Archive for January, 2010

View of Clifton Hill & Victoria Ave from the top of the Skylon Tower.


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Known as the honeymoon capital of the world, Niagara Falls was always a lame day trip when I was growing up.  Going to “The Falls” consisted of 6 hours of driving for 2-4 hours of entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to see them but it’s wasn’t a huge deal, that is until 2 years ago when I made the choice to live and work at HI Niagara for 6 months.

People travel from all over the world to visit Niagara Falls, and who can blame them.  The Falls are roughly 12,000 yrs old- The Canadian side (Horseshoe Falls) are 57 m (180 ft) high and during peak daylight tourist hours 6 million cubic feet of water rushes over the falls every minute. That makes for a very impressive and memorizing display of Mother Nature at work. On a clear sunny day you’re almost guaranteed to see rainbows over the falls and if you’re lucky, a double rainbow.

As the Falls grow in popularity more and more tourist attractions open up.  This may be fun for some, but in many ways it’s a disappointment. Often times these attractions can expensive and lame.  Here are my thoughts on a few of the attractions closest to the Falls.

  • Maid of the Mist– You’re guaranteed to get wet, very wet on this boat ride towards the base of the Horseshoe falls and on a hot day it can be heaven, but is it worth it? Admission is $14.50 for adults and on a busy day getting a great photo can be difficult as the boats are loaded to capacity.
  • Journey Behind the Falls– This is one of my favourites. Journey takes you into the tunnels behind the falls.  Although watching the rushing water and hearing it’s thundering noise isn’t enough to entertain you for the admission cost of $12.75, the platform is!  After you’ve walked the tunnels, you can go outside where you’re feet away from the Falls.  This is the closest you will ever be, closer than the Maid of the Mist. The photo at the beginning of this post was taken from street level of the Journey Behind the Falls platform.  There is no time limit here. You can spend 15 mins or 2 hours.
  • Skylon Tower– This tower sits 775ft above the Falls and in the summer it’s the perfect place to view the fireworks over the falls. Admisson is $12.95 and during the summer it can be a busy place. On fireworks nights (Sun, Wed, Fri @10pm) it’s best to arrive early, find your spot and stay there.  The fireworks last about 15mins, but are spectacular.  If you’re looking for a cool splurge, diner in their revolving dinning room and visit the top of the tower afterwards for FREE.
  • Bird Kingdom– If you like exotic animals, this is the place to be. I’ve seen the most bizarre looking birds here and even conquered my fear of holding a python! Admisson is $16.50.
  • Nightmares Fear Factory– I can’t say a lot, as it’ll ruin the whole thing.  I use to LOVE taking travelers to this place (part of my job with HI). The fact that it was next door to the best bar EVER, was a bonus. I’d post my photo from when I went through, but I look awful!! haha

There are a lot of other attractions in Niagara, but their expensive and lame.  If you’re into wax museums, Ripley’s, trendy restaurants like Rainforest Cafe or Hard Rock Cafe you can find them and more along Clifton Hill- the- busiest- most-annoying-street-in-Niagara-that-most-locals-avoid. If you’re looking for other fun things to check out keep reading!

As I mentioned above Nightmares Fear Factory is located next door to the best bar in Niagara, The Wild Mushroom.  This was THE bar that I took all my groups to. Why? Cheap drinks, great atmosphere, fun bartenders and good bar food. In fact, I wish I was back in Niagara right now so I could go to the Mush in a few hours, grab a beer and hangout (She is SO going to kill me for posting this photo, haha). Besides do you know another bar where the ceiling is covered in real US money? Yep, you read that right. For some reason drunk college kids sign money, give it to the bartenders and ask to be immortalized on the ceiling of the Wild Mushroom. If you’re down at the Falls and want to check out the Mush, walk up Clifton Hill to Victoria and turn right.  The Wild Mushroom is a couple minutes down the street on the left hand side.

Here a few more not-to-be-missed experiences in Niagara.

  • Hiking along the Niagara Gorge.  If you love nature, hiking or photography, or if you need something to do that’s FREE, walking along the Gorge is your best option. Just hop on the “People Mover” towards the Butterfly Conservatory.  There are a few spots along the way where you can walk down to the gorge for a lovely hike.
  • Queen Street was once the downtown core of Niagara, that is until the action was moved closer to the falls.  Over the years Queen Street fell into disrepair.  However in recent years there has been a lot of activity in this area to renew the old neighbourhood. Queen Street is full of shops, Bistros and that local feel that this backpacker craves when traveling.
  • Shwarma! Along Victoria, past The Wild Mushroom and Clifton Hill, towards Falls Ave is the best Shwarma place on earth. There was nothing better than leaving the bar to buy shwarma and then coming back for more beer afterward.
  • Light Up the Falls- When you’re down by the falls at night, walk up behind the Illumination tower and knock on the door. This is a BIG secret in Niagara.  Generally this is only offered to tour groups that make appointments, but if you just show up, he may just let you in for a little tour. This is the COOLEST part of Niagara.  I was able to take 2 groups here for FREE while I was there.  During the tour you’ll be shown the light board that illuminates the Falls and even given the chance to light them up yourself.  You can generally stay as long as you wish, and before leaving you may score a certificate stating that you “Lit Up the Falls”.

My Niagara is not just about the tourist traps, it’s about finding the fun and the free.  Niagara has amazing scenery, amazing people and some fun cheap options, as long as you budget carefully.  If you’re going to Niagara Falls (You should by the way), staying at HI Niagara is a good choice and not just because I worked there.  HI Niagara is minutes away from the train and bus stations and far enough away from the Falls to afford some peace and quiet. Oh, and if you do stay at HI Niagara, tell Martha Pam says Hi and get off MSN already!!

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I am all over points programs that gets me free stuff, especially when that free stuff includes travel. The trick however, is to find points programs for companies that you frequent. This is key if you’re in the process of saving money. You don’t want to start over spending because you want the points, you want to earn points for what you’re already spending. Make sense?

Here are some ways to become a Points Whore…

Credit cards that offer points rewards– Yes, it’s a great way to rack up the points, but if you’re anything like me, be careful. When looking into credit cards always look at their annual fees and interest rates. Yes, getting those extra airmiles is euphoric, but not if you get yourself so far in debit that you’re going to spend the next 5yrs paying off your bills.

Hotel loyalty programs– I know, we all want to be die hard, no fluff travelers who battled the rugged outdoors and won. However sometimes hostel life doesn’t cut it. Sometime you need peace and quiet with a big fluffy bed, private hot showers and room service if so inclined.

I have a Starwood Preferred Guest card which I LOVE! I know what you’re thinking, they can be expensive. I agree. However they also have fabulous sales if you’re paying attention (ie: $139/night at the Vancouver Wall Centre ). The Sheraton also offers a green option for their rooms.  If you decline housekeeping they’ll give you a $5 voucher to be used in their gift shop. On my last visit I forgot to use this coupon, so the hotel gave me 500 points instead.  This is fantastic, as I can either keep my points for a FREE nights stay or I can convert them to Aeroplan points at a rate of 1:1.

Airmiles Card– In Canada the Airmiles card can be used in a ton of places, the downside is blackout dates and travel constraints.  However you can also use your points for entertainment and gift cards, which can also be handy.  For example I cashed in some points for a $50 Keg gift card which gave me a lovely night out on my last trip to Vancouver.

Airline Loyalty Programs– Show their card at various hotels, car rental companies, financial institutions and sometimes retailers to earn non-status points. This means a lot more miles, a lot faster. Non-status just means that these points won’t earn you a place in the next level of membership. But does that matter? Really?

Yes, I fly AirCanada. I know, they probably screwed you over. I’m sorry.  Actually I’ve flown with them my whole life with no issues, so I use their Aeroplan card.  I love that they have very few restrictions, unlike the Airmiles card.  They also have some great travel partners, which makes it very easy for me to collect points.

Grocery Store Programs– OMG, this is the best one yet.  You have to buy food, so is there anything better than earning airmiles while you do it? In Canada Safeway offers specials for the Airmiles card, and Sobey’s offers points redemption for the Aeroplan card from Air Canada.

I have to admit, I didn’t shop at Sobey’s very often, but when they started their Club Sobey’s Program and offered an alliance with Aeroplan I was hooked.  I have to buy food, their not too overly priced and I get airmiles? Cha Ching!  This month alone I’ve earned over 700 aeroplan points by shopping their sales (I still only buy what I need, I didn’t overspend to get them).

Bank Accounts– Some banks offer bonus points or airmiles when you open chequing or savings accounts with them.

The best part about points programs is that the membership is usually FREE, which is hard to pass up. The cons can be all those damn cards you’ll have!  I hate carrying a lot of cards on me. So I have my hotel/ flight membership numbers written down in my cell phone, address book and in an email for easy access should I forget my cards when I want to book.  Fuel points cards are kept clipped to my car visor along with my grocery store cards.

There are tons of ways to get points, buying fuel and groceries is the easiest, as you generally have to buy them anyway.  Check out retailers to see if they offer points.  I fuel up at Shell for Airmiles points or at Esso for Aeroplan points depending on gas prices.  I collect iCoke points because I’m addicted to Diet Coke and I can redeem them for $5 McDonald’s cards (which come in handy if you have little money and want fast food).  It’s about shopping smarter.  Yes, it takes some time, but the benefits can be worth it. Especially when you’ve earned enough points for a first class plane ticket on a Trans-Atlantic flight!

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NYC Street Vendor {Oct. 2008}

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Blog Crawl Monday

It started with trying to figure out Stumble.  I’m still new and figuring out kinks etc.  This is how it works. I start on one of my favourite blogs, read some posts, stumble if I liked them, then click a blog from their links list (baring that they have one) and repeat the above steps.

Here’s where my Blog Crawl lead me this week.

  1. Candice Does the World– She’s Canadian, she’s funny, enough said!
  2. Lonely Girl Travels– She writes some seriously funny stuff.  Her Cuba tales were, interesting to say the least.
  3. Lives of Wander- I’m thrilled I’ve discovered this blog.  The writing is gripping. The first post I read, Onboard a Sinking Ship made me want to read more.
  4. Almost Fearless– I just LOVE the name of this blog.  My post read? How to Fly Around the World Absolutely Free. It’s an interesting review, I’m still in the contemplation stage.
  5. Kaleidoscopic Wandering– Although I’ve only traveled to Seattle a few times, I’m intrigued by this post: Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.
  6. A Pair of Panties & Boxers – It’s an intriguing title for a blog, wouldn’t you say?
  7. Global Grasshopper – Read a post about Singapore, interesting options, way to expensive for my tastes though.
  8. Nomadic Notes Travel Blog– I saw this one listed on a few of the above blogs, so I clicked! Eat Your Way Around Penang has made me hungry!
  9. The TravMonkey– I loved their post “Top 10 Female Packing Tips”.
  10. The Longest Way Home–  Traveling for over 4 years and counting!

Whew!  All that surfing was tiring, but I found some great new blogs to follow and stumble.  A lot of blogs were linked repeatedly in the above blogs. Most of which I follow already, so I stayed with blogs I’ve never clicked on before (With the exception of my first 2 blogs, which I read regularly).

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As I’ve mentioned before, I abhor being pinned down to itineraries. Gear however, is totally different. Having the right gear for your trip can mean the difference between a great trip and a so-so trip.  There is nothing worse than being half way around the world and dealing with inadequate gear or wishing you had listened to yourself and bought those other shoes etc. When considering which gear to take cost is important, but so is size and weight.   What may seem okay in the beginning, could feel very heavy a few weeks into your trip.

List the gear you think you’ll need and start researching the various types and brands. If you start doing this early, you’ll make better choices.  Plus it’s a great way to stay travel focused while waiting for your trip to begin.

Although I haven’t nailed myself down to a specific itinerary, I do know I’ll be gone for 6+ months.  I also know I want the flexibility to write my blog posts as they come to me instead of waiting until I find an internet cafe and I’ll be taking an obscene amount of photographs. Here are a couple items on my gear list.

  • Flip Mino HD– I want to create some videos on this trip for my niece to watch on my blog. It’s a great way to add some education and spunk to my posts.
  • MacBook– I’m currently using a Toshiba, but I like the flexibility with MAC, especially when it comes to photography.
  • Wide Angle lens– I want more options with my Nikon D60 while on the road.
  • 2 Clairefontaine Notebooks– I love these notebooks, plus they’re very affordable and well made.
  • Writing supplies– Pencils mostly, but a pen and some pastels or crayons work well too. A mini ruler is handy, and a glue stick is a must!
  • Extra SD cards for photos.
  • Batteries– I need to buy an extra camera battery, as well as a pkg of AAA for my maglite.

As you can see, two of these items are pretty big purchases.  I’ve spent months looking at the Flip and MacBook. I’ve visited stores, touched the product, surfed websites etc.  Now that I’ve narrowed it down, it’s time to start putting my money aside and watch out for sales.  I want to buy both of them in the next couple of months so I have time to play and learn before my trip- which I highly recommend.

Whatever your gear needs are, take the time to research them, being rash can hurt not only your wallet, but your back as well if you’re not careful.

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My work week has become so busy and full that I find myself day dreaming of naps and pajamas. Some days it’s a matter of minutes between the time I get home from work and the time I have pajamas on, and some days its a matter of seconds. It feels SO good- too good actually, and as I sit here typing this post (in my pj’s) the idea of Pajama Sunday is getting better and better. It’s the perfect way to spend the first of my 2 days off.  I’ve put in more than my share of hours at work, I deserve to relax.

My brain is in mellow mode and it feels like I’ve smoked a bunch of joints (except I’ve never really smoked a joint, so this is merely an assumption). This morning I rolled out of bed, tied up my hair walked to the futon in my living room- the only other room in my apartment- and curled up with my laptop. My plans for my first Pajama Sunday are naps, snacks, trip research, tweeting, blogging, editing photos, and catching up on favourite blogs as well as reading new ones.  I will not be getting dressed. I will not answer my phone (unless it’s my Mom, she’d worry if I didn’t answer). I will relax, be lazy, whatever you want to call it.  Oh, I also refuse to look at my work email!

I’ve got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I’m free
There are no strings on me
Hi-ho the me-ri-o
That’s the only way to go
I want the world to know
Nothing ever worries me
Hi-ho the me-ri-o
I’m as happy as can be
I want the world to know
Nothing ever worries me
I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me…

Like my new theme song?  I know, I stole it from Disney’s Pinocchio– but it fits so well!

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