After the initial excitement of their first Trans Atlantic flight had died down, and the customary jet lag laid to rest, the parents declared the number 1 destination they wanted to visit – Niagara Falls! Yup, there is something about a place that ensures it is on everyone’s bucket list. With the proliferation of tour operators like Kesari, SOTC etc. back home, people are bombarded with ads about international tours. Glimpse enough of these and the names stand out. So America means Statue of Liberty, Disney and Niagara Falls. Never mind that there are tons of places more scenic in the United States. Truly there are. But a certain place assumes gargantuan importance when someone you know visits it, vouches for it, and says, “Going to the US? Don’t come back without seeing Niagara Falls.”
I think something similar happened with my folks too and they were really anxious about getting to the Falls. People who have never been to the US don’t realize that it is a BIG country. Much bigger than India. And almost every state boasts of a national park or monument and some historic or scenic attraction. When someone visits, the time is limited and so are resources, both time and money wise. If I had to choose a place for my folks to see, it would be the Grand Canyon. I somehow never visited the Falls myself and was content to see them in movies and sitcoms. But the line had been drawn and plans had to be made.
Niagara Falls close down shortly after Labor Day and then reopen only in the late spring. A date in October was fixed for the visit and plans were made. Given that there were four of us, a road trip was unanimously agreed to. This would also be a chance for them to see the country at close quarters. So a rental car was reserved, hotels were booked and the day dawned.
I am always anxious while picking up a rental. It’s because I only prefer certain models and makes. I end up having to upgrade many a time just because I don’t like what’s on offer. The car rental, with their weird policy of reserving a car, but not really keeping one for you (remember that Seinfeld episode where Jerry tries to pick up a car at the airport?) offered me a Mini Cooper. I don’t care how popular they are, but I hate Mini Coopers. And it was a definite deal breaker for so many adults on a long road trip. I finally ended up with a Chrysler 3000 which really wasn’t my choice either. It has small windows and really low slung seats, so only your neck comes above the glass when you look out. Couple that with a slight steering alignment problem and it was enough to put me in a grumpy mood.
We started off and drove around in the city first, trying to switch the car at a couple of other locations, but it was not to be. That put a sort of damper on the whole thing. The sunny day had chilly winds – typical Fall weather for Virginia, and we fortified ourselves with a meal at Chipotle before finally hitting the Interstate.
Niagara Falls is about 600 miles from Richmond, and I suppose it is possible to do it in one lap. But considering that we had precious cargo, we chose to stop over in Erie for the night. The drive up to there was through a high traffic zone through DC and then Maryland. We hit the Penna Turnpike which is also quite heavy on traffic. There are very few exits once you hit the turnpike so it is a bottleneck. The Penna turnpike has rest areas or rest zones with some good food options with joints like Subway and Sbarro’s which mean you will eat well. Since there are no other exits, almost everyone stops here.
We skirted the city of Pittsburgh and finally reached Erie late at night. I was glad to have bookings at the local Marriott which provided a comfortable bed. By this time, we were exhausted and called it a day.
The Erie, PA area itself actually has a lot to offer tourists. Lake Erie needs no introduction, being one of the five great lakes. But our target was Niagara Falls, so after a quick and hearty breakfast at the hotel, we set off. We reached Niagara Falls in the early afternoon and barely made the final trip of the Maid of the Mist.
The Maid of the Mist is a boat that takes people really really close to the Falls. It’s a very exciting ride indeed. As the Falls come closer, all you can hear is the sound of the rushing water. And you get drenched with the spray, hence the raincoats. There is a point where the Falls loom over you and you can’t help but be awed by their majesty. This is a spellbinding moment, where not a single errant thought will enter your mind. All you can do, and should do, is gaze at the mighty Niagara Falls with rapt attention. The Maid of the Mist ride is over too soon and before you know it, you are stepping off the dock.
Niagara Falls can also be seen from Toronto which is just across the Canadian border. The horseshoe shape of the Falls is said to look more beautiful from the Canadian side. The US -Canada border at the Falls is a very busy one, and you can see the Toronto skyline from the Niagara Park.
Another attraction at Niagara Falls is the Caves of the Winds. This requires climbing up wet areas and is slightly inaccessible, or rather, not easily accessible. As dusk approaches, people start queuing up at the observation deck for watching the lights show. The Niagara Falls are lit up with different colors that vary according to the music. This show lasts for quite a while and is a must. The observation deck is a nice place to be. You can see over yonder at Canada and Toronto.
If you are planning a trip to Niagara Falls, be sure to factor in time for seeing the Falls at night. There is a theatre that shows a movie about the Falls, but it was so crowded that we were not allowed entry. So buying the complete Pass didn’t really prove to be useful for us.
After having our fill of the spectacular Niagara Falls, we had a memorable dinner at TGI Friday’s. The new green bean fries were such a hit that we ate 3 servings of them. Back to the hotel, we realized that it exceeded our expectations! I had heard about the Indigo which is a different kind of hotel, and seen photos on the web, but I wasn’t prepared for the real thing.
The Indigo Hotel has a modern feel and a bathroom with abundant glass fixtures and enclosures. The rooms are done up in bold colors. Shades of blue on the walls contrast with snow white sheets, red coverlets, and boldly striped pillows. A flat panel wall mounted TV completes the whole modern motif.
We took a tour of the hotel in the morning after a leisurely breakfast. Stunning artwork, a pool to relax by and a gym make the hotel a place where you can easily spend a day. But we had to check out soon. So with a heavy heart, we packed up, loaded the car and set off. Upstate New York was colder and a spicy and quick lunch was called for. Taco Bell provided the perfect fix with enough Fire Sauce.
On the way back, we visited the Pittsburgh Hindu temple. Temple lovers almost always like to visit here when they come to the US. We were more taken with the Udipi Cafe at the foothills of Penn Hills. The Udipi Café has some of the best South Indian food I have eaten anywhere. Certainly the best in the US and possibly even in India. It is a small unpretentious place that is easy to miss. The food is hot, plentiful and just right. It was a hit with our visitors from home who were excited to eat something Indian after 2-3 days on the road.
After a 7 hour ride with multiple stops, we finally entered Richmond late at night. The parents checked Niagara Falls off their list, and I heaved a sigh of relief after successfully traversing some 1500 miles in a car with bad steering.
Go there first or last, but Niagara Falls is a must see in your lifetime.