A few months ago, my old friend from England arrived for her first visit to Canada, and Niagara Falls placed high on her must-see list.
The Horseshoe Falls from the air. [Nancy Wigston photo]
On checking to confirm that the falls were indeed one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders, I was surprised to discover they weren’t. Oh, wait. There they were, listed among the “Seven Forgotten Natural Wonders of the World.” Enough said.
Early one fine morning we took a bus excursion, which offered picturesque stops along the way. Gathering at a midtown hotel with the other tourists, we settled in among day trippers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, and China. Our driver/guide was originally from Sri Lanka. In charmingly accented English, he pointed out Toronto architectural highlights as we left the city, some of which scandalized him, like the gold-infused towers of the Royal Bank Plaza building on Bay Street. He then took pains to point out that the CN Tower had lost its status as the world’s tallest freestanding structure, but everyone among this well travelled crowd seemed to know that already. Still, his colour commentary was engrossing, all the more so because it was delivered while holding a microphone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other.
It was a warm and cloudless day, and we soon relaxed. Our first stop seemed designed to put everyone at their ease, with a chance to taste wine at a Niagara winery. The non-drinkers among us got a special option: a visit to a local chocolate manufacturing concern where we loaded up on specialties like chocolate-covered ginger and macadamia nuts.
Perhaps it was the sugar lift, but soon we had agreed to a 20-minute helicopter ride over the falls. The cost, clearly, was extra, but beneath her quiet exterior, my London friend possessed an intrepid spirit. “Keep taking pictures,” we were told, as hands buckled us into the aircraft and yellow headphones were clamped to our heads. This proved excellent advice, since it kept us busy – and here I speak for myself -– and it effectively locked away any tendency to panic. Splendid views of the Niagara region and its patchwork quilt of fields soon yielded to the spectacle of the Horseshoe Falls, directly beneath us.
Emboldened by the helicopter ride, the group then voted down the guide’s suggestion that we skip a stop at Niagara-on-the-Lake. To be fair, he was right – the stop delayed us – but the chance to stroll past the Prince of Wales Hotel, gingerbread-cute gift shops and Victorian homes was well worth the time. The town, which echoes the heroic triumphs during the war of 1812-14, is home to the Shaw Theatre Festival, and to the perfectly named artist Trisha Romance. Some of us purchased jars of Niagara fruit jams as souvenirs. If Niagara represents untamed nature, this picturesque town embodies the manicured opposite.
By early afternoon we were more than ready for the thrill of the falls, but first we stopped at the flower clock for more souvenir picture-taking, then the Whirlpool Rapids and its curious 1916 Spanish Aero car. At
last we disembarked, joining the queue for the Maid of the Mist. My sole memory of this famous trip was the news coverage of Princess Diana and her children in their blue ponchos during their 1991 visit; they were clearly having the time of their lives.
Living only a 90-minute drive away, I’d never boarded the Maid of the Mist myself. (No logical reason comes to mind.) Donning our blue plastic ponchos, we headed aboard, half listening to the spiel coming over the speakers. As we passed the Bride’s Veil Falls, we were regaled with the legend of a native princess and her rainbow, but soon the thunderous pounding grew so loud that our pitchman ended with: “Ladies and Gentlemen, Niagara Falls!” It was truly a thrill: the roaring, the rain-like mist, the tourists in blue ponchos posing for photos by the rails, while mid-boat stood a little boy of four, clinging to his mother, frightened in the face of so much raw energy.
In the past, visitors to the new world made pilgrimages to Niagara Falls, penning their impressions for posterity. Some, like the little boy on our boat, experienced something less than pleasant. In 1832, writing in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, Englishwoman Fanny Trollope observed, “I wept with a strange mixture of pleasure and pain and certainly was, for some time, too violently affected in the phsyique to be capable of much pleasure. Others, however, were drawn to the falls by the anticipation of pleasure. In 1801, Aaron Burr’s daughter honeymooned here, followed in 1804 by Napoleon’s brother-in-law and his bride. The trend continues; 50,000 couples enjoy wedding vacations here each year. The most famous quip about the falls belongs to the wit Oscar Wilde, who wrote in 1883: “Every American bride is taken [to Niagara], and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest disappointments in American married life.”
During our free time to explore the town, my friend and I were entranced by the sight of a dozen brides of Asian origin, lovely in their white dresses, husbands on their arms, all obeying the instructions of a wedding organizer arranging them so that the falls would appear in the background of each photo. Perhaps the reason we lingered away our afternoon, sipping cappuccinos and watching the frieze of brides – ignoring our guide’s instructions to “shop here” – is that the tourist part of town is so garish. The centre of town, Clifton Hill, presents a collection of haunted houses, a wax museum, souvenir shops and midway rides. Perhaps, we mused, old superstitions and legends about the falls – plus its tendency to attract the theatrical and the unhinged – originally gave rise to this collection of oddities.
To be fair, kids of all ages love Clifton Hill, and the Dinosaur Park Mini Golf did look rather tempting. More serious games of chance draw players to the Falls Casino. Nature lovers can enjoy a gentler side of nature at the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, where freshly hatched butterflies form the main attraction. “They have romance on their minds,” remarks a Parks employee, making us think of honeymooners. At the end of my day as a tourist in my own back yard, I’d done and seen a lot, from the absolutely stupendous to the downright kitschy. My London friend was absolutely right. No visit to Canada is complete without a visit to the wonder that is Niagara Falls.
For more info: www.niagarafallstourism.com, 1-800-56FALLS