Having spent five days exploring Niagara Falls, New York, we are fascinated to see how water defines the entire region. Of course it’s the home of Niagara Falls, one of the largest cataracts in the world and a site we all agree is worth the journey. But there’s so much more to experience we are almost overwhelmed.
Like South America’s Iguazu and Africa’s Victoria Falls, the three cataracts comprising Niagara Falls form the border between two countries. American Falls and Horseshoe Falls flow on either side of Goat Island, placing the former on the American side of the border and the latter on the Canada side. The smaller Bridal Veil Falls, separated by from the two by Luna Island, is also in the United States.
Since 1819, when Horseshoe Falls, the pride of Canada and more than twice the size of American Falls, became the border, the development between the twin cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York has been marked by the competition for tourism. The water of the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, is also a shared resource.
Harnessing the Water Power of The Falls with Tesla
As long as man has had the technical know-how, the force of The Falls’ combined 6 million cubic feet of water per second has been harnessed to work for him. It did not begin with the Croatia-born scientist, Nikola Tesla, but he has a good story. Tesla discovered the power of alternating current while employed by the legendary Thomas Edison, and went on to design the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls in 1895.
His monumental statue, calmly seated with technical drawings in hand, is on Goat Island near Horseshoe Falls. It marks the spot where his power plant proved how inefficient the DC (or direct) current electricity championed by Thomas Edison, really was. Today, the acclaimed electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors takes the name of the man whose 1882 invention of AC is at the heart of the Tesla Roadster design.
The Niagara Power Authority is the place to learn all about Tesla and his revolutionary work. Celebrating more than 50 years of generating hydroelectricity for New York State and parts of Canada, this fascinating public facility has an overlook of its 13 huge turbines, the Niagara Gorge and the Niagara River beyond. Niagara Power Vista, free of charge, features more than 50 interactive exhibits where you can design your own dam, take a VR ride into the river, operate a power grid during a storm and swirl around in a turbine.
Staying Dry, Getting Up Close and Personal with The Falls
In the tourist hub of Niagara Falls, all roads lead to New York’s Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the country. Home to the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds, it borders the churning water of the Niagara River, seen from every conceivable vantage point. The 400-acre park is well kept and buffers the beauty of The Falls from the commercialization and high-rise casinos that loom over both country’s shores.
In the park, it’s hard to miss the semi-circular Top of the Falls Restaurant, more of an observatory than a dining room, but a nice place for delicious all-American cuisine served indoors and out. (Some of the kitchen staff come from the nearby Niagara Falls Culinary Institute which has its own deli, bakery and fine restaurant on Old Falls Street nearby.)
If you have time, a map, and a passport, walk to the Rainbow Bridge and hike or bike across to the Canadian side of The Falls. Driving requires wait time – reportedly up to two hours — for a more serious inspection by Customs and Border Patrol as well as a small toll. Keep in mind that foreign data roaming charges for your cellular devices may kick in, so be sure to turn them off unless you want to incur big fees.
Getting Wet, By Boat, By Foot at The Falls
Attractions like the must-do Maid of the Mist boat ride are guaranteed to get you wet. This old-fashioned ferry cruises past the base of Bridal Veil Falls, Angel Falls and Horseshoe Falls, motoring up close and underneath the powerful torrent of mist for 30 minutes. It has been in continuous operation since 1846 and is free for under-5s; first come first served. We know why being able to take the whole family from Prospect Point above American Falls, down 200 steps to the pier, then don souvenir rain ponchos to sail into The Falls, appeals to more than 8,000,000 visitors each season. Don’t miss it or their new electric boats — one named after Tesla — which launched in 2020!
There’s nothing quite like getting soaked at Cave of the Winds, the step-by-step tour into The Falls that no one should miss either. Opened in 1924 in an era way before spectator safety was a concern, today the “cave” is an open-air wooden observation deck below Bridal Veil Falls that allows visitors to feel their tremendous power. Your nominal admission fee gets you a bright yellow poncho, secure grip sandals, and assurances that the wooden viewing platforms are rebuilt every season. As you can see in the video, you can climb up to the top level known as the Hurricane Deck and feel the real force of the thundering waters. Hold onto Granny! Visiting at night, when The Falls are illuminated and the fireworks are underway, is spectacular.
Since my first visit, this natural wonder has been augmented with a fascinating exhibit about the Niagara River’s history. Take your time to read about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and how the inventor of electricity and a proponent of DC power fought the brilliant newcomer, Tesla, who thought an AC charge was best for a new power plant at the Falls. Tesla and the Westinghouse team won, harnessing the Falls’ enormous flow to send electricity hundreds of miles away.
Additionally, a new video at Cave of the Winds, “The World Changed Here,” reveals that Niagara Falls was suffering an environmental crisis during the Industrial Revolution, when businesses ravaged the landscape to build factories closer to the water’s power. Visitor Frederick Law Olmsted, already a famous landscape architect, was appalled at the pollution he saw clouding Niagara’s skies. With other notable intellectuals of the era, he founded the Free Niagara movement, raising enough money to tear down all the factories and replant the palisades to create the New York State Park visitors see today.
Amazing and true.
And by JetBoat to The Falls
Join a few dozen tourists in Man v. Falls as skillful captains gun jetboats with huge force, big noise, and massive splash power up to Devil’s Hole Rapids, a notorious Class VI whitewater. We felt totally safe because Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours has run these specially designed jet boats, using a triple turbo diesel water jet system for both propulsion and steering, for more than 20 years. Bring a change of clothes and dress in warm under-layers to avoid the chill that sets in when you put on the company’s wet fleece, waterproof coveralls, hooded poncho and watershoes for the 45-minute soak. While getting very wet is key to the immersive experience for thrill-seekers, please note that it’s too much for preschoolers and many adults as well.
Lockport Showcases the Waters of the Erie Canal
For a very different view of the water and a fun, extra dose of learning on vacation, head to the nearby village of Lockport. This little Victorian-era town grew up around the two westernmost locks on the Erie Canal, and has added educational signs along the Erie Canal Towpath that explain how the locks raised or lowered the water level 50 feel at a time for passing boat traffic. A local business group has purchased the original Raceway, a manmade tunnel built through the hillside that channeled The Falls’ tremendous power to run waterwheels, pulp mills and other factories downstream.
Today, visitors can take a Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride Tour through a 1,600-foot-long hydraulic tunnel designed by inventor Birdsill Holly, who used The Falls’ power to manufacture his other inventions, such as the fire hydrant, central steam heater and the rotary pump. The terrifically knowledgeable local guides explain the Flight of Five locks and visible factory ruins, then take you by boat to explore the remains of the cool, damp tunnel and its fascinating history. A must-do excursion with school-age children and history buffs.
Mystical Reasons to Visit Niagara Falls
And Niagara Falls continues to thrill all ages. You can’t help but notice the Bollywood Bistro or Punjabi food truck, small Dosa stalls and Bollywood movie posters on some shops – all signs that a large and important segment of visitors come to this city by the water all the way from India. Flying straight from Delhi to Buffalo, we learned these pilgrims revere The Falls as a natural wonder of the world, almost a divine body of water that’s celebrated in many Bollywood movies. How that accounts for the many multigenerational Indian groups we met who come for their third and fourth visits is unknown, but having a fun family vacation at their pilgrimage site helps.
And all the lovers? Showers of happiness may describe many weddings, but opinions vary as to how and why Niagara Falls came to be known as The Honeymoon Capital of the World. In 1801, the daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr spent one of the earliest recorded honeymoons at The Falls, followed by a member of the French nobility. As the popularity of weddings and honeymoons at this scenic spot grew, the presence of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, in town for the filming of “Niagara,” propelled the momentum. The 1950s and 1960s were a boom time for Niagara Falls. Romantic restaurants and honeymoon hotel packages have continued to lure newlyweds, and the legalization of same-sex marriages in Ontario (2003) and New York State (2011) have encouraged a whole new generation of destination wedding planners.
Today, agriculture is the number one revenue generator in Niagara County but tourism is a close second, particularly as tourism matures to take advantage of the rural landscape with the new Niagara Wine Trail (21 wineries), opportunities for superb farm-to-table dining at places like Becker Farms, and bicycle touring fostered by the Sweet Sixteen Cafe in Lockport where you can pack a picnic, grab a bike and follow the remnants of the Erie Canal towpath.
Trip Planning Tips for a Niagara Falls Family Vacation
Niagara Falls NY is easily accessed by car, or by flying into Buffalo Airport and taking a shuttle. Once there, the attractions are close enough to all the hotels to get around by foot. Although taxis are available, you’ll want a car to explore the region if you are in town more than two days.
The pedestrian-only Old Falls Street is the center of summer festivals and souvenir shops and site of the Sheraton at the Falls Hotel not to be confused with the Sheraton by the Falls Hotel on the Canadian side of the river. The Red Coach Inn, dating to 1923, is a popular wedding and honeymoon destination where Pam and Jim from “The Office” stayed on-air, while the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls – Fallsview is where Marilyn Monroe really stayed during the 1953 filming of the thriller “Niagara.” The tourism team at Niagara Falls USA is very helpful with other lodging choices.
Get the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass a multi-attraction ticket that can be used over several days, providing up to 38% off the full admission price and helping you organize your visit. Based in the local Niagara Falls State Park, the pass admits holders to the Cave of the Winds Tour, Maid of the Mist boat ride, the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, the small but fun Aquarium of Niagara and the movie, “Niagara: Legends of Adventure.” Of course all these sights celebrate water and our theme even extends to the Niagara Scenic Trolley because it cruises close by the shoreline and will enable the grandparents and mobility challenged in your group to see even more views of The Falls. For 2019, the Niagara USA Discovery Pass costs $46/adult and $35/ages 6-12 years; kids 5 and under enter free any time.
Keep in mind that most of the attractions are only open April to October but with a dusting of snow, it’s even more spectacular in the winter.
And do bring your parka and an extra pair of socks.
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