It's no great observation that winter around here makes planning road trips a bit tricky. Blue skies outside your home can turn to whiteouts a few miles down the Thruway.
So where's a person to go when cabin fever hits, but they don't want to chance a lengthy drive?
How about Canada? Just minutes from downtown Buffalo, there's something about crossing that border that feels like a vacation -- even if your trip barely lasts a day.
While suffering from a severe case of winter doldrums recently, thoughts of the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont., came to mind. It is more than a casino, after all, it's a resort with shops, a spa, the intimate Avalon Ballroom concert venue, plenty of places to eat and drink and even a wedding chapel. Was it possible to plan a relaxing -- and affordable -- day away? It was worth a try.
First, a quick call was made to the spa to book one of the shorter -- and admittedly more affordable -- luxury services. Luckily, there was a 25-minute neck and shoulder massage ($60 Canadian) available for just past noon on a Saturday. That anchored plans for the day that included an early morning arrival; brunch in the Fallsview's popular Grand Buffet; shopping and the spa. And -- paraphrasing a popular HGTV makeover show -- the challenge was to do it all for under $100.
(Though the Fallsview is located in a bustling tourist district, this trip would not partake in delightful treasures like the Clifton Hill museums. That would be for another time.)
After leaving downtown Buffalo on a dreary Saturday morning, heavy snows across Grand Island and the Robert Moses Parkway immediately brought to mind reasons why many of us don't plan winter drives. Not to fear, though, since the ride is relatively brief. The Fallsview Resort is only about five minutes over the Rainbow Bridge and has plenty of covered parking ($10 self parking).
Through the front doors, you'll enter the resort's impressive circular lobby with corridors leading to the hotel, casino, shops and restaurants. Make a quick right and shed your heavy winter garments at the coat check for only $1.
Then, walk toward one of the many casino entrances (you must be at least 19 to enter). This is where you'll find the Grand Buffet, where a delectable array of all-you-can-eat food is available beginning at 8 a.m. weekdays for breakfast ($12.95 Can.) and ending with dinner served to midnight ($22.95). On Saturdays, the Grand Buffet serves brunch ($18.95) with a diverse array of food from eggs to shrimp and steak.
Many of the seats look out upon the Falls, a picturesque view to enjoy while leisurely sipping coffee and sampling the delectable array of desserts.
There are plenty of other food options in the Fallsview, as well. The Famous is an "upscale" 24-hour diner right off the main lobby. If you're in the mood for a cup of coffee or lighter fare, head down to the food court in the building's lower level where you'll find such places as Johnny Rockets, a '50s-style diner; Pazzo Matto, an Italian ristorante serving pastas and gourmet pizza; and Punto Dolce Sweet, with gourmet coffees and sweets.
A quick trip to the Fallsview Galleria before the spa was next. There are currently 20 or so boutique-sized stores with more on the way. It may not sound like much, but the shopping was surprisingly affordable and the shops offered distinctive merchandise. (Case in point: I spent an additional two hours walking the shops after the spa.)
Danier Leather had a nice selection of goods for men, women and children that also included a lovely selection of scarfs, silk tops and skirts.
Linda Lundstrom, a boutique "for authentic women," blossomed with an early springtime collection of clothing in lilacs and greens. Swarovski, an international store that sells Austrian crystal, was one of the surprises. Items such as the $3,600 crystal "iceberg" were expected, but it was a nice surprise to find earrings starting at $30 and necklaces at $50; plus adorable gift ideas such as baby items (a petite crystal pacifier for $30).
Bentley is billed as a luggage store and appeared to be just that judging by the large pieces of luggage filling the giant windows. Happily, there was also a large selection of purses and bags inside, with many fashionable selections priced at under $20.
Fruits & Passions is a whimsical store along the lines of Bath & Body Works. The small store packs a diverse selection of products for bath and body, as well as kitchen, garden and household.
Fun toys for all ages, including unexpected treasures like a "Nightmare Before Christmas" cookie jar, fill the shelves inside Turtle Pond Toys; and tobacco products and other gentlemanly products including flasks and walking sticks are for sale in Havana Tobacconist.
My favorite stop wasn't the Swiss Fudge shop, as expected, but Canada's Finest, a store selling items made by Canadian artists. A nice touch are the information cards and photos of the artists accompanying many items. Wooden bookmarks ($4.95); star and heart-shaped magnets ($5); ceramic switchplates ($18.50 and up); and interesting timepieces crafted from the likes of antique silver and canisters (hundreds of dollars) were some of the selections. There was also fantastic jewelry bearing such famous lines of literature as "To thine own self be true" and cuff links with "The play's the thing." (Shakespeare was a dominant, but not exclusive, theme.)
Since this day was not only about shopping, it was on to the resort's spa, a splurge that's worth a trip of its own. Though it's pricier than a quick comparison of services offered by Buffalo-area spas, it offers more in the way of perks such as yogurt, fresh fruits and drinks in the lounge area and the use of spa facilities including the whirlpool or sauna for the day of your appointment.
Located on the hotel's second floor, the serene spa is wrapped in a soothing, minimalist design colored by earth tones. Greeted at the main desk, you'll be given a key to a locker where you can stow your belongings and find a thick terry robe and slippers.
In addition to the locker area, there are separate areas for restrooms, sinks and showers. In the back, a peaceful oasis has a relaxing whirlpool, sauna, steam room and lounge chairs. Amenities are plenty, including baskets of razors, nail files and toothbrushes; blow dryers; aromatherapy shampoos and body soaps; and refreshing pitchers of water infused with fresh fruit.
Services are offered for all price ranges, from that 25-minute massage to manicures ($40 and up); body wraps ($75 for fragrant rose petals); and a luxurious Caviar Signature Immersion facial for $185. Men's services are offered as well, such as the 60-minute Gentlemen's Facial ($110).
The Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort met the challenge of finding a nearby tonic to the winter doldrums. It was also affordable: brunch, a spa treatment, tolls and a small birthday gift did come to under $100. Best of all, it felt like a journey hundreds of miles away -- not just a quick drive across the border.
>If you go
Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort is at 6380 Fallsview Blvd.
For general information including hotel reservations or to make a spa appointment, call (888)-FALLSVUE or go online at www.FallsviewCasinoResort.com.
(from downtown Buffalo)
* Cross the Rainbow Bridge;
* Follow Roberts Street (Highway 420) to Stanley Avenue;
* Turn left onto Stanley Avenue and follow to Murray Hill;
* Turn left onto Murray Hill, continue one block and turn right on Fallsview Boulevard.