Whilst staying in New York, I booked a hotel at Niagara Falls. I neglected to check which side of the falls the hotel was, US or Canadian. After a brief visit to the Crowne Plaza on the US side, I found myself across the border in the Crowne Plaza on the Canadian side of the falls.
It was dark when I crossed the Rainbow Bridge, the bridge connecting each side of the falls, yet the falls could be seen and definitely heard. The falls have a lighting display for the first few hours of darkness and the noise dominates the soundtrack of the area immediately surrounding the gorge into which approximately 6 million cubic feet of water makes the 70 feet drop over the crest. The name Niagara Falls allegedly originates from the Iroquois word “Onguiaahra” that translates to “Thunder of Waters”. This was my first live glimpse of the falls, having already seen them in numerous documentaries and films (see Superman II and, of course, Niagara) and I was suitably impressed. This had been an impulsive trip up to the falls from New York, so I had little idea of what to expect other than the famous horseshoe falls. For instance, I did not realise that the US side of the falls also has an impressive waterfall, aptly called American Falls.
Having successfully gained access to Canada, each end of the Rainbow Bridge has US and Canadian Customs booths respectively, the Canadian Crowne Plaza was almost immediately opposite. Now situated between Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe restaurants, the Crowne Plaza is also attached via walkways to a casino and a waterpark, as well as having numerous retail outlets, Hershey’s & Coca Cola to name two, running the length of the street level causeway. The hotel originally stood alone as an exclusive hotel. The hotel opened in 1929 and was originally called the Hotel General Brock, after Major General Sir Isaac Brock a commander of British and Canadian forces during the war of 1812, a conflict between the US and England. Over the years, the Brock has had a successionof royal visitors it also hosted the location cast and crew of the Marilyn Monroe movie, Niagara. For the most avid Monroe fans, her room number was 801. The hotel has moved with the times and has developed considerably, whilst still managing to retain a hint of it’s previously more glamorous incarnation. The hotel is currently undergoing a transformation from the Brock to the Crowne Plaza in another twist of the hotel’s history.
I checked in on 16th April for a 4 night stay. The room cost roughly $85 Canadian (at the time of writing the exchange rate is $2 Canadian to £1 Sterling). Despite the balmy weather of bright sunshine and temperatures of over 20C, it did not appear to be tourist season. There are tourists, but by no means as many as the area is geared up to cater for. I imagine that in a few weeks the streets will be heaving. Instead, it looks like the staff and attractions are starting their pre-season warm ups.
Let’s face it, the name gives it away, the falls are the main attraction here. Everything else has been built around it to try and keep tourists there for longer than it takes to watch the falls for a while. Every conceivable angle to view the falls seems to be covered. I imagine that someone somewhere must be working on something that could safely take people over the falls to complete the experience. Unfortuantely for me the Maid of the Mist tour boats are not yet running, so I opt to “Journey Behind The Falls”. This is, at a $9.45 Canadian reduced cost (the lower observation deck was closed), takes you, as you may have guessed, behind the falls. The experience involves going down a few feet in a lift to a tunnel that extends behind the falls. At the halfway point and the end point of the tunnels are portals from which you can view the falls. The first thing you notice is how cold it is. The second thing you notice is how loud it is. The third thing you notice is that through those portals, there isn’t much to see – the water gets in the way. Once I got over the initial disappointment, I began to gain an understanding of what the portals present. The view is one of a wall of white water. I could not see anything through it at all. In fact, in order to recognise that it is water and not a shimmering wall, I had to concentrate my focus. Withthis concentration combined with the noise and the cold, I started to appreciate the full extent of the power of the water on display. Aside from the portals is an upper observation deck where, as it is situated to the side of the falls, but much lower than the pedestrian walkway, I could stand and watch the water rage over the crestline. When i looked the other way, the sides of the gorge were barely visible through the spray generated.
Havin had more of an insight into the power of the falls, I ventured back up to the walkway that runs along the top of the gorge. It seems to me that the further you are away from the falls, the less impressive it looks. Once, on a trip to Iceland, I visited Gulfoss (Golden Falls) and it was a terrifyingly exciting experience. This was because I was so close that the spray was covering me and wherever it landed the water froze. This made the walkways extremely icy and dangerous. At no point did my experience of Niagara Falls become as exhilirating, but I had glimpses. When I got close to the falls crestline, I started to feel the force of the water raging below. The water doesn’t just happen to flow towards the drop and go over. The current rages towards it, taking withit branches, huge chunks of ice and any other debris it can suck in. If you fell in the water upriver, the cold would probably kill you and you would be glad of that because in seconds you’d be at the falls withan, almost, certain fall to your death.
There is a general morbid fascination with the falls. In particular, going over the falls in a barrel or tightrope walking across the top. The tradition started in the early 1900’s and seems to have stayed in the public pscheever since. The chance of surviving a plunge over the falls seem, to me, to be about 50/50 – for every death, there seems to be a tale of survival…even if severely mangled. The reasons people do it are mostly for publicity stunts or suicides, but one survivors story really stands out. In what is generally known as the “Miracle of Niagara”, a seven year old boy, Roger Woodward survived going over the falls, following a boating accident, wearing only a lifejacket. Luckily for him, the Maid of the Mist tours were on that day and he was pulled from the water. At the same time, his seventeen year old sister was the subject of a dramatic rescue from passers-by as she headed towards the falls. As recently as 2003, Kirk Jones jumped in and survived the fall only to be arrested and charged, as it illegal to go over the falls. The Chairman of the Niagar Parks Commission called the stunt “stupid”. Not wanting to do anything more stupid then booking a hotel in the wrong country, I moved away from the falls.
Away from the falls themselves one thing dominates the skyline: The SkylonTower is a needle-like structure that stands 520 feet high and houses a revolving restaurant just beneaththe observation deck at the top. Naturally, I took a trip up the tower. The ride up in the yellow elevators on the outside of the tower is by far the most interesting thing. From the shopping centre at the bottom, you travel out of the darkness and into the bright sunshine and stunning views of the falls. The elevator moves pretty fast, so it’s quite a ride. The elevator stopped to let people out and into the revolving restaurant and I headed onwards to the top. As far as being high up and getting 360 degree views on Niagara goes, it’s great. However, all anyone is really interested in is the falls…unless a sky high view of the spaghetti factory floats your boat. It’s worth the $12 Canadian admission for the photo opportunity alone. But it also gave me the chance to see what else Niagara has to offer.
When I was about 14 years old, I went withmy family on a week’s holiday to Blackpool. Niagara reminded me of that holiday. OK, Niagara has the falls, we’ve more than established that. Niagara has a tower and Blackpool has a tower, each impressive in their own way. But Clifton Hill, Niagara, AKA “Fun Street” takes full credit for my Blackpool flashback. The Clifton Hill area is filled with tourist attractions including, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, crazy golf, Waxworks, Imax theatres, comedy t-shirt outlets and easily more haunted houses on one street than I have ever seen. I count at least 4 and see another 2 advertised down the road. This whole area shrieks of desperation to maintain a tourist industry off the back of the falls. It’s extremely tacky in a very much British seaside resort way. I’m not being detrimental about the area, or indeed Blackpool, the attractions are popular and do provide entertainment away from the falls and there are numerous bars and restaurants to cater for all tastes.
So, it’s all about the falls and how to look at them. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is a natural sight that has to be seen up close (but not too close) to be truly appreciated and when that’s done, why not go on a haunted house crawl?!