In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor packed her orange and white cat, aptly named “Niagara,” into a barrel and sent her over Niagara Falls.
Obvious animal cruelty questions aside (um, PETA, anyone?), the feline remarkably survived. Five days later, Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher seeking celebrity, followed suit.
Dressed up in her Sunday best, she became the first person to descend the falls in a barrel and live to tell the tale.
Since then, more than a dozen others have repeated the stunt, though not all have been as fortunate.
While daredevils tempting fate is what people often associate with the natural wonder, it’s the breathtaking beauty and ferocity of the world’s second-largest waterfall that draws millions of visitors to Niagara each year.
There are no short cuts along the 400-mile ride to Niagara, so be sure to pack your Road Trip Bingo, and settle in for the long haul.
Straddling the U.S. and Canadian border, Niagara Falls offers attractions and sights on both sides of the international line, so you’ll also want to pack your passport if you plan on crossing into Canada, or at the very least, a U.S. Passport Card, a cheaper option which allows land and sea entry to/from Mexico, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Canada.
Photo Courtesy of Destination Niagara USA
Children under the age of 16 are not required to have passports but do need to show an original or certified copy of their birth certificate.
Deciding which side of the falls to stay on is the topic of countless internet threads, but both sides offer their fair share of lodgings, with Ontario offering more high-rise options directly overlooking the falls.
The U.S. side of Niagara is more low-key than Canada’s, which is significantly built up, and offers a flashy main strip of amusements and restaurants.
Before making a decision on where to stay, do some cursory homework on a few travel websites, as well as visiting Canada’s tourism website, www.niagarafallstourism.com and Destination Niagara USA at www.niagarafallsusa.com, for more detailed information.
Niagara is comprised of three separate falls — American, Bridal Veil and Canadian (Horseshoe) — and the best vantage point from which to view them all is aboard one of two cruises, the Maid of the Mist and Hornblower Niagara Cruises.
The Maid of the Mist (www.maidofthemist.com) is the veteran of the two, having launched its first boat in 1846. While originally an attraction on the Canadian side of the falls, it’s since been taken over by the Americans.
Leaving every 15 minutes, cruises depart from Niagara Falls State Park, in New York, and generally last for about 20 minutes. Tickets range from $11 to $19, with children 5 and under free with an adult.
Hornblower Niagara Cruises (www.niagaracruises.com) depart from the Niagara Parkway in Canada, and leave every 20 minutes. Offering several options, passengers can choose to view the falls during the day, or choose an evening cruise to see the American and Canadian Horseshoe Falls illuminated by a colorful, multimillion-dollar light spectacle.
Ticket prices range anywhere from $25.95 CAD (roughly $20 USD) for a daytime voyage, to $55.90 CAD ($44 USD), for a combo ticket that includes a day and a night trip.
Both cruises offer complimentary ponchos, totally necessary since getting soaked comes with the territory and is pretty much unavoidable.
Still More Ponchos
Ponchos are also provided for a visit to New York’s Cave of the Winds (www.niagarafallsstatepark.com/attractions-and-tours/cave-of-the-winds), an attraction where visitors descend 175 feet into Niagara Gorge, then navigate a series of walkways leading to the “Hurricane Deck,” an observatory located “thisclose” to Bridal Veil Falls.
It’s one of those “You-WILL-get-wet” things, which is why sandals are also complimentary, sparing visitors the hassle of wearing squishy shoes for the rest of the day.
Tickets start at about $14 for children, $17 for adults, with admission free to children 6 and under.
Canada offers a similar experience, but from a different vantage point.
Journey Behind the Falls (www.niagaraparks.com/visit/attractions/journey-behind-the-falls) takes visitors deep down into the bedrock, eventually leading to two observation decks where they can view Horseshoe Falls from below, or from one of two portals located right behind the falls.
The thunderous rage of 600,000 gallons of water crashing before you, per second, is a definite rush, and well-worth the $13 CAD (roughly $10 USD) admission price for adults, and $9 CAD ($7 USD), for kids.
And, yes, ponchos for everyone.
A Walk In The Parks
Open 365 days a year, and free to visit, is Niagara Falls State Park (www.niagarafallsstatepark.com/niagara-falls-state-park) in New York.
Designed by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the park encompasses more than 435 acres of land and boasts multiple vantage points from which to view the falls, along with footpaths and hiking trails.
For about $3 per ticket, visitors can take a guided tour of the park aboard the Niagara Scenic Trolley (www.niagarafallsstatepark.com/attractions-and-tours/trolley).
The tour lasts about 30 minutes, and visitors are free to hop on and off at desired stops, reboarding whenever they are ready to continue on to the next destination.
Canada’s companion piece is Queen Victoria Park, along the Niagara Gorge and River.
Complete with a walkable promenade, the park offers unparalleled views of the falls, as well as the photo-worthy Rainbow Bridge, where a selfie is practically mandatory.
Free concerts are held at the park throughout July and August, followed by fireworks over the falls at 10 p.m., which can also be viewed from the American side.
The Thrill Of It All
Visitors looking for an adrenaline rush have plenty of options.
Heart-stopping jet boat rides, operated by Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours (www.whirlpooljet.com), are available on the Niagara River, and into Niagara Gorge, with no chance (promise) of ever going over the falls.
Departing from three locations, (Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, and Lewiston in New York), the 60-minute trip takes passengers through Class 5 whitewater rapids.
Guests with a low-threshold for being completely drenched can opt to ride in one of the company’s covered “Jet Dome” boats, while the more adventurous can go full-throttle on the “Wet Jet,” which often leaves passengers sitting knee-deep in water when all is said and done.
Requiring a complete change of clothes at the end (Wet Jet only), the trip costs roughly $67 for adults, and $45 for children 12 and under. Passengers must be at least 3-foot-8 to ride the Wet Jet, and at least 3-foot-4 for the Jet Dome.
Suspended high above the Niagara Whirlpool and River, the Whirlpool Aero Car (www.niagaraparks.com/visit/attractions/whirlpool-aero-car) shuttles passengers on a brief ride between two points along the Canadian shore, and in the process, crosses over the international border a total of four times.
Designed in the early 1900s by Spanish mathematician and civil engineer, Leonardo Torres Quevedo, the antique cable car carries 35 passengers along six steel cables, and provides fabulous views of the water and scenery below.
Great for families, tickets begin at $14.55 CAD ($11.55 USD) for adults, and $9.45 CAD ($7.50 USD), for kids 6 and up.
Finally, for bird’s eye views of Niagara Falls and the surrounding area, both sides of the border offer helicopter tours.
Niagara Helicopters (www.niagarahelicopters.com) in Ontario offers daily flights beginning at 9 a.m. and lasting through sunset. The flight lasts about 12 minutes and costs $145 CAD ($115 USD) for adults, $89 CAD ($70 USD) for children ages 3-12, and $280 CAD ($222 USD) for couples.
Rainbow Air Helicopter Tours (www.rainbowairinc.com) operates out of New York, and flies passengers over the falls, as well as providing views of Niagara Falls State Park, and other nearby attractions. Prices and reservations can be made by contacting Rainbow Air directly.
A trip to Niagara Falls wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Niagara-on-the-Lake (www.niagaraonthelake.com), a picturesque town about an hour away, where the mouth of the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.
Brimming with boutiques, art galleries and fine restaurants, it’s often described as the loveliest town in Ontario, and deservedly so.
In the warm months, horse-drawn carriages carry visitors down streets awash with blooming flowers and greenery. After the frenetic pace of the falls area, the town’s tree-lined sidewalks are the ideal place to unwind.
A 19th-century loyalist town, the Americans nearly leveled it during the War of 1812.
Fortunately, it was rebuilt, and part of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s charm comes from the many preserved colonial-style buildings and homes that remain from the reconstruction.
With nearly 30 wineries in region, Niagara-on-the-Lake also serves as one of Canada’s leading wine destinations (www.wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com).
Most of the wineries offer tours, tastings and culinary pairings, including the area’s newest vineyard opened by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky (www.wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com/wineries/wayne-gretzky-estates-winery-distillery).
The Shaw Festival (www.shawfest.com), held each year from April through late fall, is a series of plays produced on four different stages, and includes everything from mysteries to musicals.
Established in 1962, the renowned festival was inspired by acclaimed political activist and playwright George Bernard Shaw and is the second-largest repertory theater company in North America.
Now in its 56th year, the Shaw Festival draws scores of theater-lovers to the area each year, not only to watch the scheduled performances but also to take part in moderated discussions of the plays, Q&As with the actors and tours.
The Daredevils Of Niagara
Finally, to learn more about Niagara Falls, the history and those who’ve risked it all to take the plunge, visit the Niagara IMAX Theatre (www.imaxniagara.com) in Ontario to view the IMAX film, “Niagara: Miracles, Myths, & Magic.”
The theater is also home to the Daredevil Exhibit, where visitors learn about the various daredevils who’ve attempted to “ride the falls,” and are able touch some of the actual vessels they went over in.
Among them is a replica of Annie Edson Taylor’s barrel used in the making of the IMAX film, which mercifully didn’t involve any stunt cats.