big trip next year.

Actually, my plan was to keep my summer U.S. features confined to the Rockies and points west.  This month, I had scribbled down Oregon, with thoughts of exploring the low-key coast of Southern Oregon, which combines two of my very favorite things – wild Pacific coastline and fresh seafood.

But then I had a conversation with my mother, and she said, “I think you should write about Niagara Falls!”  Anyone else have an opinion?  OK, Mom – Niagara Falls it is.  What can I say - I’m easily influenced.

Niagara Falls had held an air of romantic mystique for me, ever since I was a little kid.  Maybe it was the combination of watching those TV documentaries about crazy daredevils throwing themselves over the falls in barrels, combined with the perception of Niagara being a dreamy, handholding honeymoon retreat.

Regardless of the reason, it had been on my travel checklist long before Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and Tuscany even entered my imagination.

My opportunity to finally experience Niagara came last summer when my husband and I embarked on a two month road trip across the country, starting in California and snaking our way through Colorado, Kansas, Chicago, Ill., Wisconsin and a whole lot of other places in between.  Our plan was to make New York our eastern turn-around point, so naturally we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to “swing by” Niagara Falls.

The Falls themselves are situated on the border between the U.S. and Canada, with the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls located on the US side of the border and Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side.  Niagara Falls is the third largest falls in the world in terms of water volume, but you would have to travel to the Congo or Laos to see the ones that outrank Niagara.

Some folks pick one side of the border or the other to do their oohing and aahing, while others hop back and forth across the border to take in both vantage points (see below for current border-crossing requirements).

We opted for primarily exploring the Canadian side, which has incredible views of all three falls from the riverside promenade, aptly coined Falls Avenue.  And while both sides of the Falls together attract somewhere between 20 and 30 million visitors a year, the Canadian side is really cashing in on the tourism mentality, with a plethora of amusement-themed rides, casinos, chain restaurants and more wax museums than should be allowed by law (sorry if I offend anyone who loves wax museums).

Aside from all the cheesy, touristy hype, the Falls themselves are quite amazing and worth the cost of getting up close and personal to the roaring water.

A favorite among visitors is the Maid of the Mist boat tour, which takes you into the heart of Horseshoe Falls.  The first Maid of the Mist boat was commissioned in 1846 and served as a paddleboat ferry from the United States to Canada until a suspension bridge replaced this function several years later.  From that point on, the fleet of boats acted solely as a tourist attraction.  The current Mist fleet was designed to keep up with the tourist load, now holding 600 visitors apiece for the 30-minute ride.  This voyage is best enjoyed in the sunny summer months – even with the provided plastic ponchos prepare to get plenty wet.

On the U.S. side of the falls, another way to get up close and personal with the roaring falls is to take the Cave of the Winds tour, which drops you 175 feet into the Niagara Gorge, where you can follow a wooden walkway to within 75 feet of Bridal Veil Falls.

A similar experience can be found on the Canada side: the Journey to the Falls that takes you right up beside Horseshoe Falls, where you can contemplate the 600,000 gallons per second (yes, per second!) spilling over the falls.  We opted for this tour and it definitely gave us a unique perspective on the power of nature.  Both tours come complete with the same attractive plastic ponchos and requisite misting as the Maid of the Mist.

Accommodations can be found on both sides of the river, with prices ranging from budget to swanky.  Hotel reservations are recommended in the summer high season.  If you are searching for a quieter, less crowded alternative to either the U.S. or

Canadian cities of Niagara, Niagara-on-the-Lake (on the Canadian side) offers a welcome leisurely pace in contrast to the throngs of tourists.

One can easily while away a day poking through the quaint main street shops or sampling the local wines at nearby wineries (which, by the way, are quite good).

Niagara Falls is definitely worth the visit and getting soaked along the way is part of the experience.  And if you sneak away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist promenades, there is still room to find a little romance in the surrounding countryside.

I don’t, however, recommend the whole over-the-falls in a barrel experience, at least not if you want to show your incredible pictures to the folks back home.

Note:  Presently, U.S. citizens are required to provide a passport, passport card or enhanced driver’s license at the immigration checkpoint either entering Canada or returning to the United States. 

Follow our wanderings at Happy Traveling!