Niagara Falls, Ont., is tacky, brash and vulgar, as subtle as a punch in the nose, as un-Canadian as a drunken brawl at a PTA meeting. This is precisely why it is so magnificent.
It is a town full of casinos, cut-price cocktails, slightly mildewed carpets, haunted houses and dubious waxworks. There is nothing organic, artisanal or locavore in its streets. I have never seen a ukulele, though I have visited many times, and I once spent an afternoon searching in vain for hummus. It is bursting at the seams with gluten. It must never change.
"Niagara," said Oscar Wilde, recording his ennui from the American falls, "is a melancholy place filled with melancholy people." Surely he only felt this way because, in a reverse of normal relations, the American side is so boring. His opinion would have changed if he'd crossed the bridge to experience the macabre delights of the House of Frankenstein (the true horror of which lies in the proprietors' inability to spell Mary Shelley) or the pleasure afforded by the Upside Down House, the Wax Hand Emporium or the Ghost Blasters black-light adventure ride.
I have been visiting Niagara Falls since I was a child, and now I take my own family several times a year. To steal from another aphorist, if one is tired of Niagara Falls, one is tired of life. Visiting is not just a trip back in time, it is also like unlacing a corset. It is an escape from the tyranny of good taste that infects the rest of the world. No one comes to Niagara Falls looking for a perfectly designed $11 Japanese pencil, though they may be looking for a craps table or a T-shirt that says, "Wait, let me put on my beer goggles."
At some point, perhaps, they will even go looking for the falls. When I visited a few weeks ago, the Niagara River was jammed with vast blocks of ice, and under a grey sky the water shone an unearthly green. The falls are never more beautiful than in winter. We oohed and ahhed over the bizarre ice formations on every twig and branch, then bought fudge and fled for the earthly delights of Clifton Hill's lights and arcades.
If this seems like sacrilege, consider that the falls alone have never been enough. It is in our nature to take a magnificent thing and stick a sparkler in it. One of the great delights for the area's early tourists was the Burning Spring – essentially a natural gas leak that would be made to burst into flame once you'd paid your pennies. Annie Taylor went over the falls in 1901, a 63-year-old woman desperate to make her fortune from onlookers' curiosity. When Charles Blondin walked a tightrope across the Niagara Gorge – stopping midway to cook and eat an omelette – vast crowds thronged the cliffs, and bet on whether he'd tumble to his death. We don't just want to look, we want to be thrilled and awed and freaked out.
There is no better place for that than Niagara Falls, land of wonders both natural and man-made.