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Niagara Falls_bannerThis past January, I drove from Providence to Toronto to visit friends.  We were having dinner one night with some of my friend’s family, and they mentioned that they had spent the day at Niagara Falls.  I was intrigued since I remember hearing a lot about Niagara Falls when I was a kid, but completely forgot about it as I got older.

“What do you do there?” I asked.

“We spent most of the day in the casino.” They told me.  “You should stop there on your way back, at the falls, not the casino.”

So I figured that since I was driving by it anyway, I might as well stretch my legs and take in the sight of this magnificent natural marvel.  What I didn’t count on was the fact that parking cost $14 (should have figured), and I was simply unwilling to pay that.  Instead, I drove a couple laps along the “Fallsview road” snapping pictures out the car window.  Eventually, I stopped the car, put the flashers on, and ran up to the protective barrier to snap another couple pictures before heading back to the states.

Despite the short amount of time I spent at the falls, I liked it, and got the notion that I should go back sometime and spend more than fifteen minutes there.  Then I got back home, and promptly forgot that notion.

About three weeks ago, the power of facebook advertising reminded me.  Since I put the pictures that I took of Niagara Falls on facebook, facebook decided that I am a Niagara Falls enthusiast, and told me that hotels might just be cheap there right now, seeing as the summer travel season is winding down.

It is after Labor Day, I thought, still temperate, but probably less crowded and cheaper.  So I hopped on Priceline, found a cheap hotel, read some reviews, and popped my head out into the living room to ask Gentleman Scholar, “Do you want to go to Niagara Falls next weekend?”

He thought for a beat, and said, “Sure.”

misc3 027I booked the hotel, and a few days later, started wondering what the hell one does at Niagara Falls for the entire weekend.  Surely you can’t spend the whole time riding the Maid of the Mist and staring at the water.  So I found a few Niagara Falls themed adventures, but not much else.  The best sites were run by the Niagara Parks Board, and were all water all the time.  The Lonely Planet Guide, didn’t have much more in it either except a snarky quote from Oscar Wilde: “The Niagara Falls is simply a vast amount of water going the wrong way over some unnecessary rocks; the sight of that waterfall must be one of the earliest and keenest disappointments in American married life.”, and the information that Niagara Falls used to be a major tourist destination.

Thankfully, spending the night in a hotel is often adventure enough in the short term, so we figured that if we maxed out Falls adventures early, we could just hang out and watch cable for a while–our hotel was even rumored to have HBO!  What a coup!

Turns out that the area around the falls looks a tiny and less impressive Las Vegas.  It feels like it should have a lot of options for things to do, but kind of doesn’t, except the casino.  It’s pretty, but looks sterile and modern, and was really not what I expected.  I was hoping for a 1950’s honeymoon destination feel–cheesy romantic stuff, buildings that looked like they had been there for more than five years.  I don’t know if Niagara Falls got a facelift recently, but everything felt strangely new.

Until we went looking for a liquor store and stumbled upon Niagara Falls downtown.  We had seen all of these brochures in the hotel lobby for wax museums, haunted houses, Dave and Busters etc., but had no idea where this stuff was. It was in downtown Niagara Falls, which is a roadside attraction promenade on par with the Wisconsin Dells.  Two Haunted Houses, a headshop, Louis Toussaud’s Wax Museum (with a terrifying Tiger Woods waving a golf ball at you from the front entrance), a Hard Rock Cafe, dinner theatres, and more tacky souvenir shops than you can shake a stick at.  It was amazing.

My parents took us on a lot of vacations as I grew up.  That’s one thing I’m really glad of, and we usually did them on the cheap.  This meant a lot of driving vacations like the one to the Wisconsin Dells, or Mount Rushmore, etc. We went to the roadside attractions that included streets of tacky crap, disappointing wax museums– though I’ve still never been in a wax museum–olde tymey picture shops, topiary gardens etc.  So if I couldn’t have my 1950’s chic Niagara Falls experience, this was the next best thing.marilyn_monroe_niagara_lancastria

Overall, I feel like Niagara Falls just doesn’t know quite what to do with itself.  The falls are rad, and even though we scoffed initially and said “It’s not like we’re just going to spend a whole bunch of time staring at the water.” we kind of just wanted to stare at the water, rushing back at different times of day to see how blue it was, or watch the fireworks –which they send up from the bottom of the gorge, so when they explode, they’re pretty much right in your face.  Obviously, if you want to lure people in these days, and keep them there, you need more than just a waterfall–even if it’s a good one.

It feels like Niagara Falls wants to re-evolve from being just a roadside attraction, into the destination it used to be, but maybe I’m just being a jaded asshole.  There were tons of people there for whom English was not a first language.  We stood in line next to a dozen Japanese businessmen, rode the Maid of the Mist with a lovely German couple, and had our photo taken by a group of French students (who may have been French-Canadian, but the point stands).  These people have either made Niagara Falls their destination, or at least a stop–I’m really curious which it is.

Strangely, I want to go back.