Weekend Getaway: Niagara Falls

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The rush of standing right next to Niagara Falls, close enough to feel the spray on your face, is an unparalleled experience.

When you consider that there are few natural wonders left unpaved or unfenced in this country, these thundering falls are even more impressive. Niagara won't disappoint, whether taken in from the American Falls, Horseshoe Falls, or the Bridal Veil Falls (it's actually three separate waterfalls).

Although Niagara may bring to mind cheap souvenirs, heart-shaped Jacuzzis and washed-up lounge singers, the Falls and surrounding area have much more to offer -- and after the summer crowds have moved on is an ideal time to take it all in.

Niagara Falls spans the border of New York state and Ontario,Canada, and can be reached via the nearby airports of Buffalo (about 20 minutes away) or Toronto (just over an hour away).

It also offers an ideal excuse for a road trip, as Niagara is a day's drive from New York City or Chicago.

And if you're coming from the east, you can travel one of the most beautiful roads in the area: the Lake Ontario State Parkway. This uncrowded, picturesque road hugs the water as it weaves 35 miles through farms, vineyards and tranquil lakeside towns -- a welcome respite from the traffic and tolls of N.Y. State Thruway.

On the Edge

There's no shortage of lodging both on the Canadian and American sides of Niagara, but for a unique experience, check into a local bed & breakfast, such as the Chestnut Inn Bed & Breakfast (4983 River Rd., Ontario; C$120) or Elizabeth House Bed & Breakfast (327 Buffalo Ave, N.Y.; $80-$110) as opposed to the endless, sterile cookie-cutter chain hotels.

Any visit to Niagara will, naturally, center around the Falls. Arrive at night and hear the roar before you actually see the spotlighted waters. It's a spectacular way to start your trip.

Niagara Falls is the second-widest waterfall in the world (after Victoria Falls, in Africa), and when you first lay eyes on it, it's easy to believe. More than one-fifth of the earth's supply of fresh water, courtesy of four of the Great Lakes, pours into the Niagara River and gushes north over the Falls en route to Lake Ontario.

The flow of water is so powerful that the site of Niagara Falls actually has crept upstream several miles since its formation by glaciers approximately 10,000 years ago; today, it is the largest producer of electricity in the world, thanks to the hydroelectric plants lining the river. And although the Falls are not the tallest -- ranging from just 50 feet at Bridal Veil Falls to about 180 feet at the American and Horseshoe Falls -- the rapid rate of erosion (several feet each year) is testament to this power.

There are many vantage points, but one of the most intense ways to experience the spectacle is from below, with a boat ride on the famous Maid of the Mist. It runs from both the American and Canadian sides; head for it early your first morning to avoid the lines.

Don't be shy about joining the slack-jawed tourists and donning the complimentary plastic poncho-- it's worth the $11.50 ticket.

The boat glides past the American and Bridal Falls, idling right next to the crashing spray of Horseshoe Falls. Unless you've brought your barrel and lack of fear, it's the closest you'll get to the thundering waters; looking straight up into the endless surge of green offers a perspective unlike any other.

If you can't stand to relinquish your land legs, there's always Journey Behind the Falls ($11), an eerie network of tunnels that take you down and behind for a peek at Horseshoe Falls. Or check out Cave of the Winds ($10), a rickety-looking series of wooden platforms and walkways at the base of Niagara Gorge, offering a breathtaking, almost-within-reach view of Bridal Falls.

Once you've dried off, it's time to explore the Canadian side of Niagara.

O Canada

Head north alongside the Niagara River to take in more views from the steep cliff's edge. You can bike or drive on the Niagara Parkway. Just be sure to stop off at Whirpool Rapids for a look at another stunning natural phenomenon.

Or -- and not for the faint of heart -- take a breathtaking ride on the nearly century-old Whirpool Aero Car (C$11), which suspends three dozen passengers in a open cable car, up to 250 feet above the swirling rapids.

Continue north to the 100-acre Botanical Gardens. The blooms of summer may have faded, but there's still spectacular fall color throughout these uncrowded grounds, and a surprisingly lush butterfly conservatory (C$11) inside -- which may be the only place you can experience tropical warmth in Canada.

There's also golf courses, hiking and biking trails houghout the area. And what better way to relax as the day winds down than a visit to one of the picturesque local wineries?

For the nature-weary, there's always the bright lights and fast-paced action of the Niagara casinos -- just look for the cluster of skyscrapers on Clifton Hill and Fallsview Blvd, right by Horseshoe Falls.

Back to America

The next day, take in a casual meal inland in Niagara's Little Italy, which spans several blocks along Pine Avenue. Or try the suprisingly nontouristy fare at the Top of the Falls Restaurant, located in the Niagara Falls State Park.

From there, it's just quick walk through this oldest state park in the country over the pedestrian bridge if you want to spend a relaxing afternoon on Goat Island.

Lying in the middle of the Niagara River, Goat Island offers endless perspectives on each of the three waterfalls and surrounding rapids. Explore the miles of secluded trails, or just pick a favorite spot, lie back and enjoy the soothing roar.

There's also the colorful annual Niagara International Kite Festival, Oct. 6-9, which will boast the world's biggest kite as well as the rare opportunity for flying kites on Goat Island, right at the brink of the Falls.

For a memorable dinner, the Tudor-style Red Coach Inn (2 Buffalo Ave.) offers not only charming, cozy rooms ($89-$339) but also superb Continental cuisine. Sitting in the plush, dark wood-paneled dining room, you'll be warmed by a glowing fire and perhaps a glass of local ice wine as you gaze out over the Niagara River rapids.

But if the Falls and all the surrounding attractions aren't enough, why not create a real story to tell when you get back on Monday? Get married!Niagara is known as the honeymoon capital of the world, after all. Just bring some ID and $40, and a marriage license can be yours at the city clerk's office (745 Main St.).

There is a 24-hour waiting period -- perhaps an ideal time to check out the offerings on the Niagara Wine Trail, so as to avoid any troublesome second thoughts.

Then you and your newly betrothed will be ready to take the plunge, either in one of the myriad kitschy wedding chapels, right alongside the rushing waters, or even in a helicopter or balloon, tethered 400 feet over Niagara Falls.

And forget the wedding cake -- just cap it all off with a ice cream cone at the iconic Twist O' the Mist (18 Niagara St.). It will certainly be a weekend to remember.

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