Niagara Falls; spectacular holiday destination, eh? Not so much - it seems to have been a bit bleak and grotty for Natasha Franks and her family; a dire hotel and a drizzly experience at the falls earned zero stars from our events editor.
Somehow, we failed to realise that we were going to Canada until the morning of our flight. The Franks family holiday destination had been slated as the American side of Niagara Falls; however, my mother, in her quest to obtain “the nicest view of the falls,” unknowingly booked us into the Canada-based Hilton. Hardly an hour before we were due to leave for the airport, my parents clocked the hotel’s Canadian postal code. A twenty-four-hour sojourn upstate had suddenly become an international vacation.
After securing our passports, we departed with a revitalised sense of anticipation, struck by sudden visions of maple syrup and hockey games. I had never been to Canada. Furthermore, the American Falls are notoriously mediocre when compared to the Canadian Falls, a horseshoe-shaped explosion of steam and foam. The falls are not technically a “Wonder of the World” (a fact that is hotly debated in the online wonder community), but no one would describe them as anything short of wonderful.
Our stay at the Hilton got off to an interesting start when, upon entering the lobby, we discovered a two-hour queue to check in. The hotel, it transpired, was fully booked for a convention. After queueing for twenty minutes, my father remembered that he was a Hilton Honours member. This miracle allowed us to skip the queue, and there was much rejoicing.
When we arrived at our room, I realised that the Hilton being known as the “best hotel in Niagara” was not a compliment; it was an insult to every other hotel in a ten-mile radius.
What were those mysterious stains on the walls? Had the shower even been washed? How did that stain get on the ceiling? TripAdvisor warned me to avoid the bathtub, lest I wanted to emerged with a genital infection. I bathed using sink water.
By day, the hotel reminded me of a Motel 6 at night. By night, the hotel reminded me of a Motel 6 at night in Detroit.
My brother described the cot as “the worst thing [he had] slept on in [his] entire life.” I offered a similar review of the bed, a lumpy abomination of frayed sheets and a vague, milky smell.
Somehow, we managed to drift off around 1 am. In an impressive coincidence, that was precisely the time the fire alarm went off. For over ten minutes, the relentless beeping mingled with the faint sounds of babies crying. Once the false alarm had subsided, we returned to our fitful slumbers. Not an hour later, the alarm went off again. Then, as we once again settled in for the night, the speaker system erupted with a shrill “WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”
The bodiless voice repeated her apologies multiple times, ensuring that the hotel remained awake for the remainder of the hour.
Beyond that brutal night, we spent very little time in the Hilton. My final interaction, the next morning during checkout, was the sight of a barefoot, bathing suit-clad man wandering around the lobby with lint and dirt sticking to his exposed feet. I did not look back.
In the summer, over twelve million tourists visit Niagara Falls. This makes sense. The sun is shining, and the water is warm. With the right atmosphere, I would understand why Niagara is such a popular honeymoon destination.
We visited Niagara Falls in December. The icy rain and howling winds did not dampen the stunning views of the falls, but they did dampen everything else about the trip. There is something strangely ironic about marvelling at 150,000 gallons of water while what feels like 150,000 gallons of water gets dumped onto your head. In half of our family photos, our faces are obscured by hoods and scarves.
The official Niagara Falls tourism website claims that “when you celebrate winter in Niagara, winter will never be the same.” I agree. Every winter from now, I will be grateful that I am not in Niagara Falls.
Many people criticise the American side of the falls for being too commercial. I therefore came to Canada prepared to experience a small, hidden gem of a town. Mom and Pop grocers, indie clothing stores, hole in the wall bars and diners … that kind of thing.
Turns out, Canada is no stranger to commercialism. Our hotel was next door to an IHOP. There was a Starbucks in the lobby. The closest thing I saw to Canadian culture was Tim Hortons.
Niagara epitomised the term “tourist trap” thanks to its inflated prices and mainstream brand names. Looking around, the phrase “poor man’s Las Vegas” sprang to mind. Particularly in the bleak weather, Niagara felt like an unpopulated video game map attempting to recreate the lustre of reality and not quite succeeding.
Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of falls-related expeditions to undertake. We went on a “Journey Behind the Falls,” a benefit of the Adventure Passes my father had optimistically purchased. The journey allowed us to walk through the passages that ran behind the falls. This might have been fun in the summer, but in the winter our “adventure” consisted of us waddling through the dimly lit, horror movie-esque tunnels whilst trying to avoid getting caught in a spray of frigid water.
After exiting through the gift shop, another adventure caught our eye: Niagara’s Fury, an interactive film about the falls. The word “interactive” prompted some hesitation, but we entered the waiting room with high hopes. We could not have known that we were about to experience Niagara’s Fury in all its sopping wet glory. (In hindsight, we should have been suspicious when our fellow moviegoers began donning raincoats.)
The show opened with a short film on the history of the falls. To call it “nonsensical” would be a gratuitous overstatement. To explain it as logically as I can, an animated bird needed to write a school paper on Niagara Falls. He travelled back in time to the moment the falls were created, and then he met a polar bear, and I think the polar bear died an icy, off-camera death when the falls erupted. Something about sediment and erosion was explained, and then the bird (which now had a deep voice and abs, for some reason) was flying back to the present day with his owl tutor.
Armed with this haunting prologue, we continued into the main chamber. Attendants ushered us onto a circular platform floating in a pond of still green water. The lights flickered. Suddenly, the walls came alive with footage of the falls, a rumble of waves that arrived accompanied by a spray of mist from the ceiling.
The cameraman employed experimental filming tactics that were showcased as the video grew erratic, lunging from one angle of the falls to another, diving down and soaring upwards. Water streamed onto the platform at random intervals, “lightning” flashed, and the platform tilted dangerously. By the end of the bizarre demonstration, I knew nothing about Niagara Falls that I had not known before: it was wet, and cold, and defied all reason.
These underwhelming interactions with the falls prompted us to seek entertainment elsewhere. A short bus ride led us to the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, an exotic collection of exactly what you would expect. Outside the conservatory, I was thrilled to witness the Canadian “fat squirrel” phenomenon. The pudgy rodents dominated my Snapchat story for the afternoon.
On our way back to town, we considered stopping off at the Bird Kingdom but decided to quit while we were ahead.
For dinner, we ventured to an Italian joint near our hotel. The food was so unremarkable that I could not tell you what I ate. Afterwards, we went to Dairy Queen, because nothing suits a frozen wasteland better than DQ, which my father made us eat outside on the street. To this day, I get flashbacks when I see vanilla ice cream.
The culinary highlight of the holiday came, ironically, after we left Niagara Falls. On our drive down to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, we stopped off at the iconic Anchor Bar.
Although it may not boast a very prominent brand abroad, the Anchor Bar is renowned in America for the invention of the buffalo chicken wing in the 1960s. The wings allowed us to end the trip on a tasty note.