Over the past 11 days we went on a grand adventure to Niagara Falls and Toronto for the kids first trip out of the USA. We headed out to Niagara from Huntington with a stop-over in Cleveland to visit with Lisa's parents. They too were about to embark on an adventure to the west (Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and Seattle) so it was nice to see them just before we all began our treks. From Cleveland we headed to Niagara Falls NY where Lisa had arranged for us to stay at a Bed and Breakfast right near the Niagara river (just before the falls) called the Red Coach Inn. The BnB is a sprawling building with a bunch of suites to choose from. It is also pretty expensive and not in the greatest state of repair; however it was still nice. Once we checked in we met up with my Mom and her wife Susan to begin exploring the area for a couple days. My Mom and Susan were on their own trip to celebrate their 3rd anniversary so they had arrived a couple days before us and stayed with us for about 2 full days worth of time.
That afternoon we just walked around on the American side of the falls and spent a bit of time on Goat Island before heading back to the Hotel Restaurant where we had a gift certificate we had purchased at Restaurants.com (great deal). I had Ostrich for dinner (my first time) and it was pretty good. It didn't have a bird like texture at all instead it was more like beef. After dinner we all hung out in our suite for a bit and chatted before my Mom and Susan headed back to Canada and their BnB. The next morning, around noon, we all met back up to take a trip on the Maid of the Mist and then to do a "Journey Behind the Falls" and to watch a movie about the falls. We had bought a single ticket package that would get us into four different things for a much lower cost and I would advise anyone to do the same deal. The Maid of the Mist was, to put it simply, Awesome. The wait wasn't too bad and once on board the mist really hit the spot since the temperature was over 90F (32C). The first part of the voyage takes you close to the American falls where you are lightly misted. At that point I was a little disappointed in how little mist there was. I shouldn't have been because as soon as we headed toward the Horseshoe Falls (Canadian falls) the blanket of mist grew substantially and, before I knew it, I was soaked from head to toe. I chose not to wear the provided poncho (it was too hot out) so I was really drenched and I couldn't have been happier. Eventually the ship broke through the curtain of moisture and arrived at a calm pool near the center of the horseshoe. From there the view up at the falls was extraordinary. In fact, however much the whole four event ticket cost - that view was worth it and everything else was just a bonus. As a kid we visited the falls but we couldn't afford the Maid of the Mist. I'm very glad we were able to this time around.
After disembarking from the ship we had a short bus ride (Susan's knees and ankle were in a bit of pain after all our walking) down to the "Walk Behind The Falls" attraction. We did the Canadian side events instead of the US ones so the Walk Behind the Falls is a bit different than the US version "The Cavern Of The Winds". I think the US version looked a bit more exciting because you spent more time out on the ground near the falls - but the Canadian one was pretty cool too. Before we headed outside there were two long tunnels that ended about 15 feet from the actual downfall so that we were looking at the falls from directly behind. It was cool to hear and feel the rumble from so close but it seemed disconnected from the actual falls because you had nothing to provide a frame of reference. It was just a hole in the cliffside wall about 20' in diameter so all you could see was the sheet of water. After checking out the two tunnels we headed down a third tunnel which deposited us on a two-story viewing platform. The upper deck remained surprisingly dry considering the proximity to the falls but, on the lower deck, you were hit with the full mist experience again and, before long, we were all soaked to the bone again. My Mom and Lisa both seemed to really like spending time on the lower deck and it was nice seeing them so obviously enjoying their time together.
After leaving the falls we went and watched a short movie about the formation of the falls which was, ultimately, a little dull even though it did further drench us thanks to a built in sprinkler system designed to simulate rain. After the movie we headed to a nice restaurant, Elements on the Falls Restaurant, in the same building for dinner. I had the mushroom ravioli with seafood medley which was OK but not that great. The highlights of the restaurant, however, were the view and the head chef. The view from our table was great (though a little low) and we could easily see the Canadian falls. After dinner Shannon and I were waiting for the other four to use the restroom so we were checking out the desert display. Inside were some fruit filled crepes and some kind of blueberry looking cake. I mentioned, in passing, to the chef that it was too bad the crepes weren't on the menu (they were made for a tour group) and I asked if the other thing was for a tour group too. He said it was. Shannon then asked him what the blueberry thing was and, as we expected, it was a blueberry cake. It looked very good. Shannon thanked him for the info and then he surprised her by asking if she would like to taste it. She nodded enthusiastically so he asked her to wait a moment and he headed back to the kitchen. I told her that she had to make sure to thank him for the bite he was bringing her back. About 20 seconds passed and he returned with a styrafoam to-go container and he looked a little annoyed. Then he opened the dessert display and said, "I guess I just have to give you this one there is no more left in the back" then he opened the container, placed the whole piece of cake in it and then grabbed a piping bag and squeezed some whipped creme into the container. He handed it to me and said "I put a couple crepes in there for you to, enjoy!" Shannon and I were both stunned and we thanked him for his kindness. Shannon could barely contain herself she was so happy.
Eventually the others came out of the restroom and Shannon almost exploded trying to tell everyone what had just happened. She was talking faster than she ever has before and my Mom had to ask her to slow down just so she could understand her. It was great and definitely made Shannon's day. We were all stuffed from dinner and the desert we had just had so we couldn't eat any of what he gave us until the next morning - fortunately our room had a full fridge (and kitchen) to store it in.
The next morning, our last with my Mom and Susan, took us to the "White Water Walk" which is a cool little boardwalk type trail along some class six rapids. At the beginning they didn't seem too crazy and I had thought it would be cool to have a raft or a kayak to explore them with. However, before too long we started to see why they were classified as unsafe for humans. They became amazingly turbulent and some of the dips and rises changed elevation by well over 20 feet from top to bottom I would imagine. It was pretty cool to see. After our brief tour of the rapids it was time to say farewell to my Mom and Susan and then we headed to a small city called Niagara on the Lake to walk around and have lunch before heading to Toronto for the next three days.
I had booked us a room at the Grand Hotel on Jarvis Road in Toronto. We haven't stayed overnight in Toronto before so we were just hoping for the best at a reasonable price. We ended up being very happy with the hotel. The room was pretty large and the bedroom and "living room" were pretty well divided by a short hallway and the only bathroom. The couch opened into a bed for the girls and we had a king sized bed. The room had a pretty modern "European" feel to it because it felt a little spartan and had hardwood floors. The room also had a refrigerator which was a real bonus because while we were in Toronto it was really hot. Fortunately I had brought my camel-back bladder in the backpack so we could fill it and three water bottles each night to carry around town.
On our first full day in Toronto we walked down Jarvis to Queens St East and headed west which is filled with interesting shops and specialty boutiques. We were a bit unprepared for the overall length of Queens St. but we persevered and made it all the way before stopping at a cool little hamburger joint called "Oh Boy Burger Market" where I had a tasty Buffalo burger. The waitress there was really cool and brought over some spinning barstools for the girls to sit on and play. She also gave us some scratch off instant win tickets for a Budweiser World Cup promotion. Emily's second ticket won so the lady let both girls pick out a prize from the three options; a heavy floppy hat, a Budweiser baseball cap, and a couple sticks you hit together to make noise. The girls both took the ball caps as they wanted to put their hair up due to all the heat outside. For the rest of the day they kept their beer hats on and we felt like the parents of the year.
After our walk down Queens St we headed up Spadina Ave to College St (through a bit of Chinatown) where we headed west again in order to see the Kensington Market. By this point the girls (all three of them) were pretty miserable from the heat. We walked down Augusta Ave and discovered a pleasant surprise for the girls - Bellevue Square which is a cool little neighborhood park. In the park is a big fountian/wading pool so Shannon and Emily ran right in and played for a bit to cool off. Lisa and I sat off to the side with a bunch of guys who seem to be regular's that use the park as a hangout. After about 30-40 minutes an older white guy with an aggressive demeanor showed up (the rest of the crew in the park was predominately young black men). The white guy made a not-too subtle reminder to one of the young guys (a Jamaican I'd guess) that he was indebted to the older white guy. The mood seemed to tense up a bit so we gathered the girls up and headed out of the park going to Dundas St and heading east back toward our hotel. About half way back we stopped off at a little coffee shop that sold ice-cream and had a little treat. We also swung by the large Eaton Center shopping mall. It is 3 storys tall and pretty long. We wandered around in there for a bit to help cool off before exiting via Dundas Square (sort of the Toronto Times Square) and then heading further east to reach the hotel.
After getting back to the hotel we had to find a place to eat so we headed off to the Distillery District via a long driving tour around Toronto that took us through Chinatown, Little Italy, Portugal Village, and along the waterfront via Queens Quay. Most of the Distillery District was closed by the time we reached the area (around 7 or 8 I think) but it was still a pretty cool little area. There were a bunch of neat looking shops, a collection of cool restaurants, and a neat theater that was just about to start a show when we found it. We ended up eating at the Mill Street Brewery which is a micro that brews the beer right in the restaurant. I had a really tasty, and large, chicken pot pie and I tried two of their beers; their Tankhouse Amber which was a little bitter and not really very good and their Helles Bock which I liked quite a bit. The restaurant is really big and spacious and you definitely don't have any privacy at your table. However, even with the very open seating the room didn't feel overly large thanks to the darker colors and the mostly full dining room. I liked the pot pie enough where I would definitely go back.
While I enjoyed walking around the town it was apparent that it wasn't really the girls cup of tea. Lisa's heel spur was killing her and both Shannon and Emily were a little bored if they weren't checking out a shop (they picked far more shops to check out than Lisa did). Thus, on the next day we decided to head to the Toronto Zoo. The zoo is a bit expensive so before heading out we tried to find a discount ticket but we couldn't. Instead I found a citypass which lets you save 50% on the cost of doing five different things; the zoo, the CN tower, Casa Loma, the Science Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum. We actually only managed to do three things and we still saved money.
The Toronto Zoo was better than I expected though, perhaps, not as good as Lisa had thought it would be. More than anything I had anticipated that most of the animals would be hiding from the heat but we were really fortunate and the vast majority of the animals were out and active when we came to see them. I think our favorite animal there was a young monkey that kept showing off near the window and that was just as curious about us as we were about him. He was super fun looking and more than once an adult monkey came over and tried to restrain him and get him to come away from the window. He would escape though and come right back to us. He was awesome.
After leaving the zoo (did I mention it was really hot there?) we decided to go downtown to visit the CN Tower before dinner. The CN Tower is a really tall freestanding tower right in the middle of downtown Toronto. The basic purpose of the tower seems to be to provide a great view of both the city and the harbor on Lake Ontario. Along with our ticket to go up in the tower we also got to watch a cool 3D movie about Kelly Slater surfing in Tahiti. The movie was particularly cool because it used 3D to help illustrate and educate the audience about how the island was formed, how the waves are generated, and a bunch of other things. It was a really cool view in how 3D movies could actually be used to help educate kids in schools (if they could afford the cameras needed to show the movies).
The CN Tower also has a cool, but slightly disturbing, feature. After you go up 1000 feet or so to the observation level there is a section of the floor that is made of glass so you can stand there and look straight down. It's a little disconcerting to see the world from so high up without anything visible to support you. It's also a pretty cool way to look down at the world. Lisa wasn't willing to step onto the glass but Shannon, Emily, and I all goofed off on it for a while.
The next morning we went to Casa Loma which is a castle right in Toronto. It was built by a wealthy businessman back in the early 1900's but, because of changes in tax laws and the great depression, he lost his fortune and his Estate. The castle is pretty cool and is undergoing some much needed restoration. The parts that have been restored (or perhaps never damaged) are pretty nice. For example, for the main office on the first floor there are two secret passageways one that leads up to the sleeping quarters and another that heads down to the basement and wine cellar. His secret doorway's were so well done I'm reminded that I need to get my dad to come down and help me finish mine up. That's right, I have a secret passage in my house; eat your heart out.
After finishing up at the castle we checked out of the hotel a day early and headed south back towards Niagara Falls. On the way there we stopped at an Ikea where Lisa was able to pick up a couple cool bottles and to force me to buy a new pillow and she finds my old one disgusting. The bad part of heading out of Toronto in the middle of the afternoon became immediately apparent as we got on the QEW and instantly got stuck in traffic. However, even with the stop and go driving the trip down to Niagara didn't seem to take too long. We had booked a room on priceline at the Marriott Fallsview hotel. From the outside the hotel looks a little dated but, like any good book, you can't judge it by it's cover. The interior was very nice and our room offered an amazing view of the falls (both the American and Canadian falls). The view from that room was, without a doubt, the best view of the falls we had the entire trip. Priceline really came through on that room as it was less than we had paid for any night previously on the trip and the view was incredible.
The next day we headed to Marineland which was supposed to be like Seaworld except that it wasn't. Before departing for the park, because it was raining, Lisa called and asked if they were open. The assured her they were and that only 2 of their rides would be closed due to the rain. When we arrived, after paying $170 for the four of us to enter, we found out only about 5 rides were open and that Marineland never quite reached it's full potential. There is only one stadium for shows there (a dolphin show) and there are huge areas of nothing that you have to walk through to get from one attraction to the next. It really felt like the original idea was for a huge Disney World scale park in Canada but that the owners never had enough money to really pull it off. That didn't stop them from charging an arm and a leg for everything. Food was outrageous (2 chicken finger baskets with fries and a hamburger with fries was $45) and most of the "extra" things you might want to do at the park cost extra as well. Overall, while I was disappointed with the park I still had a great time simply because the girls enjoyed themselves so much. Emily wanted to go back the next day - it was cool (but we didn't).
Our hotel reservation at the falls view Marriott was just for the prior night so we logged into priceline again and tried to get another room. This time we ended up at the Sheraton At The Falls. It is close to the rainbow bridge, again on the Canadian side, and has rooms with both a view of the falls and a view of the city. We received a complimentary upgrade on check in from an internal room to a city-view room. Our room was on the 15th floor and overlooked the Clifton Hill part of the town. Clifton Hill is sort of like Myrtle Beach entertainment condensed into a 1/3 mile long hill. There are all sorts of touristy places to visit like the Guiness Book of World Records museum, was museums, about 10 haunted houses, various putt-putt courses, restaurants, a big funky bowling alley, a giant ferris wheel, and a bunch of other stuff like a Professional Wrestling themed place with it's own "tower of terror" type ride. If you are unfamiliar with the tower-of-terror it is basically a big compartment of strapped in people. The cart sits still for a bit and then, suddenly, at some random interval, it drops back down the tower. It drops variable distances and then goes back up and drops again. These drops happen between 5-10 times before the cart is brough back to the bottom for everyone to unload.
Lucky for us the tower for the wrestling place was even with, and just next door, to our window. Thus, throughout the night, until the ride shut down, we would hear random screams from terrified and excited riders. Needless to say it didn't make for the best night of sleep ever. At one point Emily came around our bed to talk to Lisa (about 3 in the morning). Emily was pretty upset and when Lisa encouraged her to go back to bed she just said "I can't." Naturally, we just figured she was saying she couldn't go back to sleep because of all the noise. Next Lisa told her to just get in bed and close her eyes and eventually she would fall back asleep. Emily replied again that she couldn't. I knew she had to be frustrated, I certainly was - heck it was 3 in t he morning - so I asked her to come around to me and I would try to calm her down so she could get in bed. Then i had an epiphany. I asked her why she couldn't go to bed, was Shannon in her way? She said yes. I got up and looked in their bed and sure enough Shannon was sprawled across the head of the bed. She had, in her sleep, managed to shove Emily out of the bed and use the entire pillow line as her own mattress. After a few moments of repositioning Emily was back in bed and asleep in no time. It seemed only Lisa and I were bothered by the outside noise and we had just projected that on Emily when she woke up. I'm still not sure she ever heard it.
The next morning we got up and hit all of the touristy stuff on Clifton Hill. We played glow-in-the-dark min-golf, we went to a lego city, we watched some 3-D interactive movies (where your seat moves around), and then we packed up and headed for home. Or at least Cleveland. Well, I thought that was our immediate destination. First we had to go to the duty free store where I was able to replace the bottle of Sheridan's I had bought Lisa in London but had been unable to deliver. Then we drove across the bridge to the US where we did a little bit of Geocaching before heading to the highway. Once on the highway we stopped at a few more places to geocache (we didn't have phone data in Canada so we did very little caching there). Eventually we got off the freeway near Erie to eat at a great little bar and grill that served an insane version of Shepherds Pie (and to do a bit more geocaching). Then we felt inspired to drive off the beaten path a bit to visit a well remembered spot from Lisa's childhood - Pymatuning Lake.
Lisa and her family used to camp there every summer while she was growing up. Lisa always speaks fondly of it and, after having seen a carp pond at Marineland, Lisa had the itch to visit the area and its spillway. Just off the spillway is a huge collection of carp. In fact there are so many and they are so big the area has the motto "Where the ducks walk on the fish." While that might seem like hyperbole it isn't. The ducks really do walk around on the carp. We stopped off and bought three loaves of bread (no sales tax on groceries in PA, nice!) and then went to feed the fish. At marineland the seagulls kept snatching up all the food but on Pymatuning Lake's spillway the birds had little chance. At times huge carp would literally be laying on the top of the water being held up by their brethren as the feeding frenzy played out. The surfaced fish would be trapped for up to ten seconds before the mass beneath it would break up and let it submerge again. It was actually a bit grotesque to watch. It was also pretty cool and the girls really got a kick out of feeding the fish and, occasionally, a duck or two.
Eventually it started to get dark so we hopped in he car again, did another geocache where we dropped off one of the geo-coins Lisa gave me for Christmas, and then we worked our way toward Cleveland. To get from Pymatuning to Cleveland you have to take a couple small state routes before getting on interstate 90N. As we tried to merge on to I90 we were flagged down by two people with cell phones standing behind a motorcycle. Lisa stopped and I suggested we offer them a flare if we had one because they were stopped in a pretty dangerous place to only have flashlights for warning off cars. I got out and searched for a flare but couldn't find one so I grabbed my flashlight with the intention of giving them it. I walked over and asked if they had any better lights and I noticed there were two people up near the front of the motorcycle as well - one of whom had a flashlight and I could hear some talking from them also. The ladies with the cellphones said they had nothing else to wave with so I said I'd see if my flashlight could help (or if there was anything I could do to help fix the bike). As I walked around the bike I looked down to see what they were working on and I suddenly saw that one of two people was lying on their back, blood all over her neck, and she was barely conscious. I asked what happened and one of the ladies with the cell phones said that the lady on the ground had been run off the road by a passing car and she had wrecked her bike. The guy who I had heard near the front of the bike before was her husband and he was just bent over her, not the bike, talking to her and trying to keep her conscious. I headed back to the car to let Lisa know what was going on and as I did so a volunteer fireman showed up so I gave him the rundown as well. He got on his CB radio and called in for some additional help. Between his CB call and the other ladies 911 calls the ambulance (from Lake Pymatuning) arrived within a minute or so and at that point we decided to get out of the way and get back on the road. I felt bad afterward that I didn't think to offer any advice to help prevent shock or about keeping her head stationary, while we waited on the ambulance.
Once we got back on the highway the rest of the trip to Cleveland and then back to Huntington the next morning was uneventful. All-in-all it was a nice relaxing trip. It was however very expensive. Food everywhere on the trip (except in Erie) was insanely expensive and we definitely exceeded our budget. However, I have no regrets and I'm really glad everyone seemed to have a good time.
Here are some photos from the trip: