The world’s most famous cascade runneth over with crowds. But there are water rides and countryside, along with those wondrous falls, that you won’t want to miss. Here, how to chart a course that’s thrilling, chilling—and sane.
Hadas Dembo Our Kind of Niagara
| Credit: Hadas Dembo

Several hundred feet above ground level, my 15-year-old daughter, Elly, and I are sipping frozen strawberry daiquiris—hers virgin, mine decidedly not—and dreamily watching the twinkling lights of Ontario go by as the Skylon Tower restaurant slowly revolves on its circular base.

Not mindful that the perimeter remains stationary while our table moves, I’ve already lost my napkin twice on the window ledge. Reaching back hastily to reclaim it, I notice small black frames interspersed along the shelf, each containing a curious factoid about the area. The one inching past me reads:

In 1901, Annie Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher from Bay City, Michigan, was the first person to successfully go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel.

“Know anything about your new teachers?” I ask, casually.

The two of us are on a five-day mother-daughter spree, escaping the schedule overload holding my husband and son hostage back in New York City. The summer I was six, my family embarked on a grand tour of America with Niagara Falls as our first stop. I have memories of knee-high rubber boots, long yellow raincoats, and a whole lot of water. Now it’s time for me to introduce the big gusher to a child of my own.

Of course, this isn’t Elly’s first encounter with the falls; she’s seen them in photographs and films—who can forget Superman ripping past the powerful rush?In an attempt to appease a jaded teen, and avoid the mob scene, I’d come up with a watertight plan: two nights at Sheraton on the Falls, right in the thick of things, followed by three at the Harbour House Hotel in the lovely Georgian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. We’d approach the falls from above and below, upriver and down, not to mention by foot, bike, and boat. Forget just skimming the surface; we were in for full immersion.

About a fifth of all the freshwater on the continent tumbles over the Horseshoe Falls, which extends 2,200 feet—the length of six football fields.

Niagara Falls, in fact, is not just one waterfall, but three, all of them crashing into the lower Niagara River. Although both the American and the Bridal Veil are situated stateside, Canada’s single cascade, the Horseshoe, is larger than the other two combined and has the riverbank with picture-perfect vantage points to view it all. Of the 14 million visitors that tour the region each year, the vast majority head straight for Canada. Elly and I are no exception; we drove straight through Niagara Falls, New York, which, despite a recent flurry of development, is still a ghost town of abandoned 1960’s architecture.

“Daddy, can you hear the falls?” Elly asked when she stepped for the first time onto a balcony in our corner suite at the Sheraton, pointing her cell phone toward the roar. Our 20th-story perch has floor-to-ceiling windows, panoramic views, and real-life audio. For the stereo effect, I pulled back the curtains and opened all the balcony doors. We lay on the king-size bed, mesmerized by the sight and sound of 750,000 gallons of water hurtling over the rocks every second.

A deep, rumbling noise—emanating from my stomach—roused us from our reverie. It was already early evening; time to eat. Leaving our hotel, we walked into the eye of the storm: Clifton Hill, a street originating at the promenade along the river, is the epicenter of the infamous sideshow that has sprung up around the falls. Since the 19th century, hoteliers have been luring guests to Niagara with outlandish novelties—one cruelly sent an ark full of animals over the cataract. Today’s attractions include wax museums and glow-in-the-dark mini golf. We decided to rise above it all.

The Skylon Tower was constructed using 61 million pounds of concrete and 3,200 miles of cable and electrical wiring.

Resembling a giant mushroom cap on a tall, skinny stalk, the Skylon Tower has been an icon of the Niagara skyline since 1965. Windowed elevators, nicknamed “yellow bugs,” depart from the lobby and ascend 775 feet above the river to an observation deck and the rotating restaurant. It is here, reading little placards while sipping frozen drinks, that Elly and I commence what turns into a trip-long hobby of gathering bits of local trivia. Getting caught up in our collecting, we barely have enough time to finish our berries and crème fraîche before racing back to our hotel balcony—the fireworks are about to begin. Every day at dusk, 21 colored spotlights illuminate the falls; on weekends for much of the year, a pyrotechnic display adds to the spectacle. Crowds gather along the river, but Elly claims a prime viewing spot: our bathroom’s double whirlpool.

The following morning, we hit the ground walking. Crossing the Rainbow Bridge, steps from our hotel, to the American side, we pick up a paved pedestrian path along the upper Niagara. It is remarkably free of crowds and, somewhat alarmingly, physical barriers between us and the rapids. Taking care to stay on the walkway, we follow a two-mile loop through Niagara Falls State Park—across meadows, woodlands, and five small islands, each leading us closer to the cascade. At Terrapin Point, a lookout that hangs precipitously over the Horseshoe Falls, mist rising from below coats our faces. “I wonder if this is what the woman at Lancôme meant when she said I need to hydrate more,” I bellow, as the deluge soaks up my words.

Our face-to-face with the water has just begun. Continuing along the path, we arrive at a spot I remember from childhood, the Cave of the Winds, where disposable plastic ponchos and soft-foam Velcro sandals have supplanted rubber outerwear. We take an elevator down to a boardwalk that spans large boulders; stairs and platforms bring us almost within hand’s reach of the Bridal Veil. Despite our gear, we get drenched.

Farther along the trail, we board the Maid of the Mist. While our vessel bobs right in front of the Horseshoe, sheets of water douse us mercilessly. The sun emerges as we make for land. Sopping but exuberant, we walk up to Crow’s Nest, a landing at the north end of the American Falls. By now, we feel like shriveled-up raisins before the torrent. Returning to the Canadian side, we get sucked up in a different sort of current. With its palm trees and undersea murals, the six-story Falls View Indoor Waterpark is more Disney than Niagara, but there’s no saying no to 16 water slides an elevator ride away. When we finally wash up in our hotel room at the end of the day, we’re exhausted. “The falls were great,” Elly murmurs before drifting off to sleep. “But they should have designed nicer sandals for the Cave of the Winds....”

Because the Niagara escarpment, a 450-mile ledge of rock, slopes slightly downward on one side, the Niagara River travels from south to north.

The escarpment’s microclimate is ideal for growing fruit. The next day, as we drive downriver to Niagara-on-the-Lake, 15 miles north at the mouth of Lake Ontario, hotels give way to grapevines. Elly and I are meeting friends at the Hillebrand Winery for a wholly different kind of liquid pursuit.

When we get there, the seven of us are ushered into a room where tables are set with beakers, glasses, pencils, and paper. Our task: to create a Bordeaux-style blend from Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. We pour, sniff, taste, discard, remix. The minors guzzle sparkling grape juice and bring us their concoctions to sample. We funnel the final products into bottles, and cork and label them—then reward ourselves at the winery restaurant, the adults with goat cheese tarts and Ontario flank steak, the kids with mini-burgers.

Post-feast, Elly and I take in Niagara-on-the-Lake, whose stone houses and wrought-iron street lamps dripping with petunias are a welcome contrast to the mayhem surrounding the falls. Our room at Harbour House Hotel has a fireplace, river view, another whirlpool—and homemade cookies that I have no qualms about devouring, since tomorrow we’re cycling the river path to the Horseshoe Falls and back.

Dew is still in the air, and other guests snug in their featherbeds, when we head out. The path is mostly flat, and we pedal to the old British stronghold Fort George, passing the cherry trees and pink roses of the Botanical Gardens. We reach the Spanish Aero Car at 10:00. Boarding the red gondola with only one other family (the tour buses have yet to arrive), we cross the churning river, suspended from cables stretching from bank to bank. The 10-minute joyride is quite tame, but it’s just a short pedal to White Water Walk, where Lois Lane jumped into the rapids to prove Clark Kent really was Superman.

The Rainbow Carillon is a set of 55 tuned bells hung in the tower at the Canadian end of the Rainbow Bridge; the largest bell weighs 10 tons.

We coast into Victoria Park at noon as the bells play “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” By now the promenade across from the falls is teeming with tourists—in shorts, saris, burkas—all of them pointing and posing for the quintessential photo op. We lock up the bikes and elbow our way to the brink of the Horseshoe. Though we don’t seem as close to the water as we were on the American side, we get wet. We’re wetter still after taking an elevator six stories down to the Journey Behind the Falls, an opening right in back of the coursing water. From an outdoor platform we—and our fellow gawkers—get a profile view of the falls. Then, craving the calm of our little town, we mount our getaway bikes. With the escarpment dipping slightly in our favor, we make the return trip quickly, though we can’t resist stopping at a farm stand for sun-warmed peaches, and at the McFarland House for finger sandwiches and tea.

As much as three-quarters of the water from the Niagara River is diverted to American and Canadian power plants before it even reaches the falls.

On our fifth day, we make a remarkable discovery: at the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant four and a half miles from the main cataract, we learn that this and a Canadian plant across the river siphon off water for inexpensive hydroelectric power. In effect, we’ve been looking at Samson after a haircut.

So how rampant could the river be?On our last morning in Niagara, we join the ranks of daredevils, signing up for the Whirlpool Jet ride, featured on The Amazing Race. We board a turbo-powered boat that takes off at 50 miles an hour, heading for Class Five rapids. What Elly and I do not know is that we’re sitting in the section dubbed OH.MY.GOD. With no windshield to screen us when the boat does a 360-degree wheelie in 12-foot waves, we look up, see a swimming pool’s worth of water about to crash on our heads, and scream: OMG. Our immersion is complete.

Hadas Dembo is a writer and photographer who lives in New York. Her book, Through the Viewing Glass (Simon & Schuster), is about taking pictures of children.

When to Go

Spring is an ideal time to see the falls: the key rides—closed for the winter—reopen, minus the summer mobs. But Niagara is a year-round destination. and list what’s up.

How to Get There

Buffalo Niagara International Airport is 20 miles away. See for shuttles to the falls. To explore Niagara-on-the-Lake, rent a car. Don’t forget passports for entry into Canada.

Where to Stay

Sheraton on the Falls

Center of the action. Perks: jaw-dropping views and indoor and outdoor pools. 5875 Falls Ave., Niagara Falls, Ontario; 800/325- 3535;; doubles from $128.

Harbour House Hotel

Quiet luxury 25 minutes from the falls. 85 Melville St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; 866/277-6677;; rooms from $273, including breakfast.

Where to Eat

Revolving Dining Room at the Skylon Tower

The experience is more memorable than the food. 5200 Robinson St., Niagara Falls, Ontario; 905/356-2651;; dinner for four $188; reservations recommended.

McFarland House

Afternoon tea served by hostesses in early-1900’s-style garb. 15927 Niagara Pkwy., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; 905/ 468-3322;; tea for four $67.

Hillebrand Winery

Call ahead for tours and wine-making seminars. 1249 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; 905/468-3201;; lunch for four $128, dinner $189.

What to Do

Although viewing the falls is free, many of the attractions charge fees. The Great Gorge Adventure Pass (; 13 and up $39.50, 6–12 $24.50, five and under free) covers all Canadian offerings. Passport to the Falls (; adults $30, kids six and up $23) gets you into almost everything you’ll want to do stateside. Tip: Although both passes cover the Maid of the Mist boat ride, board on the American side—the wait is shorter and the boats less packed.

Bike Tours

Outfitter Zoom Leisure runs guided winery tours (full day $95 per person). Or rent bikes for your own itinerary ($31 per day). 2017 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; 866/ 811-6993;

Water Power Demonstrations

The 60’s-era Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, 4 1/2 miles north of the falls, has displays showing how hydropower is converted to electricity. 5777 Lewiston Rd., Lewiston, N.Y.; 716/ 286-6661;; free.

Daredevil River Ride

Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours depart from Lewiston, N.Y., and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. This is likely to be your most expensive hour in Niagara—but also your most thrilling. 888/438-4444;; adults $50, 6–13 $42; reservations required.