A visit to Niagara Falls USA

Matt Roche • Updated Oct 15, 2016 at 7:14 PM

My wife, Jodie, and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary.

We were married Aug. 3, 1996 and honeymooned in early October of that year, taking an East Coast cruise that included stops in Rhode Island, Maine and Nova Scotia before returning to New York City.

So to celebrate our 20th, we decided to take another early October trip that would include water, beautiful scenery and the onset of fall foliage. We went to Niagara Falls.

Whereas Jodie has fond memories of several childhood trips there, my only visit to Niagara Falls happened in 2010 when we vacationed with our three girls (we now have four). And other than a brief stop at the state park in New York, we spent the bulk of our time on the Canadian side, visiting the many shops, restaurants and falls-related attractions on and around Clifton Hill.

This time, Jodie and I chose to stay and play on the American side. And we left our girls with Jodie’s parents. The drive from Norwalk isn’t bad, about 4 1/2 hours without any stops.

For accommodations, we picked The Giacomo (pronounced “JA-come-o”; Italian form of James)— a luxurious hotel that offers European decor rooms with modern amenities and a panoramic view of Niagara Falls State Park, upper Niagara Rapids and the Canadian city skyline.

Our spacious, fifth-floor corner room included three windows on each exterior wall as well as a fireplace and jacuzzi tub.

Complimentary breakfast included scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, pancakes and more. The hotel also offers free valet parking, another plus since the falls and other attractions are a short walk away. The neighboring Quality Inn charges its guests $20 per night for parking.

And as an added bonus, the hotel delivers complimentary chocolate truffles, fresh-baked cookies and milk to the room every night. Our room also had a Keurig, which Jodie especially enjoyed when making her coffee. The staff seemed genuine, kind and polite.

The hotel, formerly the United Office Building built in 1929, features Art Deco architecture blended with Mayan revival motif. The lower floors are hotel rooms, while the upper floors are apartments. From a distance, there is a faint resemblance to The Tower of Terror ride at Disney World. But we never experienced any elevator issues going to or from our room.

The Giacomo is located across the street from the famous Hotel Niagara, where Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities stayed over the years. After several ownership changes, the building became rundown and closed in 2007. Earlier this year, however, the New York State-run USA Niagara Development Corporation purchased the property and a developer is being sought so the 12-story Classical Revival building can be restored.

Because we splurged on the hotel, we sought affordable (as in free or very cheap) entertainment and recreation options.

We kept it simple the first night, visiting the falls and eating at a sandwich shop before returning to the hotel. If you go after 5 p.m., there is no charge to go out on the observation deck near the Maid of the Mist entrance — a great spot for picture-taking.

After breakfast on our second day, we took a drive to a pair of canal towns, each offering shopping and dinning opportunities amid quaint surrounds.

In Lockport, we visited Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises, where you can travel the Erie Canal. The area also boasts hiking and biking trails.

In Gasport, we toured Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards, a 340-acre working fruit and vegetable farm. Jodie enjoyed sampling wines at the winery there.

On our way back, we stopped at Whirlpool State Park, where we enjoyed a short hike while taking in the beauty of Niagara Gorge, located downstream from the falls. The main attraction here is a large whirlpool at the end of the rapids where the gorge turns abruptly counterclockwise, and the river escapes through a narrow channel. This is one of many gorgeous places to walk, hike and bike in the area.

Since we still have our passport cards — a cheaper alternative to traditional passports but not valid for international air travel — we decided to walk to Canada that evening. Rainbow Bridge provides great views of both the American and horseshoe falls and allows you to do fun things like take a picture with a foot in each country.

After successfully answering a few questions from a Canadian customs official, we strolled along the walkway facing the falls, taking many pictures along the way. The bright sunlight and mist combined to create numerous rainbows. That’s something I didn’t see during my first visit, which took place during a dreary part of April.

For dinner, we picked the Secret Garden, where we enjoyed outdoor dining at a table facing the American falls. Our meals were tasty and not outrageously priced. We lingered long enough to see the sunset and the lights that illuminate the falls at night.

To return to the states, we each had to pay a 50-cent toll and survive a mild interrogation by a U.S. customs official. We felt fairly safe during our nighttime walk back to the hotel, since other tourists were out too.

Back at the hotel, from the Sky View Lounge on the 19th floor, we watched a fireworks show over the falls at eye level.

On our third and final day of the trip, we headed to the falls after breakfast, this time to tour the area near the horseshoe falls. More breathtaking views and rainbows awaited us. At the Cave of the Winds attraction, we received rain ponchos and sandals and descended 175 feet in an elevator. From there, we followed wooden walkways along the Niagara River to the Hurricane Deck, just a few feet from the torrents of the falls. We were awed — and wet — after being so close to that marvel of nature.

We finished the day by taking a ride on the Niagara Scenic Trolley before heading home.

The Cave of the Winds Tour and trolley tickets are sold separately or as part of the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass. And there are two versions of the pass — one with Maid of the Mist admission and the other without it.

The Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation at 10 Rainbow Blvd. — just a short walk from our hotel — offers literature and assistance in planning a visit. The website is www.niagara-usa.com. You also can call 1-877-FALLS-US.

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