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SHORE THING
GET ALL THE BREEZY, REFRESHING BENEFITS OF BOATING WITHOUT ANY OF THE WORK ON THESE WATER RIDES

Feel a twinge of jealousy at the sight of a trailer with someone else's boat heading for water? Try something faster and simpler than the bother of actual boat ownership:

Boat ticket ownership.

From the slow purr of a motor through an underground tunnel to a rollicking bath in the rapids or a sunset catamaran sail, boat rides around here refresh and cool. Views from the water expose out-of-the-way places -- from an old lighthouse and majestic grain elevators to one man's party gazebo. Baking-hot towns and cities fade into the horizon until they look crisp, appealing and wee. And compared to the alternative, fares are cheap.

Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises, 210 Market St., Lockport. 433-6155. Seven days a week, four times a day. Reservations required. AAA discount takes $1 off $12.50 ticket. Two-hour ride.

Sounds: Narration and recordings of old-time canal songs. Blues bands play at headquarters' shoreside bar. Rain outings? Yes. Season: Until October's end.

Pick a sunny afternoon or a pretty evening. Neither will be wasted on these boats. Cruises take the trip through a bit of the 1817 canal on a double-decker vessel or, my favorite, the long, flat replica of the one in the movie "The African Queen." It's a languid and luxurious way to float along the canal as the sky grows pink. Two hours slip by with the captain's interpretations of the scenery. (One overgrown spot once held a factory that first made the classic red checked tablecloths.)

The best part is going inside the lock, an elevator for boats. The giant doors slam shut and the cavity fills like a bathtub. The boat floats up to meet the high waters ahead and people standing along the walkway wave, smile and take pictures. Do this at least once near sunset, if you can.

Moondance Catamaran, Erie Basin Marina. 854-7245. Seven days a week, five times a day. Outings depend on bookings; call to check. Two-hour ride. They require a minimum group of six people at $20 a person. Or for $500 or so, reserve the entire boat. Holds 45.

Sounds: Jimmy Buffet, reggae recordings. Rain outings? No. Season: Until October's end.

Find six friends willing to gather and the handsome sailors who run the 46-foot, open-air catamaran will take folks on a sail along Buffalo's coast, just within the breakwall. The sun hits the old grain elevators, making them look as fine and grand as Greek temples on the Aegean. A bar has drinks in plastic cups for $2.50 -- from gin and tonic to a dryish pink wine.

Beyond the benches at the bow, find mesh webbing perfect for lying on your stomach and watching the water beneath rush by. The ride feels super-smooth, a kind of sailing Cadillac. A bargain at $20.

Grand Lady, dock entrance through Holiday Inn, Whitehaven Road, Grand Island. 774-8594. Lunch and dinner cruises and other outings Call ahead. Two- to three-hour rides. Tickets from $15 to $43. Single, group or private parties.

Sounds: Broadway show, gospel themes and a variety of live musicians. Rain outings? Yes. Season: Until October's end.

This lovely yacht is small, with carpeting on an open-air top deck that makes the perch feel cozy. Nice nooks at the front. Cheerful college-age bartender doles out wine and fruity blender concoctions. The trip began, as boat rides often do, with Jimmy Buffet's margarita-soaked melodies. Watching the nice houses and docks and green of the Niagara River's grassy banks is mesmerizing. We spotted a heron.

An amiable crowd didn't seem to mind the disappointing dinner fare. An overdone, leathery sirloin filet followed an iceberg salad. The guitar-playing singer we heard was too loud -- the boat isn't big enough to justify such cranked-up sound -- with a sappy karaoke backup. While the music and food varies, it was an uncontested pleasure to stand on deck and watch the shore dissolve into a bluish gray dusk.

Whirlpool Jet Boat Rides, 115 South Water St., Lewiston. 888-438-4444. Seven days a week, hourly. Call for reservations. 45 minutes. $43. Find $5 coupon at www.niagarafallslive.com.

Sounds: Narration, rushing water. Rain outings? Yes. Season: Ends Oct. 24. This is the tourist feature you see on the Travel Channel. According to a chamber-of-commerce-type brochure, Andrew Dan Jumbo of "While You Were Out" takes his friends on this boat whenever he's in town. It is impressive fun, like a live-action amusement park ride. The boat slams through the rapids. We bounced on the padded benches, took waves of water in the face, and marveled at the thrill of the circle spins and head-on rapid collisions.

Smart-aleck Canadian boat leader charmed with his question, "Anyone here from Buffalo?" Say yes and get a sly offer to hear the directions repeated one more time, sloooowly. Wear a bathing suit, bring a towel. An extravagance at close to $1 a minute, but so out of the ordinary it's worth it.

Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride, 2 Pine St., Lockport. 438-0174. Seven days a week, hourly. $8.25. Hour tour includes walk to the underground tunnel, 20 minutes of which is by boat.

Sounds: Guide narrates. Rain outings? Yes. They lend ponchos! Season ends: Oct. 11. (Tours slow to weekends and holidays after Labor Day.)

To get to the cool underground ride -- a steady temperature of 55 degrees no matter which season -- walk the canal banks to the stone remains of old factories. Up until the 1940s or so, they channeled canal water to power machines that once made fire hydrants and spittoons. Irish workmen who spent 11 years blasting out the tunnels in the mid-1800s. Now a portion has waist-deep water and a boat with benches creeps along. Bring a flashlight to take an extra look at the ceiling drips that, according to one guide joke, come from an outhouse above. The best price of any ride.

Harbor Cruises, Miss Buffalo II and the Niagara Clipper. Erie Basin Marina. 856-6696. Seven days a week. Times vary. Call for details. Reservations recommended. $12.50 to $46. About two hours.

Sounds: Some narrated sightseeing. Rain outings? Yes. Season: September's end with a few October outings.

Between the two boats, the variety of outings alone is laudatory -- from a Champagne brunch to a midday break, a short Friday after-work jaunt or a dinner. There's something nice about the slow, old-fashioned steadiness of Miss Buffalo II. It chugs along the lakeshore, beneath the Peace Bridge. On the occasional Sunday there's a trek to out-of-the-way inlets to view the city's world-class collection of grain elevators. On a hot afternoon when the sun was high in the sky, the horn bellowed and I felt cooled by a breeze. Families and one lovestruck couple in a lip lock arranged themselves along the side benches and upper deck picnic tables. As those in my party sipped a sour chardonnay, we marveled at the views. We passed the 1833 lighthouse -- one of the lake's oldest, our guide said.

We rode through the Black Rock Channel locks we didn't know existed. A bridge swung away to let us pass. Rowers in sculls oared by one after another. Passengers leaned against a front railing with arms up to catch more breeze. To find this kind of relief in the baking heat, the $12.50 ticket was cheap.

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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