By Kristen Nowak Winn
Two days. Two countries. Two completely different vacation experiences.
Thatâ€™s how I described our Labor Day weekend trip to friends and relatives, but it wasnâ€™t the initial plan. Admittedly, the end result was due to some procrastination. But Iâ€™d rather focus on the key to any great getaway â€” a sense of spontaneity.
My husband and I try to take advantage of three-day weekends whenever possible, so we figured it would be the perfect time to drive to Niagara Falls, Ontario. This Canadian city boasts the best view the Horseshoe Falls, one of the worldâ€™s most illustrious icons.
A rainbow arcs its way over the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
(Robert Winn | Special to The Gazette)
Weâ€™d never been there before â€” growing up in Minnesota, our summer vacations were typically spent along Lake Superiorâ€™s peaceful North Shore or in the Badlands of South Dakota â€” so the opportunity to feel â€œthe mistâ€ after only a four-hour road trip from Cleveland was too good to pass up.
But as the end of summer drew to a close, and we sat down at the computer to make our travel arrangements, we realized staying overnight on Saturday would be too expensive for our reduced budget, as prices everywhere we looked were $200-plus. That meant we were down from a three-day trip to two days, one night.
Hereâ€™s what not to do: Wait until the last minute to book a hotel room.
But if that happens, hereâ€™s what to do instead: go on Priceline.com and get a better deal.
Doing so landed us Sunday night in Amherst, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo with a population of about 125,000. Granted, our hotel was a 20-mile drive from Niagara Falls, but it was more than worth it to get a considerably cheaper rate (about $70) for a 3Â½-star hotel.
It also inspired us to explore upstate New York on Monday, unleashing us into a quick, yet slow-paced, tour of sleepy towns sprinkled with cozy wineries and serene views of both Lake Ontario and the Niagara River.
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Driving over the Rainbow Bridge, which connects the United States to Canada, you can see the Horseshoe Fallsâ€™ powerful mist from the distance, filtering its way into the bright blue sky.
Of course, we had plenty of time to notice this, since traffic was slow crossing the bridge due to increased security measures. As of Jan. 31, 2008, travelers by car and sea must present proof of citizenship. For U.S. citizens, that means bringing a passport or a passport card, or an official birth certificate coupled with government-issued photo ID, like a driverâ€™s license. This all leads up June 1, 2009, when only documents like passports and passport cards will be accepted.
Unfortunately, thereâ€™s no real way to avoid congestion, but an employee of the Niagara Falls visitors center did point out a helpful tip. Call 800-715-6722, and you can find up-to-date traffic times for all the major border crossings. While the Rainbow Bridge was the closest to the falls, it might be worth it, for example, to drive 20 miles over to the Peace Bridge, if it means a considerably shorter delay.
Once we broke through the stream of cars â€” our total wait time on the bridge was about 25 minutes â€” it was time to venture toward the Horseshoe Falls. Because the People Mover buses shuttle visitors between most of the attractions, youâ€™ll be better off parking for the day in one of the pay lots near the Skylon Tower if youâ€™re not already staying in a hotel nearby.
As we strolled along the path parallel to the Niagara River, hundreds of tourists weaved in and out, their cultures as diverse as the flowers in bursts of rich, autumn colors embedded in gardens scattered throughout the park. It was crowded, but families found room to stretch out on the lawns, share picnic food and play games, while the roar of the falls sung natureâ€™s sweet serenade.
Like us, others squeezed into spots along the Horseshoe Falls overlook, aiming for the best photographs.
But for many who travel here, itâ€™s just not close enough.
If you donâ€™t mind getting soaked, the Maid of the Mist boat tour is a must. The oldest Niagara Falls attraction, Maid of the Mist has chugged to the basin of the American and Horseshoe falls since 1846. The last day of its 2008 season is Oct. 24, so if you hope to take in a ride this year, youâ€™ll want to book a fall getaway soon.
For something a little drier (although youâ€™ll still want to wear the complimentary poncho), the Journey Behind the Falls takes you through a narrow cave with small portals that open up to nothing but rushing water. Thereâ€™s also a small lookout point, perfect for picture taking if you have a waterproof camera.
Both of these attractions are included in the Niagara Falls & Great Gorge Adventure Pass, which also includes admission to the White Water Walk and the Butterfly Conservatory. The pass costs $39.95 for adults 13 years and older and $24.95 for ages 6 to 12. The tickets included in the pass can be used over any number of days until the end of the season Oct. 24.
However, a word to the wise â€” keep in mind these are tourist attractions, and long lines can put a damper on a day of sightseeing, especially if youâ€™re going there for just the weekend. After waiting about two hours for Journey Behind the Falls, we were forced to scratch off many activities on our to-do list.
It the end, that was OK, because it gave us more time to wander around and admire natureâ€™s attractions, like the full arc of a rainbow that appeared above the falls late afternoon, its broad spectrum of colors permeating the sky above.
The falls also embrace a rainbow of colors during the year-round nightly illumination. For the best view, ride 775 feet to the top of the Skylon Tower, 5200 Robinson St. In October, start watching at 7 p.m. for the shades of radiant reds that fade into brilliant blues until midnight. Admission is free when dining in the Skylon Tower, otherwise tickets are $12.95 a person (or $10.79 online at www.skylon.com).
Upstate New York
After satisfying our quest to see the falls, the only thing on the agenda today was avoiding a barrage of tourists.
So, after we stretched out our map, we decided to meander our way down the Niagara Wine Trail, a collection of a dozen wineries in northwestern New York. For a more mellow vacation, itâ€™s a unique way to wind down while still uncovering a sense of simple adventure.
From our hotel in Amherst, we connected with state Route 425, which brought us to our first stop, Warm Lake Estate Vineyard and Winery, 3868 Lower Mountain Road, Cambria.
As you drive up a stretch of rough road, acres of grapevines greet the curious travelers who come to sample award-winning Pinot Noir from the Niagara Escarpment. A band of trees line the backdrop of this picture-perfect countryside winery, open for tasting seven days a week.
Here, the air is still, and a chorus of crickets dance among the wildflowers while you linger outside on the open patio, glass in hand.
For those lazy fall afternoons, try the 2006 Warm Lake Estate ($34.99 for a 750-mL bottle), which unravels scents of strawberry, raspberry, cherry, dark fruits, coconut and spice.
For something sweet, make your next stop the Honeymoon Trail Winery, 4120 Ridge Road, Lockport, nestled in whatâ€™s known as the honeymoon capital of the world.
Itâ€™s the theme of this romantic destination at the intersection of state routes 104 and 425.
I inevitably fell in love with the Honeymoon Sweet ($9.26 for a 750-mL bottle), a red porch wine packed with flavorful fruits.
We could have spent the entire day roaming between wineries, but we chose to keep going north on state Route 425 until we reached Lake Ontario.
At this point, youâ€™ll enter Wilson, a small town brimming with spectacular scenic outlooks. Dine at the Wilson Boat House and surround yourself with multitudes of sailboats, or pause near a dock to gaze at the lakeâ€™s unending horizon.
Continue on the Seaway Trail west of Wilson, and youâ€™ll approach more picturesque views, including Fort Niagara State Park in Youngstown.
Here, people might play horseshoes instead of cornhole, but the same effortless spirit for the outdoors trickles along the shoreline where families spend a day in the sunshine.
The $6 admission to enter the park will give you a discount at Old Fort Niagara, an enriching snapshot of history at the mouth of the Niagara River. Tickets are $10 for adults, $6 for children ages 6 to 12 and free for children younger than 6. Present your parking pass to receive $6 off total admission.
Home to the oldest buildings along the Great Lakes, Old Fort Niagaraâ€™s story starts in 1726, when the French built the structure then known as the â€œFrench Castle.â€ Britain gained control of the fort in 1759 during the French and Indian War, but later gave up ownership to the U.S. after the Revolutionary War. Britain managed to reoccupy Fort Niagara in 1813, but it went back to U.S. hands at the close of the War of 1812.
From the fort, you can even see Torontoâ€™s hazy skyline across the lake â€” inspiration for a future weekend getaway.
At this point, though, it was time to head back home.
You could jump on the expressway to travel south, but Iâ€™d rather mosey along state Route 18F, where youâ€™ll drive past old-fashioned colonials, bed and breakfasts and plenty of picnic spots along the Niagara River.
If you have time for one last stop, take a leisurely break in Lewiston for a slice of apple pie at the Village Bake Shoppe on Center Street. No matter how good your grandmotherâ€™s recipe is, this particular pie, mounded with fresh cut apples about five inches high, canâ€™t be beat. What better way to cap off a day full of new sights than with dessert?
Winn may be reached at 330-721-4053 or firstname.lastname@example.org.