Sometimes you need a couple of daredevils to remind you to go home. Earlier this year, I interviewed Nik Wallenda, the stuntman who recently walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls and Jay Cochrane, a 68-year-old man who has been tightroping between skyscrapers in Niagara every night this summer, and hearing about their exploits inspired me to return home for a visit. I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived in the city for many years.
But despite the proximity, it’s easy to take a place in your own backyard for granted. In June, I had a chance to meet Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, and he told me that surveys of foreign visitors to the U.S. consistently show Niagara Falls as the second or third most popular bucket-list destination, behind New York City and, sometimes, the Grand Canyon.
%Gallery-166223%The natural beauty and power of the place is undeniable but sometimes you need to hear that kind of outside validation to remind you of how special it is. I’ve been to the Falls more than 100 times over the last four decades but I’d always experienced them as a local, often bringing visitors from out of town to have a look. But over the Labor Day weekend, I traveled to Niagara Falls and stayed in a hotel there for the first time in my life.
We gathered in Niagara Falls to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, which seemed fitting as he worked at the Cave of the Winds behind Niagara Falls in his youth. My brother, Paul, booked us a room with an amazing view of the Falls, and before I’d even taken a walk down to see them, I felt like I’d already experienced them in a way I never had before just looking out the window of our room.
On my first night in the hotel, I walked down to the Falls, which were bathed in multicolored lights that changed hue every 15 minutes, around 11 p.m., and even though it was a Friday night on a holiday weekend, I felt like I had the place almost to myself. I’d never been to the Falls late at night before and I took the opportunity to sit and watch the Horseshoe Falls, where 6 million cubic feet of water drops every minute.
The smattering of tourists who were still left at the site were speaking a variety of languages and a young man from India approached me for advice on how to use his new camera.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Here, more or less,” I said. “I grew up right on the other side of the border.”
He asked me if I still liked the Falls and I told him that I never got tired of seeing them. The Falls are among the most spectacular natural wonders of the world and the area is brimming with things to do: bike and hiking trails, world-class wineries and theater, and plenty of history to uncover, particularly from the War or 1812.
But somehow the area doesn’t get much respect. The most common complaints are that the Canadian side is filled with tacky tourist traps and the U.S. side has a down-at-the-heels vibe with pockets of squalor dotted all over the city.
Those are valid critiques but the Falls are still a magical place to visit. Wake up early and take a ride on the Maid of the Midst on one of the first boats early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Take a walk or a bike ride on the Niagara River Recreation Trail, where you can enjoy views of the rapids and the midst from the Falls in total serenity just around the corner from the hordes of tourists. In fact, if you follow the trail just a half-mile south of the Horseshoe Falls, you’ll find plentiful free parking (see photo).
Take a hike down to the bottom of the gorge and, by all means, visit the Falls late in the evening after almost everyone else has gone home. But before you go, make sure you check out footage of daredevils Nik Wallenda and Jay Cochrane at the Falls. Their stunts will make you feel great about the fact that all you have to do it just look at the Falls, rather than tightrope across them.