When you come from the UK, you're born with an inbuilt local seaside comparator. If you're from the North West, it might be Blackpool, in North Wales it could be Rhyl. For the East of England, Great Yarmouth could be your seaside town reference point; further north it might be Skegness, Bridlington or Filey.
Everybody goes there at some time, even if the trip reminds you of why you don't visit more often. I've heard rumours of "Kiss Me Quick" hats, although I've never seen one in the flesh, but the smell of frying food and candyfloss, the music pounding from the fairground rides and the repetitive electronic sounds from the arcades are familiar enough. The thing that really distinguishes these resorts, for me, is the efforts that developers and entrepreneurs go to in order to wipe from your memory and consciousness any knowledge of the thing which made the area a tourist attraction in the first place.
The long stretch of golden sand, the bracing sea air, the leisurely promenade… all of these are diverted, obscured and otherwise reduced. In some cases, there is a physical obstruction; buildings hastily erected between the beach and the coast road. Driving along the coast road between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth last month, I was consistently irritated by the inability to get to the shoreline, access being prevented by private ownership of caravan sites and holiday parks. In other cases, it is simply that the development has a reputation of its own, which means that a trip to the seaside never happens.
Some 28 million visitors each year (at best guess) visit the falls at Niagara, both the Canadian Horseshoe Falls and the American and Bridal Veil Falls. As Dave pointed out, those visitors would be within their rights to simply arrive, spend some time on the public highway admiring this force of nature, and then leave again. But Niagara Falls, and its surrounding area, demonstrate the same devotion to degrading this spectacle as your average British seaside resort. There's also the same dedication to parting visitors from as much money as possible within the shortest space of time.
There is a spot, right next to the point at which millions of litres of the Niagara river rush towards a precipice, before arcing out in a crashing torrent, where visitors can peer over a rail and watch the water flowing past towards the drop. The view is mesmeric, almost enticing – you try to watch how quickly the water is running, leaning closer as you realise how shallow the river becomes immediately before the Falls; and then you realise that the ledge below is scattered with hats and other possessions, from the tourists who leaned a bit too far. This is the bit of Niagara that it is really possible to experience directly; the power of the Falls over the millennia have drawn a deep, scarred canyon downriver, which seems very distant from the banks above.
We stood and stared at this viewing point, enjoying the occasional wash of cool spray. Then we faced the commercial onslaught. 4 attractions for only $40! The advertising encourages the visitor to rush in without considering whether any of those attractions are worth visiting at all. We coughed up £13 each to "Journey Behind the Falls", which involved donning a disposable pac a mac and travelling down almost to the base of the Falls in a lift, before wandering along passages blasted in the rock. The noise is overwhelming (and the continual pressure on your ears) but the experience is distinctly underwhelming, and not enhanced by having to queue to leave once you've had enough.
Is this real or a green screen?
A curious phenomenon we've experienced in a number of Canadian tourist attractions was also in evidence here. Once you've paid your money, before you're allowed to actually enter the attraction, you pose in front of a green screen for a photo; the background of the attraction will be added later, just in time for you to purchase a photo of yourself 'enjoying' the visit. For me, there's something really eerie about an attraction trying to flog you a faked picture of you enjoying yourself at their site – perhaps it's because it shows they have no confidence that the thing you're about to do is any good?
Underwhelmed by our journey behind the falls, we wandered along, past the shops selling authentic Niagara maple fudge, hats, mugs and general ephemera, past the high-rise hotels and the fast food joints, past the casino. I had forgotten how much the environs around something like a waterfall are key to how you experience it. We tried to remove the disappointment of the 'JBTF' by shelling out another $14 each to travel on the 'Maid of the Mist', one of the most venerable tourist activities at Niagara Falls. Another disposable pac a mac, another green screen photograph – but thankfully the boat trip was more enjoyable; it gives you a perspective on the Falls that you'd otherwise miss, looking up at the wide curtain of spray from the level of the water immediately downriver. We got absolutely soaked, but we'd already been drenched by a short, heavy rainshower immediately before boarding. Once again, the noise, the relentless nature of the energy and the destructive power of the water were all really apparent and had a greater impact on me that I had anticipated.
This proved to be the high point of our visit to the immediate vicinity of the Falls. Once back on dry land, the constant encouragement to visit the pointless and slightly seedy attractions (the largest aviary in Canada, anyone?) began to pall and I was left reflecting on the fact that one of the most spectacular sights on the continent feels swamped by the determination of some to turn it into nothing more than a sideshow to the moneymaking opportunities.