Saturday, July 31, 2004

Niagara Falls Travelogue

As promised, here is the post on our trip to Niagara Falls. As I said, overall it was a wonderful trip, but we probably could have come home on Thursday - I think we were all ready - but, lesson learned. Here's the day-by-day play-by-play:

Sunday, July 18

We hit the road around 9am, but we couldn't seem to get in a good road trip rhythm. We hit the McDonald's drive-thru before breakfast ended at 10:30am, then a bathroom break for M. somewhere else along the way. We had just cruised through Williamsport around 1pm when H. started getting fussy. Thinking she was getting hungry for lunch, we started looking for a place to stop when - blah! - carsickness! Our poor little H. We had to pull over on the side of the road in the rain and change all of her clothes. The carseat was also affected, so I took the pillowcase off my pillow and used it as a cover for it. She was fine for the rest of the ride after that incident, but I think my new-car smell is gone. H. was actually fine for most of the time in the car, thanks to the portable TV/VCR we borrowed from my parents. It was six hours of Barney, with a little Teletubbies thrown in for good measure, and she was occupied.

Just before getting on I-90 outside of Buffalo, M. decides maybe we should ride by the dragway that's in the area, "just to see what it looks like." After some scrambling with the map, I got us there via a detour through the Buffalo suburbs. I think this was the long way, but the last-minuteness of it all threw me off. We did a drive-by and there wasn't much to see. It was kind of a run-down track and they don't race on Sundays. So we finally got on I-90, only to get stuck in a traffic jam to pay a 15-cent toll on the NY Thruway. We burned way more than 15 cents worth of gas waiting in line for a half hour! We crossed the border into Canada without any problems, then proceeded to get stuck in another traffic jam trying to drive the two miles to the hotel. As we found out later, the directions from the hotel website take you the long way. The other problem was that the hotel was in the heart of the tourist district and there were fireworks over the falls Sunday night, so the placed was packed. The only thing I can think to compare it to is the Ocean City (MD) boardwalk on a Saturday night. But we finally made it to the Quality Inn Clifton Hill and checked in. We unloaded the car, then went to get our first unobstructed view of Niagara Falls, just as they were being illuminated for the evening. Very impressive! Then we dined at the Hard Rock Cafe, which may not have been the best choice after our long day. H. was a little overstimulated by all the music and people and barely ate any dinner. That was the first and last night we bought her her own meal from the children's menu - another lesson learned. She ate off of my plate the rest of the trip.

Monday, July 19

Monday dawned a little gray, but not raining, so after a hearty buffet breakfast at the Golden Griddle (which was part of the hotel complex), we walked down to ride the Maid of the Mist. (Our hotel was in a great location - we could walk to most of the major attractions and restaurants.) I had been to Niagara Falls when I was ten years old and one of the few things I remember about the trip was riding the Maid of the Mist and having to wear these smelly rubber raincoats that I'm sure thousands of people had worn before me. Well, welcome to the modern age. Twenty-two years later, visitors are now provided with disposable plastic raincoats. There was even a child size for H. The boat ride was very fun. We laughed the whole time and got soaked. H. wasn't afraid at all, even when the boat was rocking back and forth right next to the falls. She just kept saying, "It's raining, it's raining."

After drying off, we caught the PeopleMover shuttle to go a few miles north to the Botanical Gardens and Butterfly Conservatory. We thought H. would enjoy this, since she loves insects of any kind. But we had to keep her in the stroller most of the time while in the Conservatory because she would try to catch the butterflies (and maim them in the process).

We ate lunch there, too, then headed back to the hotel. After a nap (for all of us), we went to the swimming pool, which I think was H's favorite part of the trip. The outdoor pool was nice, with a big pool and a kiddie pool, both with cool dragon slides. H. got right on the baby slide without even blinking and went down it about a hundred times while we were there.

Dinner Monday night was at the Rainforest Cafe, which I thought H. would like more than she did. She liked the snake in the gift shop, of all things, but not the elephants or gorillas. And thunder is another new word she's added to her vocabulary.

We pretty much followed this schedule for the rest of the week. We would leave the hotel around 9am for activities or sightseeing, then return after lunch for a nap, then a swim in the pool and dinner out. It worked well for trying to keep H. on some kind of schedule.

Tuesday, July 20

On Tuesday we went over the state park on the New York side of the falls, which I thought would be full of trash, graffitti and god knows what else, based on the "the Canadian side is much better than the US side" adage we heard from everyone and from things I had read, too. But the state park area was very nice. It was clean and safe and there was quite a bit to see there. We went to the visitor's center, then walked to both Prospect Point and Goat Island for up-close views of the falls.

We saw plenty of rangers and other park personnel throughout the park and I was rather impressed with it all. I think the US side has made a lot of changes over the years, but hasn't been able to shake the reputation yet. Plus, my overall observation was that there wasn't much to do on the US side in terms of entertainment. We saw plenty of hotels near the falls and the casino, but very few restaurants or shopping choices. Those were definitely all in Clifton Hill.

After the park, we went to the Power Vista Power Plant a little ways up the river for a tour. This was one of the things I picked to do because I thought M. would like it, but I really liked it, too. We practically had the whole place to ourselves and it was very informative. And there was plenty of room for H. to run around instead of being stuck in the stroller.

We were stuck in the indoor pool in the afternoon because of thunder, althought it never actually rained, then we went to dinner at Applebee's, which was uncrowded (yeah!). Afterwards, I went to exchange money at the casino (I had read that they gave a good exchange rate) and the guard at the door made my night. M. stayed outside with H. while I went in and before entering the casino floor, the guard asked, "Age, please?" I said 32 and he said, "Really?" I laughed and said, "Yes, but thank you for asking!"

Wednesday, July 21

On Wednesday we went back and forth across the border several times. We drove to the Buffalo suburbs to visit the Fisher-Price Toystore, based on Wendy's recommendation. I was in heaven! I bought H. a bunch of Christmas presents, plus a new toy for her to play with now. I could have stayed there for hours. There's a toy museum next door, with exhibits featuring the old version of the Little People (oh, how I wish I still had them!), along with other old wooden toys and classic Barbies. I bought two Raggedy Ann items in the gift shop (they were on sale).

In keeping with the children's theme of the day, we went to Explore and More, which H. absolutely loved, of course. She could have spent all day there! But we stayed for a couple of hours, enough time for her to try all of the stations. And I found out from my sister Ness that there's one in Gettysburg, so we'll definitely have to make a trip to that one (and it's inexpensive, too!).

We came back across the border for nap and pool time, then went across again in the evening to the towns of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, which straddle the Erie Canal. They were having their annual CanalFest the week we were there and on Wednesday night there was a car show.

It was a beautiful area, with all these boats out on the canal, but let me tell you. I have been to a lot of festivals and carnivals in my day and I have never seen anything this crowded (the picture doesn't begin to show how crowded it was out on the closed streets). It was wall-to-wall people, which made it somewhat less enjoyable. But we got some dinner and looked at all the cars, then sat by the canal for awhile to watch the boats and listen to music.

Thursday, July 22

As I said earlier, I think we were all ready to go home on Thursday, so it was a quiet day. We drove up to Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is north of Niagara Falls, right where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.

It was beautiful! Lots of Victorian B&Bs and quaint shops, bike and walking paths along the river and spectacular scenery. I told M. I'd like to go back there some day for a long weekend, just the two of us. We didn't visit either of the historic forts in the area, just drove by them, but just the drive was pretty enough.

One last visit to the pool, then we just ordered pizza to eat in our room while packing up.

Friday, July 23

Home Sweet Home. We left around 8am and made it home by 3:30pm. An uneventful ride home, thank goodness. H. couldn't wait to visit her little friend, Jenna, up the street, and we gave her the Nemo fish hat we had bought for her. And we gave Jenna's mom a little thank you gift for watering our hanging baskets (although she said she only had to water them twice - it rained every other day while we were gone).

So it was a great first family vacation for the three of us. I'm already looking forward to planning the next one. Where can we go next year??