Wondering how the New York and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls measure up? Here's our report card.
1. Falls and Views
Even the famous walls of water have a split personality. Both Canada's huge Horseshoe Falls and the smaller American Falls (which includes wispy Bridal Veil) make mist. Both pound rocks with falling fish and everyday explosive sound. But though equally tall -- each drops the Niagara River about 170 feet -- almost 90 percent of the total water volume flows over the wider Canadian end.
Asked if this statistic makes her slightly jealous, New York state park ranger Jess Alarie says no. "What's water volume," asks Alarie, "when you're around so much beauty? We think you can get closer to the falls on our side. There's a saying that on the Canadian side you see the falls, on the U.S. side you feel them."
Walkways and viewing stations on both sides let you get right up to the edge and feel plenty of spray, but it's clear: The better panoramic views are owned by Canada. Over there, you've got the entire sweep of the falls (including the American Falls, which is hard to see from the U.S. side) and a long parklike pathway to work on catching the light just right for a rainbow down below.
Visitors Doug and Marty Willsie of Durham, Ontario, believe the comparison is a no-brainer. "Who has the better view?" says Doug. "Unless you cross over, you Americans can't see your own falls, can you?"
Canadian side: A+
American side: B
2. Water-Related Fun
Up for a whirlpool jet boat ride through churning rapids near the falls? Both sides offer this adventure (splash gear and footwear provided) along with helicopter flights and the old but still cool Maid of the Mist boat trip that takes you right into the rinse cycle at the bottom of Horseshoe Falls.
But when it comes to falls-based activities, one key Canada-vs.-United States difference is this: Getting behind -- and under -- the tumbling water means choosing between the American Cave of the Winds attraction and the Journey Behind the Falls experience on the other shore.
Plan on taking Canada's Journey? Bring your miner's helmet and lamp. It's a long way down into this muskrat's warren of dim, drippy tunnels behind Horseshoe Falls. Plus there's a claustrophobic wait in a line that snakes down stairwells and through interior rooms. An outdoor platform next to the falls is hurricane-force fun, but unless you like gray mist, skip the portals that are supposed to let you "look" behind the falls. A rain poncho is provided, but I needed Paddington-style galoshes in all the puddles.
As for "Cave of the Winds," a big plus is that you're issued not just a poncho but also non-slip sandals that you can keep as a souvenir. On the other hand, sorry to be picky, but well, where's the cave? No one tells you these things, but the namesake of this attraction collapsed in 1920. What's left is a series of boardwalks and stairways at the base of Bridal Veil, including a next-to-the-falls wet deck where you can take a powerful shower.
Sometimes this experience includes being hit by a fish. According to Danielle Lutz, a visitor from Newfane, N.Y., "I was standing here and saw something shiny and silvery coming over [the falls]. Next thing I knew, a fish landed on my shoulder. I can't remember what kind it was, but one of the guys on my tour cut its head off and filleted it."
Canadian side: C+
American side: B+
Canada has bet the house on this category, with not one but two glitzy venues full of table games, slots and all the trimmings. Casino Niagara is the more humdrum -- it's right in town and near most of the big hotels, but it has such a maze of slot machines that you'll have a tough time navigating. Come to think of it, that's clever planning on their part, not a mistake. Bigger and much glossier, with an attached luxury hotel, spa and mall, Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort refers to itself as a "world-class gaming destination." This is probably not hyperbole. Among other fancy perks, there's a slightly funereal-looking wedding chapel flanked with dressing rooms for brides and grooms, and a Salon Privee area where ultra-high rollers can keep away from the bleep-bleep of the slots. Table games here require a minimum $100 Canadian ($84 U.S.) bets, and though it's not quite Monte Carlo, you might spot someone wearing diamonds or dressed in a tux.
On the U.S. side, one of the best things about the Seneca Niagara Casino is that the design, the lighting and the arrowhead stained-glass mural arching over the doors all are in startlingly good taste. Forget Foxwoods, the ugly granddaddy of Northeast mega-casinos. This place has the nighttime glow, polished wood and pastel colors of a pavilion at a yet-to-be-imagined World's Fair. It's got nothing on Fallsview when it comes to chic restaurants and jet-set boutiques, but unlike the Canadian side, if you're gambling, cocktails are free. Give me a double shot and pass the bucket of quarters.
Canadian side: A
American side: B-
4. Beyond the Falls
First impressions of the U.S. side can be a bit misleading. You run into rows of motels, neon signs for attractions like "Club Joey" and "Empire Billiards," and above it all, a strange blank helium balloon that looks like it's Army surplus from an ad in a comic book.
The balloon turns out to be a helium-powered ride called Flight of Angels that floats you up and down on a tethered cable for 400-foot-high vistas of the town and falls. And despite the honky-tonk, this town has some things worth seeing.
Don't like heights? Get a thrill by proxy at the combo Trailways bus station/convenience store/Daredevil Museum, where there are rock-dented barrels that, along with their riders, have survived the falls. The first barrel daredevil to go over and live -- a local teacher named Annie Edison Taylor, in 1901 -- eventually died (in 1921) of natural causes, and you can check out her headstone at Oakwood Cemetery in town. There's also a Little Italy district that, though not a rival to New York's, has interesting Italian specialty markets and a superb local bakery, Di Camillo's.
Tell someone you've been to the Canadian side and they'll want to know: Did you see the Floral Clock? This 40-feet-in-diameter working device claims to be one of the largest in the world; it makes time artistic thanks to the efforts of 20,000 tiny flowers. Only the Canadians could pull this off. Their master gardeners get out on ladders to weed it weekly.
Despite the clock and several pretty parks, Niagara, Canada, is no tea-and-biscuit destination. It's more like an arcade. Among many other theme-park-style amusements, there's an Imax theater with a special Niagara Falls show ("Live like a daredevil from the edge of your seat!"), Marineland Canada, the Butterfly Conservatory and the Skylon Tower (like Toronto's CN Tower) for views. According to Lauren Albrecht of the Niagara (N.Y.) Tourism and Convention Corp., development in Canada may be getting out of hand. "They've built so many towers, hotels and other things that it's changed the way the mist goes. The wind currents are different."
Still, you can fill up a week or more over there, and all this stuff keeps picky kids or teenagers from complaining. Especially neat is the Niagara Falls Aviary -- Birds of the Lost Kingdom, which claims to be the world's biggest indoor aviary. It's not clear what lost kingdom these birds are supposed to come from, but no big deal. More than 300 of them flit around and perch in 50,000 square feet of potted tropical rain forest. And you're allowed to feed them -- well, at least the rainbow lorikeets and one or two other species that don't bite.
Canadian side: A+
American side: B-
5. Eats and Sleeps
Not surprisingly, the Canadian side has its share of big, touristy hotels. In most cases, these seem to be pleasant and well run (this is Canada, after all). The Sheraton on the Falls is a famous example, with its perch right across from the American Falls and a buffet restaurant where you can look out at the nighttime colored lights that tint the mist and spray. Though it has a four-diamond rating from the Canadian Automobile Association, the floors and rooms vary widely in quality (some may be slated for bus tours), so if you don't like your room, ask for something better. More interesting than any hotel is the Chestnut Inn Bed & Breakfast along River Road, overlooking the rushing water near the falls. It's a historic house with fireplaces, private baths, a terrace and a dining room with French doors.
The American side has some B&Bs that are nearly as good, including Elizabeth House Bed & Breakfast on Buffalo Avenue, with its charming 1922 house, near-the-state-park location and hearty breakfast. "When the sandman departs," notes the Web page, "guests come together in the dining room." It's not a B&B, but the family-run Moonlite Motel on Niagara Falls Boulevard is bargain-priced, scrupulously clean and (bonus) has a sunset-colored neon sign.
The big star on the U.S. side is the Red Coach Inn on Buffalo Avenue, a small historic hotel overlooking the rapids close to the falls. A copy of an inn in Finedon, England, the Tudor-style Red Coach has been in business since 1923. Things are a bit dark inside, with all the antiques and mullioned windows, but you can see well enough to drink the free champagne and eat the fruit and cheese you receive on check-in.
Applebee's, Denny's, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Wolfgang Puck's: If it's a chain, the Canadian side's got it. But if you're after local tastes, you may find yourself out of luck. The small and unpretentious After Hours Bistro on Victoria Avenue isn't a bad choice, despite a boring slate of mostly Italian entrees. Instead of the usual sludge, the carbonara sauce is a nice, light mix of bacon, white wine, green peppercorns, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Also worth a try is Carpaccio Restaurant & Wine Bar on Lundy's Lane, which offers "contemporary Italian sophistication with just a hint of Californian flair." Just a hint, mind you. The Carpaccio di Manzo Classico with organic greens, mushrooms, shaved Parmesan and lemon is pretty good.
On the U.S. side, the restaurant at the Red Coach Inn has three AAA diamonds for its menu of steaks and seafood -- though hopefully nothing from the still-industrial Niagara River. An eatery with a chic, bright interior and a view of Horseshoe Falls from every seat, Top of the Falls Restaurant at Terrapin Point on Goat Island is a real treat. Among other creative dishes are cedar-plank-roasted steelhead with lemon chive oil, and Oneida corn chowder that's jazzed up with wild rice and venison.
Maybe best of all, Niagara Falls, N.Y., is the kind of town that has good, charbroiled hot dogs and traditional soft ice cream. It's also got pizza -- the New York kind, with a thin floppy crust and a bubbly, sometimes cratered top. Go to La Hacienda Restaurant on Pine Avenue for the pizza. La Hacienda? No one can explain the Spanish name, nor the Mexican gaucho paintings and design. But locals swear by its fully Italian pizza and pasta. For ice cream (and hot dogs at its sister stand next door) try Twist o' the Mist on Niagara Street. Even if it's extremely misty, you will find it. Look for the twisty vanilla roof and cherry on top.
Canadian side: B-
American side: B
And the Winner Is . . .
Canada wins a Golden Barrel for Niagara's best overall side. It's tough to compete with Ontario's sweeping views of the water, mighty casinos, clever flower designs and theme-park-caliber array of things to do.
But don't dismiss Niagara Falls, N.Y. Rather than being down-at-the-heels, as some people suspect, it's up-and-coming with cool neighborhoods, homestyle Italian cooking, and cheerful family-run stores and motels instead of the usual chains.
Big-time fun. Small-city charm. Whichever you choose, reserve early.
And keep an eye out for falling fish.
For a photo gallery with additional images of the Niagara Falls area, go to www.washington post.com/travel.
Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel on suiting up as a theme park character.