Niagara Falls please, with lots of cheese

The Whirlpool….at your peril

Niagara Falls is an enigma. On the one hand here is a place of natural wonder. There is an enormous river, a fierce whirlpool, and not one, not two, but three amazing waterfalls. On the other hand, there is the dreaded and hard core commercialisation. Concentrated around the waterfalls are an enormous adventure park, a fierce ferris wheel, and not one, not two, but three colourful casinos.

The best idea is to let go. Just let go. Embrace your inner cheesiness and have some plain old good fun. It’s good natured Canadian cheese. The commercial element may be hard core, but it also comes across as an earnest commitment to make Niagara Falls as darn pleasant as possible.  

Niagara Falls is also perfect. I would have to say perfect in slightly disquieting way. Lawns are manicured, flowers grow regularly and with just the right happy shade of violet. There is no litter, there is no traffic chaos. There was a particularly unnerving corner cafe, Applebees, which ran a friendly and welcoming message on loudspeakers mounted outside. The message was something along the lines of ‘Please, come on in! We’ll welcome you like you’re the returned prodigal son and try to make your dreams come true with pancakes and maple syrup’. Everyone goes about their day in a friendly and orderly way. And did I mention this is Canada – stereotyping I know, but everyone is easy going, smiling and helpful.

You have to visit the Falls. (You really can’t avoid them. Let’s face it, that’s probably why you’re there.) Your options for visiting are surprisingly vast. They are, of course, milked for all their worth, but they are worth it. Waterfalls are just running water, really. But what Niagara makes of them commercially is pretty impressive. Along the river bank downstream, you can gaze transfixed at the Class VI rapids and imagine yourself being violently swept away on a tiny rubber raft. You can press up against like-minded tourists in the crowded tunnels set behind falls – yep, to view rushing water through tiny reinforced windows. If you’re adventurous / crazy, there’s a cable car that will swing you perilously over the Whirlpool – a roiling, seething bend in the river. Or you can even enjoy a decidedly damp (and far more sedate) re-enactment of the Falls’ creation in the interactive movie show ‘Niagara’s Fury’.
Perfect town. Disquieting.

The highlight, however, has to be the Maid of the Mist boat tour. Since 1848, passengers have donned blue plastic raincoats, drifted past the American Falls and crept right up to the base of Horseshoe Falls. (The cheese here involves resembling a posse of Smurfs. I’m only 5ft nothing so this analogy is particularly apt.) A journey of a few minutes, the boat chugs confidently up to the Falls, turns around and just powers the motor against the current so that people can enjoy the unique perspective. The noise is astonishing. I was soaking wet in an instant (despite the Smurf coat) and barely able to open my eyes against the spray. Try, try to take photos.

The tendency is to laugh nervously because, in its direct line of fire, I could feel the unbelievable and destructiveforce of the water. The Horseshoe Falls is not the tallest in the world, but it certainly is one of the most powerful. Surprisingly, of the sixteen people that have deliberately attempted to go over the falls (many in the requisite barrel and one with their pet turtle, yes, a turtle), eleven have survived. When you’re trapped in this vortex of liquid power, it’s terribly hard to imagine intentionally throwing yourself over the edge. Let alone with a turtle.

When you’ve experienced the Falls in every legal way possible (it is now illegal to attempt a tumble –without a license), there is plenty more to do in Niagara. There’s the butterfly conservatory, printery and newspaper museum, historic McFarland House, an adventure park, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, nightclubs and casinos.  There are two minigolf courses – one Dinosaur themed and the other glow in the dark – gaming arcades, a haunted house, a Strike bowling alley and tourist shops galore. All this squeezed into a town you can just about walk end to end, if you’re really keen (and fit). Just remember to smile and say ‘cheese’ and you’ll have a wonderful time.

And if you’ve truly had enough of the decidedly good intentioned but hyped up, glittery, shiny tourism bauble with jacked up pricing you can just sit by the waterfalls all day long, soaking up the spray. And it won’t cost you a cent or stink of cheese!

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