Niagara Falls

May 24, 2010 — In the two-hour first episode of Ken Burn's twelve-hour mini-series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Niagara Falls gets ripped on so many times that I was almost compelled by the terms of my contract as a television viewer to start a drinking game. The comments came from various sources, but they all amounted to the opinion that the commercialization of Niagara Falls was an international embarrassment, and that even without the mockery of our Old World peers, it was still just plain tragic to our national soul that upon its discovery, we immediately privatized, exploited, and generally just surrounded one of the most spectacular features of North America with a suffocating miasma of cheesiness.

View from Our Hotel Room
Well, I'm here to say that I’m okay with commodifying a natural wonder if it means I get a luxury suite overlooking it. And I’m only half-joking...but only because I half-ass everything.

I mean, sure, up against the protected grandeur of Yellowstone and Yosemite, Niagara Falls seems a bit out of category. And sure, it's a little distracting to have flashy and towering hotels, casinos, restaurants, and stores craning over your shoulder while you try to commune with a natural wonder (and by commune, I mean photograph for posting on Facebook). And then there’s the awe-inspiring gaudiness of Clifton Hill...which I will get to here shortly.

U.S. Side from Canada
But there's also something to be said for easily accessing a natural wonder while simultaneously not sacrificing amenity. A lot to be said, actually. I’m trying to say most of it, in fact.

Thin Bit on Right is Bridal Veil Falls
There are scores of ways to see the world, and they all have their benefits. I’m not one of those travelers who believe that to experience anything, you must interact with locals (overrated...people are people) or venture off beaten paths (overrated...there’s a reason people didn’t care enough to beat a path there) or even get out of the comfort zone around your comfort zone. Just because you slept in a primitive hut in the middle of unadulterated jungle doesn’t guarantee you won’t still come back a douchebag, and a simple trip to a theme park can be just as revelatory and life-changing an experience as a hike up the world’s most remote mountain. But that’s a philosophical argument for a book I’ll never write. My personal library is full of books I’ll never write.

Basically, what’s relevant here is that I like the fact that there are amazing places on this planet that I can drive straight to on smooth highways with regularly spaced gas stations, and where conveniently placed hotels and an unending range of options for dinner and supplementary amusement await me so that I can just generally revel in the experience without having to sweat too many details.

Horseshoe Falls vs. Maid of the Mist
And, man, when you experience Niagara Falls, you really experience Niagara Falls. From every angle these days…from above, from below, from both sides of the river, from behind, at night, in the day, from the window of your hotel room and every other restaurant. Heck, as soon as you cross the Canadian border, it’s right there welcoming you with an outpouring of, well, water. It’s almost like an eye floater, always just there in your vision.

Here’s a quick primer on it. Set on the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, the Falls is divided into two sections of three falls. The U-shaped Horseshoe Falls is on the Canadian side in Ontario, and at 173 feet tall and 2,600 feet wide, is the more impressive section. The U.S. side, in New York, is split into American Falls and the immediately adjacent and much thinner Bridal Veil Falls. The U.S. set is 180 feet tall and 1,060 feet wide, and would be hugely impressive if it weren’t for its Canadian counterpart. The entire Falls system is nicely visible from either shore, but obviously you can get closer to the respective falls from their respective countries. Oh, and over the years, daredevils have famously attempted to go over them in barrels, homemade contraptions, and once even a jet ski. Most often, the devil won the dare.

Prior to this latest trip, I'd seen the Falls two times in my life, both over a decade ago, once in the sweaty tourist days of summer and the other in the snow-and-ice days of winter, so you’re not really going to get first-time impressions from me, although this time I visited in the spring, where I guess the big difference is that there are large beds of flowers planted everywhere.

We stayed on the 22nd floor of the Embassy Suites Niagara Falls. Its main features included walking distance to the Falls, a hot tub, and a ridiculously huge bed the size of, well, the floor. Most importantly, one whole wall of the room was glass (the exterior wall, fortunately), giving a great view of the Falls and, when one of the windows was open, a pleasant bit of natural-wonder-provided white noise to sleep to.

We hit the Falls first thing in the morning, after seeing it from our window the entire time we were getting ready and then seeing it from our restaurant table the entire time we ate breakfast. That was kind of weird, I’ll admit, and this is probably a better place for that “eye floater” line from a few paragraphs back. Of course, seeing it from that far away is nothing compared to seeing it from a possible suicide’s distance in all of its mess-with-your-camera-settings mist-enshrouded glory. You literally can get within feet of the lip of the Falls, where you can almost hear the hydrogen and oxygen molecules yelling Geronimo. Since we were there on a weekday in late April, the crowds were not a problem at all. Also, I was carrying a live chainsaw.

Before you ask, we didn’t do the famous Maid of the Mist, that guaranteed-to-get-you-soaked boat attraction that goes close enough to the base of the falls to capsize. That’s their slogan, I think, “Close Enough to Capsize.” You see, we had our infant with us, and the care instructions we were given for her included not getting her wet, not feeding her after midnight, and not exposing her to bright light. It was also because we were only there for a little over a day, and as a result couldn’t do every single activity outlined in bright fonts in every single brochure in the hotel lobby like I’m wont to do. 

We did, however, venture behind the Falls. For this attraction (called “Journey Behind the Falls”), you take an elevator 150 feet down into the bedrock that the Falls is eating away at a speed of a foot per year. You then enter a long, wet, cold cement tunnel that opens first on a lower observation area that allows you to see the Falls from the bottom without breaking your bones in a barrel to do so and then on to a couple of openings that look directly through the falls…a sight that is basically just a solid curtain of very loud, white water. Still, I’ve never been more mesmerized by a “you are here” map in my entire life.

That night, we returned to the Falls to witness the light show, where giant spotlights shine alternating arrangements of Roy G. Biv’s on both the American and Canadian falls, an effect specifically made fun of in the aforementioned Ken Burns documentary. I went back and forth on what I thought of this. The novelty wears off pretty quickly, but it’s worth it if only because it gives you the excuse to hang out at the Falls at night. The light show ends at like 11 or 12, so you can see it in darkness as well if you want to do that/have cat retinas.

In between seeing the Falls in the morning and seeing the Falls in the evening, we visited Clifton Hill, which is only a couple blocks from the Falls and to which I would like to compose as ode were I that kind of guy. Instead, I’ll make a movie reference, since I am that kind of guy. It’s like that place in Disney’s Pinocchio where, in one of the most apt allegories any story has ever given us, kids’ wildest fantasies are catered to until it turns them all into donkeys. Pleasure Island, I think it was called.

In this case the pleasures include multiple haunted houses, elaborate building facades (my favorite being an awesome exercise in cross-marketing where a giant Whopper-eating Frankenstein’s monster looms over a haunted attraction called House of Frankenstein and its Burger King neighbor), elaborate mini-golf courses (an indoor black-lighted science fiction-themed mini-golf course and an outside dinosaur-themed one), candy and gift shops, an enormous arcade, a ferris wheel, and a WWE-themed amusement complex, among others. There’s also a Guinness World Records Museum, a couple of wax museums, and a Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum (the latter of which I’ll do an article on at some point). The entire street should have an anthropomorphic animal mascot and be run on tokens.

Eventually, though, we got tired of checking and rechecking Niagara Falls off our to-do list, so we crossed the border back into the U.S., where we decided to see what the U.S. Falls were like. The U.S. Falls turned out to be in a more park-like area than its neighbor, except that from this angle, the skyline of high-rise buildings of Niagara Falls, Ontario, dominated the scene in a way that’s near-impossible to crop out of your pictures.

Anyway, Niagara Falls is a fun place, whether one spends a week or just a day like us. At the very least, it’s one of those places that most people need to check off of their own lifetime to-do lists and, thanks to its commercialization, it’s real easy to do. You’ll thank them on your deathbed when the grim reaper collects your homework assignment.

View of Canada from U.S. Side. Rainbow was Duty-Free