Young honeymooners still show up at Niagara Falls, though it's a wonder why, since the setting is anything but romantic. Really, Niagara today seems more like a giant natural amusement park, a busy but agreeable Disneyland of tumbling water with its own full array of thrills -- a vacation more for the whole family.
You can, in a day's visit, peer from the brink -- a dizzying sight -- or descend to the very base and be wrapped in a cloak of chilly mist. You can sail aboard the little "Maid of the Mist," dressed in a hooded rain slicker, right into the thundering mouth of Niagara, a bouncing white-water boat ride that rivals any loopty-loop roller coaster for wide-eyed fun. You can even explore the dripping tunnels behind the falls that open onto a rather startling view of its cascading backside.
An estimated 4 million to 6 million tourists flock each year to the falls, which straddles the border between western New York State and the province of Ontario in Canada. What they see is nature at its most awesome, plus a wide assortment of tourist amusements, ranging from the acceptable to the awful. Some visitors, I suspect, deplore the gimmicks. Others probably have a lot of fun.
The falls of the Niagara River unquestionably ranks as one of the world's major spectacles. All that spilling water makes a magnificent sight that is also a fundamental part of this nation's (and Canada's) historical and cultural heritage. Niagara, remember, for a century and a half had a reputation as America's "honeymoon capital," and it flowed for many years down the front of Nabisco's Shredded Wheat cereal box.
Niagara dates its fame as a honeymoon haven from 1804, when Napoleon's brother, Jerome Bonaparte, took his American bride to see the falls, which already had become known throughout the western world. Well into the 20th century -- and to some extent even now -- it was one of the obligatory places to visit if you were to be considered well-traveled.
Authors and poets, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain among them, showed up, heaping praise on the falls' beauty; Oscar Wilde, however, had a somewhat different observation: "The wonder would be," he said, "if the water did not fall."
Unfortunately, Niagara Falls also has been one of America's most heavily developed scenic spots. Discovered by French explorers in the 17th century, it was exploited -- both by industry and tourism -- long before this nation had begun to acquire a conservation conscience. Indeed, one of the arguments for establishing Yellowstone as the first American national park a century ago was that it might otherwise end up the recognized disgrace Niagara had become back then.
By the mid-19th century, factories and mills overlooked the falls and its gorge, and private concessionaires had built tall fences, forcing visitors to pay a fee to glimpse the view. The situation had gotten so bad that noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and artist Frederic Church organized a successful "Free Niagara" movement in the 1870s to try to restore Niagara to its natural state.
As a result, the Niagara Reservation, a New York state park encompassing the American side of the falls, was formally dedicated on July 15, 1885. (On the Canadian side, the Ontario government quickly followed suit with its own park.) Tomorrow U.S. and Canadian officials will celebrate the Niagara Reservation's centennial anniversary; it is considered America's oldest state park. One result is that today you don't have to pay a penny to see the falls.
Although no one could argue today that Niagara's environs are "natural" -- the falls sits in the midst of heavy urban and industrial development -- the U.S. and Canadian parks that surround the falls do make an attractive buffer zone. And on the American side, the parklands soon will look even better. For years, visitors have returned home praising the Canadian side; now, I think, the American side provides the most agreeable setting.
For one thing, the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., is in the midst of redeveloping the formerly honky-tonk neighborhood nearest the falls, creating a modern new city center that already features an unusual seven-story tropical greenhouse called the Wintergarden. Almost all of the carnival atmosphere nowadays -- including an intrusive high-rise Ferris wheel -- is found just across Rainbow Bridge on the Canadian side.
At the same time, the Niagara Reservation itself is undergoing a massive $12-million renovation, to be completed by next summer. A much needed visitor center is being built, and New York officials are tearing up a busy four-lane highway that used to cut right through the park in front of the falls. It is being replaced with grass, trees and shrubbery.
The result is that Niagara, consistently one of the nation's favorite tourist destinations, has become -- on the American side, anyway -- a much more appealing place to visit than it was for many years. A century after "Free Niagara," Niagara is being rescued again.
Commercialism remains at the falls, and some of it -- the Canadian Ferris wheel and incessant overhead helicopter tours on both sides -- is unfortunate. But the tourist lures can't really diminish the natural majesty of the falls. Niagara remains, despite everything, a marvel to see and to hear. And to feel, too, when a breeze suddenly catches the spray and dashes it in your face.
You are more apt to get wet standing on the American side, because you can get much closer to the falls. Queen Victoria Park on the Canadian side is where you go for the full-view photos of the falls. "You can see them on the Canadian side, but you can feel them on our side," say officials of the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., which competes for tourist dollars with Niagara Falls, Ontario, just across the international bridge.
Actually, Niagara is three falls: the American Falls, which spills onto a jumble of boulders; tiny Bridal Veil Falls, a sliver of water separated from American Falls by little Luna Island; and the most massive of the three, Horseshoe Falls (in Canada), obviously named because it has the "U" shape of a horseshoe. Bridal Veil and Horseshoe are separated by another, larger island called Goat Island, where goats once supposedly were pastured.
Goat and Luna islands are part of New York's Niagara Reservation. They are most conveniently reached by two short pedestrian bridges that arch across the Niagara River from the tourist heart of the American side of the falls. The islands, both landscaped parks, are the best place to grasp the tremendous power of Niagara; and they provide as much of a thrill as any of the commercial gimmicks. Niagara River drains four of the Great Lakes, and that mighty flow plummets almost at your feet.
The two islands (you can circle Luna on foot in about 60 seconds; it's about a mile around Goat) hang on the brink of the falls. From Luna, you can look straight down almost 200 feet from the top of American Falls to the rocks below. From Goat, you get the same sheer view of Horseshoe and, often, of a full rainbow rising through the mist. It is an unforgettable experience.
There you are, standing literally in the middle of the falls. The spray splashes back in your face, the thunder roars in your ears and the ground seems to shake under your feet. You cling to the railing -- a slip would be fatal -- trying to take it all in at once, secretly praying the islands aren't suddenly going to wash over the edge while you are there.
Most people have a pretty good mental picture of what the falls look like. What you don't realize until you get to Niagara is that the famous falls is only part of the geological show, and that there is a history lesson to be learned, too.
Up river from the falls is an exciting expanse of white-water rapids, which can be seen from the walkway that encircles Goat Island. A short detour leads to three miniature islands, the Three Sisters, which thrust even further into the rapids. If you dare, you can wiggle fingers or toes in the riffles, but a misstep could send you flailing toward the falls. Sightseeing parents, I noticed, clutched the youngsters firmly here.
Below the falls is a deep, steep-walled gorge cut by the Niagara River that slashes the landscape for seven miles. There are vista points along the rim on both sides, but the most vertiginous view is from the 1,450-foot-long Rainbow Bridge (open to pedestrians), which spans the gorge in front of the falls. Even if you step out onto the bridge only a few feet, you will have to go through U.S. Customs at the bridge to retrace your steps, usually a matter of simply declaring your U.S. nationality.
At a sharp bend in the canyon two miles downstream, the Niagara River, at this point a slender green ribbon flecked with white water, suddenly twists into a swirling whirlpool, a natural curiosity that has claimed the lives of several daredevils trying to sail or raft around it.
The whirlpool, circling counterclockwise in a tumult of foam and trapped debris, can be seen from cliff's edge high above at New York's Whirlpool State Park, a few minutes' drive north from the falls on Robert Moses Parkway. An open cable car, the Spanish Aero Car, swings above the pool from the Canadian rim (north along Ontario's Niagara Parkway), a ride that attracts the daredevils among the tourists.
The Niagara River links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, flowing northward a distance of 33 miles. Niagara Falls interrupts its passage 19 miles downstream from Lake Erie, and for seven miles afterward the river tumbles through the gorge. Ultimately, it emerges from this channel, composes itself as it flows another seven miles through rolling countryside and arrives rather placidly at Lake Ontario, its color now a deep blue.
From the falls, scenic parkways (the Niagara and the Robert Moses) parallel both sides of the gorge. The Canadian road, much of it winding past beautifully landscaped gardens and a series of canyon-side restaurants, leads to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a lovely old village with a summer theater festival. It's a quiet getaway from the hubbub around the falls.
The American road, less horticulturally adorned, nevertheless offers several good views of the gorge and an interesting stop at the Visitors' Center of the Niagara Power Project. The exhibits, not surprisingly, pay homage to electric power, but a large diorama of the Niagara area also explains how the river has been harnessed to provide one-third of New York State's electricity.
Upstream from the falls, water is pumped out of the Niagara River and then transported in underground canals down river to reservoirs at the power project. The water is released from the reservoirs as needed to generate the electricity; and the same thing happens on the Canadian side. By international agreement, the water intake from up river is limited so the falls keep flowing sufficiently to amaze the tourists. At night, however, the river intake is increased, and considerably less water pours over Niagara.
Beyond the power project, the American parkway leads to Fort Niagara State Park on Lake Ontario, site of Old Fort Niagara. It is an impressive fortress that played an important role in the War of 1812, a conflict bitterly contested on the Niagara frontier. Only the river separated the English and American combatants.
The French established the first fort on the site in 1678; and in 1726 they built the massive stone and timber "French Castle," reputed to be the oldest structure in the interior of North America. It has been restored to its 1726 appearance, and it is open to visitors, who can explore barracks rooms, the dining hall and officers quarters on its three solid floors.
The British took control in 1759 after a 19-day siege during the French and Indian War, and they stayed there throughout the American Revolution, menacing the insurgent colonials. The new United States finally got the fort by treaty in 1796, but temporarily lost it again from 1813 to 1815 in fighting during the War of 1812.
A number of other fortified buildings stand within the walls of the fort. You can stand atop two high redoubts, where old cannons aim at phantom warships from the past. The views of Lake Ontario and the countryside are superb. On a clear day, the distant skyline of Toronto rises across the water, while just below you pleasure boats flit in and out of the harbor.
A trip to the base of Niagara aboard the Maid of the Mist is a first-rate thrill that, unlike some of the other tourist attractions, actually enhances your appreciation of the falls. The boats -- there are four of them -- depart about every 15 minutes daily (mid-May through late October) from landings on both the U.S. and Canadian sides. A ticket for the half-hour trip is $4.50.
On the American side, a glass-enclosed viewing elevator lowers passengers into the gorge; on the Canadian side, there is a steep incline railway. Just before passengers step aboard the Maid, a crew member hands out a yellow rain slicker with a hood. The ride, you figure, is going to be a wet one. The slickers hang to just below knee length, excellent protection up to that point. When you disembark, your lower pants legs will be dripping.
The captain rings a warning bell, and the Maid pulls away from the landing, just down river from the falls. For the first couple of minutes the boat chugs past the base of the American Falls. If the mist hasn't clouded your glasses, you get a stunning look from the bottom up. Passengers wipe moisture from their eyes, and then they wipe again.
Now the Maid turns into the mouth of the Horseshoe Falls. The river becomes more turbulent, and waterfall-churned gusts whip heavier, colder spray into your face. The roar of the falls permits only shouted exchanges. Exciting already, and still the Maid keeps going, plowing deeper yet into the frenzy of the falls.
The spray becomes a violent rainstorm, almost obscuring the towering wall of white water wrapping around the Maid on three sides. This is what it must be like to be caught in a hurricane at sea. Passengers push forward to the bow to get the full effect, and then drop back, grinning, to escape the fury.
It all lasts only a few minutes, and when the Maid can advance no further, it quickly spins in the powerful current and races back to calmer waters. When you are back on shore, hurry up to Terrapin Point on Goat Island and watch the next trip from high overhead. From that vantage, the Maid looks like a toy boat about to be devoured by Niagara.
Some visitors will be disappointed by much of what they see around the falls.
The Ferris wheel is the most visible feature of a carnival midway called Clifton Hill, an Ontario street that begins just a block from Rainbow Bridge. On this gaudy neon strip stands a dismaying array of wax museums, hawking everything from the oddities of Ripley's "Believe-It-Or-Not" to movieland heros and famous criminals. Three sightseeing towers, thrusting above the falls, intrude on the skyline. And at night, floodlamps paint Niagara in pastel hues, presumably as a pretty touch, but moonlight alone might be lovelier.
None of this should stop you from visiting Niagara. You can easily turn your back on the ricky-tick entertainment. And then you will find yourself gaping at the falls in much the same wonderment as travelers have for more than three centuries.
On a honeymoon, though, you want romance and charm, and for these you will have to look elsewhere.