Niagara Falls was never high on the list of places I wanted to see. From what I knew of it in magazines and newsreels, the area always seemed just a bit tacky. A place for going over in a barrel.

Certainly, some of my attitude came from the movie "Niagara" in which Joseph Cotton strangled a slutty Marilyn Monroe in the carillon tower on the Canadian end of the Rainbow Bridge then went over the falls when the motor on his getaway boat failed. The falls were impressive in the movie but not as much as Marilyn’s caboose as she walked away from the camera!

When I thought of Niagara Falls, I thought "tawdry" – sort of like the Wisconsin Dells. When my wife Polly and I visited the Dells in 1986, my gloomiest expectations were fulfilled. An over-priced tourist trap. Polly was bitterly disappointed at what the sleaze merchants had done to a nature spot; and we drove around town once and left.

So – when it came time for Polly’s niece Jennifer Shirk to graduate from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Polly wanted to replace our poor Wisconsin memory with good ones from Niagara Falls. She immediately made plans to "do the Falls" as a part of our trip and then expand it into a two-week adventure.

We arrived at Buffalo Tuesday night, May 25, and spent the night near the airport in a Best Western so quiet I could hear my arteries harden. Amazing! But then, it was before Memorial Day and the airport closes down after ten p.m.

The next morning, we rented a car and were on Goat Island by 11:30 a.m.

Goat Island is the best thing on the American side of the falls – unless you’re into gambling at an Indian casino or riding a captive balloon. The island is a state park which is free but costs $8 to park. That’s a common trick in tourist spots all over the U.S., but this money was well spent. Goat Island separates American Falls from Horseshoe Falls, and a short walk lets you take in both – plus little Bridal Veil Fall on connected Luna Island. You can get down to within six feet of the water going over; and when the wind shifts – as it often did! – you can get soaked in the spray rising from the gorge. Feel the thunder, as they say around the falls – but also "get drenched!" Rainbows were scarce on our first day – a cloudy Wednesday – until we ate dinner on the veranda of a restaurant near Victoria Park on the Canada side. There, with a full panorama of the three falls, we saw lots of rainbows created by the sun setting through drizzly rain showers. The changing light on the falls and gorge was one of the high points of our trip.

The next day – Thursday – more rain was threatened; but the skies were clear as we flew in a helicopter over the falls, the gorge and the down-river whirlpool. We hovered high above the gorge, entranced by the view, while a second helicopter with a German television network crew taped us for a travel special. Because of this, we got twice as long a flight. And do I love flying in a chopper!! Afterward, Polly and I drove out to Niagara- on-the Lake, a quaint village at the mouth of the river where it empties into Lake Ontario. We ate lunch and walked the streets and drove down to the beach to see the skyline of Toronto in the distance. We also saw bad weather coming; and it arrived as we headed up the gorge that afternoon on the "Maid of the Mist." We didn’t mind because what were raindrops compared to the tons of water pouring down at us over Horseshoe Falls? At one point, we were so far into the cascade, it was all we could see for 180 degrees around us!

As the showers passed, we also went up the Skylon Tower – highest point in Niagara, Ont. – for a panorama of the falls. After dinner, we returned to the tower to see the light show displayed on the falls; but it was not nearly as spectacular as the show provided free by nature on our first evening.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Canadian part of Niagara Falls is winning the tourist battle. With the value of the U.S. dollar vs. "the loonie" (nickname of Canada’s dollar coin), plus the better views, N.F. Ont. gives you a much better bang for the buck. As a result, the Canadian bluff is lined with high-rise hotels; and the Sheraton chain has just opened Sheraton Fallsview Hotel and Conference Center – a sky-scraper resort with 402 rooms and a Las Vegas style casino (rooms run $100 to $450 U.S. per night). The town already has a casino and the Seneca Tribe has one on the New York side – so the area may be the next Atlantic City.

To anyone contemplating a visit, there are much more economical hotels and motels in the area. (Our Best Western across the street from the Sheraton cost us $72 Canadian a night). Plus there are nearby historical sites like Forts Niagara and George, the Erie Canal, and Goat Island which are practically free. (Remember that parking!) You can fly straight to Buffalo out of O’Hare and spend a whole week without expending a huge amount of money. As Polly and I left Friday morning, I concluded that Niagara – both Ont. and N.Y. – did indeed have their tackiness but proved to be worth the time and money to visit. The timeless beauty and awesome power of nature outshone everything man in his hunger for the tourist dollar could do to demean them.

And our trip was certainly off to a grand start.