By Michael Minorgan for Curtains Up email@example.com
My return to Niagara Falls after 50 years was much less dramatic than the mythical story of Lelawala the beautiful maiden of the Ongiaras tribe, who was swept over the falls in search of her true love Heno who is said to have caught her as she fell. They remained there until their death and it’s believed by some that to this day their spirits still live in the caves beneath the falls. (1)
My visit may have been less dramatic, but it was certainly no less anticipated.
Fifty years ago Niagara Falls, once an entry on some lists as one of the Seven Wonders Of The Natural World and a much celebrated lure to dare devils who wanted to challenge its thunderous power and take on the ultimate challenge of man versus nature. Since 1950 there have been six attempts to go over the falls in various and sundry man made contraptions, two died and four survived (one having the balls to do it twice!). All of these attempts were met with heavy fines , the last being fined $20,000 in 1989. Needless to say there have been no attempts since.
The skyline of Niagara Falls has seen a dramatic evolution since my last visit. When I was there in the 50’s I remember just one major hotel, The General Brock and a smattering of midway type attractions including the ever popular Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum . Today the skyline brings to mind the famous Las Vegas Stript he escarpment now filled with high rise luxury hotels and a huge Casino and high end shopping complex. The midway attractions are now located in the huckster’s paradise of Clifton Hill.
By far the best way to enjoy your time here, especially if you plan to say for just a few days, is to purchase a Niagara Falls Adventure Pass featuring three different combinations of attractions and prices. The most popular pass is The Classic at $54.95. It includes four top attractions: The Hornblower catamaran cruise to the bottom of the falls, Journey Behind The Falls, The White Water Walk and the sensory presentation, Niagara’s Fury. It also throws in 48 hours of free transporton the WEGO buses, a very convenient way to get around the attractions and the major hotel area. Also included are $60 in bonus coupons for various local restaurant and businesses.
To get to the falls you have to navigate the escarpment in both directions so it is advised to make use of the funicular lift located behind the Embassy Hotel ($5 round trip).
All the major attractions are run and organized by the Niagara Parks Commission and all are first rate. They are staffed with tremendously friendly and accommodating employees (mostly students).
Niagara Falls’ evolution into an entertainment mecca however comes at a price. If you plan to eat in some of the many high-rise hotels facing on the falls expect to pay handsomely for the privilege.
While we were there we stayed at The Radisson Hotel tucked behind some of the larger hotels on the strip. As a four star hotel the rooms were very clean although in need of some refurbishment. The staff were all friendly and helpful and our ‘falls view’ room managed just a partial view of the top of one corner of the Horseshoe Falls. Food at the adjoining restaurant, a branch of Tony Roma’s, was not inspired. The breakfast brunch, offered to the guests of the hotel at $10.99, was very mundane and boring .The restaurant itself was dark, drab and need of a major refurbishing!
The first night we were there we rushed to eat at one of the restaurants ‘with a view’ and decided on The Keg atop the neighboring Embassy Hotel. The view was okay, but the food was very ordinary and priced accordingly for the ‘view’. The highlight of the evening was the service and the bottle of local red wine we ordered.
The Hornblower catamaran cruise to the bottom of the falls was exciting and very wet in spite of the plastic ponchos supplied. Sitting just a few feet from the bottom of the falls gives you an eerie appreciation of nature’s raw power. The cruise itself last about 30 minutes and worth every one of them..
The second attraction included on our passes was, for those old enough to remember, a simulated ‘smell o vision” production. Seeing Niagara’s Fury once again includes plastic ponchos for all. We were ushered into a room equipped with an open grated floor and individual railings for us to hold on to. Simulating the power of the falls we were at once showered with artificial snow flakes, blown by winds and intermittently doused with streams of water while the floor was heaving under our feet throughout. Draw your own conclusions!
The third event on the pass was probably the most interesting, The Journey Behind The Falls where we were ushered through a maize of underground passages carved out of the rock directly behind the falls. At a couple of points along the passageways there where open portholes letting you get within a few feet of the water thundering over the falls!
We left probably the most dramatic attraction to the last. The White Water Walk allows you to take a long walk beside the white water and rapids of the Niagara Gorge. Rapids like this are rated on an international scale of 1 to 6, 6 being the most dangerous and considered by all to be ‘unrunable’. The rapids in the Niagara Gorge are rated at 6, some of the most dangerous in the world. Only a few dare devils have attempted to navigate these waters and few have survived its fury. The power of nature here is awesome. Bring your movie camera, still pictures just don’t do it justice!
The second night we decided to venture way from the hotel area and eat at a restaurant called The Syndicate. It was probably the best meal we had during our entire stay. The food and wine were delicious.We also sampled some of their home brewed cider listed on their menu along with other home brewed beverages.
For our second breakfast we opted for one of the several IHOP locations. Portions were huge and very tasty, but paying $60 for breakfast, is a bit much for my pocket book.
For our final dinner I was intrigued by Marilyn’s Bistro and Lounge perched top The Tower Hotel, one of the first high rises to be erected on the strip. This art deco restaurant is aptly named in honor of Marilyn Monroe who spent much celebrated time here in the 50’s filming the thriller film-noir “Niagara”. The view here, through the floor to ceiling windows, was by far the most dramatic with a view of both falls and a panoramic vista down the Gorge, a thrill to many, but a bit terrifying for those who suffer from vertigo, as I do!. The food itself, although a bit mediocre, was none the less very reasonably priced. If you really want to ‘dine with a view’ and who doesn’t, at least once, this is the restaurant I would recommend.
While were there we stuck to local wines and I would recommend that you take in the neighboring wine region around Niagara On The Lake. Do not however take one of the ‘all inclusive’ tours advertised at your hotel. I find them to be largely a waste of money. Take a few minutes to plan your own tour of the wineries. All of them are very well marked on the highway into Niagara Falls and all will offer a tasting of their products at very nominal prices ($6 for a tasting of 4 or 5 wines)
Ontario can teach Quebec a huge lesson on how to promote and market their local wines which by the way I found to be universally great. Every restaurant we ate at, large or small, had numerous local wines featured on their menus and the LCBO’s set aside huge sections of their stores brimming with wines from all the local wineries. In Quebec however you are lucky to find one local wine on restaurant menus and the SAQ seems strangely embarrassed to sell local wines, relegating them to a couple shelves hidden in the corner of the stores, a shame because Quebec wines, in many cases, are definitely equal to those in Ontario!
As you leave Niagara Falls listen carefully for an echo of the voice of Lelawala’s lover Heno amidst the thunder of the mighty waters!