What to See and What to Skip in Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls appeals equally to thrill-seekers craving natural wonder, lovers looking for a memorable proposal spot and gamers hunting for a little luck. It's also -- because of the way it hugs our northern border -- one of the closest international getaways (yes, you will need your passport to get from New York to the other side).

And thanks to some of the most aggressive pricing and creative marketing in the industry, it's become a major value-travel proposition in 2013, too. Getting up close and personal with the breathtaking Falls is a must, but these unique activities will easily enhance any Niagara getaway.

Do the Lake, Skip the Falls

OK, if you're headed this way, it's the Falls you want to see. But if you can spare an afternoon or, even better, an overnight stay, do the 15-minute drive to beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake. Located on the south shore of Lake Ontario and at the mouth of the Niagara River, this quaint Canadian town is full of history: Once an Indian village, it became a haven for Loyalists after the Revolutionary War and then an important battleground during the War of 1812.

Today, it's teeming with charm and is home to antique shops, upscale restaurants and wine tasting rooms. Accommodations range from comfy B&Bs to upscale boutique hotels, like the Shaw Club and The Harbour House. Stroll the tree-lined streets in a horse-drawn carriage, stop by Kurtz Orchards for some of their world-famous estate-produced jellies and jams, and, in the summer, soak in some culture at the Shaw Festival.

Sip the Wine, Skip the Cocktail

The cocktails they're doling out at the casino can be mundane. What has become truly unique in this region is the burgeoning wine industry, which welcomes visitors year-round. Indeed, while the peak of winter keeps other wine regions dormant, it sees Niagara's Ice wine harvest in full swing; the grapes that produce the delectably popular beverage must be picked when the mercury drops below 17 degrees, which means picking in January. The unique micro-climates here, along with varying limestone and gravel soils, also allow for the quality growth of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Syrah. The Niagara Wine Trail USA is located minutes from Niagara Falls and Buffalo.

Do the Trails, Leave the Water

Being on the water is a great way to appreciate the grandeur of the Falls. But hiking its surrounding landscape can offer an equally stunning perspective. The Discovery Center, located inside Niagara Falls State Park, offers four guided hikes with varying degrees of difficulty. The hikes offer sweeping views of Niagara River Gorge, last less than two hours and cost less than $5.

Tour by Air, Forget the Boat

There's a bevy of on-the-water tour options in Niagara Falls, from open-air to turbo-powered; if you get a kick from getting sprayed, then a boat awaits you. But touring the Falls by air is a wonderful way to get a real appreciation for its breadth, grandeur and power. There are a couple of helicopter companies that run tours daily, weather permitting. Niagara Helicopter Rides operates five Bell 407 choppers that, with a capacity of only six passengers, can offer a uniquely personal ride in the sky.

Take the Kids, Skip the Casino

For thousands of visitors, action on the casino floor can rival the drama of the Falls. But if you're traveling with the kids, casinos won't be on your itinerary, so you'll be glad these creature-friendly destinations are close by. At the Aquarium of Niagara, watch penguin and shark feedings throughout the day and, for a nominal fee, feed Pacific and Atlantic harbor seals yourself; the sea lions get plenty of attention during their daily shows inside the 100,000-gallon pool. And at the Butterfly Conservatory inside the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, "ooh" and "ahh" as more than 2,000 exotic butterflies flap daintily through a tropical rainforest setting.

Revisit History, Appreciate the Falls

A greater appreciation for the significance of the Niagara Falls area in America's timeline can be found by visiting some of its many historical outposts. Take Lewiston, N.Y., where the Falls started about 12,000 years ago, before their sheer power eroded southward through solid rock. This is also where the cocktail was purportedly invented (by a pub owner who used the tail feather of a male bird, or cockerel, to stir a gin-based blend) and where, in the mid-1800s, many freedom-seeking slaves found the very last stop on the famous Underground Railroad.

History buffs will also want to travel the 13 miles from the Falls to Old Fort Niagara, in Youngstown, N.Y. This fort played a key role in the attempts by French, British and U.S. forces to take control of the Great Lakes area in the 1700s and 1800s; today, it features historical fortifications and archaeological collections. Just like parts of Lewiston, Old Fort Niagara has been designated a National Historical Landmark.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which selected Niagara Falls as one of its Top 5 WOW deal Destinations for 2013. For deals on Niagara Falls hotels, vacations and activities, check this out.

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