FESTIVALS AT THE FALLS Niagara towns put on the tinsel for tourists at Christmastime

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a view that has launched a thousand daredevils as well as a million marriages: two spectacular walls of water thundering into the rocky gorge carved by the roiling Niagara River 200 feet below.

In winter the scene is at its most magical, especially when a Canadian sunset ignites the charcoal sky and a fresh snowfall turns the falls into frosty Santa Claus beards. Ice chokes the whirlpools and rapids but never stills the roaring voice of the cascades. And there's almost always a rainbow.

During the Christmas season, the upstate New York community of Niagara Falls and its Canadian counterpart of the same name across the Rainbow Bridge add extra trimming to their already somewhat tinsely cityscapes. Until early in the new year, glitter lights outline tree branches and buildings; colored spotlights play on the falls each evening; elves and reindeer peek out from among shrubs in parks along both banks of the Niagara River; music fills the air and free entertainment events are scheduled virtually every day. It's all part of the joint American-Canadian Festival of Lights, which also encompasses a double New Year's Eve celebration suitable for the entire family.

A homey, small-town atmosphere pervades in both cities despite their long, dubious distinction as honeymoon capitals. The profusion of fast-food stands, wax museums and souvenir shops no doubt developed primarily for teen-age brides and grooms but it has a universal let's-have-fun appeal for tourists of all ages. Who could resist posing in a cardboard barrel, screaming and waving as if just about to plunge over Niagara Falls?

The tourist areas of both cities are easily walkable, and you actually could do without a car altogether. But the riverside parkways offer pleasant drives, especially on the Canadian side, which is landscaped the entire 35-mile length of the Niagara River from its source at Lake Erie to its outlet into Lake Ontario.

A short drive north is picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, sometimes called Canada's prettiest village. On the opposite shore of the lake (Ontario) is New York's interesting Old Fort Niagara. Other attractions along the way include several Canadian wineries and a New York power station with displays explaining how both countries have harnessed the energy of the falls. Several bridges cross the river on this stretch (which is a 10-cent walk or 75-cent drive; proof of citizenship is advised but I wasn't asked for any during my recent trip).

For the full effect, come prepared to brave the weather at the various windswept viewpoints close to all the falls (technically there are three of them: Canada's Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls plus an offshoot called Bridal Veil Falls). When you can't stand the biting cold another second, there are plenty of places to warm up with a glass of hot cider or chocolate, at levels from about 50 feet to 775 feet above the crest of the falls (the highest vantage being Canada's Skylon Tower).

During the winter, the best adventure also is on the Canadian side: a walk through the Table Rock Scenic Tunnels, 125 feet below the brink of Horseshoe Falls. You get off an elevator in an eerie, cavernlike area, don a souvenir poncho and walk along several hundred feet of tunnels offering several well-protected if soaking views of the staggering sheet of water. If you never before wondered how anyone could survive a barrel ride -- and many have -- you will now.

What else can you do in town? Ride a Viewmobile tram from Prospect Point, near the visitor center, to Goat Island, which sits astride the rapids between the American and Canadian Falls and also offers many prime viewpoints; ice-skate on the lagoonlike rink outside the convention center and enjoy folksy free entertainment in the seven-story glass greenhouse called the Winter Garden. If you're allergic to fast food, try the cozy Red Coach Inn, overlooking the rapids, and congenial Como's, a mile or two from downtown. And when you're looking for gifts, don't miss Artisans Alley, a wonderful shop featuring crafts from more than 600 American artists.

Across the Rainbow Bridge in Canada, the main tourist area is along a street called Clifton Hill, which looks a little -- make that a lot -- like a carnival midway. I stayed in the midst of the action but chose the Quality Inn Fallsway because it was the first lodging I saw without blinking marquee lights advertising "love tubs."

Like most of the budget options, it didn't have river views, however. The best hotel vistas in the Clifton Hill area are from the two pricey Skyline hotels a block away. Several other high-rise hotels in the Fallsview Tourist Area, about a mile south near the Minolta and Skylon Towers, also offer bird's-eye views.

Getting the Most For Your Money At Niagara Falls

Niagara is a relatively inexpensive winter getaway. Festival of Lights or not, Christmastime is off-off season along the Canadian border.

Money: A U.S. dollar buys about $1.28 Canadian. All prices mentioned here are in U.S. currency.

Events: The Festival of Lights on both sides of the border features daily entertainment and animated displays. New York's celebration lasts through Jan. 1. Canada's festivities continue through Jan. 14.

Extras: Nine-minute helicopter rides above the falls are available from Canada's Niagara Helicopters Ltd., (905) 357-5672, for $56 per adult, reduced rates for groups of up to six. Rainbow Tours of Niagara, (716) 282-5317, has several motor-coach sightseeing itineraries. The various museums, films, observation towers and other attractions generally cost $1 to $6.

Lodging: Many hotels on both sides of the river have Festival of Lights packages. Best views on the American side (rapids only, not the falls): Comfort Inn, (800) 28-HOTEL, is closest to the water and is $79 daily plus tax per couple, $185 for a two-night package with one dinner and one breakfast and all taxes; Days Inn, (800) 325-2525, across the street, is $40 daily per couple, $129 for a two-night package including breakfasts plus dinner one evening; Red Coach Inn, (716) 282-1459, also across the street from the riverside park and noted for its restaurant, charges $130 daily plus tax for a room -- some of the rooms have fireplaces and river views.

On the Canadian side, the best falls views are from two side-by-side Canadian Niagara Hotels in the Clifton Hill area: the Skyline Brock, (800) 263-7135, which charges $133 and $102 for double-occupancy falls-view rooms, $78 for double-occupancy

city views; packages include two-night stays for two, including falls-view rooms, breakfast, dinner and taxes, which run $120 and $106 for weekdays and $142 and $120 for weekends. The Skyline Foxhead, (800) 263-7135, charges about $56 plus tax per couple daily for city views, about $73 plus tax for falls views; a special Festival two-night weekend package for two, with two breakfasts and one dinner per person, is $117 or $155 including all taxes; In the Fallsview Tourist Area atop the hill above Horseshoe Falls, rooms with a view are available at the high-rise Days Inn, (800) 325-2525, Sheraton, (800) 325-3535, and Ramada Renaissance, (800) 272-6232. In Niagara-on-the Lake, a two-night weekend getaway package at the Historic Prince of Wales Hotel, (800) 263-2452, is about $174 per person, based on double occupancy, including dinner, a full breakfast, brunch and taxes and gratuities.

Information: Niagara Falls, N.Y., and its Festival of Lights, call (800) 338-7890; Niagara Falls, Canada, tourist information, (905) 356-6061; Canadian Festival of Lights information, (800) 461-5373; Niagara-on-the Lake Chamber of Commerce, (905) 468-4263; Province of Ontario Travel Center, (800) ONTARIO.

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