(Updated with photos, 2am EDT, Tuesday 8th)
New York City: A week into my North American journey, and I’m convinced this must be one of the best things I have ever done. I’ve visited six cities so far: Boston; Burlington, Vermont; Montreal; Toronto; and the two Niagara Falls, one in Ontario and one in New York state.
I’ve found interesting things about all of them, and enjoyed the travelling too. This post is now being written on the nine-hour Amtrak haul from Niagara Falls to New York City. There’s no wi-fi here, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s now 8.50am, we’re 140 minutes into the journey, and we’ve just pulled into Rochester, 90 miles done and 370 to go. At 6.30am this gleaming silver train was reflecting a deep sunrise at Niagara Falls, pictured above, witnessed by a handful of passengers, the train crew and a border guard. Worth getting up at half-past five for…
I wasn’t too taken with Montreal – my first impressions, of a sleazy, nasty rue de Ste Catherine on a dead Sunday night, stuck with me. There can be exuberance in that kind of grot – Hamburg’s Reeperbahn may be clogged with sex cinemas and prostitutes but there’s also a thriving bar scene there. But despite the attentions of the gay village, rue de Ste Catherine just looks miserable. Further on, though, there are wonderful places to mooch around, like the Latin Quarter and Plateau Mont-Royal. But you have to wade through an awful lot of muck to get there, and do battle with the traffic – Montreal is decidedly hostile to pedestrians.
Toronto, though, was the opposite – despite being filled with skyscrapers and temples to the worship of money, it feels a lot more human and manageable. I loved it and was annoyed with myself for not staying longer – on my first night I saw the sunset from the CN Tower and wandered from bar to bar on Queen Street West taking in all kinds of live music, from jazz-blues in Cameron House to a rockabilly act in the Bovine Sex Club (yes, really). And all surrounded by terrific, friendly people.
It was in Toronto that I dropped my first major goof of the trip – rolling up at Global Backpackers having inadvertently booked the wrong days. Panic – until the woman on the desk said they kept a room free to allow for events like that. I nearly married her on the spot, and cherished my room with its view of streetcars and the CN Tower.
My second major goof came at Niagara Falls – but in the end, it turned out not to matter. I’d chosen to stay on the US side to catch this morning’s train; had successfully negotiated the border (through the door marked “pedestrian entrance to USA”) and, as usual, turned down the offer of a taxi outside the checkpoint, by First Avenue, and walked. And walked. And walked. And walked some more.
By 27th Avenue, I was exhausted and covered in sweat. Niagara Falls, New York is not a successful resort like its Canadian counterpart – once past the tourist hotels, it’s a beaten-up town, with abandoned buildings and a sense of desolation. In the beating sun, I started to think I’d taken a different career path and was now stuck in one of those BBC News reports about “how the recession is hitting America” – all the visual cues were there from abandoned businesses to junk-filled sidewalks. I saw another taxi, flagged him down, and gave him an outrageous tip. Turns out the Falls Motel is closer to 57th Avenue, about four miles from the Falls.
Disaster? Not a bit of it. The Falls Motel is run by wise-cracking Colin Knox and his parents. Colin was born in Birmingham, grew up in Australia, and has an accent that encompasses all of that and more. Want to get to (and from) the Falls? No worry – Colin will drive his guests there, and will pick you up when you’re done (and knows the bus to catch when he can’t make it). His father even gave me a lift to the station at 6am so I could make the NYC train. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such generous company before.
Colin gave me a quick tour of Goat Island – the little bit of land between the American and Canadian Falls – before dropping me back at the bridge, sharing tales of tourists who thought they’d crossed into Canada (wrong stretch of water) and of the Falls’ long history of jumpers. Only two days previously, a woman had taken her own life on the Rainbow Bridge which links the US and Canada – her body had not yet turned up – while recently a man decided to do the same on the Falls. Unfortunately for him, he survived, and to pile on the humiliation, the force of the water had ripped his clothes off. His unhappy life is now set to be twisted further by a big fine and a ban from entering Canada.
The Falls themselves are awesome – and you will get wet. The hand-dryers in the toilets at the welcome centre must be the busiest on the planet. The Maid of the Mist boat tour is a must-do, as is Journey Behind the Falls and the walk down to the Whirlpool rapids (and the whirlpool itself). The new Niagara’s Fury audio-visual experience can easily be skipped unless you have children to amuse. Weirder things happe after dark – by 9pm I was sat outside a hot dog stand on the garish Clifton Hill strip, listening to a terrible version of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire blast out of a karaoke bar opposite, wondering if someone had spiked my fries with something.
It’s a place that attracts the exuberant- from the 19th century showmen who crossed the Falls, to the guy who runs the tourist place down by the Canadian side’s rail station, who detained me for ages to sell the (invaluable) all in one tourist pass and to talk about everything and anything in particular. The back wall of his little shop is covered in English and Scottish memorabilia, with photographs of Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria and a huge framed portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh. “I’m trying to keep the English side of Canada going,” he said, “there’s so many immigrants now. A few I can take, but now… I’m sure it’s the same in England.” He handed me his business card later – billing him as “president and founder” of this little shop by the Whirlpool Bridge. I’d only stopped to ask for a map as well.
The Falls Motel is in industrial surroundings and hardly idyllic – sat outside the office cadging the free wi-fi to catch up with news from home, a cop car pulled up to ask if I’d seen some kids who’d been by about 15 minutes before; while Colin told me about two nearby hotels who closed after finding the competition from another nearby enterprise, a sewage works, too much. “They gave the hotels to the Salvation Army – you’d want to be up and out of there quickly with that smell, wouldn’t you?”
But it’s the welcome that’ll say with me for a long time yet. Leaving at 6am, I was distracted by a bang on the window – it was Colin’s mother, who I hadn’t even met, waving me goodbye.
(By the end of the night, I’d been taken to a gay piano bar in New York, and was being shown photographs of the woman behind the bar’s girlfriend who’d just proposed to her, while her colleague belted out show tunes. Yeah, things are different in Manhattan…)