There’s more to Niagara Falls than Niagara Falls.
From “the Brink” at the very top of the falls, the “Maid of the Mist” is heart-achingly poetic. Plying the gorge at the base of the Falls, the little tour boat seems to bob magically in a limpid pool of swirling water with silvery veils of mist fluttering by as the majestic cascades tumble down in lacey whiteness.
Photo courtesy of Maid of the Mist
Up close and personal, you are face to face with a flying river. Something to keep in mind.
True story: So awed were the Neutral Indians — having gained the name because they were the regional peacekeepers — with a set of cataracts between Lakes Erie and Ontario that they envisioned Hinon, the Lord of Thunder himself, as not living in the sky, but in the roaring of the Falls. In his honor, they named this sacred space Onguiaahra, or the “Thundering Water." And that, boys and girls, is where “Niagara” comes from.
Whether or not what arguably is the most famous waterfall in North America is the abode of a god is a question for the seers, but Niagara Falls continues to impress to this day. And while it may not be the tallest waterfall or the largest, there are few places on Earth your kids can see the power of nature so perfectly packaged.
Water, Water Everywhere
And thrilling. Every second, 150,000 gallons of hydrogen oxide (H2O) take a swan dive over the Niagara precipice in a trio of cascades: American and Bridal Veil on the Yankee side, and the U-shaped Horseshoe Falls split between the USA and Canada. The Maid of the Mist steers clear of the first two (they land on rock piles) and instead heads to the wall of white that is Horseshoe.
That is when things get fun: Plunging 167 feet and zipping by at three feet a second, the falling water of Horseshoe Falls generates enough energy to create a downdraft of 68 miles per hour. The “veils of mist” that are so enchanting from far away are in fact sheets of spray flung off Niagara at near-hurricane speed. In practical terms, the “Maid of the Mist" cruises merrily into the wind-whipped “corona” of the falls themselves. Don’t fret; the "Maid of the Mist” has been making the same trip since 1846 without ever hitting a snag.
But just in case you never got your sea legs, the Observation Tower affords an unmatched panorama of all three waterfalls, and the Cave of the Winds walkway lets visitors walk up and practically touch the torrents of American Falls. Both are part of Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest such green space in the country – founded in 1885 – and just being near the falls has an effect: The locals swear the aqua-frenzy creates a cloud of negative ions that promote a feeling of wellbeing.
Slightly meta health benefits aside, a tour of the waterfall was the first thing I did when I pulled into town. Niagara Falls is often derided as a one-note town, and when that one note carries a 95-decibel punch it is little wonder that it is the only thing people hear. The question remains: After the falls, what next?
Sky Wheel, courtesy of CliftonHill.com
It is easy to see what the Canucks did next: Niagara Falls, Canada, is every inch the casino-studded, neon-spangled, adult-aimed Vegas clone — although the SkyWheel “is worth the price of admission.” And to be fair, it is hard to not see the blazing LEDs of the Seneca Niagara Casino over on the American side – don’t hate; they have great shows – but on the whole, Niagara Falls seems part and parcel with Niagara Falls.
Falling For You
And then I tried French onion soup at the Red Coach Inn just outside the park, and an ice wine from the Niagara Wine Trail. Both hinted that this town isn’t nearly as one-note as you might think, however loud it is.
The falls, which stay “open” until November, are certainly the biggest attraction of the region, but not the only one. Niagara Falls State Park, open year-round, is more that just a tree-lined buffer between the falls and town; its visitor center and IMAX theater go a long way in swallowing up an afternoon, as are the seal shows at the Aquarium of Niagara. Into Golden Age Hollywood? Marilyn Monroe sauntered down the stairs of the Giacomo Hotel in the 1953 thriller-film noir “Niagara.” It’s enough to work up an appetite, so a post-Falls trip to the chocolate counter at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is a sure-fire winner. Then there is the history of the region.
Photos courtesy of the Aquarium of Niagara
I know, I know – when you are kid, nothing can suck the life out of a vacation like classrooms slipped in on the sly – but Niagara Falls was one of the final stretches of the Underground Railroad, and several transit points for this most harrowing of the American Experience dot the landscape. A little less heavy and far more celebratory, however, is the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum.
Kiddie Carousel, courtesy of Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum
Nature and Nurture
Perhaps the biggest who’da-thunk of Niagara Falls is its rise as a gay wedding destination; there was a happy couple at my B&B;, the elegant Butler House. To drive the point home, the Falls were lit up in rainbow colors the day same-sex marriage equality became the law of the land.
As I hung up clothes to dry — the No. 1 thing you bring to Niagara Falls is a No. 2 back-up outfit — I mulled the realization that it was second fiddles to the Falls that brought the town into focus: the wine, the history, and the charm of upstate New York. It was a happy case of bait-and-switch; I came for one experience, and left with a dozen others.
I hope Hinon isn’t offended he no longer has the spotlight …