Falling for Niagara

The Hornblower's passengers are dwarfed by the mighty Niagara Falls. Picture: Monica Leslie

With more than 2.2 million litres of water plunging over its edge each second, the sheer power of the Niagara Falls is humbling to behold. However, while I expected to be awed by such a tremendous force of nature, I was ill prepared for the full extent of its beauty. Clear and glacial green, the Niagara River falls in curtains to Whirlpool Bay. Its lace border of white, foamy spray, in juxtaposition to the massive falling river, is nature conforming to the aesthetic rules of feng shui. The delicacy of the foam is accentuated by the contrast to the thundering torrents beneath it.

The name of North America's most famous falls sparks recognition worldwide. Conjuring images of countless marriage proposals, wooden barrels, Canadian Mounties and rainbows, the stereotypes add to the aura of romance surrounding the falls.

Drawn by its majesty, some 12 million visitors flock to Niagara Parks each year. A big range of accommodations and other facilities have sprung up on both the US and Canadian sides of the falls.

Numerous towering hotels, particularly on the Canadian side, offer guests postcard views of the famous Horseshoe Falls. And so it is that even from the comfort of our own beds, our family is able to enjoy the show of coloured lights that illuminates the falls each night at sundown.

Alternatively, Hornblower Niagara Cruises allows visitors to quite literally immerse themselves in the wonder of the Niagara Falls. Departing from about 1km down the escarpment, these cruises first take their ponchoed passengers past the American falls. Although somewhat smaller in magnitude, the rugged, rocky outcrop in their midst adds a Conradian element of drama.

Further along, the plumes of mist billowing from the base of the Horseshoe Falls become denser and denser until we are encompassed in the middle of the horseshoe curve. Drenched but grinning, each visitor seeks to capture the moment in some way. Whether through family snaps, selfies or quiet observation, each finds a way to record this proximity to greatness.

While historical photographs provide evidence the falls are constantly changing, eroding the cliff so that the waters descend earlier and earlier in the river's course, the essence of this natural landmark is immutable. Imagine the people who witnessed the torrent for the first time. It's hard to fathom the shock of coming across such a formidable show of nature's force. And yet, I can see my reaction to the falls' might as an echo of their first experience: the shared experience presenting a point of connection in a timeline of otherwise disparate and diverse human lives.

To better understand how Niagara came to be, the Canadian visitor centre's 4-D experience, Niagara's Fury, is highly recommended. Introduced with a child-friendly animated history of the area's geology, it tells the story of the Great Lakes Basin. Carved out during the glacial period 10,000 years ago, the water from this ice would go on to form what we now know as the Great Lakes and the Niagara River. After being rerouted several times, the river eventually came to descend into the gorge we see today as it flows northward from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.

The Niagara's Fury experience continues in an adjacent room, where the glacial period, ice breakup and current plummeting waters are recreated in 4-D on surrounding screens, accompanied by spraying mist and a moving platform.

Other attractions in the area are available to occupy guests over longer stays. With a focus on outdoor recreation, these sites include Niagara Parks' scenic Botanical Gardens, a butterfly sanctuary and hiking trails. Families can also take advantage of the nearby amusement park, Water World, and educational experiences centred on the War of 1812.

Personally, though, I could happily spend several days just savouring the view. Strolling through the floral gardens that skirt the bluff, I am content to enjoy the pockets of mist that bring relief from the summer warmth. The ever-present clouds of vapour also create ideal conditions for beautiful, sweeping rainbows.

With the midday sun overhead and Niagara in all its splendour before us, a more wondrous view could hardly be conceived. It is safe to say Niagara has well earned its hype, and rests secure as one of the great natural wonders of our world.

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