Niagara Falls: A natural wonder scarred by greed

Rainbows form around the Hornblower

Niagara Falls is a spectacle of epic proportions. Niagara Falls the town is grim, an example of how greed and tourism at its worst can come close to destroying its reason for being.

I spent our day and night there trying to ignore the ugly buildings and brazen commercialism, to focus instead on the falls. It wasn’t easy. My mood had soured at the start of the day as we fought to leave Toronto with a dodgy sat-nav on vast, busy freeways, and then later as I ploughed through a red light in Niagara into oncoming traffic.

Our hotel, the Marriott Fallsview, was distinctly average too – and ludicrously expensive with it. It’s a hotel that would struggle to survive in its worn-out condition if it weren’t for its ideal location. Arriving in the early afternoon, we had lunch in a dirty dining room that gave us our first tantalising hint of the falls through the trees. The real drama came in our dated room. Maids had closed the curtains, leaving us to do the big reveal – the majestic sight of the American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil Falls tumbling into the Niagara River below amid the swirling mist. It restored my spirits.

The edge of the Horseshoe Falls
The edge of the Horseshoe Falls

And then came the tour. This had been sold to us by a hotel salesperson who went through her spiel for 10 minutes, barely stopping to take a breath. As she dished out tickets to this and discounts for that, I felt as if I were the latest in a long line of sausages that had been through her tourist-tastic sausage machine. Goodness knows whether it cost us 10 times what we would’ve paid independently – I was so caught up in the rush that I said ‘yes’ to everything just to get away. Still, we got to see the highlights without having to worry about transport and there weren’t many of us on the coach. The guide was a friendly and informative chap who related the stories that mattered.

And after a few of them, there we were. Perched on the Canadian side of the Horseshoe Falls, the most powerful waterfall in North America by height and flow. We stood just feet away from the river as it tumbled and rumbled noisily 50m or so into the abyss leaving a cloud of spray. It was truly hypnotic stuff.

We grabbed a yellow poncho each and were herded into a lift down to Journey Behind The Falls, which delivers what it says on the tin. Emerging into the open onto a soaked viewing platform, the falls thundered down beside us, the lip 13 storeys above. The power was elemental.

Another view of the Horseshoe Falls
Another view of the Horseshoe Falls

A tunnel took us to two openings behind the cascade, where the noise was deafening and we were buffeted by the pressure and the spray. My balance went a bit peculiar.

Down in the tunnels, we learnt more about the history of the falls, how they were formed around 12,000 years ago, and about the astonishing rate of erosion that’s only slowed in recent years thanks to the arrival of the hydroelectric power stations upstream. We learnt too about the maniacs who chose to ride the falls and rapids in barrels, some of whom miraculously survived to tell their insane tales.

There’s no famous Maid of the Mist on the Canadian side of the falls anymore, it’s the Hornblower that sails into the spray these days. We picked up a red poncho, climbed aboard and braced ourselves for a soaking as we were ferried up past the American Falls and the much smaller Bridal Veil close by. The real drama came at the Horseshoe, which takes about 90% of the river’s flow and throws up buckets and buckets of spray and buffeting gusts of wind, so much so that taking pictures was nigh on impossible.

The American and Bridal Veil Falls
The American and Bridal Veil Falls

With the sun shining above us, brilliant rainbows formed around the boat and the engines strained to keep us in position amid the surging and chaotic waters. This was what Niagara Falls was all about, not the cheap and ugly crap being sold in the endless souvenir shops, the constant money-grabbing opportunities and dreary, plastic commercialism.

A mile or two downstream we stopped beyond the rapids at the Niagara Gorge, beside a whirlpool where the river does a sharp right on its way to Lake Ontario. There, the quaint Spanish Aero Car was taking visitors for rides across the water.

As the sun went down back in town, the lights came on and the falls glowed a ghostly white. We dodged the awful chain restaurants, cafes and shops on the main drag to visit the Fallsview Casino (perhaps the only reason we’d decided to stay in Niagara Falls for the night), and ate good Italian food at their excellent if pricey Ponte Vecchio restaurant.

The falls from our hotel bedroom
The falls from our hotel bedroom

The casino was an endless frenzy of slot machines and the spitting image of Las Vegas but there were too few roulette tables. Still, Graham did reasonably well and I managed to lose everything in a matter of minutes. I drowned my sulky sorrows in an endless number of vodka and tonics before finding some relief at a black jack table. OK, I didn’t win but at least the game provided a degree of entertainment and went on for slightly longer than an Abba single. After getting back to our room, we had to march all the way back to find my glasses. No wonder my mood was foul as I fell into bed.

It was sunny and hot in the morning as we went for a stroll and one last look at the falls.

Our tour guide had spoken fondly of the beautiful landscaping along the river, the work of the Niagara Parks Commission. And it was true, the planting was exceptional. He also spoke proudly of how not one cent of taxpayers’ money was used for the upkeep of it all. And perhaps that’s the problem. I’d rather pay a few pence in taxes if it meant doing away with the worst excesses of Niagara’s grim commercialism, to give the glorious falls the chance to breathe free of the tat. Not that there’s any sign of that happening anytime soon.

The aero car waits to cross the whirlpool
The aero car waits to cross the whirlpool

So we drove away, north to Niagara-on-the-Lake, down the escarpment that helped give birth to the falls, along the road that shadows the river and that’s lined with a whole string of elegant and expensive homes.

Perhaps this little town on Lake Ontario would offer something a little less money-grabbing.