Niagara is spelt with 3 A's

Published: July 20th 2021
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I’m willing to bet that many, if not most, travel writers from the US have been to Niagara Falls, at least once. This was my third trip, though it’s the first time I can remember seeing the American side of the Falls. But I’ll only get to my experience of the Falls later. Instead, I started out my journey in the northern areas of the Niagara region: Youngstown and Lewiston. Youngstown might just be my favorite little town in New York now.

I had done a little research before going on this trip, and I discovered that there’s a FREE tourist bus that goes between the Falls in the south and Fort Niagara in the north, making stops at most of the touristy locations in between. My intention was to use that bus to get to the Falls without paying to park, and then move northward. But as with most good intentions, they gave way to reality. Long story short, I opted to explore the northern areas on my own in the morning, and then use the bus to get to the Falls afterward. So that’s what I did.

My first stop was the Whirlpool State Park, which had some spectacular views of the Whirlpool, a sort of crook in the river where the water by necessity churns before moving on. I saw no literal whirlpool like you’d expect in a sea adventure, but the water certainly moved in a counterclockwise direction over a large round area of the river. Parking was free, and they have good signage to direct you along the trails leading to the edge of the river (or as close as you can get, overlooking the river below). I only ran into 3 or 4 people along that trail, but I did get there around 9:30 AM, so it was probably earlier than most people would be doing anything except the main draw in the area—the Falls themselves.

I pushed northward, hoping to see the Devil’s Hole site—I mean, that name, come on. I hopped on the Niagara Scenic Highway, which is somewhat misnamed. It was scenic, sure, up until the big dam area, after which there’s nothing really scenic at all. Also, it’s a bit claustrophobic since there are next to zero exits for several miles. Once you’re past the dam, it does feel like you’re trapped on the road. I certainly felt trapped. Also Google Maps let me down with their directions to Devil’s Hole: it told me to turn left into the park, which would’ve made me jump the curb into a parking area that looked like it had been closed off for a while. So instead, I continued northward.

Youngstown was simply idyllic. It had the vibe of any small town in America, with smallish, well-kept houses along the main road into town, a few stores, and then Main Street parallel to the waterfront. I parked on Main Street and explored the area on foot. It’s really small enough to do that. Some cute restaurants and cafés, local shops, and loads of historical markers. They had stuff going from the Seven Years War (also called the French and Indian War) up through the War of 1812, as well as Underground Railroad sites. Sloping downhill at an angle behind all these shops of Main Street was the road leading to the actual waterfront. I may have trespassed into a local boating club (oops), but I got to see so many sail boats, many of them in dry dock, others anchored in the harbor awaiting their owners and passengers. Across the way, I could see Canada, and it made me sad that I couldn’t go. I wondered how they could stop me if I just took one of these boats and rowed it to the other side.

I climbed back up to Main Street instead, half dejected, and decided to go as far north as Main Street would take me. It wasn’t long at all, maybe a mile, before I ran into the entry to Fort Niagara, where they’ve restored it to what it looked like at the time of those wars mentioned above. Reenactments and all. But when I saw it was $18 just to park, I decided I had better things to do. So I turned around and made my way south for the rest of the day.

And it turns out that the dam was one of the coolest sights I saw all day. (But really, there wasn’t anything I saw in the entire area that wasn’t cool.) It’s called the Niagara Power Vista, the new name of the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant. It’s a big dam, used for hydroelectric power that apparently is the main power source for much of the western part of New York state. Best thing about it is—it’s free! They actually WANT you to come visit this place and see how it’s done. While the sights and activities inside are heavily geared toward school groups, they are still fun. It’s good to see the kids get excited about science, and I did like how the audio bits from each of the stations called the participants “engineers.” But frankly, my main draw was the actual “vista” in the name of the place. Around three sides of the activity center are windows, with a few doors, leading onto a walkway that allows you to see not only the dam but also views of the river in both directions, as well as the Canadian power plant facing the American one. The views were quite stunning, especially when you realize the scale of these manmade walls in the side of the riverbanks. For scale, one of the turbines is sitting basically in the middle of the walkway leading from the parking lot to the visitor’s center. Its size and durability shocked me.

I never would’ve expected a power plant to impress me or even be on a list of touristy things, much less that I’d go inside and look around. I had laughed when I saw it on the list of recommended items on the map. I laugh no more. It was free, informative, with helpful staff members and great views of the river (plus you get a souvenir lanyard and ID badge, and it’s pretty sturdy).

Finally, it was time to descend into tourist hell: time to go to the Falls. I parked at the Niagara Amtrak station, which shares a building with the Underground Railroad exhibit. It’s also one of the stops for the free Niagara shuttle bus, and parking is free at the train station. It didn’t take long, and I actually had to run to get to the bus stop before it left me. Luckily, the conductor saw me, and so the bus waited for me to get there. Masks are required on the bus, by the way.

The bus dropped me off in front of the big Seneca Casino, and I got to walk down the main tourist street to the Falls. The park is free to get into, so don’t be fooled by all those lines at the Maid of the Mist—which costs about $25 per adult, by the way. It also costs money to go to the “observation tower” beyond that, or you could just go to Prospect Point for free. Yep, there’s plenty of people crowding along the rail at the edge of the cliff, but it’s just as crowded upstairs. Even more so on the boat, I imagine. I can’t see why people pay that much to get wet, other than just to say they did it. Maybe they want the thrill? I guess if it’s worth $25 for you, then go right ahead. I passed.

It was amazing to contrast how built up the Canadian side of the Falls were, compared to the American side I was standing on. It looked like there were so many more things to do. And from my memory, there were. Also fewer places available to park when we tried to.

My first impulse was to start snapping pictures when I got to the edge of the cliff. But I stopped myself and just enjoyed the views. It was also a great place for people watching, but not for long, otherwise they think you’re just creepy. I moved around to different spots along the cliff’s edge, seeing how it affected the perspective. Closer to the “observation tower” were good panoramic views, but further away, before it turned back to the left, you could get better views of the actual Falls up close. They each had their advantages.

I started walking back to the bus stop after that, but then I noticed the signs for the Pedestrian Bridge to Goat Island, and I thought, why not? That had basically been my strategy all day, anyway. Who needs a plan, right?

So off I went, meandering with the herds traveling to Goat Island. It turns out, most of them were heading to the Cave of the Winds, which is down below the Falls where you pay to get soaked, just not on a boat. I don’t know if it’s any cheaper, since I didn’t bother to look. Instead, I sauntered over to Luna Island, just off of Goat Island. There’s actually a smaller Falls between Goat Island and Luna Island called Bridal Veil Falls, and that’s the water drenching most of the people down there in the Cave of the Winds. While there, a large contingent of Amish (or maybe Mennonites, I didn’t ask, but they definitely spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, aka German) people showed up to enjoy the vistas. It was so refreshing to be around people who weren’t trying to capture the images or take selfies with it all. It made me wonder about how they remember the things they see and hear, since we rely so much on digital media for those things now. I wonder whether they have better memories than the rest of us. Probably.

My feet were starting to tire, so I made my way back to the mainland. Rain began to fall in small drops as I crossed the Pedestrian Bridge, and this worried me since I had no umbrella or poncho, and I was going to have to wait for the bus to take me back to my car. But the rain never amounted to much, and I managed to make it to the bus stop in plenty of time. And it had a covered bench, so no problems.

The bus driver was quite talkative, in contrast to my earlier driver, who said nothing except to announce the name of each stop when we arrived. We learned about some of the places we stopped from this second driver, but more than that, we learned his views and speculations from locals about border openings and the like, not to mention some of our driver’s physical ailments that required a special seat for him.

On my way out of town, I stopped by Frankie’s Donuts (& Pizza), since my first bus driver had recommended their donuts when I asked, and the second bus driver had picked up a pair of passengers just outside that establishment who were carrying a box of them. It was quite a scene when I walked in. Definitely gave off the vibe of legendary local eatery: no-nonsense lady behind the counter, group of overweight retirees at one end of the counter going on about prices as Fox News blared from the TV above them, and a ragged looking gentleman at the other end of the counter just taking up a chair and watching the world go by. I got a half dozen and took my leave, not wanting to intrude further on the scene. I’ve only eaten one of them at this writing, but I can tell you that it is truly scrumptious. I would’ve had more, but I can feel the diabetes seeping into my body already.

All in all, it was a pretty satisfying day in Niagara.

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