Niagara Falls, Canada
Niagara Falls, population 83,000; a funny town. There is a bewildering array of ways to get there, to which I’ll return, but the Go Transit bus will drop you at the junction of highway 420 and Stanley street, which has two closed information centres – presumably privately owned, giving mostly information on how they can earn commission selling you falls ‘experiences’ – a shabby motel and row of shops under the banner ‘town centre’, and from there is the easiest walk. Or it will drop you in the downtown area, home to an eclectic mix of antique and gift shops, a lively looking theatre, the bridge to the USA and the Via railway station. The latter is where the Amtrak train goes, and that’s another option for travel to the falls from Toronto, though if you want to go without changing trains in winter, you have to go early in the morning and return in the evening. On a train that comes from the States and is often late, it says here. In the summer, a different company, Go, run direct train services. At weekends.
Downtown is a longer walk, but there are buses. The 420/Stanley junction is closer to the falls despite feeing like the middle of nowhere – 2.2km, my map said, and it seemed shorter, probably because you reach the other part of Niagara, the amusement ‘park’ part, fairly soon, then walk through to the falls, distracted all the while. So, train to Burlington, change to a bus, hop off the bus at the station and get a bus from a different company (or walk along the riverbank, looking down over the river from the raised road – it is quite a walk). Or, the same, but hop off earlier, with few other people, avoiding the bus taking you further away from the falls, and walk. Not, in my case, down the obvious road, Falls road, because the snow was thick enough on the pavements that people were walking on the roads, and Falls road is a dual carriageway. A parallel road did the job.
After a moment of ‘was I right to get off here and where is everyone?’ I worked it out, and made it to town. First sight, the casino tower. Then, the Ferris wheel, Louis Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, complete with underworked teenager sat looking slightly bored; while the essence of her soul was gently drained from her, I liked to imagine. The street turned noisy, “come and see Frankenstein!” boomed the PA, “I wanna see Frankenstein!” joined in the youngster. It is an odd side effect of having so many amusements nearby that youngsters forced to accompany parents on a walk past the spectacular falls have a generally grumpy face, waiting to see what’s in it for them.
But from the main street, which slopes downwards, you are reminded why you are there; in my case, when I was roughly level with Burger King and being tempted, only to have my eyes diverted by the Guinness World of Records sign and from there reestablishing my focus. Down the hill, across the road, there are the first fall; half covered with snow piles, with the US town sitting behind it. Apparently Jay Leno will be there on April 8th. The casino advertising that is a fair way away but don’t worry, the sign is large enough to read from the Canadian side.
The falls themselves, though, are magnificent, and there’s no sponsorship, branding or advertising across them to spoil the view. As a plaque says, the original intent was to preserve a free to enter national park and keep it self funding, and in that they’ve succeeded. The spray at the bottom of the falls themselves varies, but sometimes obscures much of the water fall, an achievement in itself. Some of the vantage points were out of action, walkways not maintained in winter, but the main footpath round the top gives a great view. If you want to go further, the maid of the mist sails in closer to get you wet, behind the falls lets you walk in behind, the fury of the falls takes you elsewhere and the Skylon, with its bulbous yellow external lifts, will let you tower over it all. None is overly expensive, but the best experience is just looking at the thing and getting close enough to hear the cascade. The majesty comes not from the height, which is bested by 100s of other falls, but the sheer amount of water falling.
Cheapest: if you book in advance, Megabus or Greyhound are likely to be cheapest, but you will have to guess at how long you need there. To walk both ways, up and down the immediate falls area and no ‘experiences’, 3 hours is plenty. They’ll drop you downtown, from where you can hop on a bus for a couple of dollars either way.
Train – with changes, you can go with Via rail throughout the day. But there’s little point booking through them as they’ll cost more than Go transit, and unless you take the early morning train and late evening return, you’ll be on a Go train in any case.
Tour: starting from $55, maybe including a ‘free’ city tour. Probably quicker than Go by being direct.
Most flexible: Go transit. In summer, a direct train. For me, a double decker train from Union station, change at Burlington to the number 12 bus. And make sure to follow icons for the bus, in the North parking area. Return for $35.3 (£19.2), hourly services, only downside a 2.5 hour journey where some direct buses take 2.
Reading: John Updike, Rich in Russia. Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo.