Oh my gosh, you guys, this was the BEST trip! We had so much fun, and we got to leave the country….by like, a whole 40 feet 😉
The drive to Niagara Falls, NY took us about 9 hours, but we stopped for lunch just outside of Buffalo on Grand Island at this really cool place called The Comic Book Cafe. The food was whatever, but the actual space was so neat! There are comic books everywhere, lots of arcade games, and plenty of superheroes to take your picture with.
Our next stop was the USA side of the falls. Originally known as “Goat Island,” I think Niagara Falls definitely sounds better. We picked up tickets for the Cave of the Winds, which we had been advised by EVERYONE is the only thing worth doing on the American side, and then we walked around the falls a little while we waited for our turn. The US side of the falls is kind of like an amusement park setup, with lots of buildings and lines and souvenir photos for $50, but there are some pretty walking paths. The Cave of the Winds is not actually a cave- I’m not even sure why they call it that, but I guess “Big Elevator to the Falls” isn’t as cool-sounding. When you get your tickets, you’ll be given a timed entry. Ours was about an hour after our purchase time. When it’s your turn, you’re first funneled through a green-screen photo shoot, followed by a room where they let you read about some of the history of Goat Island, followed by a movie. The movie is hilarious (if you’re me) because they focus on how people used to charge money (!) for people to see the falls! $.25 to even $1 for a peek at this beautiful national treasure! (This is hilarious because you’ve just paid between $10-$30 to park and $19 per adult (everyone over 12) and $16 for kids to go see this stinking waterfall…so you’re sitting there thinking “I literally just dropped $125 for this, so $1 doesn’t sound so bad, guys!)
However. All that being said, this was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. After your movie, you get issued a pair of sandals (foam ones, that you get to keep!) and a trash-bag style poncho (these get handed out everywhere in Niagara Falls, but there are recycling bins for them when you’re done).
Then you head over to another line to wait to go down the elevators. Not very exciting. Once you get out, though, you walk along the bottom of the falls across a boardwalk that leads you up to “the Hurricane Zone”, which you can avoid if you don’t want to go- but that’s the whole reason to do this on the USA side- Canada doesn’t have this area. When you reach the Hurricane platform, you can literally stand under the falls and let the water rush over you. I actually cried you guys. I just couldn’t believe that I was there and alive and this was happening- it was so incredible. Part of that might be that I finished Chemo on Monday, but it was also just a really cool experience to have.
If you want to specifically take the “Maid of the Mist” boat ride, that leaves from the USA side, also. On the Canada side, it’s called “Hornblower” and that’s what we did, however, the older 2 did exclaim “THAT’S THE BOAT JIM AND PAM GOT MARRIED ON!!!” at the top of their lungs when they saw the boat go by. Because I’m raising them with a great appreciation for fine television, y’all. The Maid of the Mist and the Hornblower run identical routs, although you do get a blue poncho on the Maid of the Mist and a red one on the Hornblower. If you can score a groupon or living social deal, I’d say go with that one. Hornblower does offer a nighttime cruise/daytime cruise package, which Maid of the Mist does not.
After the Cave of the Winds, we headed over the Rainbow Bridge to Canada.
Why is it called the Rainbow Bridge? Well, because the mist from the falls makes Rainbows all the time! Also, if you look to the far left by the pedestrian traffic, you’ll see the story from the end of Noah in the Bible inscribed on the pillar. Because Rainbows. It takes a little while to get through the line, but all you need if you’re a US citizen is your passport. Children under 16 may use an original copy of their birth certificate to cross the border, but be prepared for them to answer questions or to show a family photo. If you are traveling without both parents, be prepared to provide a permission from the other parent. More details on crossing into Canada here. There is a small toll, as well. Just to the right after you get through the border, there is a currency exchange. You will pay international processing fees when you use your debit/credit card, so if you’d like to avoid that extra fee, just get cash. Also, many places ONLY take cash or debit, and some places will accept US dollars but only give Canadian change. Do not be dumb and do that. If you pay in US dollars, you’re giving them MORE money, and if they give you Canadian change, they’re giving you less back than you deserve. Be ye not so easily fooled. Check the exchange rate here.
We stayed at the Marriott Fallsview Hotel and Spa, which was AMAZING. It’s also ridiculously expensive, but we had points- so it was do-able for us. You’re going to come outside to see the falls, so don’t pay more than you can afford for a view out a window. We did love the view from our room, which was basically right above Horseshoe Falls, and that our window opened about 3 inches so we could hear the water rushing while we slept. If you exit from the back of the hotel, you’ll walk across a lock bridge (you can bring a lock to add or purchase one in the hotel next door) and then to the Incline Railway, which is literally the biggest racket going, but can be totally worth it. Basically, someone got the bright idea to not put any stairs between the hotels and the falls so that you either have to walk about 20-25 minutes in a loop to get down to them (EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN SEE THEM!) or you have to pay for a pass on this maybe 50 foot trolley thing. We usually walked, although the last day, my daughter was exhausted and it started raining so we treated ourselves to a ride. It’s $2.43 (CAN) one way, or you can purchase an all-day pass, roundtrip pass, or include a pass as part of a package with other attractions.
Most of our group needed a little nap after arriving (not meeee- because there was a Starbucks in the lobby of our hotel!) so I ordered in dinner, but then we went out and did an evening Hornblower cruise. This was such an incredible experience. Each night, the falls were lit up with various colored lights that made them look like the water was running rainbow-colored or on fire, or even like it was frozen. On some nights, there are fireworks over the falls, as well, which you can watch for free from anywhere, although people start lining up fairly early to get the best spots. Watching them from the boat was amazing for several reasons, including that my middle son is very noise-averse and between the fact that we were in a gorge, there was rushing water around us, and nobody was blaring the marches of John Phillips Sousa, I think it was the first time he’s truly enjoyed watching fireworks. My pictures didn’t turn out fantastic because it was nighttime, but I’m including an image from the Hornblower website to give you an idea of how amazing it was!
The Canadian side of the falls is lovely just to walk around- it’s been well landscaped, and it is very pedestrian-friendly. If you’re not an adventurous eater, you’ll probably be thrilled to death with the food choices on the “strip” which are approximately 1.2 million Starbucks, 40 IHOPs, 2 Outback Steakhouses, a TGI Fridays, etc. We are really dedicated to small, local finds, so we went back a little from the main drag and found a couple of great places. Our first attempt was a flop- it was Kool Katt’s Caribbean which has amazing reviews- but because of that we couldn’t actually GET anything when we got there. They were out of jerk chicken, barbecue chicken, and grilled chicken, which they told us when we arrived, but then when we tried to order they were also out of shrimp- so we tried another place. The lesson here is to GO EARLY if you want to try the jerk! Instead we found our way down to Pho Xyclo, which was absolutely amazing. On Sunday we went to Soups and Things after hiking, which was also yummy. We did breakfast in our room or at the hotel, which gave us 2 buffets for free- so we used them on my husband and older son, who could make it worth the effort 😉
On Saturday, we slept in a little as we didn’t arrive back at the hotel from the Hornblower and get everyone to bed until around midnight. After that, we headed over to the Niagara Falls Botanical Gardens (free!) and the Butterfly Conservatory. The Botanical Gardens are lovely (head to the left for the gardens, although there’s a pretty walking loop with less to look at to the right). You can add on a horsedrawn carriage tour of the grounds, if you’d like, which we did not. The Butterfly Conservatory was amazing- although my middle son did not like having all of the “bugs” flying around him and ended up waiting for the rest of us in the gift shop, so if you have anyone in your party with some sensory issues, I’d make a mental note that this might not be the best stop. If you don’t have that issue, though, it’s AMAZING. We had butterflies land on us, got to hold some just-hatched species, and the center itself is just cool to look at with lots of tropical and native plants. It’s $15 (Can) per person, but you can stay in the butterfly area as long as you like, and it’s a very cool experience. If you’ve done the butterfly walk through at the Smithsonian ($6), it’s similar to that, but about 5 times the size.
After the gardens, we had a fruit/veggie lunch in our room and a quick swim in the hotel pool before heading out for dinner (this was Pho Xyclo night) and then on to our next adventure, which was “Wild Magic” at the Greg Frewin Theatre. I’d never been to an actual magic show before and I have to say that this was the coolest thing ever. Some people said on reviews they thought it was cheesy, but I freaking loved it, and so did my kids. There’s an option for dinner, which we didn’t do, but you can also order off a bar menu or get popcorn/sodas for during the 90 minute show, so we took this opportunity to try poutine (which was pretty much the most Canadian thing we could find), and it was actually delicious! Tickets are $35+ depending on your seating level and if you’re choosing dinner. I ended up finding a promo code, which helped- we basically got a child ticket for free. Parking is free at the theater with ticket purchase, which is really nice.
OH! Side note! TAXES AND FEES ARE INSANE. Prepare yourself for about 13% tax, and several places also charge a tourism fee. Frequently we’d pay the cost of an additional ticket (or more) in taxes. Even when you convert back to US dollars, you’re still paying a ton of money, so make sure to budget for that. It can shock you the first few times that you multiply it in your head and then have a magical extra person in your party because of the taxes and fees.
Sunday we headed to the Whirlpool Rapids Hiking Trail, which was definitely worth the effort, although it’s a steep climb with lots of steps. If that’s not possible for you, there is a paved stroller/wheelchair-friendly loop around the area, as well. This was so much fun for us, and, again, free. It’s over near the Botanical Gardens, but parking can fill up quickly, so be prepared for that or take the bus. We didn’t buy passes, but there is a WeGo bus that will take you to most tourist sites. For us, it was cheaper to drive.
After that, we grabbed lunch at Soups and Things, and then headed to the hotel for a swim to cool down, followed by some final sight-seeing down by the falls and souvenir shopping.
This was a fantastic family-friendly trip. We loved staying on the Canadian side (better views, and much prettier), but it was definitely worth stopping on the American side for the Cave of the Winds. There are definitely lots of fun, free activities, but some things were worth paying for and we’d definitely do the ones we paid for again! (Hornblower fireworks cruise, Greg Frewin Wild Magic, Cave of the Winds, Butterfly Conservatory). If you’re thinking of visiting Niagara Falls, you should definitely go!