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The ultimate guide to enjoying Niagara Falls

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg on when and how to see the breathtaking sights.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It is stunning. It is romantic. It's powerful, and it is treacherous. It's an American icon — shared with Canada — where so many go to honeymoon. Niagara Falls is actually a set of three waterfalls that were created some 10,000 years ago by melting glaciers.  What do Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Bruce Springsteen have in common? They each fell in love with Niagara Falls. Twain called it “one of the finest structures in the known world.” Winston Churchill called the Niagara River Parkway “the prettiest Sunday Afternoon Drive in the World.” And Bruce Springsteen? He honeymooned there the second time around.In fact, last year, the tourism folks at Niagara Falls issued more than 10,000 Honeymoon Certificates, which give newlyweds discounts on various attractions and special services. The trend to visit Niagara Falls supposedly began when Napoleon’s brother visited with his young wife. He returned to France announcing that Niagara Falls was the best place for a honeymoon. In the 20th century, Hollywood discovered the falls as a location for dozens of movies. And most recently, the new movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James, was filmed near the falls.Myths, legends and miraclesThe boat that sails the falls, “The Maid of the Mist,”  is the oldest tourist attraction in North America. The company was named after an Indian princess who, legend has it, canoed over the falls and killed herself to escape marrying a man whom she did not love. It is said that on a clear day you can see her image in the rainbows over the falls. This may also explain the legendary humorist Oscar Wilde's cynical description of the falls as  "simply a vast amount of water going the wrong way over some unnecessary rocks; the sight of that waterfall must be one of the earliest and keenest disappointments in American married life.” Oscar Wilde was — and is — in the minority.Since the Indian princess "incident," many have tried to go over the falls. Some were/are daredevils; others took the leap by accident. Miraculously, some have actually survived. Amazing, considering the sheer power of Niagara — the average flow of water over the Bridal Veil and American Falls is about 75,000 gallons per second!In 1960, seven-year-old Roger Woodward was boating with his sister and uncle when they were caught in the current just above the falls. Roger's sister was saved and pulled out just two feet from the edge, but Roger went over with only a life vest. Astonishingly, he survived the fall and was rescued by crew members on “The Maid of the Mist.” Legend says that when Annie Edson Taylor went over the falls, a kitten rode in the barrel with her. After making her successful plunge, she posed next to the barrel, with the kitten sitting on top of it.Although many people who have attempted the plunge or tightrope-walked over the falls have been injured or killed, most fish survive the drop over the falls. Please remember that doing stunts off the falls is outlawed by both Canada and the U.S.The first stunt at Niagara Falls was a mean-spirited and cruel affair orchestrated by William Forsyth of the Pavilion Hotel in 1827. Forsyth bought a condemned lake schooner named “Michigan.”  He and a few other hotel owners then advertised that they would send the schooner over Horseshoe Falls on September 8, 1827, with “animals of the most ferocious kind.”

The schooner was decorated to look like a pirate ship and human-shaped dummies were tied to her deck. To add to the stunt, a buffalo, two small bears, two raccoons, a dog and a goose were put on the schooner. (Some reports also included two foxes, 15 geese and an eagle.) An estimated 10,000 spectators arrived to watch the event. The schooner was then released into the upper Niagara River and floated toward the falls. The rapids soon tore open the hull, and the schooner began filling with water. The two bears running loose on deck jumped free of the schooner and were able to swim to Goat Island. Since the other animals were caged or tied, they died in the falls; at the falls’ base, only the goose had survived, and it was later caught.In 1829, Sam Patch was the first person to make the jump. He climbed up a high tower and jumped into the gorge and survived. (He later attempted a 125-foot fall at Genesee Falls in Rochester, N.Y., where he died. Moral to this story: If at first you succeed....stop trying!)In 1901, a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor climbed into an airtight wooden barrel, and the air pressure was compressed with a bicycle pump. She was the first to go over the falls in a barrel. She was hoping the plunge would bring her fame and fortune, but while she survived the drop, she died in poverty.In 1928, “Smiling Jean” Lussier survived going over the falls in a large rubber ball.Signorina Maria Spelterini became the first woman ever to cross the Niagara River gorge on a tightrope. She was 23, and made her first walk on a two-and-a-quarter inch wire, located north of what was then the suspension bridge (it is now the Whirlpool Bridge). On July 12, 1876, she tightrope-walked wearing peach baskets strapped to her feet. On July 19, she tightrope-walked blindfolded. And, on July 22, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.The most recent person to attempt the plunge was Kirk Jones in 2003. He is the first person in history to go over the Horseshoe Falls without a safety or flotation device. He suffered only minor rib bruises. He was arrested, and was also banned from entering Canada for life.Accessibility
The Buffalo International Airport is only 40 minutes away on the U.S. side. The Hamilton and Toronto International Airports are 45 and 75 minutes away, respectively. However, if you don't currently possess a U.S. passport, then I offer this caution: Keep in mind that new, confusing and ever-changing U.S. passport rules would strongly indicate you stay on the U.S. side of the falls until you get confirmation from both U.S. and Canadian authorities that a birth certificate, driver’s license or document showing you have recently applied for a passport will be accepted at both borders.

What’s affordable?
Travel tip: The closer you are to the falls, the better the view you will have, but you will also have to pay higher rates for accommodations. If budget is a concern, many hotels are situated approximately 10 minutes from the falls, and offer good rates and comfortable amenities.The good news is that much about Niagara Falls is free. The falls are lit up at night (a must-see). And on Friday and Sunday nights, you can see a fireworks display. In cold months, the Winter Festival of Lights illuminates the season with more than 2 million lights in Queen Victoria Park, which surrounds Niagara Falls proper. There are also free outdoor concerts and first-run movies, festivals and parades. Niagara Falls’ newest attraction is a performance by Jay Cochrane, is a tightrope artist who walks the tightrope over the falls twice each day. Other must-visits: 303 Rainbow Boulevard; (716) 282-4046. Open daily in summer 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Admission is free.This museum features exhibits on the people who have challenged Niagara Falls, and has a collection of barrels, giant rubber balls and other devices used by the daredevils.  Journey Behind the Falls, 6650 Niagara Parkway.  (905) 356-2241. Admission is $12 for adults and $7.20 for kids.On this guided tour, you descend in an elevator 150 feet through bedrock to tunnels leading you to the Upper and Lower Observation Decks at the foot of the falls behind the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Here, you can stand in the falls’ mist and see one-fifth of the world’s fresh water crashing from 13 stories above you. During the winter, the mist from the falls freezes in ice formations.Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, (716) 278-0820The Niagara Gorge Discovery Center offers self- and naturalist-guided walks into the gorge. The guided walks range from one to three hours and cost $1 to $4 dollars. The guides will discuss how the falls were formed, geology, flora and fauna, local history and much more.

Over-the-top options:

Niagara Helicopters Limited, 3731 Victoria Ave. (905) 357-5672The Niagara Helicopters Limited tour follows the Niagara River from the Whirlpool area and flies over the Whirlpool Rapids and the Rainbow Bridge. You will see Queen Victoria Park, the American Falls and the Skylon Tower. The helicopter also follows the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, where you will see many rainbows appear and disappear. Tickets are about $100 per person.Niagara Helicopters also offers flights to several different wineries in the area. One of their tours flies over Niagara Falls and to the Peller Estates, which boasts a European-style chateau and a five-star restaurant. They offer free tours and wine tastings; the flight costs about $240 per person.The Embassy Suite’s Fallsview Room. Imagine sitting in a Jacuzzi with a glass of champagne in your hand, overlooking the falls and seeing bursts of fireworks. The rates for this room start at about $335Best time to visit
Not surprisingly, summer is busiest time of year, but it is also when all of the attractions are running. All water attractions are closed in late fall and winter, but during winter, the mist that rises above the falls freezes on the trees, and this is truly a spectacular sight. And one final note: Please leave your barrel at home!

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at .