Iguaçu Falls, in Argentina, may be the largest waterfall system in the world and Angel Falls, in Venezuela, the highest, but, when it comes to attracting crowds, nowhere beats Niagara. Each year, 12 million tourists, many of them honeymooners, peer through the spray as the equivalent of an Olympic size swimming pool of water tumbles over the edge every second.
Historians believe the word “Niagara” derives from the Indian Onguiaahra, meaning “the strait”, although the more evocative Thunder of Waters is used more frequently these days.
There are three sets of falls straddling the frontier between the United States and Canada: Bridal Veil Falls, American Falls and the awe-inspiring Horseshoe Falls, where 90 per cent of the Niagara River roars past.
The best views are from the Canadian side and, if you don’t fancy getting too close to the edge, there are spectacular panoramas from the Skylon Tower, the Skywheel – Canada’s largest observation wheel – and Goat Island, which splits the river in two. On the American side, Niagara Falls State Park – the oldest in the country – offers hiking trails, picnic tables, a theatre and recreation programmes. Get a feel for both sides of the border by walking across Rainbow Bridge (don’t forget your passport).
Once only the most fearless of daredevils crossed the falls by tightrope. Now it’s possible for tourists to skim above the falls at speeds of up to 60km/h on a zip line. A more conventional but no less exhilarating sightseeing option is a ride aboard the Maid of the Mist. There’s some debate about the best place to stand as the iconic boat nears the vast curtain of water, but unless they stay inside the cabin, passengers will be thoroughly drenched as the fine mist becomes a ferocious spray. Don’t expect much protection from the complimentary plastic poncho – it’s more useful for wrapping around your camera.
A winter visit reveals another side to the legendary landmark. Sub-zero temperatures cause a partial freezing of the famous falls and lights that usually reflect raging torrents of water cast a fairytale glow on the ice. Several people have survived plunging over the edge, but no one had ever gone in the opposite direction until January 2015, when Canadian ice climbers Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken scaled a frozen section of Horseshoe Falls as chunks of ice plummeted past their heads.
Gravity and a sturdy barrel is the traditional warm weather way of making a name for yourself in these parts. Sixteen people have risked life and limb by going over the falls, with 11 surviving the ordeal. Two men have completed the feat twice and are still alive to tell the tale. In 1960, a seven-year-old boy fell into the swirling water, slipped over the lip and was fished out at the bottom, none the worse for wear. The fine for “unlawfully performing or attempting to perform a stunt in the park” is currently US$10,000 – payable if you survive, of course.
Not everyone who leaps into the misty abyss intends to survive. It’s estimated there are between 20 and 25 suicides at the falls each year. Expert daredevils don’t fare much better. In 1995 a man fell to his death when his parachute failed to open as he rode a jet ski over the edge.
When celebrities first began visiting at the beginning of the 19th century, the description of Niagara Falls as the “honeymoon capital of the world” may have been justified. Today however, competing destinations and cheap international air travel mean the hospitality industry is having to work ever harder to entice newlyweds. A hotel room with a heart-shaped waterbed and jacuzzi just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was ahead of his time when, in 1882, he reputedly described Niagara Falls as the first great disappointment in married life.
Nowadays a sense of disappointment is felt by regular tourists as well as honeymooners. “See the falls; skip the city” is a recurring online theme. The beauty spot is surrounded by brash Las Vegas-style attractions including haunted houses, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and no fewer than three waxworks museums. It’s fair to say the 42-floor Fallsview Casino isn’t universally loved either. Instead of cementing its place as a win-win addition to the Ontario skyline, there have been complaints of loan sharking, prostitution and fraud-related issues and much discussion about the casino’s contribution to the community.
Visitors to Niagara Falls are often surprised at how different the twin cities are – and not just in terms of the scenic views. The Canadian side boasts manicured gardens; safe, well-lit public areas and a better choice of hotel rooms, although it is far more commercialised. Despite the green spaces of the state park, the American side has a reputation for mob activity and violent crime dating back to the Prohibition era. In 2016, the FBI ranked Niagara Falls as the most dangerous city in New York state and 44th in the country.
Car parking scams leave tourists out of pocket and there are boarded-up buildings and litter-strewn streets within a block or two of the falls. Publisher Lonely Planet describes the New York side as “a bit derelict” and, under the heading “Dirty run down town”, a Tripadvisor contributor writes: “There was trash everywhere … very unkept (sic) looking town, I felt unsafe, I won’t be returning.”
In a city with an economy so dependent on tourism, attacks on visitors grab headlines. On Christmas night 2015, a Japanese tourist asked a local man for directions to Rainbow Bridge so she could walk into Canada. Instead, she was led into the State Park where she was robbed and sexually abused.
Last week the Tokyo resident returned to Niagara County Court to hear the jury return a guilty verdict. Her assailant could face up to 15 years in prison.