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Today, in the first of a two-part post, we're looking at a renowned natural wonder, popular not only with those wishing to extend their New York holiday, but with tourists across all of North America – Niagara Falls. And in part two, we'll be exploring diverse and cosmopolitan Toronto, just a hop and a skip across Lake Ontario and the most desirable nearby destination for a twin-centre break.
To the Falls
Niagara Falls straddles the US/Canadian border. Both sides offer differing but beautiful views, boat rides and access to various tours and attractions. The falls' popularity as a holiday destination is said to have been boosted by Napolean's brother, who visited with his young bride in the early 19th century and returned to France declaring it the perfect place for a honeymoon. In 1846 the famous Maid of the Mist boat trips began, making them the oldest tourist attraction in America, although they were technically a ferry service until the first suspension bridge was built in 1854. But it wasn't until after the first world war that tourism really started to skyrocket, when the rise of the car made getting to the falls much easier.
Today, the area surrounding the falls is extremely well developed on both sides, with hotels, casinos, shops and restaurants filling much of the skyline either side of the main attraction. It's undeniably touristy, and a bit of a shock to those who may be expecting some kind of great North American wilderness - but don't let this put you off. When you're face to face with the falls, lost in the spray and mesmerised by the thunderous roar, nothing else can detract from the sheer force of nature that lies before you. In periods of peak flow, up to 5.7 million litres of water crash over the edge per second, in a scene of unbridled power and beauty.
Need to know
Niagara Falls is actually a collective term for three different waterfalls. Horseshoe Falls are the largest and widest and lie on the Canadian side. American Falls and the tiny-by-comparison Bridal Veil Falls are located on the USA side and are separated from Horseshoe Falls by Goat Island, part of the Niagara Falls State Park, which is also on the American side.
Vantage points are plentiful and varied on both the USA and Canadian side. But the question first-time visitors always ask is – which side is better? The somewhat unsatisfactory answer is that it depends.
The American side offers the best opportunity to get up close to all three falls and really feel their full force. The closest actual vista point to the falls (about 20 feet away) is within Niagara Falls State Park, as is access to the Cave of the Winds tour. The tour begins with a 175 ft elevator ride down into the Niagara Gorge and continues on wooden walkways along the Niagara River to the Hurricane Deck at the base of Bridal Veil Falls. Experience tropical storm-like conditions and stand in awe as powerful plumes of mist and spray leap up into the air from the whirling cauldron of water and rock below.
On the other hand, the Canadian side offers more panoramic views and better photographic opportunities if you want to get all-encompassing shots. Admittedly on the USA side you can get right to the brink of American Falls and Bridal Veils Falls, but this inevitably means that the viewing angle is rather sharp – from the top down, or in profile, rather than the wide sweeping views afforded on the other side of the river.
For a full widescreen perspective, Horseshoe Falls in particular are best viewed from the Canadian side. The combination of width and sheer volume of water tumbling over the edge is what creates such a spectacle, and the views from the American side – though dramatic – are side-on and partially obscured.
However, if you have the time it's easy enough to visit both sides of the falls, and if not, the best views of all are from the Maid of the Mist boat tours which can be accessed from either side. It's easily the most popular attraction at Niagara and is the one experience that shouldn't be missed. Yes, you'll have to queue, you'll get pretty soaked and after about ten minutes you'll be putting your spray-soaked camera back inside its case. But the excitement of inching ever closer to the deafening roar of Horseshoe Falls until you're completely enveloped in a wall of mist and sound is an unforgettable and genuinely awe-inspiring experience.
- Both sides have an observation deck. On the American side, the Observation Tower extends out vertiginously over the Niagara Gorge. On the Canadian side, the Skylon Tower offers the highest vantage point in the region.
- On the Canadian side, take a Journey Behind the Falls and enter tunnels bored deep into the rock directly behind the great curtain of water, for an earsplitting close up experience.
- For the ultimate birds-eye view, take a helicopter tour. You'll get incredible aerial views of all three falls, the Niagara river, gorge, rapids and whirlpool. Try National Helicopters or Niagara Helicopters on the Canada side, and Rainbow Air in the USA.
- As you'd expect in a heavily commercialised area, there are plenty of additional attractions not directly related to the falls. If you're planning an extended stay, visit Ontario's Niagara Parks and New York State's Niagara USA for more information.
- If at all possible, time your visit to coincide with dusk. Every night, the falls are floodlit to create a continually changing light show through the colour spectrum.
It's possible to visit Niagara Falls on a day-trip from New York but it's not cheap and your time there will be limited. However, if this is your only option there are plenty of operators willing to take you there. Take a look at some of the tours offered by Viator or Gray Line Tours for starters. Longer 2 or 3 day tours are also available.
If time is not an issue, consider taking the train. There are two options with Amtrak. The Empire Service (7.5 hrs) runs between NYC and Niagara Falls, NY and the Maple Leaf between NYC and Toronto (12.5 hrs) with a stop at Niagara Falls on both sides of the border. The journey is long but it's a great way to experience the beautiful Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes region of New York State.
If you're coming from Toronto, visit VIA Rail for the GO Transit service to Niagara Falls, or take an organised tour. Chariots of Fire offer small group tours and pick up from central points in Toronto rather than individual hotels, which allows for more time at Niagara and keeps costs down. Also try Toronto Tours and Viator. Most tours include a trip to the pretty little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and a winery visit.
Buffalo-Niagara, Toronto Pearson and Toronto City are the nearest international airports if you wish to fly, all served by flights from New York City. There is an airport at Niagara Falls itself but it currently only operates charter services to and from Florida.
If you're hiring a car, Niagara Falls is about a seven hour drive from NYC and a 90 minute drive from Toronto. Make sure you check your rental agreement if you're hiring a car in the USA and wish to take it over the border into Canada – there may be a surcharge. Incidentally, if you only want to pop over the border to see the views on both sides, you can leave your car behind and just walk over Rainbow Bridge. Just remember to bring your passport.
And if you're travelling with Virgin Holidays, you can arrange everything before you even leave the UK by choosing from one of six pre-bookable Niagara Falls excursions in advance.
Check out Part Two for our guide to Toronto.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily direct flights to New York from London Heathrow.
Header shot © Diego3336
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.