Aerial view of the Horseshoe Falls from the Skylon Tower in 1970

The Niagara Experience

The Niagara Waterfalls are one of the world’s most famous natural wonders, and I first witnessed this magnificent spectacle way back in 1970, during a tour of N.W. Canada. Holiday cash was a very limited commodity for me in those days, so I was forced to stay in one of Niagara’s cheap and rather seedy ‘Honeymoon Motels’. The most notable feature of this dubious establishment was the king-size vibrating bed. Once switched on, it couldn’t be turned off until it had finished its very long, noisy and vigorous vibration cycle!

However, I really enjoyed seeing both the famous Canadian Horseshoe Falls and its more junior partner, the American Falls. Despite being peak season, there were very few tourists about and it was a privilege to be able to visit all the best viewing spots unhindered by others.

The descent into the tunnels through the bedrock to see the falls from behind was particularly memorable, as was the view from the observation deck of the nearby lofty Skylon Tower.

The promenade overlooking the falls and the green park behind had been nicely landscaped to give a relaxed ambience and my Niagara exploration was a pleasant and memorable experience.

Almost 50 years later, I had an opportunity for a second visit to Niagara as Sue and I passed through Toronto on our way home to Portugal. In order to find just how much the tourist environment around the falls had changed over time, we joined a full day ‘Niagara Experience’ coach tour.

We were accompanied by a group of boisterous Rotarians who were attending a conference at Toronto Airport. It was a slow start as the first bathroom break of the day was only 30 minutes into the journey. This comfort break was also used by the North American Rotarians as the perfect opportunity to refill their colossal ‘coffee to go’ plastic beakers!

Before reaching the waterfalls themselves, the coach stopped at the Niagara Whirlpool, an exciting natural phenomenon situated on a very sharp bend in the dramatic Niagara River Gorge. As at the falls themselves, the river here forms the Canadian/USA border and there are great views of the swirling whirlpool and some formidable white water rapids.

An antique cable car was winging tourists on an aerial journey above this mesmerizing maelstrom. Officially known as the ‘Whirlpool Aero Car’, it is the only one of its kind in existence. Whilst it was clearly a popular ride with the visitors, the unattractive sight of the cable car and its six sturdy ropes did little to enhance the wonderful natural view of the gorge’s unusual geology and mighty rapids.

We soon arrived at the busy town of Niagara Falls, where we joined dozens of other tourist buses, all disgorging myriads of eager waterfall watchers. What a difference from the peace and quiet of 1970!

The promenade that overlooks both the American and Canadian Horseshoe Falls was thronged with a jostling mass of noisy people, so it was a near impossibility to even see the waterfalls, let alone take decent photos. An interminably long queue of people snaked its way down the gorge through an ugly concrete complex of tacky commercial outlets, eventually leading to the quayside on the river. They were all waiting to board the boat that ferries people right up to the base of the falls so they could take a closer look and get wet.

Worse still was the sight of Niagara’s latest attraction. Four ugly ziplines had recently been installed, to give a “breathtaking ride for 670 metres from the top of the gorge to the base of the Horseshoe Falls”. Unbelievably, these controversial ziplines pass right in front of one of the best views of the American Falls, and are completely insensitive to the local environment. The ziplines project has exposed a deep rift between those who want to give visitors an “unforgettable Indiana Jones experience” and those who wish to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the Niagara River. As one conservationist neatly put it, “it’s like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa”!

We eventually managed to find a space where we could genuinely appreciate the magnificence of these gigantic cascades. Then, exhausted after fighting our way through the crowds on a hot day, we strolled into the beautiful park, which still remains unchanged behind the promenade. Here, whilst waiting to board our bus for the next step in our ‘Niagara Experience’, we had the pleasure of watching the local squirrels scurrying through the trees.

Matters improved when our coach reached Niagara-on-the-Lake. This pretty and well-preserved town sits on the shores of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Niagara River. An efficient ‘Park and Ride’ shuttle system operates for visiting coaches. Soon we were enjoying the flower-filled streets of its Heritage District with its 19th century buildings.

The town had an important place in the country’s history as it served as the first capital of the Province of Upper Canada. We had not eaten lunch at Niagara Falls, as we had been dismayed by the awful quality of the fast food outlets, so were delighted to discover a friendly tavern in the old town that served quaffable real ale and tasty pub grub!

Suitably fed and watered, and at last beginning to feel like satisfied tourists, we motored to our last attraction of the day – to taste some ‘Ice Wine’ at the nearby Lakeview Winery. Ontario is Canada’s premier viticulture region and is famous for the production of this unusual wine. It is a type of dessert wine fermented from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The sugars do not freeze, but the water does, allowing development of a more concentrated grape juice. The resultant wine is incredibly sweet, exceedingly expensive and was not to our taste. Lakeview Winery’s very drinkable Riesling was a much better buy.

The next day, following a tip from the hotel concierge, we visited the lovely village of Port Credit, also on the banks of Lake Ontario. The village has an old-town atmosphere, a marina, an active waterfront and some first class restaurants and cafés. There are two pleasantly landscaped parks facing the lake, which proved perfect for a stroll before our gourmet fish and chip lunch at the Snug Harbour Restaurant overlooking the town’s marina. As folk who spent our childhood by the ocean, we found it strange to look out across such a vast stretch of water as Lake Ontario and not smell the salt of the sea. There was just a faint musty, earthy lake water odour, presumably emanating from slowly decaying plant matter.

So our exploration of the Niagara area was one of contrasts. We loved the two towns by the lake. Both had been tastefully preserved, were proud of their heritage, had charming green spaces and a good range of quality shops and restaurants. They were typical of what we had already seen elsewhere in Canada. However, it was clear that the greedy local authority at Niagara Falls regards the majestic waterfalls as a resource to be exploited, not as a sacred place to be protected and celebrated for its uniqueness.

So the tourist town of Niagara Falls finds itself on a slippery slope, always seeking to find yet another new star attraction to keep the crowds and tourist dollars rolling in. What’s next – bungee jumping into the base of the falls?

By Nigel Wright
|| [email protected]

The Niagara Whirlpool in the river gorge
The American Falls and the ugly quayside complex
Aerial view of the Horseshoe Falls from the Skylon Tower in 1970
The memorable view of the Horseshoe Falls from behind
The Horseshoe Falls from the Pormenade
We relaxed and watched the squirrels
The town centre of Niagara-by-the-Lake
Port Credit Marina and Snug Harbour Restaurant
Port Credit Marina opens out into Lake Ontario