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 the Niagara Falls on the American side 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 American Niagara Falls I discovered the Gorge View, a wonderful petit-hotel located only five minutes walking distance from Niagara Falls State Park (the U.S. side) with free off-street parking. Their six-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.
My first real view of the falls panorama was from the observation tower, well worth the one dollar price of admission. Later, I crossed onto Goat Island and stood on a sliver of rock that juts out between American and Bridalveil Falls. Niagara River roared over the cliff just inches from where I was standing. If the narrow rock lip at the edge of the water gave way I felt certain the promontory on which I stood would be torn away and swept over the falls. Victoria Falls may have been larger and more majestic, but I viewed it from across the gorge. Standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, with the roar echoing in my ears and the ground trembling beneath my feet, I felt its raw power.
The following day I walked over Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, Canada. The difference on the Canadian side was startling. The path along the gorge afforded picture-perfect views of all three of the waterfalls but at my back was a Disneyesque scene of uncontrolled development that for me, marred the experience. I walked to Horseshoe Falls and stood just feet from where the river raged over the precipice. Torrents of water crashed on rocks at foot of the falls, birthing double rainbows in the mists. Though beautiful, the Canadian side did not have the same unbridled energy as its cousins across the river. Canada undoubtedly has the better views, but the U.S. provides a more close-up encounter with the falls in a natural environment.
Because of the affordability of Gorge View, I spent four days at American Niagara Falls, visiting various parks along the lower river and taking a free tour of the Niagara Hydroelectric generating plant. I’m encouraged by the sprouting of affordable hostels around the country, which will hopefully spur Americans to travel more. The high-season cost of between $28 and $32 for the hostel and $1 for the observation tower) just can’t be beat! Oh, make that $33.50; the U.S. government charges 50 cents to get back into the country when you walk across Rainbow Bridge. It’s free to walk into Canada, but you’ll spend a lot more money if you stay there.
(Note: Gorge View was previously called the Red Lounge Hostel. It was sold to a new owner, who re-branded the property and reopened in May of this year as the Gorge View. I spoke to the new owner, Jeff Flach, who convinced me that it is still run with the same high standards and amenities, though the prices have risen to those stated in my story, which I have modified to reflect the correct information.)
Another good alternative if you’re looking for lower priced accommodations and small town charm is to stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. The town is located on the shores of Lake Ontario, directly across from Toronto. But rather than high rise hotels, it offers charming B&B’s, gorgeous Victorian red-brick buildings, and scads of cute shops and cafes. The town even offers an hourly shuttle bus to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. I haven’t been there myself, but you can learn more about Niagara-on-the-Lake from fellow blogger Lucy Dodsworth at On the Luce Travel Blog.