Need help with NiagaraFalls trip during the Sep1-4 Labor day weekend.
July 14, 2006 11:46 AM   Subscribe

NiagaraFalls filter: Wifey and I (not US citizens), are planning a trip to Niagara Falls Canada side from Austin, TX during Sep 1-4 weekend. Need help with several things.

Our situation: We are not US citizens, though we will be having valid work visas/I94 permits. I also have Texas DL (clean record). My questions:

1) I know the real deal of Niagara (better view, more activities at Falls etc) lies on the Canadian side. A friend says you can get a visit/tourist visa upon arriving on the border. I am not sure. Is that only for US citizens? What should I do? Do I need to plan in advance or just land up on the border? What docs I will need? Is it too much of a hassle that I should just forget the Canadian side and be satisfied with Niagara, US side (though I know many ppl have commented that the US side is hardly worth a visit)?
It's absolutely important that I should have no problems reentering back into the US. Both of us will be having valid visas and I-94 which we got when we first entered US. And though we don't look like terrorists (whatever that's supposed to mean to DHS), we are not exactly whites, and will most probably come off as "not from here". What should I do?

2) If the answer to Q1 successfully resolves that we can go to the CA side(yay!): I tried a couple of flight+hotel searches on priceline/hotwire and though I select the NF,ON as destination - both of them come up with flights that show Buffalo as my flight destination and hotels in NF, ON? Do we *have * to fly to Buffalo and then cross the border via land? Can I take US rental cars on the CN side? Are there buses/shuttles taking you from Buffalo airport to some central point in NF,ON? Will I need a rental car for local commute to do the typical touristy things around?

3) Since we'd be spending so much money, and we've heard a lot about the Falls view from hotels, especially during nights (and there are fireworks scheduled during my travel period), we definitely don't want to miss them. From some googling I understand that Sheraton/Mariott/Hilton Fallsview offer the best views. But do you get these rooms when you go via PL's "name your price" bidding system. Any other hotels you'd recommend which offer the Falls view. Do the fireworks happen only on the Canadian Horseshoe view side or both sides? Any priceline bidding strategies(or other websites) to get these hotels cheap?

4) How exactly do we get the most bang for the buck from the Niagara trip. What all things we should do/see/visit? Any good eating places? Though I am not on a student budget, but not on a luxurious 5-star budget either. Should we go in for some 2-3 day packages to do all the touristy things?
Any other must-see, must-do, tips/suggestions/dos/donts most welcome.

Thanks a lot!
posted by forwebsites to Travel & Transportation around Niagara Falls, NY (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I haven't been to Niagara in years, so I can really only answer question #2.

A rental car might not be a bad idea if you want to go a little further (checking out the wineries, etc), but most of the really touristy stuff in town is within walking distance from the falls. The bulk of the attractions are on Clifton Hill (map), and it's pretty much minutes from the falls.
posted by sunimplodes at 12:03 PM on July 14, 2006

From some googling I understand that Sheraton/Mariott/Hilton Fallsview offer the best views. But do you get these rooms when you go via PL's "name your price" bidding system.

Not only are you not guaranteed of getting a room with a view when you do so, you are not even guaranteed of getting into one of those hotels. The best you can do when using priceline's name your own price is an area and a class level of hotel. Furthermore, if your bid is accepted, you are simply guaranteed a non-smoking room for two adults. You can't specify when bidding that you require a room with a view of the falls, or other special features that may not apply to all rooms.

Once your bid is accepted, you can call the hotel directly and ask if they can put you in a room with a view, but they are under no obligation to do so.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:05 PM on July 14, 2006

(1) Call the Canadian consulate in Dallas to see whether you'll need a visa to enter Canada, and where to get one if you do. Then call them again in a week or so, and again a week or so after that. If you get the same answer every time, you're golden.

You should be able to check online if your visa is multi-entry or not; a valid multi-entry visa should be, well, valid. Otherwise make an INFOPASS appointment with whatever USCIS office is nearest to you and ask one of them. Do not use the telephone ask-a-question service; it is far worse than useless. Nothing you can do can guarantee that you won't have trouble getting back into the US. If the border agent you're dealing with wants to give you grief, you've got grief to deal with.

(2) You could fly into Toronto. Or Hamilton, I suppose, if you really wanted to see exciting Hamilton Ontario. But it would be substantially more of a pain in the ass to get to NF from either of them, though you might be able to get a GO train.

I would just rent a car (checking ahead to make sure you can cross the border with it). You'll want a car to go to Niagara on the Lake, etc, or maybe drive along the NY lakeshore for a bit, whatever. The tourist area of NF ON is walkable.

(3) I would not go through a service. Hotels can have "falls view" in their name, but yet lack a falls view. Or you might have a view of a building under construction. I've stayed in I think the Marriott Fallsview and can recommend it.

You might get the hotel addresses and look them up on satellite google-map to make sure that they actually have a view.

(4) NF is touristy dreck. Do not delude yourselves otherwise. It's fun, but stupid corny fun. Embrace your inner cornball. Don't bother with packages. Just wander into whatever wax museums and such happen to pique your interest.

NF is pretty fuckin' far from haute cuisine. Chains are your friend. If you feel like crossing back over for some misbegotten reason, the Red Coach Inn in NF NY is nice.

NF NY is, apart from the Red Coach Inn and some parkland immediately adjacent to the falls, a complete and utter hole. It is to be avoided.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:08 PM on July 14, 2006

I've stayed at the Sheraton Falls View. The room was nice and the view was great, especially for the fireworks. If your heart's set on a room with a view, I'm not sure you should trust something like that to Priceline (although I'm a big fan and frequent Priceline user).

To cut costs, what we did was stay 3 nights at this campground and two nights at the Sheraton, booked directly through the hotel.

On preview, ROU_Xenophobe is spot on with number 4. (I happen to love my inner cornball, and am a big fan of Niagara Falls).
posted by Otis at 12:18 PM on July 14, 2006

You could fly into Toronto. Or Hamilton, I suppose, if you really wanted to see exciting Hamilton Ontario. But it would be substantially more of a pain in the ass to get to NF from either of them, though you might be able to get a GO train.

GO does not go past Hamilton. You'd need some other way to get to the Falls.

NF is touristy dreck.

Seconded. My girlfriend and I parked, went to the falls, took some photos, then walked right back through the tourist-trap area and drove on to Rochester. I'm from Florida, and I consider Niagara Falls, Ontario's kitsch to be on a level with the kitsch you see in Orlando, and worse than that in St. Augustine.
posted by oaf at 12:20 PM on July 14, 2006

And currently, GO does not even go to Hamilton.
posted by oaf at 12:26 PM on July 14, 2006

After checking, we actually stayed at Sheraton on the Falls, not Sheraton Falls View (they are actually two different hotels).
posted by Otis at 12:28 PM on July 14, 2006

If you want to do nice things, get the hell out of Niagara Falls. Once you've seen the falls, ideally in the house when the sun sets, so you can see them in light and in dark, Niagara Falls has next to nothing to offer anybody unless you like casinos. And hell, even the falls aren't all that engaging.

Niagara wine country is pretty if you like the winery thing. The Stratford and Shaw theater festivals are nearby. Toronto is only an hour and a half from Niagara depending on traffic.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:34 PM on July 14, 2006

If you want nicer dining or non-cornball touristy stuff, try Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON for a day trip, or even one of the nearby winery tours.
posted by rocket88 at 12:34 PM on July 14, 2006

Toronto is only an hour and a half from Niagara depending on traffic.

A word of warning: it took me three and a half hours to get from Toronto to Niagara Falls.

And you should go to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
posted by oaf at 12:41 PM on July 14, 2006

Talk to the Canadian Consulate nearest you about tourist/visitor visa requirements. I also recommend calling several times to make sure they give you the same answer each time. I've found them to be pretty good, but as I am a Canadian citizen (living in the US) YMMV.

I thought the falls were gorgeous, but otherwise Niagara Falls was really amazingly tacky, and there wasn't much to do. I've seen a bunch of waterfalls in different places (Niagara Falls, ON; several off-road hiking falls in Nova Scotia; Ruby Falls - which is underground - in Tennessee; Athabaska Falls in Alberta; etc) and to some extent, one impressive gushing wall of water is just like another. You might consider finding someplace within the US that does not present all of these visa difficulties.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:03 PM on July 14, 2006

We went to the Falls twice, but could not cross over to Canada, because the first time, my wife had no Green Card, and the second time, her mom didn't. If you find yourself in that situation, go to the American side and spend a couple hours at the Falls if you have to see it, then get out of town. There are a lot of much more rewarding places in upstate NY. Oh, and bear in mind that the Falls is not itself these days. Something like half the water is diverted for hydro power, and never sees the Falls.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:07 PM on July 14, 2006

Thanks everyone for the response (keep em coming).
Yes we have multiple entry visas. But based on all answers, looks like my best bet is to contact the embassy repetitively and get a definitive answer. (even that might not guarantee anything tho! :( as per ROUX). So probably chances are less that I'll go around to CA side. In that case a followup question:
- If I am visiting the US side NF,NY, then after seeing the falls (one day enough?) what other things I should do in and around upstate NY? In this case rental car and long drives should not be an issue. So even something a bit far off is fine. Also, I am not interested in the casinos or winery. But any scenic places to driveby, boat/ferry rides, lakes, parks do..I am game for it!
posted by forwebsites at 1:31 PM on July 14, 2006

If I am visiting the US side NF,NY

Don't. Do something else. NFNY is a depressing shithole.

Finger Lakes or Adirondacks instead maybe, if you want to go to upstate NY.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:37 PM on July 14, 2006

I live a few miles from NF, NY. Just a few notes from a pseudo-native and fellow Texan (lived in Austin in the 70s; only lived here 20ish years). Feel free to email me if you want more details about what to see/do in Western NY if you decide to come across the border.

1) Canada does not have an absolute lock on the best view. You cannot get to the bridal falls on Goat Island from Canada. You can't get to any of the cool islands in the river from Canada. Those are on the US side. Canada has a lock on the direct-on postcard view. That's good for about 20 minutes.

2) Canada has the Maid of the Mist (which is pretty cool) and a tunnel thing (I forget what it's called). The US side has a really cool staircase thing that takes you to the base of the American files (which is pretty amazing).

3) There are loads of cool things to do in the area. Niagara on the Lake is pretty and fun if you like to go to outdoor shopping malls. There's not a lot to do there beyond the stores.

If you come to the US side, I can recommend a few activities:

- Hike the NF gorge. It's beautiful and really amazing. There are places where the standing wave in the river is taller than you. If you're interested in that, email me and I can get you specific directions from this book.

- Rent a car on the US side. There's a wine trail in Niagara County: one of the wineries is across the street from where I live (in the country). Heck, feel free to come by and my g/f and I will show you our horse farm. We can walk over to the winery and visit some of the other ones nearby. We'll make you dinner and if it's a nice night, show you some beautiful skies (and whatever we can pick out with the telescopes).

- There's a really cool eternal flame a few miles south of Buffalo. It's a short hike in to see it but well worth it. The nature there is beautiful.

- Depending on how geeky you are, I can show you where to find fossils (trilobytes, brachiopods, etc) that are easy to get to and pretty cool. Some of the site have some pretty cool pyritic fossils.

Buffalo has a huge diversity of restaurants. This is pretty much the definitive list.

Places I'd recommend:

For wings, Duff's or the Anchor Bar (the "home" of wings).
Greek: Kostas, Pano's, or the Towne
Indian: Star of India
Mediterranean: Falafel Bar
Really good and cool: Brodo's
Sweets: Sweet Tooth, Antoinette's
BBQ: Kentucky Greg's, Fat Bob's, or One Eyed Jack's (near me)
Mexican (won't remotely approach what you have there): Cinco de Mayo, El Canelo (both are quite good), Mighty Taco (Buffalo's own fastfood interpretation)

Buffalo has a lot of beautiful architecture (something like four Frank Lloyd Wright houses/buildings). City Hall is an amazing 30's era Art Deco wonder. The old Central Terminal is pretty cool. If you're really adventurous, I can show you some of the old grain elevators up close and personal.

So, I guess there are a few things to do. Again, feel free to email me. BTW, if you do come up, I expect you to bring me something from Mad Dog and Beans :)
posted by jdfan at 1:53 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

jdfan, you are making me (a born-and-raised Buffalonian that hasn't been back since I was 18) feel all wistful and nostalgic about Western New York. I even miss the Mighty Taco commercials.

The "cool staircase thing" jdfan mentions is the Cave of the Winds tour, and it is really cool. You get to put on a yellow rain slicker, and then walk on this multi-leveled wooden decking that is built right alongside the falls. The "Hurricane Deck" is the part closest to the falls, and it's an accurate name - you get blasted and soaked by the spray coming off the falls.

Also, it's been ages since I've been there, but I remember Whirlpool State Park being really cool. And there is in fact a huge whirlpool caused by a sharp bend in the river.
posted by misskaz at 3:06 PM on July 14, 2006

We visited the Canadian side a few years ago. My thoughts:

We did the Maid of the Mist (kind of tricky if you wear glasses, don't say you weren't warned) and the tunnel behind the falls. Both were quite cool.

There's a cable car that goes over the whirlpool that was cool, too.

If it rains, check out the IMAX movie. I dare you not to be freaked out about the little kid who survived going over, despite that guy who deliberately did it a few years back.

There is (or was) a greenhouse-like indoor sanctuary or something that had more butterflies than you've ever seen in your life. I got dragged to it by the other half, but ended up enjoying it.

The falls themselves are incredibly beautiful. Everything around the falls is amazingly schlocky tourist crap; if you can appreciate it as such, you can have fun.

Oh, and plan to see the falls at night as well as day.
posted by pmurray63 at 3:13 PM on July 14, 2006

wow jdfan awesome! I can't possibly thank you enough, from the bottom of my heart, may I add, for the wealth of information you've provided here and ofcourse for your gracious offer to invite me to your place! (I might actually take you up on some of it, depending on how it all works out)

It looks more and more that I might have to consider the US side (I still have to contact the embassy tho)and so your tips will be helpful. ROUX you too. jdfan, I know I'll definitely have some questions for you in a followup email. Thanks again.

I guess if it comes to the US side, I'll just do a day of falls@NY, second day of some lake-parks-scenic driving down and a day in NY city.

All the answers have been helpful, thx everyone, but jdfan's comes closest to solving my problem (albeit my query changed midway to NFNY) I guess I'l just mark his as the best answer.
posted by forwebsites at 4:05 PM on July 14, 2006

it would be substantially more of a pain in the ass to get to NF from either of them, though you might be able to get a GO train.

A couple of weeks ago I got a Via Rail train from Toronto to NF, to meet someone driving up from NYC to TO. It was 17 bucks, good service, took less than 2 hours and had lots of leg room. All the other passengers were British tourists. We were all fairly impressed. Of course, I wasn't staying, so did have a car for getting away . . . .
posted by jamesonandwater at 4:06 PM on July 14, 2006

I'm writing this in Rochester, NY (a little over an hour by car to the falls). I've been there about half a dozen times over my 30 years. I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY (Canandaigua, specifically) and found it to be very pretty. Rolling hills and beautiful lakes. Great wineries, if you're into that sort of thing.

Anyway, the American side closest to the falls has (IMO) a very nice park-like area. I took my wife and our toddler triplets there last summer. They've also opened a nice aquarium, and a casino (surprise). If you're into Hard Rock cafe, there's one on each side of the falls (collect both of the pins!).

The Canadian side is also very nice. There is plenty of touristy stuff on both sides.

I recommend the Maid of the Mist, very memorable. I haven't ever taken a helicopter ride, but I bet that'd be fun too.

I did the 'behind the falls' tour as a 10 year old, and it was very memorable.

The one thing that I would recommend is watching This DVD to get a deeper sense of the Falls' history since it was 'discovered' by immigrants.

Oh, if you've never been to an IKEA, there's one just a piece west of NF,CA.

This would be a great excuse to download Google Earth.... :-)
posted by Wild_Eep at 4:19 PM on July 14, 2006

One thing you might try, if you want an unforgettable view of the falls, and can't visit the Canadian side, is a helicopter tour. The major helicopter operators I checked operate from the Canadian side, but I'm sure they can arrange for U.S. landing and takeoff.

And, as I recall from some years back, the Maid of the Mist operates from both U.S. and Canadian docks (there are actually several boats operating as "The Maid of the Mist" during the summer season). You should be able to get a boat from the U.S. side, and it is an awesome way to see the falls.
posted by paulsc at 7:35 PM on July 14, 2006

I second the Niagara-On-The-Lake trip. If take the trouble to coming to Canada definitely don't expect much from the Niagara Falls cuisine (it hasn't absorbed the better culture/cuisine from Niagara-On-The-Lake just up the road strangely).

So take a day or so and head up to Niagara-On-The-Lake, great restaurants, even top notch (award winning) vinyards nearby and theatre.
posted by iTristan at 7:48 PM on July 14, 2006

There are Maid of the Mist boats on both sides.
I did the Cave of the Winds Tour, and was memorably inimpressed. There is no cave. There is a concrete tunnel, similar to what you could find in any former Soviet city, except it goes downhill. The "Tour" consists of you walking around on a bunch of wooden decks that are wet with spray from the Falls. When I went, in mid-Summer, most of the water was diverted to the Power Station, so the Falls were very diminished, and we could not get close enough to the remnant to feel any wind. My advice is to save the money they charge for this "attraction" and buy a meal.

Kaaterskill Falls is a very scenic and little-visited waterfall in the Catskills. (The picture in the link shows it in Winter, it's much nicer in Summer.) You can hike up from the bottom, or search out the road at the top. If you're interested in geology, read the link, and you may want to go even more.

There are fossils lying around in abundance at the bottom and on the ledges of the highway cut on Rte. 88 East opposite the Howe Caverns sign, near the intersection of Rte. 145. (I'm not sure exactly what town the cut is in, but if you can see that sign, you're close.) Crinoids and brachiopods, etc. There's also, coincidentally, Howe Caverns (and Secret Caverns, which works harder to be interesting, with mixed success.)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:58 AM on July 15, 2006

unimpressed, not inimpressed.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:59 AM on July 15, 2006

Greyhound bus also runs Toronto to Niagara, so you can choose between Greyhound or VIA. (Greyhound is usually cheaper, and it is usually about 2 hours from Toronto, but VIA is obviously more comfortable, being a train).

Look to see which would be cheaper to fly to, Toronto or Buffalo. Buffalo might have some of those really cheap domestic flights, but Toronto is a much bigger place, and standard price flights are often cheaper - New York to Toronto is very cheap, but that's because it's a common flight.

Also, you didn't say what country you are citizens of. Most rich countries already have visa waiver programs with Canada, just as they do with the States, for short tourist visits. Here is a list of countries whose citizens require visa to visit Canada.
posted by jb at 5:25 AM on July 15, 2006

About getting back into the US: Just make sure you have all your paperwork with you - your work permits and I94 in addition to your passport. I have been in the States on an I20 and I94, and I have crossed several times at Niagara and Buffalo, and not had any trouble. I have seen them question people who have difficulty with English and don't expect them to know all visa statuses (they are both small, parochial offices), but the more official stuff you have, the less trouble. It also helps if your workplace/institution is well known (like a known university), and you don't hesitate on where you live, etc. I think there is some discrimination by skin colour (I usually cross by Greyhound, and non-white people are questioned more often, but they are also often the majority of the bus), but more by accent, English proficiency and perceived class. (I don't think, for example, they would give a professor or PhD student much trouble at the border, even if they were non-white and had a strong accent.)
posted by jb at 5:32 AM on July 15, 2006

just a quick follow-up... there are helicopters in NFNY and there's also a crazy tethered balloon ride.

If waterfalls are really your thing, here's a helpful list.

Also, if you want to visit NYC, you may want to check out booking a room there and flying from Buffalo to there. It's a few hundred miles drive (all day, mostly).

The whirlpool in the niagara river is really terrific. There's a jet boat that goes upriver from Lewiston (a few miles from me) that other Texans have said is good; I haven't done it yet (you'll find that common among WNYers... not taking advantage of our many attractions). Even if you don't do that take a look at their photos... pretty cool.

The spanish cable car that goes over the whirlpool. Again, never did it myself (tho I've been down in the gorge many times).

Also, here's the butterfly conservatory someone else mentioned. A friend and his g/f were just there a few weeks ago and were blown away.
posted by jdfan at 7:36 AM on July 15, 2006

Thanks everyone.
jb, thx for that link. Yes my country needs visa. No, I don't have a strong accent, neutral you can say. Yes I do work for a well-known company in US and will have all papers. I will be having hotel/flight reservations to show them. I don't know, I am swinging 50-50 between both options now. Best of luck to me!
posted by forwebsites at 10:07 AM on July 15, 2006

Some touristy stuff that hasn't been mentioned: the Whirlpool Jet Boats are pretty neat. New this year, they just installed a new SkyWheel (aka Ferris Wheel). There are also a bunch of good haunted houses and such.

For a cheap dive spaceship themed restaurant, The Flying Saucer on Lundy's Lane is kinda fun (but don't go too late at night because you get the dudes having a post-strip club snack, and they're jerks).

For something not unique to the area, here you go: If you're a fan of waterparks, NF ON has two indoor hotels (here and here. For Casinos, NF ON has two. One kinda sucks (Casino Niagara) and one is pretty nice (Fallsview).

Also, I very much second the nomination to head out to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Maybe even save the last night to stay in a nice Bed & Breakfast. It's a perfect anti-thesis of the hustle and bustle of the tourist section. Plus, in NOTL the locals should be pretty friendly in guiding you to neat places and good wineries. The locals in Niagara Falls, however, not the case.
posted by travosaurus at 11:41 AM on July 15, 2006

That's all on the Ontario side by the way.... I don't really know anything about the American side. But everyone I know says it isn't worth it.
posted by travosaurus at 11:44 AM on July 15, 2006

If you make it to Buffalo, skip Fat Bob's. The service is incredibly slow. For Indian I'd recommend Kabob & Curry on Transit. Star of India may be fabulous, but I haven't gotten around to trying it. :)

If you like old churches, I recommend both St. Louis' on Main Street, and the UU Church on Elmwood (which was designed by an architect whose name escapes me, but who I'm told went down with the Titanic.) They're both lovely. There's also the Basilica in South Buffalo.

jdfan: When I look at whether or not anyone is close to me on my user page, it tells me no one is, and yet you must live fairly close to Buffalo. Is the system just messing with me or what? :)
posted by Meep! Eek! at 9:36 PM on July 15, 2006

Meep!Eek!: put a minus (-) in front of the 78... part of your location. Without it, you're in Kazakhstan near the Kyrgyzstan border :-)

So, yes, I live close to Buffalo :) Shush your mouth about Fat Bobs... their hush puppies are worth the wait.

Wanna hit Star of India?
posted by jdfan at 10:42 AM on July 17, 2006

jdfanI will admit that part of my irritation at Fat Bob's is that the new(ish) owner has decided that the reason he doesn't have a big lunch rush is because us locals (residents and those who work in the area) use up all the parking. So he called down the parking department to enforce the parking on that one block between Allen & Virginia that the restaurant is on. It was the only place in the area where you could park without getting ticketed. No longer. He even ~calls~ the parking department and insists they come out and ticket cars. The sad thing is that there always was parking for his potential customers, they just don't have the 1.5-2 hours for lunch that it would take. The hush puppies and the homemade mac & cheese are indeed good, I must say.

Where ~is~ the Star of India? :)
posted by Meep! Eek! at 1:02 PM on July 17, 2006

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