Royalty, Commoners All Fall for Niagara

NIAGARA Falls is not just Canada's most visited spot, it is one of humanity's great equalizers - where royalty, celebrities, and just plain folks stand together in awe of one of nature's greatest spectacles.

Queen Elizabeth II has visited. So have many of her royal kin, as well as American presidents, sports heroes, and screen legends. Marilyn Monroe's 1952 movie ``Niagara'' was filmed here.

But perhaps the most enduring commentary on the falls is that every year 12 million regular Joes and Jills come to see 40 million gallons of water a minute whoosh off a half-mile-wide table of rock and thunder onto boulders 170 feet below. There's just something about it that makes visitors feel childlike; it prompts a spontaneous gasp and a smile.

It also appeals to young lovers. For some reason, the falls have attracted a disproportionate number of newlywed couples ever since the early 1800s, when Niagara Falls became a regular tourist stop. Somewhere along the line the namesake city became known as the ``honeymoon capital of the world.''

Though he was no newlywed, British novelist Charles Dickens was smitten by the falls, writing breathlessly after an 1842 visit: ``Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an image of beauty to remain there, changeless and indelible until the pulses ceased to beat forever.''

But the reason so many people go to the falls is that, in addition to the falls themselves (which may be viewed free of charge), there are plenty of intriguing paid attractions as well.

In the nearby Niagara Falls Museum, one of North America's oldest, among the treasures to be found are seven Egyptian mummies and ``The Daredevil Hall of Fame.''

It is here that the stories, mementos, and vehicles of the 12 people who went over the falls are enshrined. (Of the 12, it should be noted, three died in the attempt.) There is, for example, the tribute to John Munday, the only man to go over the falls twice. The first time was in 1985 in a high-tech barrel, then again last September in a modified diving bell.

``The falls have always attracted stunters,'' says Jacob Sherman, manager of the museum. ``You name it; they've done it.''

Ever since Sam Patch of Rochester, N.Y., dove off of a 90-foot platform into the swirling waters beneath the falls in 1829, someone has been trying to make a name for himself here.

A number of funambulists followed in the footsteps of ``The Great Blondin'' in taking up the challenge of walking a tightrope over the falls. Blondin first performed the feat on June 30, 1859, walking across a 1,100-foot-long high wire strung 160 feet above the falls. He repeated the act later, adding such variations as crossing blindfolded or on stilts.

Such stunts are outlawed today. But visitors can ride a cable car over the swirling Niagara River or descend into a tunnel carved through solid rock to peer out of portholes through the Falls' curtain of water.

There is also the Maid of the Mist, one of several small boats by that name that take visitors close enough to the base of the falls to get them soaked if they aren't wearing a slicker. You can also travel across the Rainbow Bridge to the American falls, though many say the view of the horseshoe is more dramatic from the Canadian side.

Most nights during the summer the falls are lit by floodlights and there are often fireworks displays on weekends. The Canadian government is in the process of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade tourist facilities that are already ample.

For a bird's-eye view of the falls, the Skylon Tower that spikes up from the bluff above the falls (C$3.95 for adults, about US$2.84, and C$2.75 for children) is the ticket for you.

After you get through seeing the falls themselves, there are other adventures that include the scenic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a short car ride upriver. The home of the famed Shaw Festival, three theaters perform the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries from April to October.

For history buffs, the Black Heritage tour includes Niagara's Freedom Trail that brought former slaves North to freedom in St. Catherine's, Ontario. There is also Fort George, as well as numerous monuments and historic homes that detail the violent clash between Canada and the United States during the War of 1812.

* For schedules, more information on hotels, restaurants, and things to do at the falls, call the Niagara Parks Commission at (905) 356-2241, or the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce at (905) 374-3666.

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