Sunday, September 18, 2016

Travel to Niagara Falls (Canada)

In September of 2015 we took our first "longish" driving trip from home since my husband's illness and confinement to a wheelchair. We settled on heading to Niagara Falls (Canada) for a couple of reasons: it was a long enough drive from home on the highway (roughly 3.5-4 hours depending on traffic) to test his driving ability after recently getting back behind the wheel, and because there were several places along the way where we have friends or family that we could stop if he needed to (Barrie, Brampton, Hamilton, Beamsville - all fall along our route). We weren't sure if the drive would be too tiring for him (I don't drive at all), and didn't want to leave ourselves stuck if the traffic became too much for him. And lastly, we'd been to Niagara Falls quite a few times (when the kids were small, for our belated honeymoon, on our own after the kids were grown) and Niagara Falls has many attractions for people of all ages (including the older, but young at heart seniors).

Looking for waterfront hotel options that might not be too expensive, we decided to try July, August and September, and hope there was something during that time frame that we would consider reasonable and affordable.

I also had some pretty specific desires for this trip - we'd stayed in several different hotels over the years, but none were along the riverfront or directly above the falls. What I wanted (the only thing I really wanted) was to look out my hotel room window, and see the Horsheshoe Falls thundering away directly below me. That sort of left us with only a few options for hotels, and most of them were of the expensive variety. In June, nobody had any special packages and because June is also "wedding month" in Ontario (meaning "honeymoon city" for Niagara Falls), the hotels were all busy and full. Some had a room available, but because of time of year, those rooms were being offered at $599 (1 room, for 2 people for 1 night). The cheapest hotel was $499.

So, we waited until late July and started  pricing for August. Who knew? August seems to be conference month in Niagara Falls. A lot of associations and groups had booked conferences, so any available rooms were still the same price as they were in June.

We were pretty close to giving up, until we decided to try the first week of September (right after the Labour Day weekend). The hotel we got the $599 from was now $199, which including an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast the next morning and a free winery tour (which we didn't want). What the hotel did have was a room on a high floor whose window looked down onto the Niagara Rapids and Horseshoe Falls, and you could see the falls on the US side, and the bridge between Canada and the US. Perfect. Just what I wanted ... well, I thought so at the time.

The hotel was the Marriott, Gateway on the Falls. We've stayed in Marriott's before, and they're usually excellent. This one, however, could and should improve in many areas. On arriving, we discovered we had to pay $25/night for parking. The desk staff was competent and businesslike, signing us in and giving us directions to our room. The lobby was stunningly beautiful (sorry, I didn't take pictures of that), but frankly, that's about where the gorgeousness ended. There were several elevators (brass-faced, high end in appearance but eternally slow. You'd grow old waiting.) Some elevators only went to some floors, and wouldn't stop at others. You had to read the floor numbers on each elevator to be sure you were getting on one that would stop at your floor. When we arrived in the room it was something of a let-down.

Oh, it wasn't a bad room, or dirty or anything like that but ... it certainly wouldn't have been worth the original $599 we were quoted in June. It was an ordinary hotel room with nothing special to recommend it. Not extraordinarily large. but average. Two beds, a small desk, TV cabinet, coffee area, microwave and small fridge, instead of a
chair, a small sofa. The lamps in the room looked old (not antiques, just old and used) and the shades could not be made to sit straight on the lamps no matter what you did. One lamp had a broken shade which was pretty visible when you turned the light on in the evening. There was also very old air conditioner which looked pretty battered, but worked. A small bath. Just an ordinary room. I was amazed anyone would actually pay $500 for a room like that. At any time of year.

The first thing I did was head to the window to open the curtains and see the falls. As I got close enough to the window the carpet felt damp, and by the time I was close enough to open the curtains, the carpet was squishing water up between my bare toes. The air conditioner was coated along the top with water and dripping steadily onto the carpet. It was pretty annoying. We phoned the front desk several times to ask for someone to fix it, or to move us. They said they would send someone. They never did. Leaving the hotel to look for lunch, we ended up simply walking to the hotel next door where the restaurant was "Tony Roma's".

It turned out to be wonderful - I'd definitely recommend it and will certainly go there again. I was entranced by the decor ... soothing, calming and lovely, but it was hard to describe. "Understated elegance" and "comfortable but beautiful" come to mind. If I could have picked it all up (minus the tables and chairs) and taken it home for my house, I'd have been completely excited. The food was excellent (I had fish & chips ... my "go-to" meal when I've not eaten somewhere before) - hot, fresh and flavourful. The staff were superb. Honestly, I can't gush enough. It was probably my favourite place in our entire time there.

We wandered around during the afternoon exploring the nearby streets and the main street, and ending up at an all-you-can-eat buffet called AlMacs that was a little off the beaten track. It seemed to be more the type of place locals might eat, than tourists. The food was average, but fine, and if you went away hungry it was your own fault. We liked it well enough that we felt we'd eat there again if stayed at the falls again. What my husband enjoyed most was some of clientele. Before we went in, he stopped at a group of spyder styled bikes in the parking lot ... all shiny and new with interesting paint designs. He was taken with these - partly because he wanted a motorcycle, but because of his balance issues, he can no longer safely drive a motorcycle and had been looking at some 3-wheeler types, like trikes. The spyder was a little new to him. Inside, he spent most of our time there schmoozing with the crew that came in on the bikes in the parking lot. hahaha, at least he enjoyed himself.

The one thing that was perfect in our hotel room was the view from the window. It really was breathtaking and I was excited to be able to watch the falls so close, from the comfort of my room. The other thing that was worth while was the breakfast the next morning at the Milestones Grills in the hotel. The grill is very nicely done with friendly staff, and good food ... and included every breakfast and semi-breakfast item anyone could want to eat.

The hotel wasn't really worth booking for a second night. It was too expensive for too little value. At least from our point of view. They never fixed the air conditioner and so it continued to leak onto the carpet. The legs of the sofa were saturated because it was sitting in that water. I couldn't stand at the window to enjoy the view because water was freezing. The other thing that bothered me about the carpet being wet was ... how long had it been going on, and how long had they simply ignored it? Carpets & constant saturation can equal mould spores.

When we got to the front desk to check out, we once again tried to complain that nobody had come to fix the air conditioner, or clean up the water. We weren't complaining to get a discount or money back or anything else. I just wanted them to fix the damn thing before the carpet got full of mould and made someone sick. The desk clerk's response was to offer us 3 free winery tours ... and I'm like "lady, we're going home, not to any winery and I don't drink ... that includes wine".

The other thing we complained about was the
parking. We paid $25 to park in the hotel parking lot and couldn't get a space. The staff said it was people coming to the grill for dinner that were filling up the spaces (and hey, they don't pay to park there but we paid for a room, AND had to pay for parking ... all I can say is "what the hell"?) and that we should try later to get a space. WHAT???? I mean seriously? For the first time in my life I swore at the staff. My husband still had to use a walker and cane and they wanted us to drive around Niagara Falls to park somewhere until such time as the dinner crowd left? Something wrong with that if you ask me.

The next time we go to the falls, we won't be staying there. I don't recommend it, not unless there have been some serious changes in their mentality. Just because you can treat your paying clients like garbage doesn't mean you should. What goes around, comes around.

Best Western, here we come. (when we stayed there, it was a suite - quite large, better furnishings, kitchenette included, separate bedroom, $99 including breakfast, super friendly staff ... just no falls view).

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