If you want to hit the road this summer, here’s your destination…
Honestly, I never had any intention of going to Niagara Falls. It was one of those out-of-the-way places that seemed intriguing but a little too remote to make the top of my travel bucket list. And, let’s be honest, it’s just a down-sized Vegas or, better yet, Atlantic City, right? Well, yes, sort of…BUT don’t be discouraged by the flashy casinos and tacky tourist attractions because the Falls themselves are what you’re coming to see. One of the world’s greatest and most awe-inspiring natural formations, Niagara Falls is definitely worth the trek.
Looking for an alternate route back from New York to Chicago, Mike decided to take us north through New York State and into Canada instead of the typical east/west route through Pennsylvania and Ohio. And the surprise element for me was an unexpected stopover at Niagara Falls. Located just 17 miles northwest of Buffalo, NY and 75 miles southeast of Toronto, it’s actually easier to get to than I realized.
We arrived in time for a lovely lunch on the outdoor terrace of Savor, the public face of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute (http://nfculinary.org). A sparkling gem among fool’s gold (i.e. Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, etc.), Savor offers one of the only fine-dining options in the area. The lunch menu, while concise, was well-prepared and very enjoyable. The Salade Maison — their take on a Ceasar featuring a soft egg and toasted breadcrumbs — was truly outstanding; the Pizza Bianco with garlic confit, whipped ricotta and arugula was flavorful and featured a nice, chewy crust; and the grilled local salmon salad with grilled avocado (above) was very tasty, although not quite as rare as I ordered (and would have preferred) and also a bit under-dressed. But one must keep in mind that it is a teaching institute and far superior to anything else in the area. So, after being sated with fine food and a nice bottle of wine produced by the school’s viticulture students, it was time to tackle the Falls.
The Niagara River flows from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and straddles the New York/Ontario border. The boundary line, originally set in 1819, has been a much-debated point of contention for many years. Little did I know that Niagara Falls is actually made up of three waterfalls which dump 85,000 to 225,000 cubic feet of water per second (depending on the season) into the glacially formed gorge. The largest and most iconic (and most photographed) of the falls is Horseshoe Falls, so named because of it’s distinctive 180-degree horseshoe shape (below). At 2,600 feet wide and with a vertical drop of 188 feet, Horseshoe Falls is truly mind-blowing.
Located half in Canada and half in the US, Horseshoe Falls flies two flags. The American Falls (below) lie on the east side of the gorge on the American side, as the name implies, as does the relatively smaller Bridal Veil Falls.
Below you can see the distance between Horseshoe Falls on the right and the other two falls on the left — about a rainbow’s distance, I would estimate.
The American side is easily reachable from the town of Niagara Falls, NY by following the signs for Goat Island. Per our research, we were prepared for hordes of crowds and long waits to work our way up to the viewing railings, but somehow our dumb luck prevailed and we happened to be there on the day following Memorial Day, when everyone seemed to have returned from whence they came. We parked in the closest lot, casually walked into the half-deserted park grounds and right up to the falls. Boom!
Before you actually reach the Falls, your nose detects the distinct smell of water, and as you get closer, you begin to feel the mist. We wandered over to the top of the falls (above) to see the vigorously flowing upper Niagara River tripping over rocks, completely unaware of what dangers lie ahead. As it reaches the crest, it plummets at such a powerful rate of speed that it’s hard to comprehend. The sheer force of the water is astounding and intimidating.
It was at that point that Mike recounted the story of a woman who went over the falls in a barrel in 1901 and survived. A 63-year-old schoolteacher, Annie Edson Taylor (below left) braved the stunt for fame and fortune. Short-lived fame she got, fortune she did not. Astonishingly, between 1829 and 1995, seventeen people actually made the daunting fall over the Falls and a miraculous 10 of them survived. And that doesn’t include Nik Wallenda (below right) and other daredevils who have attempted the unthinkable feat of crossing the falls in one form or another.
From the upper level, you get close-up views of all three falls, but if you crave even more adventure, you can opt for the “Cave of the Winds” tour 175 feet down into the Gorge (shown in the bottom right of the photo below) or the Maid of the Mist boat ride right up to the base of Horseshoe Falls (bottom photo below).* The intense force of the water produces a constant heavy mist which combined with a sunny day often creates a vibrant rainbow for the lucky visitors. It also makes for a pretty hairy boat ride! (No, I didn’t enhance that photo, that’s the real deal.)
Short of time, we were content remaining fairly dry up top and admiring the view from above. I snapped dozens of amazing photos, not realizing that the views from across the river just might be even more impressive.
If you decide to make the trek to Niagara, the most important thing to remember is: don’t forget your passport! Viewing the falls from both sides is a must. Every angle offers a different perspective of these incredible water formations.
After we completed our exploration of the US side, we grabbed our passports and crossed over the Canadian border which is located immediately on the other side of the bridge spanning the Niagara River. Again, we happened to be there on a relatively quiet day which allowed for quick passage, but I’ve heard that the lines at customs can back up quite a bit, so plan to leave plenty of time to make the crossing.
To my surprise, the Canadian side hit me as even more flashy and touristy than the American side…but the views from there are unmistakably astounding and shouldn’t be missed. From across the river, you get an awe-inspiring panorama of the three Falls and their vast enormity and astounding beauty. Watch in amazement as one-fifth of the world’s freshwater crashes down to the basin below.
Unlike the New York side, there isn’t designated park land on the Canadian side to create a natural buffer between the parking areas and the viewing areas, only a busy boulevard and a wide promenade along the river which admittedly provides massive views. But like the U.S. side, if you want to get closer, you can opt for a variety of interactive experiences.* You can don a poncho and feel the mist of Horseshoe Falls from 13 stories below at the “Journey Behind the Falls,” you can ride an antique cable car across the Niagara River and/or you can take the Hornblower Cruise up to the Falls.
Parking was a little tricky, but we fortuitously stumbled upon an hourly parking spot on the street near the police station. It seems luck was on our side that day, as a stunning double rainbow appeared over the Falls just as we crossed the street to the viewing area — an undeniable illustration of just how astonishing Mother Nature’s handiwork can be. We walked the length of the promenade, from the awe-inspiring crest of Horseshoe Falls to the American Falls vista — me frantically snapping pictures of the Falls wrapped in a rainbow hug and Mike encouraging me to get out from behind the camera and experience it in real time. He was right, it warrants undivided attention and complete respect. But, to my defense, seeing as though I will likely never get back to Niagara, at least I have the photos to remind me of it’s wonder!
Having the opportunity to view the Falls from two countries is truly a unique experience and reminds us of just how close we are to our friendly neighbors to the north. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the benefit of time to allow for an overnight stay in Canadian Niagara, as we were moving on to our final destination of London, Ontario for the night, but I’m sure it would have been an entertaining experience. And what a way to wake up in the morning – with a view of one of the world’s greatest natural creations right outside your window!
But if the thought of staying amongst the glitz and glitter of Niagara for the night doesn’t appeal, I hear that the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, located on the south shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River, is a charming place to visit. Either way, whether you pop in for a few hours or stay overnight, you will be very glad you stopped to take in what is surely a candidate for one of the great natural wonders of the world.