When Automotive Rhythms Publisher Kimatni Rawlins asked me to write a travel story with something hot yet affordable, Niagara Falls, New York instantly came to mind. After all, it’s just an 8-hour drive from AR headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the scenery we would encounter on the drive up would be breathtaking. Upstate New York is as green as Ireland, with lush hillsides in spring and summer that lead to a kaleidoscope of colors in fall, and idyllic winters with plenty of the white stuff.
Given the short turnaround on this assignment, I immediately contacted the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation, a.k.a. Niagara USA. Michelle Blackley of Niagara USA got back to me immediately with an itinerary that would knock our socks off, if we had any on!
Our trusty road companion would be the 2015 Toyota Highlander. Already one of my favorites, the Highlander impressed with 26 mpg over the nearly 500-mile drive. Traveling through the hills of Pennsylvania on our way to New York State, one thing became apparent – this is not a drive you would want to undertake in an underpowered vehicle. There are many route changes on the way from Maryland, and they require some scootability to deal with the many big rigs that also ply those roadways. With nearly 300 horsepower, our AWD Limited Platinum model was ready for the task at hand. Thank you Toyota!
I travelled with my adult daughter Eden, who handled video/photo responsibilities for the journey. We rolled into Niagara just as the sun began setting, and the entry point is pretty dramatic. Look to the left, and you see the mist of the Falls illuminated by colored floodlights. We knew the next day would bring great adventure, but time to reboot with a relaxing stay at the Sheraton at the Falls Hotel. The hotel staff was terrific, and the property itself is right where you want to be: walking distance from the Falls, evening nightlife, and it’s across the street from a casino should gambling be part of your getaway plans.
After a great evening at the Sheraton, we met Michelle Blackley to begin our two-day, fun packed itinerary. First up was the “Cave of the Winds,” where you walk right up to one of the Falls and get a chance to see and feel Mother Nature’s fury. Warning here! Niagara Falls is home to one of the US’ largest roosting areas for Seagulls. They’re everywhere! And they stink to the high heavens, but if you aren’t foolish enough to walk along with a cheeseburger in your hands, they will leave you alone. Don’t feed the animals is the true operative word here. Back to the Cave of the Winds. Forget about how you looked going in, with your perfectly coiffed hair. Even though you get a poncho to fend off the mist, it’s no match for the thunder that rolls down. Decking is held in place by the large rocks at the base, and is rebuilt each spring for safety reasons. The large, multi level decking allows you to get as close to the deluge as you dare. What an experience, but this was just the beginning.
Next up was a trip to the base of the Falls on the “Maid of the Mist.” To board the double decked boat, you descend from the towering observation platform over the Niagara River on high speed elevators. More Seagulls to shoo aside and you are on board with scores of other adventurers.
So off we go, past American Falls to the base of Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side of the River. Our trusty Captain steered the “Maid” into position and the rest was just awe-inspiring. Amounts vary, but we were told an incredible 600,000 gallons of water pours from the Falls each second! The Maid stays in place for a few moments so you can truly understand what your eyes are seeing. That much water with that much fury is just something every person should see. It’s breathtaking. After we departed Horseshoe Falls, soaked of course, you could just read the faces of everyone on board. At night, be sure to come back and see the Falls lit by those floodlights I talked about earlier.
After we dried out, it was time for lunch at the “Top of the Falls” restaurant. Select from entrees or sandwiches, choose your favorite adult or family libation, and enjoy the views of what you just witnessed up close. You’ll get a panoramic view of the Canadian side of the River, but we stayed on the American side. Plus, there are no passport or border issues to deal with should you also choose this route.
Just when we thought the day’s fun was over, Michelle contacted “Rainbow Air” for a helicopter ride over the Falls. The heliport is a few steps away from the Falls, and there we were greeted by Pat Proctor and Brian Smith. Pat is the proprietor of Rainbow Air, and they operate with new “birds” that are very well maintained. Once aloft, pilot Brian called out the various sights and we settled in for a “birds-eye” view of the Falls. I like the protocols that Rainbow Air employs to keep everyone safe. We’ve all heard about plane and helicopter disasters at tourist spots. Other pilots check in when they approach, enter and depart “grids” in the sky. This way there are no surprises and all pilots know where everyone else is. It was quite an experience to bank in a hard turn over the Falls. It’s almost like you are flying sideways at times!
Once back on terraferma, we again thought further excitement for the day would be limited to a relaxing dinner. Well Michelle had other things in mind as we headed to Lewiston, NY for a ride on a “Niagara Jet” jet boat. Niagara Jet is one of the newer jet boat companies operating on the Niagara River, which, in the area the jet boats operate, is a world class “6” rapids. No rookies in Kayaks here. You could easily lose your life if you aren’t a pro.
Niagara Jet boats are enclosed on the first three quarters of the boats, with a “wet deck” on the back for those who decide that a good drenching at the Falls is not enough. Eden and I chose the covered route, and sat on both sides of the centrally located Captain. Niagara Jets get there name honestly by the way, as each craft is powered by three 621 horsepower supercharged Cadillac engines.
So things started off peacefully, but after a few 70 mph sprints, there was white water ahead. The Niagara Jet Boats are designed to dive head first in to the rapids, which is pretty amazing. The boat is totally covered in water as you power your way past the brute strength of the river. With high tech seating aboard, with each seat having individual suspension control, you can enjoy what would otherwise be a rough ride with lots of pounding. Whew! That was a full day of water and air based thrills!
After the thrilling Niagara Jet ride, we settled in for an early dinner at Carmelo’s in Lewiston. Lewiston has a great history as part of The Underground Railroad, more on that later. Carmelo’s is a “farm to table” restaurant, which means everything was super fresh. Carmelo himself was on hand to prepare succulent dishes like Squid Ink Calamarata and Chicken Under the Brick. Delish! The theme for Carmelo’s is “Rustic with Love.” It’s the perfect theme for a fine dining experience with great prices.
Well satiated, we returned to Niagara Falls for an evening of strolling around downtown. We ended the night dropping coins into the slot machines at the Seneca Niagara Casino across from the Sheraton.
Day two of our itinerary was decided drier and more sedate, but truly educational and enlightening. We began the day with a private tour of the Castellani Art Museum on the campus of Niagara University. With many impressive displays of art from many genres, it’s a must visit when in the area. The most moving display for Eden and I was the story of the Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara. Upstate New York became a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity, as escaping slaves made their way to crossing points along the Niagara River with the help of local “Conductors.” In Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lewiston, the river narrows to less than a half a mile to the shores of Canada. Southeastern Canada had been a safe haven for fugitive slaves since 1793. In New York, organized opposition to slavery began in 1799. The Castellani Museum chronicles the plight of those on the “Railroad” and their arduous journey to freedom. It was deeply moving.
Next up we headed to Old Fort Niagara to learn the story of how this historic place helped shape the early years of our nation. During the colonial wars a fort at the mouth of the Niagara River was vital for it controlled access to the Great Lakes and the westward route to the heartland of America. Between 1679 and 1812, the Fort was controlled by the French, British and finally the United States. There’s a ton of history here, with docents dressed in period costumes to help you learn as you tour.
Our next bit of educational fun was in the form of a visit to Lockport for a Lock Tour on a new paddle boat on the Erie Canal. The 2-hour tour includes narration and “locking through” several locks, with their 49 foot elevation to the next level. You can also do an incredible underground tour via boat of the Lockport Cave. The original “Flight of Five” locks are adjacent to the modern set, and are being fully restored to their original 1842 condition. We were served a great lunch onboard, and learned much about how the Canal affected commerce and tourism in the region for scores of years.
Adjacent to the locks in a restored building that used to serve as City Hall is the “Flight of Five Winery.” There, we sampled delicious whites and reds with names “Lock 67” through “Lock 71,” paying homage to the five locks the building overlooks. We wrapped the day’s events with some homemade ice cream at Lake Effect Artisan Ice Cream, also adjacent to the Flight of Five.
We had just enough time to return to the Sheraton and refresh for dinner at the Savor, a student run fine dining restaurant at Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. There, culinary students used the freshest ingredients to whip of a several course meal we will never forget.
The 90,000 square foot mixed use facility offers students access to seven state-of-the-art teaching kitchens. Special events within the building allow students interested in the hospitality, tourism, event planning and restaurant management fields to gain a real world understanding of what it takes to plan and execute events at a world class facility. And all students get real-life, hands-on experience in the hospitality industry.
We ended the evening with a visit to the Fashion Outlets at Niagara Falls, about a 20-minute drive from the Sheraton. With over 150 premium stores to choose from, Eden and I got our shop on in a big way. Again, the extra capacity of the Toyota Highlander would be a plus!
Thanks to Michelle Blackley and her team at Niagara USA. Michelle was kind enough to also prepare a sample itinerary for families which follows. There is so much to do beyond just visiting the Falls, which should be on everyone’s bucket list. Prices are fair, the people in upstate New York are very friendly, and the attractions are open year round, even in the area’s notorious winter season.
For more information, visit niagara-usa.com or call 1-877-FALLS-US (1-877-325-5787).
FAMILY FRIENDLY ITINERARY: It’s All About the Water!
Start the day at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center to learn how the Falls were formed. For the adventurous in the group, try the rock climbing wall overlooking the Niagara Gorge.
Travel north to the Niagara Power Authority’s Power Vista. This FREE attraction will explore how electric power is generated from the water that cascades over the Falls with interactive and hand-on exhibits.
When we say water, we mean water! For the truly adventurous, take a thrilling ride through the Niagara Rapids on the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tour (as seen on the Amazing Race).
Time for lunch at the Silo, overlooking the Lower Niagara River (As seen on Man v. Food)
Next travel north to Old Fort Niagara. The oldest Fort on the Great Lakes overlooks beautiful Lake Ontario. An escorted tour of the Fort features history, an original flag from 1812, musket firing demonstrations and a ghost story or two (yes, this fort is haunted)!
As evening comes around enjoy dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Time to explore Niagara Falls State Park. First stop: the Cave of the Winds, taking the group up close to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls.
No trip would be complete without riding the iconic Maid of the Mist boat and getting “misted” by the water flowing over the Horseshoe Falls.
Before leaving the park, be sure to check out the Observation Tower. Bring your camera along because this is the only spot where you take a camera shot of all three waterfalls at once.
Start your day at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, where your group can learn the fun facts about the canal’s history and its importance to the economic development of our country.
Time to venture underground for a different kind of boat ride at the Lockport Caves and Underground Boat Ride.
Enjoy lunch dockside of the Erie Canal at the Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises. Afterward, board the boat that will take you through the only set of double locks on the Erie Canal. Plus, you will travel under the Upside-Down Bridge and the widest bridge in America.
Don’t leave town before one last boat ride! The Grand Lady Cruises is like being on a floating science museum. Enjoy the ride while you explore creatures above and below the water.