One of the things on my "USA to see list" has been Niagara Falls. It wasn't on the Breadwinner's list so it was agreed that Bear and I would have a little bus trip away by ourselves this summer. For 3 days and 2 nights, and based on what seemed like rational thinking, we selected the 4th July long weekend.
I needed a break from my two adorable munchkins. I needed it badly. Sitting on a bus with my eldest for 3 days sounded pretty darned good to me. It sounded good to Bear as well. So on July 2nd we headed out early to catch our bus . Boo and Yum Yum were quite good about the plan , they understood the plan involved their favourite sitter and their daddy with a weekend full of swimming and candy ahead of them.Not a tear , just lots of smooshy kisses. YAY!
I knew before we got on the bus several things about the type of experience it was likely to be. First it is a Chinese run tour company and as such caters mostly to Chinese tourists. As the bus then stops in an area populated by a large Indian community, they number the second largest ethnic group to use this company. A read of the many scathing online reviews will also give you an idea of what to expect ... and our years of living in South East Asia prepared me well. We were going to China and India, and if we were lucky, we might see Niagara Falls along the way. We expected it to be wacky...and the wackier it got the more we laughed.
When we boarded the bus we were the only non-full Chinese, non-Indian passengers. Except for three Austrians. A mother with two teens. Oh dear- they hadn't read the reviews and they were ill prepared for the experience.
It was a truly a brilliant summer day to begin a trip on. At our first stop we were asked to buy our lunch and bring it back to eat on the bus as they expected heavy traffic and wanted to try their best to keep to schedule. The chosen stop was a Burger King. We were given 15 minutes which sounds a little optimistic. Totally impossible given that ours was the fifth bus that pulled up. Imagine 250+ people trying to get lunch (and pee) in 15 minutes! The orderly mayhem inside the Burger King could only be wondered at. When unsuspecting families, travelling in their cars on their cosy 4th July family road trips, also selected that very same Burger King (in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere) the looks on theirs were priceless. I mouthed "RUN AWAY " to one mother, she burst out laughing and heeded my advice.
Our first official stop was the Corning Glass Museum. We were given about 90 minutes here and we would love to go back. It's free for under 19s and there is a pleasant store and cafe. Bear found the historical exhibits interesting, and there were excellent educational displays on all aspects of optics as well as live displays of glass blowing. Below is a boring view of the foyer, to the far right- a work by Dale Chihuly- one of our family favourites after having viewed his work in the New York Botanic Gardens a few years ago. I would replace it with a better , more interesting photo but it's all just too hard.
Next we journeyed north through New York State, every now and then I checked our route and progress on my Iphone map. For the most part Bear was reading or playing Nintendo. I listened to an audio book on my Ipod- Ken Follets' "Pillars of the Earth". It was fine...riding in a bus for hours, the air conditioning was working, no complaints. We stopped at a Chinese Buffet in Buffalo for dinner at around 6pm. It was no worse than expected...but remember our expectations were low.
After a stop at a duty free (why?), we trundled across what I think was the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, our destination not yet in view, to meet and greet Canadian customs officials. And that is when things began going pear shaped.
We were excited, we were arriving on a Friday night, the only night of the week that there are fireworks on the Falls. It must have been around 7.30pm (possibly earlier) when we enjoyed the warm welcome that is Canadian customs. In one door of the drab building, a few gruff questions, stamp bang, stamp bang, out the other side to wait for the bus to pull up and re board. Only it didn't happen. At 9.30pm we finally found ourselves back on the bus heading back to the good ole USA. One family didn't have their paperwork in order. The tour guide was flustered, the Austrians were getting cranky and suggesting that the family be made to walk. So the US immigration officials and the flustered tour guide made arrangements for the family to be collected. We had been seated in a fenced outdoor pen feeling guilty for even existing . Finally they requested all US Citizens be checked, that left Bear, I and the Austrians sitting on our own.
When it was our turn (the riff raff that are not US citizens) it was discovered that the Austrians did not quite have their paperwork presented in the usual manner ....more kerfuffle, red faces and pondering over the fate of the three Austrians...and wait, what about those other two Austrians with the L2 visas? Of course for some- there was confusion over the distinctions between Austria vs Australia ..are they different? I mean, what are the chances that at the back of a busload of Chinese and Indian US citizens on an el-cheapo tour of Niagara Falls, there are 5 Austrian Australians planning something heinous... HUGE of course.
Finally we got back on the bus...headed back over the border but NOT stopping again at Canadian Immigration ( seemed a little less than rigorous protocol after all the silliness we had just endured, we could have picked up loads of people ON the bridge, but then again... ) and trundled through the brightly lit streets of Niagara to have our first view of Niagara Falls at midnight. If you squinted and didn't look directly at them, you could almost see them. At 1am we fell into beds at a Comfort Inn someways out of town. I drifted off hoping that they really do change the sheets between buses.
Next morning we were invited to enjoy Niagara Falls on the big screen at the IMAX theatre where we were assured there was a cafe at which breakfast (bagels and coffee) could be purchased. Sadly there were no bagels to be had, just Niagara Falls Best Popcorn and pretzels stuffed with cream cheese. We'll always remember not to eat those pretzels again- tasted like glue was Bear's assessment.We should have had popcorn I suppose.
So, unimpressed with the IMAX visuals, but supposedly "enlightened" by the fictitious story of Leilawala (the Maid of the Mist) we returned to our bus...but wait who is that walking suspiciously around the bus...see him there, just going around the back of lucky bus no 388...he looked like he was in a uniform? Hmmmm. On boarding we are told by our flustered tour guide that the bus has been randomly selected for a vehicle inspection which will be performed whilst we are viewing the falls.
The Maid of the Mist is a tourist operation that functions to the standards set by Disney. It features "hide the queue", the Kodak moment against a green screen, a complimentary blue poncho, efficient boarding and disembarkation arrangements, a thrilling water soaking ride and a huge shop. It was fun, I'd do it again but not in cold weather because you really do get wet. Bear thought it was a hoot. And I still try not to have that dream about the boat sinking and all those blue ponchos floating around my head and making it impossible to get to the surface.
We return to our designated rendezvous but no bus, no mind because it is an easy stroll to Skylon Tower. The basement of the tower seems to occupied by a less than successful games arcade. The ground floor had a Kodak green screen photo opportunity through which all visitors were herded...because you might want a picture of yourself going over the falls in a barrel (if you hadn't just purchased one of you standing in front of the falls with ice chunks). There are several souvenir stores...Canadian themed clothing, one that sold boomerangs and didgeridoos. The usual suspects...and a Starbucks. After milling around taking all the fine details in, we were taken to the revolving restaurant for a "fine dining" experience.
After the Burger King, the Chinese buffet and the glue filled pretzel...it was indeed fine dining. An acceptable meal to be fair but somewhat old fashioned.. but the view is spectacular! Bear was pretty impressed with the fact that the floor was moving, less impressed with our dining companions (Mum, they didn't even try to chat!). Watching a bunch of Chinese diners try to figure out what to do with half a tomato roasted with herbed bread crumbs was amusing. Our Austrian travelling companions had opted out of this part of the tour in order to sight see independently.
But the view....never mind the food, the view.... they missed the view!
With full stomachs and having drunk in the view, we descended at the appointed hour (1.30pm) to meet our bus.
I drank a ridiculous number of Starbucks caramel macchiatos, took more than a few silly photos, followed the shady spots around the building as the sun moved across the sky, watched flustered tour guide try to calm the disgruntled Austrians, and observed the rest of our travelling companions...the lovers, the grand parents, the family with the trendy daughters and crippled mother. Bear was brilliant, no whining , just played with her DS. I felt sorry for the mum travelling with the the chubby pre-teen boy who squabbled with his sister the WHOLE time, I would have voted yes to leave him at a truck stop.
Finally at 4pm a bus turns up. Our first bus, the lucky number 388, has failed inspection and is awaiting spare parts. This is a nicer bus...except that I am sitting on a hot seat. I mean, I can feel the heat of whatever bit of machinery is at the back of a bus, through my seat. Oh well.
The journey north took several more hours (did I fall asleep?) and we arrive in Toronto at around 5pm to stretch our legs at City Hall. Some washed their feet as well. My butt cooled down.
It was late afternoon Saturday on a glorious summers day. Toronto -our 5 minute look made me think a little of Brisbane and Perth with their mix of colonial stone architecture, modern high rise, the river fronts and a Sydney-ish skyline with Singapore apartment towers.
The G20 2010 Summit had just concluded a few days prior and apparently this event had added to the long-weekend-post-Canada-Day-4th-July influx of visitors. In other words we were not alone.
After cooling our heels for 15 minutes we were dropped off at the CN Tower Which is many many many many feet tall. See...
So we dutifully joined the queue to enter this marvel of modern engineering, to pass through security "puffers" and to wait in (yes, we say IN not ON line) line to board the super speedy elevators. By the time we ascend it was time to meet the bus. There are only two ways down, the fast way with the messy finish, or back in the long snaky line for the elevator . So we text the guide to let her know the situation and get in line again. It was probably the busiest day of the year. We have such great timing.
From there we are taken to the Harbour front which is bustling with the energy of people wanting to party, and did I say the weather was glorious? There are tall ships moored along with other party boats, people strolling, dining, and in amongst it we do a 5o people dash led by our flustered tour guide to board a ferry. Next to us is a much larger party boat waiting for it's guests to board and they looked like they were having a lot more fun than we were...but you had to be wearing black leather with feathers, chains, boots and fishnets and showing a lot of skin. We hadn't packed properly and there was Bear to consider. Dang.
So we chugged out of the mooring for a tour of Lake Ontario. Not all of it because Lake Ontario is pretty HUGE. Not as big as Lake Michigan but HUGE none the less. Our little journey took us to what seemed to be a group of islands that sheltered a yacht club. With the benefit of Google I see that it is in fact the Toronto Islands -a car free urban community. This would be an awesome place to spend a summer...kid friendly and just a ferry ride to the city.
After our pleasant jaunt around the islands we head back to the Harbourfront and board our bus for Chinatown where there is to be a chinese seafood banquet. Bear and I opted out of this and instead found our own meal...ahhhh bliss.
Word back on the garlicky bus was that we did the right thing. The Austrians are looking very unhappy.
Our bus tootles out of Toronto and at 11pm we pull up at a newish looking highrise Quality Inn. I would not be capable of laughing at ANY of this trip if we had unpleasant sleeping or bathing arrangements.I have my limits. We quickly unpack, plug in things to recharge and set all things capable of going beep, for a 4.30am wake up call and try to sleep. Yep...4.30am because we have to be on the bus at 5.00am.
Bear rises and showers with almost no complaint...at 4.30 am Sunday morning it is all good, but 7.15am on a school day- eye roll.
After waiting for our slower friends to get on the 3rd bus of the trip (sigh, there's always a few or 6 or an Austrian family making a point) we are relatively quickly on the road heading toward the Lawrence River 3 hours away. We arrive at Gannanoque (I have most likely spelt that incorrectly) to board a breakfast cruise. We are in the 1000 Island region and it is fascinating to numerous see tiny islands with a single dwelling upon them...and to ponder on the wonderful life the lucky occupants have.
One of the most famous is Boldt Castle, unfortunately not so lucky for it's original owners but a spectacular sight.
And this isn't a photo of the castle....this is a photo of whatever is on the other side of the Island.
But this is a photo of the silliness of umpteen tour buses arriving on Sunday morning. They haven't learnt the art of the Disney-hide-a-queue.
One suggestion... feed the people breakfast whilst they wait on the shore. Seriously, and change your baker.
So after returning we once again boarded the bus and got outta there.
We stopped at a gas station to CHANGE BUSES ...hello bus 388 all fixed up. We stop to do duty free and I discover that I quite like ice wine and chocolate. I knew I liked chocolate but together with ice wine..mmmm. But most exciting was the discovery of Smarties in Canada! That alone was worth the visit to the duty free (plus a box of Quality Street for the Breadwinner).
We were once more scrutinied by US immigration, given the option of Applebees, Pizza or chinese buffet for lunch (the Austrians left their $ in the locked bus so didn't get to choose any) and were dropped off at our stop at 7pm.
We had the house to ourselves and decided to watch a movie. Bear settled on this and sobbed herself silly then we went to bed. Excellent mother daughter weekend.
Meanwhile Boo and Yum Yum were enjoying the delights of Jenkinsons Boardwalk with their daddy and some tolerant friends. They stayed to watch the 4th July fireworks and arrived home at 1 am. I woke up to find my wee girls on my bed...they were blue. No, they were breathing fine, they were just blue. and bouncy. Daddy had fed them blue cotton candy. From 1am until 2am we enjoyed a spectacular Boo tantrum! So good to be home with sensible people.