These days, it's quite fashionable to joke around about Niagara Falls – almost as much as it used to be to honeymoon there. And there's so much material, starting with the crass commercialism of the overdeveloped Canadian side and moving onto the depressing failure that is the city on the American end of the Rainbow Bridge. Look too close at what's happening just beyond the mist and you might find yourself wishing you'd stayed home.
Truth is, we Americans used to like Niagara Falls a great deal more than we do now, but the falls have always had their detractors. Way back in the 1800s, author Oscar Wilde famously knocked Niagara Falls as "a vast amount of a water going the wrong way over some unnecessary rocks," going on to suggest that the sight of the falls must be "one of the earliest and keenest disappointments in American married life."
Sure, it's crowded down there. Sure, there's a lot of unnecessary – and sometimes depressing – development surrounding what remains, no matter what anyone says, one of the continent's most impressive natural sights. But the falls themselves are just the beginning of a proper visit to the region, which happens to be one of the most beautiful places in the Northeast, particularly during the summer months. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. This is one of the top wine regions east of the Rockies.
Break free from the crowds on Clifton Hill and you'll soon be on the back roads of Ontario's Niagara Peninsula, tasting very good wines in an atmosphere that's about as perfect as you can find in an eastern wine country. From vibe to scenery to food to wine quality – no, really, some of it is terrific – to nice places to stay, the Niagara hits pretty much all the high notes. Cross the gorge back into New York (make sure to bring your passport, or they won't let you back in from Canada) and you'll find a similar geographic setup that favors grape-growing. Some of the thirteen wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail need a few years (or perhaps a change in ownership) before they're ready for primetime, but some – Arrowhead Springs, for example –shouldn't be missed.
2. One of the continent's best theater festivals is held here, too.
Think the wine’s good? Check out the theater. Sorry, theatre. Drawing on a pool of top talent from nearby Toronto (not to mention beyond), the region’s annual Shaw Festival, which takes over four unique venues in the Ontario village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, is worth the trip alone for its astonishingly good executions of Broadway favorites and thought-provoking smaller productions. Fired up more than 50 years ago to celebrate the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the festival has evolved into one of the best cultural wingdings in North America, with a little something to please everyone, from big-ticket productions of crowd pleasing musicals (Cabaret) to popular plays (The Philadelphia Story) to some excellent, more obscure stuff. Not to mention a couple of Shaw standards (Arms and The Man, The Philanderer). Tickets are quite reasonable too, starting at $32. On the American side, the crowd-pleasing Artpark, an outdoor amphitheater on the riverfront, offers a summer-long immersion in all sorts of music (Morrissey, Glenn Miller Orchestra, Arctic Monkeys) and a musical (Mary Poppins), not to mention nights under the stars with the Buffalo Philharmonic, which makes Artpark its summer home.
3. Minutes from the falls, there's small-town charm in spades.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the river meets Lake Ontario, is one of the nicest small towns you'll find in Canada. A favorite of the Toronto crowd – think Hamptons, but more toned down – this is about as far as you can get from the Vegas-esque scene down by the falls. Hard to believe you're barely half an hour away. Across the river, Lewiston, New York is a less-discovered gem, offering similar charm at a much more affordable price. To really hide out, the historic villages of Queenston, Ontario and Youngstown, New York are barely on the radar, but no less charming. And that's exactly how the people who live there like it.
4. Buffalo is big on summer.
The architecture is outstanding, starting with not one, but a whole handful of Frank Lloyd Wright homes. Cultural institutions like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Burchfield Penney Art Center make this an anytime destination for art lovers. In summer, though, Buffalo becomes party central. There's the Garden Festival (June 21-August 2), celebrating one of Buffalo's premier passions; this climaxes in the popular Garden Walk (July 26-27). Also kicking off in June is the Shakespeare in Delaware Park event, which brings two of the Bard's tales – Henry V and The Comedy of Errors – to the stage for limited runs (June 19-August 17). Finally, sending the season out with a bang, you have the National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival (August 30-31), featuring all sorts of insanity, from a Miss Buffalo Wing Pageant to multiple competitive eating events. Because the only thing better than eating a buffalo wing is eating a lot of buffalo wings, right?
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