Niagara Falls: Natural wonder or Las Vegas wannabe?

As we drove into Niagara, having woken up in New York that morning, I felt betrayed by the loss of the picture-perfect barns of Connecticut and the attractive landscapes of the Catskills. The drive had been everything I’d dreamed of; the Gilmore Girls landscape that I had binge-watched for too many years was finally in front of me. We drove through hundreds of Stars Hollows. Yet, as we pulled into Niagara Airport to drop off the car, I found myself giving T a pep talk, which was of course more for my sake than his. The truth is that it wasn’t even that bad. It’s just that in my head, as soon as we saw a sign for Niagara, I expected the falls. Which is like saying that signs for London signify that Tower Bridge is within metres – of course it’s ridiculous. The anticipation was clearly taking over.

The fundamental thing about Niagara Falls is that its smack-bang in the middle of the US-Canada border. We had dropped the car in the US, but were staying over on the Canadian side. I searched for an Uber to take us and our luggage, but as soon as I plugged in the Days Inn address, all the cars disappeared. I couldn’t work out what was going on, plus T was worried that he had given the hire car to a couple of fraudsters and had stormed off to investigate.

After 5 minutes of googling everything I could on 5% battery, a taxi driver pulled up at the bus stop and asked if we were ok. He explained that Uber works on the US side, but they can’t cross the border. He wanted 100 CAD to take us to the hotel, which we refused to pay knowing it was only a few miles from where we were. Eventually we bartered down to 60 CAD and after driving through the backroads of the US town, we concluded that there was not a whole lot going on in Niagara. Our driver then had a genius idea. As it was rush hour, he explained that the border crossing would be difficult for both of us, so if he dropped us at the crossing, it would only be a 10-15-minute walk to our hotel from there.

This sounded like a good compromise to me, especially considering the money we would save, so he drove us to the border. After pulling up, he told us to head to the waterfront at 10pm, and not to worry, we’d like the Canadian side much better. We laughed and thanked him and headed to the unassuming turnstile which read: ‘Entry to Canada’. Following the path and unsure if we were supposed to go into the dingy offices or not, we came across the bridge.

Aptly named, ‘Rainbow Bridge’ is a pedestrian border crossing over the Niagara Gorge. Somehow our disastrous afternoon had lined us up perfectly for a sunset crossing. This magnificent spot provided our first view of the falls, as well as the contrast between the US and Canadian sides, which is a showdown not dissimilar from the Christmas lights competition in Deck the Halls. Niagara’s Canadian twin was clearly the far showier and noisier superior. We soaked up the pink haze of sun, dropping behind the falls, with the mini ‘CN Tower’ in the distance, and headed towards the hotel.

Now if you haven’t been to Niagara before, it can be a bit of a shock to the system. We’d been in New York for the last few days, so were no stranger to lights and noise, but the Niagara strip (Clifton Hill and Victoria Ave), is a sight to behold. The natural beauty we’d just observed on the bridge was a distant memory in the hum of LED lights, theme park rides and fast food restaurants. Oh, and the people. Well children, hundreds of children, running up and down the hill, dragging parents and grandparents to ice cream, donuts, burgers, toys, go-karts. It’s a kid’s dream and a parent’s nightmare.

Food in Niagara Falls is a combination of sugar, processed meat and cream. There are sweet treats everywhere - you can almost smell it on the breeze - and Denny’s, Burger King, Tim Horton’s and A&W line the roads. T’s vegetarianism was a state secret for fear of judgement, and he whispered his veggie burger order to the cashier.

But the thing is, I can’t hate it. The big kid in me won’t allow it. She was soaking it all up, loving the music playing wherever you go, the pure joy on kids faces and the shiny-ness of it all. This may have been because we were staying in Niagara Falls for less than 24 hours; I can imagine it being a very different story if you live here.

To me, it brought back memories of the strips in Greece, Turkey and Spain when I was a child on holiday, with street food, music, the water nearby, and spectacles like the ice-cream acrobats and street performers. The thrill of being out during the evening, bathing in the warm breeze, eating all of the naughty foods you were forbidden at home and the feeling that truly anything could happen.

We went down to the water at 10pm, because as our hotel receptionist explained, they hold a 5-minute firework display every evening. This baffles me. How can fireworks remain special if they are part of the daily routine? But I guess it is the perfect end to a night, every night in Niagara, and like the city, over the top and magical. The other gaudy but brilliant detail was revealed to us as the crowds moved away from the edge of the gorge. The falls are lit up in bright neon colours at night, as if they are running with slush puppy rather than freshwater.

During the day, Niagara is slightly more muted, allowing the falls to take centre stage and receive the attention it deserves. As you walk along the Parkway, the falls billow ahead, appearing both fluffy and spiky in turns and always the beautiful bright white against the teal of the river. Gazing, like so many others, over the edge towards this magnificent drop, it all makes sense – this was why everything was here. Without this, Niagara would be like any other town: a petrol station, a Tim’s, a church, a 7 Eleven. Instead, this view is what brings over 30 million visitors to Niagara every year.

After queueing for tickets and realising we didn’t have long before our coach, we decide to do the ‘Behind the Falls’ portion of the extensive tickets available. Luckily, we were booked into the next slot and ran down towards the Table Rock Centre. As we approached, it began to rain with the spray rising off the falls. Catching in the sunlight, the blue, gold and silver light scattered over everyone, as mothers tried their best to pull hoods over reluctant children’s heads, and glamorous women tried to protect their hair and makeup. We pulled on vast yellow ponchos and were ushered through security and down a lift to a tunnel, deep within the falls.

I have to say, while it was impressive to see the power the falls has, the two small holes cut into the falls themselves were damp, wet and kind of a let-down. However, the two viewing platforms at the base of the falls were far more interesting. The changing direction of the wind will inevitably leave you soaked, but heck that’s what ponchos are for. T took some stunning photos on his film camera and it was incredible to imagine how it would feel to ride the falls, an obsession of mine after reading a plaque at the end of the tunnel. The falls have a long history with daredevils, I learned, and looking up at the cascading water I could certainly see the appeal - but with none of the follow through, of course.

The height of its daredevil history bean in1829, when Sam Patch jumped from a high tower into the gorge, miraculously surviving the fall. This prompted a huge variety of challenges across the Horseshoe falls. In 1859, Charles Blondin crossed the 1100 ft gorge on a tightrope. After a successful first passage, Blondin performed the same stunt several times over the subsequent years with different variations. According to Wikipedia, Blondin crossed several times, including ‘blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man on his back (his manager, Harry Colcord), sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette, and standing on a chair with just one leg balanced on the rope’. Quite the daredevil, I’m sure you’ll agree. In fact, a cartoon featuring Abraham Lincoln as Blondin, pushing a wheelbarrow full of ‘all that was valuable to America’ featured in Harper’s Weekly in 1864, showing just how captivated people were by these stunts.

Later, in 1901 a 63-year-old school teacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over the falls in a barrel – with her cat no less. She emerged from the tube unharmed and reportedly said, "No one ought ever do that again." The ‘Miracle at Niagara’ involved an even more dangerous version of the stunt in 1960, but this time was a complete accident. Roger Woodward, a seven-year-old boy, was swept over the Horseshoe Falls, wearing only his swimming shorts and a life jacket. His 17-year-old sister Deanne had been pulled from the river only 20 feet from the lip of the falls and minutes later, Roger was plucked from the pool below the falls, unharmed, by the crew of the Maid of the Mist.

Far more recently in 2012, high wire walker Nik Wallenda became the first to walk across the falls in 116 years, after receiving special permission from both the US and Canadian governments. The full length of his rope was 1,800 feet and he crossed near the brink of the Horseshoe Falls (far closer than others before him). He carried his passport on the rope and presented it upon arrival on the Canadian side of the falls – they take this border crossing very seriously.

Though the falls has an exciting and entertaining history, it also played an important part in the scientific world. George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla built the first large-scale hydro-electric power plant at the falls in 1895, and subsequently revolutionised the use of electricity in North America.

Overall, Niagara Falls seems to be a little like marmite. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a huge variety of attractions here with something for everyone. The falls have fascinated humans for centuries, and I’m extremely glad we decided to stop here. The place has made a huge impression on me, mostly for the contrasts within it, but above all for its glorious water. I hope we’ll return and take a trip on the Maid in the Mist boat, as those who are fans of the US version of The Office will agree, it’s an important spot, and I’m sure the feel and strength of the water is even greater down there! Plus, I've never needed much persuasion to get on a boat.