My grandfather was born in what is now the Ukraine, but was then known as Czarist Russia. When he later emigrated to the U.S. and got married to my grandmother, he wanted to go on a honeymoon that was classically American. Then, as now, the place to go was Niagara Falls.
I didn’t even know he went there until he asked me to edit the autobiography he wrote at the age of 98.
My grandfather has been gone for over eight years now, and I was eager to see one of the places that had been so important to him. Niagara Falls, New York, as well as its Canadian counterpart across the river, still attracts people from around the globe: I heard languages from Southeast Asia, South America and Europe.
Besides being one of the great natural wonders of the world, there are lots of things to do both in Niagara proper and in surrounding Niagara County. It’s rich with the history of French fur trappers, British redcoats and the War of 1812, as well as Canadians, the Underground Railroad and modern-day daredevils.
Where to stay. There’s not even a question that my grandparents stayed in a hotel on the American side of the falls. They lived most of their lives in Detroit and rarely headed to Windsor. They would have stayed at the nicest hotel, too; they were first-class all the way.
Back in the day, the Giacomo was the United Office Building, but I know they would have loved it today. It’s a boutique hotel with an intimate, elegant bar, rooms with sumptuous fabrics, and gas fireplaces. On the top floor, there’s a club-type room that’s open to all people staying at the hotel, with a 360-degree view of the area. In the morning, they serve complimentary breakfast that’s a mix of what American and Canadian hotels would present: cereals, omelettes and cold cuts. The hotel is within walking distance of the falls.
the falls at night
What to do.Niagara Falls State Park is America’s oldest state park. A fine way to experience everything it has to offer – movies, splashy boat ride by the falls, cool walks into splinter falls and more – is through a Discovery Pass.
It’s free to see the falls themselves. Do yourself a favor and check them out both during the day and at night, when they’re lit up with different colored light effects.
Old Fort Niagara
Old Fort Niagara is in terrific shape. Through its several buildings, you can really see how French, British and American soldiers lived. It’s on a bluff with stunning views of Lake Ontario and houses a museum with military artifacts.
Now, my grandparents weren’t into adult beverages – if you don’t count Manischewitz during the Jewish holidays, which I don’t – but most people are. Niagara is one of the strongest wine-producing regions in the U.S., actually, and they have a wine trail that’s even popular with locals. There are lots of tastings available, including that of the area’s unique and globally prized ice wine.
Schultz Vineyard and Winery crafts gorgeous – not touristy schlock – wines, and their staff is quite expert on the subject.
See world-renowned as well as local works of art for free at the Castellani Art Museum, on the campus of Niagara University.
If do you walk or drive over the Rainbow Bridge to Canada, make sure you’ve got 50 cents per person in your pocket (U.S. or Canadian) to come back: Canada requires it. The Canadian view of the American falls is straight on, not at an angle like on the U.S. side. Clifton Hill is a steep, hilly street with a crazy carnival-boardwalk scene for kids (wacky museums) and adults (head shops, Cuban cigars).
What to eat. If you visit a bunch of the wineries, you’ll probably want something more substantial to eat than the occasional cheese cube or water cracker. The Wine Trail Café is the only restaurant on the trail and a cute one at that. Don’t miss their wine-flavored ice creams in several varieties.
Head out into the county to charming Lewiston for dinner at Carmelo's. Created out of a historic tavern building, the restaurant is small – definitely make reservations! Their food philosophy is modern: produce and meats from several local farms, as well as local microbrews are part of the menu. Seasonality reigns. Another important aspect to Carmelo's is a commitment to head-to-tail eating.