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After a long and exciting day yesterday that included a helicopter sightseeing tour, some butterflies, and an amazing magic show, I woke up to a grey, cold and drizzly day. But that was not going to deter me from exploring the City of Niagara Falls in more detail. I got up, took a nice long shower and went downstairs for breakfast to the Windows on the Lane Restaurant which is a casual dining restaurant on the main floor of the Best Western Cairn Croft Hotel.
I then linked up with Lisa Smith, who works at the hotel, to get a tour of the facility. Lisa took me into the tropical courtyard that is the signature feature of the Cairn Croft Hotel and explained that the name of the hotel was derived from its original owners whose last name was Cairn, and from the word “croft”, which is Scottish for “inn”. Even today the hotel is still family owned and a friend of the owners hand-painted the faux-stone pattern on the walkways surrounding the tropical courtyward. Lisa pointed out that this property was the first Best Western hotel in Canada and has been extensively updated in recent years. The company Best Western Motels was founded back in 1946 which originally was an informal link between properties, where each hotel recommended other lodging establishments to travelers. As far back as 1962 the Best Western Hotel Chain had the only hospitality reservations system that covered all of the United States and Canada.
After a long history of company growth, Best Western today is the world’s largest hotel chain in the world and comprises more than 4,000 hotels in nearly 80 countries. One of Best Western’s unique marketing propositions is its free high-speed Wi-Fi access in all its hotels, a service that was rolled out across the entire chain in just eight months in 2004. From an organizational point of view, Best Western is also unique since it is not a traditional franchise operation. Best Western actually operates as a non-profit membership association, each property is individually owned and each franchisee acts and votes as a member of this association. Interestingly, hotels are allowed to retain their own identity and can keep their own independent name as part of this identity, as evidenced by the Best Western Cairn Croft name.
Lisa started giving me a tour through the tropical courtyard and explained that originally the building was a U-shaped motel with an outdoor courtyard. One of the improvements made to the property was the installation of a roof over the courtyard and the creation of a tropical environment, complete with a large heated indoor swimming pool, exotic trees and plants as well as a playground that makes the Cairn Croft a favourite destination for families with young children. The Bourbon Street Bistro overlooks the pool, serves cocktails, snacks and pizza and provides live entertainment on some weekends and holidays.
The family-feel of this property is also evidenced by the fact that many of the employees have been working here for a long time. Lisa mentioned that many of the staff have been here for 15 or even 20 years, somewhat of a rarity in the hospitality industry. Clients often become repeat customers and come back time and time again for a special weekend in Niagara Falls. The Croft Lounge is also a popular hangout on weekends and features karaoke, theme nights and dance music on the weekends.
The Best Western Cairn Croft Hotel has also become a popular destination for weddings, especially due to the tropical courtyard and the gazebo in the garden-like bistro that adjoin the pool. Lisa added that this property is particularly popular with same-sex couples who travel from the United States to Canada to get married. Most of her customers come from within a three hour radius and many of them are avid golfers who like to take advantage of the Niagara Peninsula’s plentiful and affordable selection of golf courses.
After this overview it was now time for me to hit the road and start my busy schedule of discoveries in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I started my day with a visit to the Skylon Tower, Niagara Fall’s most famous landmarks. Construction of the tower started in May of 1964 and 17 months later the tower was officially opened jointly by the then Governor of New York and the Premier of Ontario. I walked in on the main floor which houses some retail outlets and an arcade and took one of the “yellow bug” elevators to the top. As we moved up from the main level, the falls on both the American and the Canadian side came into view.
I went straight up to the top level which houses the observation deck. This indoor/outdoor observatory is the highest vantage point in Niagara Falls, and close to 8,000 square miles in Canada and the United States can be seen. Sights such as the skyline of Toronto and Buffalo are visible from the top and a circular walkway provides a 360 degree panoramic view. Signs at regular intervals identify the various sights surrounding the tower.
A souvenir shop is located in the central portion of this observation deck and through the glass doors you can reach the outside observation deck. I ventured outside where the wind was howling on this rather grey and chilly day. The view of the American and Canadian Falls as well as of Goat’s Island and Niagara Falls, NY, was nevertheless breathtaking. Seeing the Falls from the air just provides a much better idea of the imposing size and beauty of this natural wonder.
When it got too chilly I hurried back inside and went a couple of stairs down to check out the Revolving Dining Room, which must be a wonderful restaurant in the evening, when the colourful lights and the illuminated cascades of Niagara Falls come to life.
I was to get much more intimate knowledge of Niagara Falls through my next visit: just minutes across the street from the Skylon Tower is the Niagara Falls Imax Theatre, a modern facility that features a truly spectacular IMAX presentation: “Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic”. I always love IMAX presentations and was really looking forward to learning more about the unique historical background of Niagara Falls.
The movie started with the native legend of the Maid of the Mist, and featured a dramatization of the first sighting of Niagara Falls by European explorers in the 17th century. It also covered all sorts of stories of daredevils and high-wire performance artists that started to make Niagara Falls a tourism attraction from the early 19th century onwards. Even the story of Roger Woodward, the seven year old American boy who was swept over the Horseshoe Falls in a life jacket (the only survivor who went over the Falls without a protective vessel) was told in moving images.
Just outside the Imax Theatre’s screening room is the Daredevil Gallery that features a number of the interesting and diverse vessels that were used by various daredevils to go over the Falls. One of the most famous was a 63-year old school Teacher named Annie Edson Tayler whose story was also told in the Imax movie. Joined by with her cat, she was the first person to go over the Falls for a publicity stunt, in a wooden barrel, cushioned by a big mattress. Unfortunately, her much hoped-for public speaking career never materialized and she died as a pauper.
Other daredevils went over the falls in metal barrels of all shapes and sizes, with varying results. Some arrived on the other side of the big cascade virtually unharmed, while others suffocated or died of internal injuries. It was indeed rather eerie to see some of the actual vessels that were used in unsuccessful attempts to go over the Falls. One of the most gruesome exhibits is the “George Stathakis Death Barrel” that was used in an unsuccessful attempt in 1930 when its passenger suffocated after being trapped in turbulent water behind the Falls for 22 hours. Today such daredevil stunts are actually outlawed and anyone ever attempting to go over the Niagara Falls would surely face hefty fines.
To continue with the Niagara Falls historic theme my next visit was to the “Skylon The Falls 3D/4D Movie”, a movie theatre located at the base of the Skylon Tower that recounts the Niagara Falls story from a more fantasy-based angle. Special effects include gusts of air, sprays of water and moving seats that are intended to create a multi-sensory experience of the film.
It was time to continue my exploration of Niagara Falls, but I had to get closer. So I walked down Murray Street and turned right onto the Niagara Parkway, walking right next to the mighty Niagara River. The weather at this time was grey and chilly, and wet snow was falling. I was glad to take refuge in the Table Rock Centre, the shopping and restaurant complex right next to the edge of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls which was currently under renovation. Most of the souvenir shops and fast food outlets were open and I had a quick pizza and a charming conversation with five British ladies that were in Niagara Falls for a quick pre-Christmas getaway, their first time in Canada. They seemed to have a pretty jolly old time in Canada and took the clammy weather in strides – they were probably used to it.
Having satisfied my hunger I was ready to get truly up close and personal with the Falls: the “Journey behind the Falls” is one of the best ways to experience the true power of the Niagara Falls first-hand. I took the elevator down to the lower level at the Table Rock Centre and started my own journey behind the mighty Falls. Known until the early 1990s as the “Scenic Tunnels”, this attraction consists of two tunnels and an outside viewing platform. The tunnels date back to early 20th century and extend about 46 m behind the waterfall. I walked down the long underground corridors with their orange lighting and stopped intermittently to read the informational posters on the wall. These displays provide a description of the history of Niagara Falls, its geology and some of the famous visitors who include President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, who were both here on separate occasions.
Towards the end of the tunnel there are two smaller side tunnels, each leading to an opening, or a portal, that provides a view from behind the waterfalls. One of these portals was partially covered by icicles and presented a perfect motif for any passionate photographer. Access to the portals was blocked by a metal barrier for safety reasons, although in the past visitors could get much closer to the edge and admire the tumbling masses of water from just a few meters away. The dull roar of the falling water pervaded the entire underground space and provided an idea of the power of the millions of litres of water that fall down the Horseshoe Falls every second.
The statistics illustrate why Niagara Falls is considered one of the natural Wonders of the World: the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, the most impressive of the three falls in Niagara Falls, have a length of over 670 metres, and their height is 53 metres which makes Niagara Falls the most powerful waterfall in North America. The depth of the Niagara River below the Horsehoe Falls is estimated to be 56 metres. The straight line crest of the American Falls is 253 metres. About 90% of the water of the Niagara River plunges over the Horseshoe Falls while the other 10% make their way down the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls which are separated from the Canadian Falls by Goat Island, an uninhabited island that provides great vantage points of all the cascades.
I had now reached the outside observation platform that provides an excellent lateral view of the curtain of the Horseshoe Falls as they plunge into the river below. Tourists from all over the world were feverishly taking pictures of this unique sight. Even on this grey day the view was impressive and the thunder of the cascading masses of water filled the air as one fifth of the world’s fresh water was crashing 13 stories down into the river below.
Duly impressed by this natural wonder, I made my way back up and strolled back along the Niagara River’s edge to my vehicle, which I had parked conveniently at the Fallsview Casino Resort. I was pondering what to do next and because I felt thoroughly chilled I was looking for a nice place to warm up in.
I found just such a place just a few minutes drive away from the Horseshoe Falls: Bird Kingdom, one of Niagara Falls’, Ontario, newer attractions. This tropical destination was surely going to revive my chilled bones and it was going to be my next stop on my Niagara Falls discoveries.
write by Dermot