Hello Friends! Recently, I had the great opportunity to visit the Niagara Falls region of New York State, and experience first-hand the great changes and possibilities building in the region.
This article – which first appeared in Rochester Woman Magazine – will peak your interest in rediscovering the domestic side of the falls.
What’s New in Niagara?
A Fresh Perspective on the Falls
If you’ve lived in western New York for any period of time, undoubtedly you’ve hosted guests who dream of visiting our area’s natural wonder – Niagara Falls. And many of us can admit that we’ve advised those out-of-towners, in a manner locals often do, to skip the American side and head right to Canada.
Since the 1970’s, our side of falls has developed a non-so-flattering reputation of aged attractions, lackluster hotels, declining population, and crime that we’ve all come to perpetuate in conversation. But given some recent changes and upcoming development to the region, I encourage you to rethink your travel advice. It’s time to give Niagara USA a second chance.
Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls collectively form the Niagara Falls. The powerful, 167-foot high waterfalls are a sight that attracts millions every year.
The best place to get up close to the river, its rapids, and the falls is Niagara Falls State Park – the oldest state park in the United States. Founded in 1885, the park encompasses a 435-acre area and attracts some 8-million visitors annually.
Here, you’ll wander through walkways and vista points, including parkland along the Niagara River, the gorge, and numerous islands. The largest island, Goat Island, connects to the main land via a pedestrian bridge and a road bridge. From Terrapin Point – a small extension of land beyond the river at Horseshoe Falls – you can ogle over some of the best views in the region.
Now in a 25-million dollar rehabilitation and revitalization project, this park is a great place for a hike, bird watching, and photographing. The project includes new walkways and railings, updates to the Prospect Point observation tower high above the American Falls, new park buildings, and fresh landscaping. One of the construction goals is to return the park to the original vision of famed landscape designers Frederick Law Olmstead and his colleague, Calvert Vaux. Indigenous plants will be added, and invasive species are being removed to bring the park back to the late 1800s topography.
One area, Three Sisters Islands, is complete – and it’s stunning. Here, you’ll get as close as possible to the Canadian rapids on the Niagara River. It’s an oasis of nature amidst a developed area – its quiet, scenic, and you’re almost guaranteed to spot numerous waterfowl species, including rare peregrine falcons and bald eagles. The Islands are the hidden gem of this impressive park.
The changing seasons offer fresh perspectives on the falls and the landscape. In winter, the frozen mist settles on the trees and the grass, sparkling in the sunshine. In summer, gardens bloom and the mist feels cooling and refreshing. No mater the season, you’re sure to see a rainbow. And by completion in 2015, you’re sure to be impressed with the updates at this beautiful park.
As you head north from Niagara Falls State Park, you’ll find four more state parks all within the Niagara region. The 7-mile stretch of parks along the gorge offers miles of hiking trails for all skill levels – with scenic views at every turn. Some trails bring you down into the gorge – including the Whirlpool Rapids Trail, skirting past the dangerous, swirling rapids just a few miles north of the falls.
The river and gorge region are also well known for the fishing opportunities. There are charter boats available, and the lower Niagara is a known spot for Autumn salmon fishing.
The Niagara region is upping its interest in culinary passion, including a more recent focus on the popular farm-to-table movement.
In downtown Niagara Falls, the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is training students for careers ranging from culinary arts to wine management, tourism and more. The school, opened in 2010, completely transformed a portion of the former Rainbow Center Mall on Old Falls Street into a 90,000 square foot facility.
Lunch here is a real treat. At Savor – the school’s main restaurant – students prep and serve a seasonal menu. Try the salmon cake, with dill sour cream and hard boiled egg on a baguette – you’ll be glad you did – delicious. The school also houses a deli, a patisserie, and their own culinary-themed Barnes and Noble bookstore.
Just north up the Robert Moses Parkway you’ll find Lewiston, NY – a charming village of small shops and unique dining.
At Carmelo’s on Center Street, Chef Carmelo Raimondi serves up authentic Italian. The 16-table dining room is romantic and cozy. Just up the street, the DiCamillo family continues a tradition of baking that began at their first location in Niagara Falls in 1920. The charming shop offers breads, pastry, cookies and more – you can’t help but leave with bags of goodies. And good news – they ship!
In the summertime, you can’t come to Lewiston without experiencing The Silo – and bring a friend! You’ll need two people to down one of their famous “haystack” sandwiches; high-piled ribeye steak loaded with mozzarella cheese and topped with crispy hashbrown strings. Whoa.
The Niagara Region is also bringing farm to bottle, with the opening of more and more wineries as part of the established Niagara Wine Trail. Now 22 members strong, the trail extends from the Falls into Monroe County – and offers tastings, tours, and special events.
At Leonard Oakes winery in Medina, 4th generation farm owner/operators are bringing the best fruits from the farm and creating some incredible beverages. Winemaker Jonathan Oakes has a real passion for creating products that reflect the region’s culinary history and culture. With the Steampunk cider, they’re using a variety of apples, all grown on their farm. The Eloquence Cider includes a hint of quince – a fruit with a long history of cultivation in the Niagara and Genesee Valley regions of New York State. The results are crisp and refreshing, and are gaining the winery national accolades.
Oakes is also proud of their ice wine – and he should be. The Vidal Blanc holds it’s own compared to the famed Canadian producers. The thick syrupy sweetness made from grapes frozen on the vine is a truly unique and delicious experience. The entire crop must be harvested under very specific temperature conditions, and then pressed to create a concentrated and sweet wine, resulting in a very limited annual yield. New York State – which was recently named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine – is just one of a few regions in the world that can produce such a treasure.
There’s dozens of family-friendly activities in the Niagara Region to choose from. Two attractions deserve your interest – the Aquarium and Old Fort Niagara; one for renovations to come, the other for the renovations that saved it in the first place.
The Aquarium of Niagara opened in 1965 just a few miles from the American Falls. Its unique retro round façade is showing its age. Inside, there are some great – if small – exhibits on tropical fish and sharks. But starting this year, work on a multi-million dollar refurbishment will include a new 1600 square-foot penguin exhibit, more interactive displays, and a sculpture garden. The staff is also teaming up with the state DEC for a new Lake Ontario themed exhibit as part of a Genesee River Lake Sturgeon restoration project. The Aquarium will raise fingerlings (young) for later repopulation efforts. Drawings of the completed renovations are intriguing.
In the meantime, the best reason to make a visit to the Aquarium is to experience the sea lion demonstrations. Multiple times daily, trainer and animal companions present live shows in a large round stage area. The show will wow you with their athletic interactions and synchronized swimming and diving. The connection between animal and trainer is magical. And here’s a fun fact: did you know that a sea lion can outrun a human on land?
For more trivia tidbits – and a history lesson – head to Old Fort Niagara, at the northernmost point of the Niagara River.
On October 13, 1812, the United States invaded Canada for what would become the first major battle of the war of 1812. Fort Niagara exchanged fire with Fort George – located just across the river in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. This notable battle is just part of the lengthy military history of this fort. The flags for three nations have flown here beginning with the French at the start of the French and Indian War, then the British, then the United States – who used the fort in some fashion right up until 1963.
During the 20th century, a pubic-private partnership saved the historic buildings, and they were restored to their original form – including the 300-year-old French Castle. The stately and imposing stone structure depicts early officers quarters.
Old Fort Niagara holds special events all year, including re-enactments and candlelight tours. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet Will Emerson – an incredibly enthusiastic and realistic re-enactor. He’s got a real knack for making his audience laugh and a way of drawing you in to the history of his story as a French Soldier. On a blustery winter day, as the sun sets on a lonely Lake Ontario, his musket firing demo really brings to life what soldiers must have felt hundreds of years earlier.
Shopping and more
On your way in to the city, swing by the newly expanded Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls. Following an opening in October, there’re now 200 stores – making it one of the largest outlets in the country.
Closer to the falls, the former Rainbow Center Mall is set to be transformed into a mixed-use retail and hotel space, including plans for an indoor waterpark.
And nearby, Third Street – home to local favorite restaurant Wine on Third – is poised to attract new business. Recent street renovations included wider sidewalks and plantings, and there’s a rumor of a specialty soap maker and a handmade bowtie boutique moving in soon.
People and Perspectives
The city has a relatively new mayor, and as of this past election, new faces on the city council – and there’s a feeling here of more cooperation and a collective effort of revitalization. There’s even a program in place to keep recent college grads in town by helping to pay down student debt if they agree to live within a designated city zone.
A refurbished city takes investment, innovation, and time. Prosperity also takes people, and that’s where you come in. Take the 1.5-hour scenic drive west and see what’s new in Niagara USA.
The Giacomo Hotel opened in 2010 in the art deco-style United Office Building. The hotel has 39 rooms, a first-floor lounge, breakfast room, top-floor lounge and lively room décor.
The Red Coach Inn has been welcoming guests since 1923 to this English Tudor styled hotel. It’s located very close to the falls, and some suites have full kitchens.
The Barton Hill Hotel, in nearby Lewiston, features four-poster beds, fireplace suites and a spa for pampering. It’s a short walk to the riverfront or the village.
Eight new hotels are expected to open in the city of Niagara Falls in 2015!
For more information, check out Niagara USA