I spend most of each year overseas in developing countries where the cost of living is a fraction what it is in the United States. Each return to the States requires a period of adjustment. This time, I almost choked when I had to pay $75 a night for a hotel room in Minneapolis. That same amount would buy me eight days of lodging in Nepal or Mexico. I’m used to spending about $5 a day for food, so $20 dinners send me into shock. It didn’t help that this trip took me to Washington, DC to cover the Dalai Lama at the Kalachakra for World Peace, one of the most expensive travel destinations in the country.
By the time I reached Niagara Falls my wallet was thin and I went on the search for budget accommodations. Overseas I stay in guest houses or hostels, where I usually opt for four or eight-bed dorms. I love the camaraderie in the dorms, which are filled with people of all ages and income levels, from every corner of the world. In the U.S., hostels are relatively rare because our travel industry developed around motels to serve a society that has a love affair with automobiles. Fortunately, this is starting to change; hostels are popping up in larger cities and popular tourist destinations all over the country.
In Niagara Falls I discovered the brand new Red Lounge Hostel, a wonderful three-floor petit-hotel located only five minutes walking distance from Niagara Falls State Park with free off-street parking. Their four and eight-bed dorms were sparkling clean and each had an en-suite shared bathroom and lockers to hold my valuables. A common area on the first floor had a large flat-screen TV and their spacious shared kitchen had two refrigerators to store guest food. Bliss! I found a grocery store and stocked up on breakfast food, happy to save the cost of at least one meal a day.
After settling in I set off on foot to see the U.S. side of Niagara Falls. I had visited the falls many years ago as a child on a family vacation and had vague memories of spray from the falls pummeling my yellow rubber raincoat as the Maid of the Mist cruised into the torrent of water thundering over Horseshoe Falls. But I really didn’t know what to expect. Having seen the spectacular Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I wondered if Niagara would seem anti-climactic. I walked along the high cliffs bordering the Niagara River chasm and into Niagara State Park, the oldest in the nation. Across the river, high-rise hotels, an enormous Ferris wheel, casinos and all manner of kitschy development designed to lure the tourist dominated the skyline, but on the U.S. side the falls had been protected from such crass commercialism by the State Park.