Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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Going overboard in Niagara

Part Grand Canyon, part Vegas, Niagara’s unique combination of natural wonderment and outrageous cheesiness continues to boom

Talk about a star-studded welcome wagon. After parking the family minivan and emerging from an alleyway, I suddenly found myself staring upon an open-air lobby located near the intersection of Clifton Hill and Victoria Avenue. Staring right back at me was a collection of celebrities, the likes of whom included Lance Armstrong, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods, Mike Myers (decked out in full Fat Bastard regalia, no less) and even Pope John Paul II.

Welcome to Niagara Falls, Ontario, aka the Honeymoon Capital of the World.

Okay, I confess: the above list of world famous folk (a couple of whom, admittedly, are only famous for being famous) weren't real. They were lifelike wax facsimiles, trying to entice tourists to buy tickets to gaze upon yet more faux famous folk. All of the frozen-in-time specimens reside in Louis Tussaud's Waxworks (not to be confused with that other Tussauds waxworks.)

For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, wax is apparently a very big deal in these parts. There are numerous waxwork places around the Clifton Hill area of Niagara Falls, including the Movieland Wax Museum of the Stars, the Rock Legends Wax Museum and even the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum.

Stroll along the carnival-like Clifton Hill/Victoria Avenue area -- truly the epicentre of Niagara Falls touristy schlock -- and you can't help but notice an excessive number of storefront windows crammed with lifeless wax heads staring back at you. Could it be that wax, like hydro-electricity, is a byproduct of the nearby cascading waterfalls?

Cheesy Goodness
Still, with regard to outright cheesiness, it isn't merely waxworks that abound. As far as the eye can see, there are all sorts of tourist traps: cinemas screening "4-D" movies (most of the films involve dinosaurs for some reason); there's World Wrestling Niagara Falls, home to pricey plastic wrestling figurines and the Pile Driver Ride; and then there are the various "museums:" Guinness World Records, the Classic Iron Motorcycle Museum and Ripley's Believe It or Not! (the last one situated within an edifice which resembles a toppled Empire State Building -- a tad too believable for all the wrong reasons in our post-9/11 world).

And as they say on those Ronco TV ads, "But wait -- there's more!" This section of town is also festooned with video arcades, miniature golf courses and, inexplicably, a preponderance of "haunted" houses including the House of Frankenstein, Dracula's Haunted Castle, The Haunted House, Screamers House of Horrors and Nightmares Fear Factory.

For what it's worth, Screamers and Nightmares appear to be the Coke and Pepsi of scary attractions: Screamers boasts that "60,000 visitors have chickened out after meeting Tony the Tongue". Not to be outdone, Nightmares brags that "over 83,000 have chickened out!" and the proprietors proudly point to a rave review in Rue Morgue Magazine that notes: "You can save the best for last or just come here [Nightmares] first and get the bejesus scared out of you!"

A plethora of tourist-centric knickknack shops are embedded in this area. Sure you might find the odd sweatshirt baring an artist's rendering of the awesome and majestic natural wonder that eternally rumbles just a few minutes away. But most of the stores sell cheap T-shirts festooned with pithy slogans such as "My idea of a balanced diet is a beer in each hand" or "Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes." Could this be what the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau is referring to with its official marketing slogan, "One wonder after another?"

Then again, such a preponderance of kitsch shouldn't really be too surprising. The drawing power of Niagara Falls has always served as a beacon to "heroes and villains, eccentrics and daredevils, scientists and power brokers, artists and charlatans," notes historian Pierre Berton in his fascinating 1992 book, Niagara: A History of the Falls.

Berton argues that for centuries, entrepreneurs of dodgy backgrounds were attracted to the Falls like so many ants to an open jam jar. Given the Falls' tourism drawing power, there was always a buck or three to be made in these parts -- quite often via dubious methods.

Like Ducks in a Barrel
An event that forever cemented Niagara's place as a tourist-trapping mecca took place on September 8, 1827. That's when a pair of thinking-outside-the-box gentlemen came up with the brilliant idea of sending an old merchant ship over the Falls carrying a cargo of -- wait for it -- live animals. The passenger manifest consisted of dogs, geese, bears, foxes and a buffalo. The promoters had also promised panthers, wildcats and wolves, but those exotic critters never did materialize.

In any event, by some accounts, up to 30,000 boisterous spectators were on hand to witness the un-manned Michigan embark upon its final run that day (this was, after all, long before reality TV and the establishment of PETA.) The animal-laden voyage of the Michigan went pretty much as one might expect: the makeshift Noah's ark broke into pieces in the rapids before the flotsam and jetsam and animals finally plunged over the precipice of the Horseshoe Falls. For the record, a single goose survived.

Yet, due to the incredible attention this gruesome stunt received -- a sight that was surely far more macabre than Tony the Tongue doing his shtick down at Screamers -- the outright exploitation of the Falls began in earnest. As Berton notes: "The results [of the Michigan stunt] exceeded the promoters' wildest dreams. So much liquor and beer were consumed in the taverns and hotels that the entire stock was drunk up before half the crowd was accommodated. The message was clear: the Falls was not simply a static spectacle to be gazed upon and admired; now it could be used."

All of which perhaps explains why today Niagara Falls is inundated with a plethora of waxworks, museums, haunted houses and four-dimensional cinemas, with the odd Pile Driver Ride thrown in for good measure.

Still, Niagara's unique combination of natural wonderment and outrageous cheesiness continues to boom. In the last few years alone, more than $2 billion of new tourism development has been attracted to Niagara Falls. The Ontario side, that is; Niagara Falls, New York, alas, is a very depressing place to visit. In the final analysis, perhaps tackiness trumps outright decrepitude?

Some of the more recent players include the Americana Resort and Spa and the Great Wolf Lodge, both of which boast enormous indoor water parks. The Fallsview Casino, meanwhile, truly lives up to its name thanks to so many of its rooms facing the Horseshoe Falls. In fact, the Fallsview might just qualify as the most gorgeous casino in the world. While Las Vegas engineers can replicate everything from a slice of Paris to a medieval castle, a desert setting isn't exactly conducive to mimicking nature's most spectacular waterworks show.

From Water To Wine
It's also worth noting that beyond the hustle and bustle of the Clifton Hill sideshows and tourist shops and the various mammoth water parks and gambling dens, there are so many other sides to Niagara that are deserving of attention.

For those who want to replicate the Sideways experience, a tour of the various Niagara wineries is a must for oenophiles. Forget about the bad old days of Baby Duck -- many of Niagara's wineries now produce world-class varietals. In fact, the Niagara wine region has been an enormous success story. In 1975, there were fewer than a dozen wineries; today, there are more than 50.

Niagara's climate, soil and topography make for ideal growing conditions for European grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Vines that were planted in the '80s (when the wine region's renaissance began in earnest) are now paying dividends: exceptional grapes are being produced, leading to award-winning wines (including the most exceptional ice wines on the planet.)

For those wanting to hit the links, Niagara is a golfer's dream come true. Several of the area's 40 golf courses are staples on the must-play lists of various North American golfing magazines.

For cyclists, the Greater Niagara Circle Route encompasses 150 kilometres of bike trails. It is a scenic ride to be sure: Sir Winston Churchill once referred to the Niagara Parkway as the "prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world."

For birders, naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts, the Niagara Escarpment -- designated as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1990 -- is sublime for those who wish to gaze upon the unspoiled habitats that accommodate numerous species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Better yet, these days, such animals are no longer being rounded-up for a one-way voyage over the Falls.

Nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, meanwhile, is an ideal destination for those who want to take in unique antique stores, specialty shops and artists' studios. A visit to its postcard pretty Heritage District will take you back in time thanks to the district's well-preserved historical buildings, some of which date back to 1817.

Still, no visit to Niagara Falls is possible without a pilgrimage to the Falls. And there are a variety of ways in which to view that iconic sight. You can simply gaze upon the falls from the pedestrian walkways, but if up close and personal is more to your liking, there are jet boat tours and the venerable Maid of the Mist (rainwear is provided -- and you'll need it.) A bird's eye view of the Falls is available via helicopter excursions. There are even walking tours that will take you behind the Falls.

As so many others have opined, it is almost impossible to sum up the constant Kodak moment that is the Falls in just a few words. Think of an entity that is equal parts breathtakingly beautiful and downright terrifying -- a Siberian tiger, perhaps -- and that's the Falls.

As well, Niagara surely ranks as the rainbow capital of Canada: on a sunny day, barely a moment goes by when there isn't a crimson, indigo and amber band of light arcing over the ever-churning, white-tipped water, the end result of mist colliding with ultraviolet rays.

In many respects, the sound and the fury of the 55-metre-high Falls take on a quality similar to flames raging in a massive bonfire. It's a hypnotizing experience to view the two trillion litres of water cascading over the precipice every hour along with the constant burbling of white water below. In Clifton Hill parlance, it's a "4-D" experience thanks to the airborne mist which is continually bombarding you in the face.

Over the centuries, there have been numerous poems written about Niagara's waterfalls, some of which liken the sight of the Falls to a religious experience. There have been thousands of artistic renderings of the Falls and a movie starring Marilyn Monroe (Niagara) was even shot here.

But nothing quite matches the thrill and intensity of standing across the gorge, being lulled by water endlessly falling and churning, churning and falling. In the final analysis, Niagara Falls remains an awe-inspiring natural wonder -- even when hemmed in by unnatural, man-made surroundings.


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