Sunday, August 22, 2004

How I fell for Niagara, part 1

While deciding where to drive on our recent cross-country trip, my mom pointed out that Niagara Falls was only a few miles away from I-90 in New York, the route we'd be taking to Albany. Since I had never been to Niagara Falls, and my mom hadn't been there for decades, we decided to stay in the town for two nights.

Niagara Falls is a large waterfall on the Niagara River, near Buffalo, New York. The river connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and also serves as the border between the United States (on the eastern shore) and Canada (on the western shore). The falls are visible from both countries.

My mom had never been to the Canadian side of the falls before, and we considered heading into Canada to see them from that side. In the end we decided that traveling across international borders with a car full of my mom's household possessions was probably asking for trouble, so we stayed on the New York side the entire time.

Niagara Falls, the city:

Before arriving in Niagara Falls, I imagined that the city was probably a moderately sized thriving tourist town, full of tree-lined streets, and cute shops, much like Victoria, B.C., which I had visited earlier in the summer. Instead, the town seemed like it was relatively economically depressed, which was sad since the area clearly brings in tons of tourists.

Our five-story hotel was a few blocks from Niagara Falls State Park, in a reasonably nice area that looked like it was probably built up in the 1960's. The hotel's thin walls let us hear the neighboring room's kids until 2am, and it only had one small elevator and two stairways to service its five stories. The area directly around our hotel was filled with other hotels and a few small restaurants, but very few stores. I had hoped to find a nice coffee shop to sit and read in, but didn't see any near the hotel.

After unloading the car we set out to find a restaurant and a bookstore. Along the way we ran into two closed roads (and the next morning found a third). The roads were just blocked off with "Road Closed" signs, and did not have detour signs or any notice about when they'd be reopened.

Niagara Falls road closed

This leads to my first recommendation for anyone traveling to Niagara Falls, NY: bring an excellent quality map of the downtown area. The AAA Buffalo map has a good map of downtown Niagara Falls, but don't rely on the AAA New York state map, it's far from adequate.

The shopping areas of downtown Niagara Falls looked like they had once been quite nice, but many stores seemed like they hadn't been renovated in years, there was almost no foot traffic along the streets, and scattered shops were even boarded up.

Niagara Falls store

Little Italy, a region of downtown Niagara Falls, showed scattered signs of its Italian heritage (Gianni's restaurant, Di Camillo bakery), but was virtually empty on the Friday evening we were there. Near Little Italy we found an excellent Italian restaurant, Fortuna's (827 19th, in Niagara Falls, NY), that seems to date back to the days when Little Italy was thriving. The restaurant was populated mainly with locals, had excellent food, and as we ate at least four parties being shown to tables stopped and greeted other patrons of the restaurant.

We never did find a bookstore.

Niagara Falls State Park:

I got my first view of the falls as night was falling on Friday evening; they were massive and awe-inspiring. What surprised me was that instead of being at the bottom of the falls, the viewing areas are up at the top, so I could walk right up to the edge and watch the water roll over.

What was interesting that first night was the contrast between the American and the Canadian sides of the falls. Niagara Falls, Ontario is visible across the river from the New York side, and the Canadian town looks as though it's pulsating with life. There are at least 10 high-rise hotels (whereas there are no high-rise hotels on the US side), wide boulevards filled with light and flashing signs, and restaurants seemingly everywhere (and, in our imaginations, a bookstore on every corner).

Niagara Falls at night, white Niagara Falls at night, colored

Niagara Falls State Park is a huge park with exquisitely maintained facilities. It was a wonderful place to explore the falls from, and is a must-see if you're visiting the area. One of my favorite places was Goat Island, an island in the middle of the Niagara river; we drove onto the island and were able to get extremely close-up views of the falls.

Here are a few more pictures of the falls, including a picture of the very edge, which I was only a few feet away from at the time (in the edge picture you can also see a "Maid of the Mist" boat at the bottom of the falls).

Niagara Falls rolling water Niagara Falls edge with boat visible

As expected, there were a tremendous number of tourists from all over the world visiting the park, which made it a great place to sit and people-watch. This gentleman in his saffron-colored clothes caught my eye:

Niagara Falls area - gentleman with saffron robes taking a picture

Here ends part one of my two-part Niagara Falls post. Be sure to stay tuned for the second (and final) installment, wherein I tour more of the Niagara Falls area, including an eighteenth-century fort and a nineteenth-century lighthouse.

[Update 8/25/04: The second installment has been posted.]

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