My family and I (husband, 14-year-old daughter and 8-year old son) spent a great summer week in Niagara Falls, Ontario. This was not a long-planned destination, but one that was recommended by friends and capped off when I found a great Internet deal with the Embassy Suites Hotel (an RCI purchase through Cheaptickets.com, as it turned out). But as the date approached and I did more research into the area and activities, our excitement grew. This is one of the wonders of the natural world, and a welcome change to our usual summer vacation on a New England beach (been there, done that.) We were psyched.
We drove to Niagara Falls from our home north of Boston, about 8 hours to go the nearly 500 miles. We left later in the day than we had planned (about 3pm), but in hindsight we were glad we arrived late as on the return trip we saw that there was a backup of several miles at the border going into Canada. We may have lost a few hours of the day, but we may have waited that long in traffic.
The aspect of the trip that was most striking to all of us was the beauty of the area. Not just the falls, which are spectacular and we never tired of looking at them from the window of our room on the 39th floor, but all of the Niagara Park area. The entire area is stunning, incredibly well-maintained, and extraordinarily clean. There is a horticultural college in the park and its expertise shows in the amazing flowers and plants along the roads, around the buildings, and in the botanical park areas sprinkled up and down the span of the park.
In terms of activities, we were busy every day and still did not do everything available to us. The best bet for falls activities is the Niagara Park Adventure Pass, which includes admission into most of the venues at the park that can be used on any day, one full day of free transportation on the park’s PeopleMover buses, and money-off coupons for additional venues and days of transportation. We found the key was to do the activities that are farthest away (Butterfly Conservatory, etc.) on the PeopleMover day, and save the activities within walking distance for the other days. The passes can be purchased online at http://www.niagaraparks.com/, or on site at any of the numerous kiosks along the main road through the park.
I will write separately about some of the specific activities, but suffice it to say that everything was completely enjoyable. In addition to the park venues, I would also highly recommend the Whirlpool Jet Boats at Niagara-on-the-Lake (http://www.whirlpooljet.com/), though not for the faint of heart or children under six. Fort George in that area is also a nice stop, and take the time for a leisurely drive back along the "wine route," stopping for a wine tasting (wineries in Ontario – who knew?) and some snacks at any of a numbers of roadside farm stands and bakeries. Also, do not miss the Rossi Glass Factory in Niagara Falls, where you can watch world-renowned master glassblowers at work, and shop for handmade "cranberry glass" objects in one of the few places in the world that makes them (my children were mesmerized for two hours straight, which turned out to be a perfect activity for our one rainy day).
Prior to our trip, we had been warned that NF was know for "tacky" souvenir shops and attractions, but what we found was neatly packed into a six to eight block area known as Clifton Hill. Even with its obligatory Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum and an odd assortment of haunted houses and wax museums, this area was like a scene out of Roger Rabbit’s Toon Town. It provided an exciting contrast to the "natural" attraction of the falls. Restaurants were abundant and reasonably priced. The many shops were, at worst, a bit repetitive. The Canada Midway was a fun "family" version of the Niagara casinos. And best of all, if this kind of activity does not appeal to you, the whole area is completely avoidable.
There are two casinos in the area. Casino Niagara is the older one, though still clearly popular. Niagara Fallsview Resort and Casino, the year-old, "billion dollar" hotel and entertainment complex is beautiful just to walk around in. The casino itself was great for an evening of adult entertainment, despite the smoky atmosphere (the only place we encountered indoor smoking, by the way).
US currency is welcome everywhere, though you might sometimes receive Canadian in change, and all prices are shown in both (including most of our food tabs). Our children loved getting "loonies" (one-dollar Canadian coins) and "toonies" (two-dollar coins), and the colorful, unfamiliar bills. Most ATMs dispense Canadian only.
There is still more to say (and do) about Niagara Falls. This is a HIGHLY recommended family vacation spot.