Falling for Niagara: A winter road trip through New York State
A winter road trip to Niagara Falls shows Thomas Breathnach a new side to America's honeymoon capital
When's the best time to chase a wonder?
On paper, the stats were against me. Every year, over 20 million awe-chasing tourists travel to North America's most-visited natural spectacle, Niagara Falls. The world's original viral wonder may nowadays be somewhat overshadowed by a razzle-dazzle reputation, but there's more to it than kitsch and mass tourism.
With a big freeze grinding America's snow-belt to a halt, I'm about to experience it during the perfect storm.
My adventure begins when I touch down at New York's Stewart International Airport in the midst of a record-breaking weather bomb ravaging everywhere from Lake Erie to Maine. Tackling this six-hour road-trip in a two-wheel-drive Honda Civic? Where do I sign up?
Motoring off from Stewart, I gear through the vast wilds of New York state; each county delivering a different timbre to the last. First comes the earthy granola edge of the Hudson Valley; then, the lonesome townships of the state's southern tier. This is the Big Apple's true backwoods: a Roseanne Conner land of modular homes, dollar stores and mom-and-pop car dealerships.
Stopping for gas in the town of Elmira, I could be in a Trump campaign ad for Make America Great Again.
Novemberish scenes spring calendar beauty as I drive through the Finger Lakes. By now, thick snowfalls are blanketing the farmland, wineries and ski-slopes of the region - it's time to hunker down. My night's refuge comes along the frigid shores of Lake Canandaigua; fittingly, the Native American word for 'the chosen spot'. With most motels bolted-up and hibernating, I check into the Inn on the Lake - an impressive but largely vacant hotel, perched on the banks of the frozen water.
"Things get pretty dead here around the winter," explains the front desk clerk. "They should pick up around February". Canandaigua's historic downtown is a chocolate box collection of Queen Anne mansions and elegant federal architecture. Amidst them, I keep my winter reserves up at McGregor's bar, a cosy haven for hearty grub and upstate wine. You can't beat an Irish pub to shelter from a storm.
The next morning, snow shovelled and windshields de-iced, I continue northwest - skirting the urban sprawl of Rochester and Buffalo. Here, I blizzard-chase America's snow-belt, where temperatures plummet to -20°C and highways, crusted with salt, appear like ivory arteries through the horizon. Finally, 408 miles from the Big Apple, comes Niagara. It doesn't start pretty. But the town's gritty hinterland of power plants and industry is itself a harbinger of the mega hydra-wonder to come.
Bursting out of its skyline is New York's largest hotel outside of Manhattan, and the base for my stay, Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino. A curious loophole in Native American self-governance laws has allowed tribes, like the Seneca, to cash-in on running gambling joints since the 1980s. And when profits are high, deals are sweet. Plush pads for just $85 are available on my arrival, and I'm also neatly upgraded to a gargantuan corner king suite overlooking the Niagara River. Being the honeymoon capital of America, hot tubs come as standard, too. Suddenly sourcing a bottle of Prosecco becomes a priority... but not before first discovering the falls.
It's a short but frigid transit. After short-cutting through a raucous casino floor of slot machines, I emerge outdoors to the parallel polar abyss that is downtown Niagara. Here, streets are silent, avenues barren; as soon as a city bus salvages a lone commuter from a shelter, life returns to eerie lockdown. Then, after a short wander, the snow-clad gates of Niagara State Park appear.
It's a winter wonderland in an urban desert.
Designed in 1883 by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park in New York fame), Niagara is in fact America's oldest state park, priding itself on its unspoiled falls backdrop (versus, we'll say, Canada). In the dead of winter, I find it even more pristine, as I trudge through the tannenbaums towards the thunder.
There, gushing into a glacial inferno with a glorious, deafening whoosh are the spectacular American Falls. They're one of travel's most epic sights - a week into the continent's big freeze, even more so. Around me, the cascades are freezing solid, the clouds of spray falling as snowflakes and Niagara's gorge has become an icecap. Little wonder the famous Maid of the Mist boat is not in operation. She'd surely need an ice-breaker.
Perennial cross-border debate surrounds which frontier of this wonder offers the most spectacular views - the US or Canada - so later that evening I ramble over the Rainbow Bridge to find out.
A 10-minute stroll, quick passport check, and it's hello/bonjour, Canada.
Surprisingly, the Ontarian side of Niagara boasts the skyline of a mini metropolis, along with a bizarre, rather incongruous downtown of haunted houses, Ripley's joints and Taylor Swift waxworks. You'd wonder what the early Seneca settlers would make of this Jersey-Shore-on-the-Lake vibe. Yet, no kitsch can detract from the spectacle of Horseshoe Falls. Down along the promenade, the vista across both nation's cascades is unparalleled, as they dump 2,500cm3 of roaring water (I make that an Olympic swimming pool's worth) into the abyss every second.
But if Niagara's sunsets and fireworks are dramatic, its sunrises wow even more. The next morning, I return to New York's Niagara Park to welcome the dawn. There, it's just me and a few hardy mallards as an icy sunrise glistens over the region.
Even blockbuster attractions have their lonely hour. And I've found myself all alone, falling for Niagara.
Take three: scenic places
Lake Canandaigua lures upstate overnighters with its budget-friendly Holiday Inn (holidayinnexpress.com; €40pp) and luxury Victorian B&Bs (sutherlandhouse.com; €75pp).
There's top value at Niagara Falls: rooms at the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino (senecaniagaracasino.com) start from €38pps and presidential corner suites from €95pps.
For more savings, the brand new Doubletree Hilton (doubletree3.hilton.com) sits right on the Niagara River with rooms from a bargain basement €29pps in winter.
Thomas was a guest of Norwegian (norwegian.com), which flies from both Dublin and Shannon to Stewart International Airport. You'll pay up to €70 return for checked baggage but a 10kg carry-on is included.
For car rental, check out holidayautos.com which compare all agent rates on the ground at Stewart. A tip? Consider hiring a 4WD - much of upstate New York can experience fairly husky snow conditions until late spring.
Where to eat
The Red Coach (redcoach.com) is a charming throwback to Niagara's heyday, with delicious pancakes Napoleon to boot. Dining options are limited off-season but don't overlook the Hard Rock Café (hardrock.com) - it offers punchy cocktails and an excellent gluten-free menu.
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