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Niagara Falls: International Icon

| Sunday, March 25, 2001

To live in the United States and never visit Niagara Falls is a shame.

To live within a day's drive and never visit Niagara Falls is a crime.

Like the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful, Niagara Falls is a work of nature that has become an American icon. It's a must-see for tourists of all nations. You will find area brochures printed in French, Spanish, German and Japanese and you will hear plenty of foreign tongues spoken here.

According to Stan Rydelek, president of tourism development for the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau, approximately 12 million people visit the falls each year. Suffice it to say that nobody will ever be lonely here, especially in peak season. Most observers say the Canadian side, known as the Horseshoe Falls, is the prettier of the falls - and they are right. The Canadian cascades are over twice as wide as the American falls and curve dramatically, whereas the American falls tumble over a straight brink. However, on the American side you can get up close to the falls in a way you can't on the Maple Leaf side.

Niagara Falls, Canada, also has what some have called the tackiest street in the country, with wax museums and other tourist magnets exposing the sordid and the sensational. Although neither city is at a loss at telling visitors how to spend their money, Niagara Falls, N.Y., is the more sincere.

If all you want to do is see the falls, you can do so from several vantage points. Goat Island is reached by either pedestrian or vehicular bridges, while in Niagara Reservation State Park is the 242-foot-high Prospect Point Observation Tower. The state park visitor center, opened in 1987, may be the best place to begin your visit. Displays on water power and a 70 mm film on the majesty and potency of the falls sets the mood.

It is the sheer power of Niagara Falls that impresses the most. There are higher waterfalls; Taughannock Falls near Ithaca is 215 feet high. Niagara Falls is only 184 feet high on the American side and 176 feet high on the Canadian, the falls are dramatically wide. The curved brink of the Canadian falls is about 2,200 feet long; the American brink covers about half that width, still formidable. The water flow over the falls is about 750,000 gallons per second, and when you feel the mist at Prospect Point, the falls at Niagara will earn your respect.

To see the falls from a distance is one thing. To meet the falls head on is another. There are three ways from the American side to experience Niagara Falls at their own level, to confront the spray face to face, and expose your ears to its perpetual roar. Two of them have been around for eons: the Maid of the Mists and the Cave of the Winds. Short of going over the falls in a barrel, you can't get any closer.

The first Maid of the Mists set sail in 1846 when James K. Polk was president and it was a president who some 60 years later gave the boat ride its mightiest endorsement.

Theodore Roosevelt called it 'the only way to fully realize the grandeur of the great Falls of Niagara.' Since then, world leaders and other VIPs have donned black rubber raincoats and faced the falls from the deck. Actress Marilyn Monroe, Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin are a few. Kosygin, it is said, refused to protect his head with his rain hood until the Maid was virtually on top of the Horseshoe Falls, telling an aide he enjoyed the feel of the mist on his face.

You may not want to be as brave as Kosygin. The Maid trip climaxes by taking passengers to the base of the American falls and into the basin of the Horseshoe Falls.

The 20-minute-long ride starts out at the dock at the Prospect Point Observation Tower's base, and for the first 10 minutes or so, feels no different than any other river cruise. As you approach the falls, mist starts to dance off your face, the boat bounces to the rhythm of the river and the fortissimo of the falling water becomes a thunderous drone.

If you bring your camera aboard - and we recommend you do - your prize shot will probably be the one of the inevitable rainbow. However, we wish to caution you not to expect too much from photos taken in the basin. Water will spray your lens, likely fogging up photographs. Rely on your memories, which will truly be made of the mist.

Your memories also will be made of tales and legends about the falls that the captain imparts on his way up and back. The most memorable is about Roger Woodward, a 7-year-old boy who was swept over the falls in a boating mishap on July 9, 1960. Roger unbelievably survived the fall and was rescued by the Maid of the Mists crew, becoming the fourth person to survive the fall and the only one to go over the falls and live while wearing just a bathing suit and a life preserver. In 1980, at age 27, Roger Woodward returned with his wife, Susan, to take a more conventional look at the falls.

We don't know whether Roger embarked on the 40-minute-long Cave of the Winds trip but it, too, is an institution and is highly recommended to complement the Maid. Here, you perspective is from land - Goat Island. After buying tickets, visitors change into felt booties and yellow raincoats, then take an elevator down 180 feet and prepare to be hit by another misting. You walk through a small tunnel and you are at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, the rushing cataract of the American falls sandwiched between Luna and Goat islands. A web of wooden catwalks and staircases takes visitors to numerous points on the cliff side from which views of the American and Bridal Veil falls are astounding. The ever present rainbow is best seen at the tour point called Rock of Ages, while the climax is at the last stop, Hurricane Deck, just 25 feet from Bridal Veil Falls.

Prepare, once again, to get wet. Cave of the Winds guides also relate stories of Niagara past, and you shouldn't be surprised to hear some of those you also heard on Maid of the Mists. Other tantalizing bits of falls trivia relate solely to Cave of the Winds. The two elevators taking raincoat wearers up and down were open to the public in 1925. Prior to that a 279-step staircase was used. Imagine the trip back up after being soaked from your look at the falls.

In the mid-1990s a business called Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours opened up shop and now offers a third option for a close-up falls experience.

Participants get a 30-minute-long pre-trip briefing before being given necessary equipment: a full-length rain suit, a poncho and a life jacket. One should also being a change of clothes; tours go out rain or shine. Those who are pregnant or have heart, back or neck problems should skip the trip.

The most romantic view of Niagara Falls can be seen for up to three hours after sunset - starting at 5 p.m. in the dead of winter and at 9:15 p.m. in summer - when the falls are spectacularly illuminated. One look and you will know why honeymooners still come here.

If you go: Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau, 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls, NY 14303; (800) 421-5223; (716) 258-2400; www.nfcvb.com.

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