Nature’s Thunderous Beauty
Straddling the U.S.-Canada border, Niagara Falls draws its waters from four of the five Great Lakes and flings them down twenty stories at the rate of 42 million gallons a minute. Almost a mile wide in total, the falls are divided by islands into three sections: the 1,060-foot American Falls (which includes a small section called Bridal Veil Palls) and the larger, 2,600-foot Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, which gets the most visitor attention.
Western society first became aware of the falls in 1678 when Jesuit missionary Louis Hennepin became curious about the thunderous roar he heard in the distance and followed it to its source, becoming Niagara’s first tourist. Almost three centuries later, Marilyn Monroe and James Cotton headed this way in the falls’ namesake film, becoming their iconic honeymooners. An uncounted number of real-life couples had the same idea, making Niagara the undisputed honeymoon capital of the continent for most of the 20th century, peaking in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, Coney Island – esque reminders of that era abound in the innumerable cheap honeymoon motels and tourist stops, but surrounding its carnival core, the Niagara area has attractions painted with a wider brush.
The Canadian side is much more happening, both in terms of falls views and general revelry – full of nightclubs, restaurants, upscale hotels, and the main man-made attraction, the 250,000- square-foot Casino Niagara, which is scheduled to be replaced by a 2½-million-square-foot version in 2004. Just north of the falls, the Niagara Parkway offers an entirely different world, dotted with beautiful gardens. At the end of this road lies the lovely little 19th-century town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of the prettiest in Canada and the heart of the Niagara wine region. All of the area’s top wineries are open to the public, including Peller Estates; Inniskillin Wines (whose bam may – no one’s 100 percent sure – have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright); Château des Charmes, the first Canadian winery to win gold at Bordeaux’s prestigious VinExpo; and Vineland Estates Winery, housed in a former Mennonite homestead.
But back to the point – or rather, the falls. The classic way to view them, and also the best, is from aboard the Maid of the Mist, a sturdy 600-passenger boat that’s the tenth in a same-name line of crafts, taking passengers right into the spray at the base of Horseshoe Falls since 1846. You’ll be very’ glad of the plastic raincoats they issue at boarding.
To get a different though still drenching view, take the Journey Behind the Falls tour, which descends via elevator through 150 feet of rock to a series of man-made tunnels that provide a view from behind the cascading water. On the U.S. side, the Cave of the Winds tour leads visitors to the base of the American Falls, while the thirty-passenger Flight of Angels tethered helium balloon takes you up 400 feet for a ten-minute view of the majesty below.