Right at the edge of Niagara Falls water seems to throw itself over with an abandon of mythical proportions. The sheer force is mesmerizing: a mighty, terrifying spectacle of millions of litres of water dropping 30 stories, landing with a thunderous roar and sending up a churning tumult of foam and mist.
All along the promenade, tourists from every part of the world gazes in hypnotic wonder, getting soaked by the mist when the wind changes, and clicking photos like there’s no tomorrow. An old stone parapet, the only barrier between the tourists and a misstep of doom, lines the walkway.
Watching this scene, it occurs to me that the tourists are, in fact, awestruck. Like so many things about Niagara Falls, the cliche just seems to fit.
But is the desire to feel awestruck enough to make Niagara Falls one of the top tourist attractions in the world today? Or, is there something more?
Each year, about 12 million people make the journey to a small town in southern Ontario, a couple of hours drive from Toronto, to visit Niagara Falls. There are 500 waterfalls in the world higher; there are many that are far more picturesque. But there are none that are more powerful. In terms of width and volume of water, Niagara Falls is number one.v
What makes Niagara Falls a World Class Tourist Attraction?
As I sat in Elements on the Falls restaurant, at a table overlooking the Falls, my Niagara Parks guide, Holly, said, “A million bathtubs full of water a minute go over the edge.” I stared at the Falls. I was having trouble seeing a million bathtubs of water. But I was having no trouble falling into a hypnotic trance.
The Falls seem to do that to people. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. Niagara Falls may in fact be one of the world’s first tourist attractions. I don’t know about the habits of the Aboriginal people who are native to southern Ontario, but early European settlers have been going on excursions to picnic on the banks of the Niagara River where the mighty falls drop 52 metres since the mid-1600s. The first sketch by a European appeared in a book published in 1697.
During the 18th century, tourism became popular, and by mid-century, it was the area’s main industry. By the 1900s, going to Niagara Falls was considered the trip of a lifetime. The 20th century saw the era of daredevils — did you know the first person to go over in a barrel was a woman? – and the rise of the honeymoon capital of the world.
Growing up in nearby Burlington, I too went on many excursions to Niagara Falls. Though in my case, “because it’s there” might well have been the motive.
Picnic near the Falls. Image courtesy of The Niagara Parks Commission
There are certainly many things to see and do, when you tire of being mesmerized by moving water. There’s the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario — the tourist town that sprang up alongside the ‘Horseshoe Falls,’ which are the more spectacular Canadian falls. The town offers a multitude of distractions for visitors who are in a holiday mood from bizarre museums and themed restaurants to a casino and more souvenirs than you can shake a snow globe at.
And the surrounding region, administered by the Niagara Parks Commission, features a multitude of diversions, from the Butterfly Conservatory and the Whirpool Aero Car to about half a dozen gardens and picnic areas and a cluster of heritage sights, including the quaint Laura Secord homestead. Niagara Parks is also responsible for the nightly illumination of the Falls and the summer fireworks series.
Holly was outlining all that Niagara had to offer when the waiter arrived bearing a plate of samosas. Tasty Indian treats were just the thing I needed as I pondered.
Photo Credit: carbajo.sergio via Compfight cc
Earlier that day, I had explored the Falls and talked to people. I stopped lots of tourists from India, mostly families and couples, and asked them, “What’s the draw? What made you want to see Niagara Falls?” Answers ranged from, “we studied it in school” to ” because it’s so famous.”
But one thoughtful couple, with a small boy, from Delhi stopped and chatted with me after we went through the Journey Behind the Falls together. They explained that to Hindus in India, the five elements — earth, air, fire, water and ether — are venerated as the sacred building blocks of life. Water in particular is revered as “the river of life.” Perhaps, they suggested, this deep connection with the water element could be part of the draw.
After much pondering, exploring and discussing, I decided that the water is what Niagara Falls is really all about, after all. I think there’s a primordial attraction to water, especially water of this magnitude and power.
So that’s what I did on my weekend in Niagara Falls. I let my fascination with the thundering onslaught be my guide and discovered the best ways for getting up-close-and-personal with Niagara Falls.
Journey Behind the Falls. Image courtesy of The Niagara Parks Commission