New York 1997. Part 5. The Walk to Canada.

During the [albeit sketchy, pre-internet] innocent planning of our New York trip I’d felt sure that Buffalo would be the ideal stopover point for visiting Niagara. It turned out that nobody else ever did this. No single person stayed at Buffalo in order to take a trip to the falls. Except for we two-Husband and myself. We’d made an error.

But we were prepared to make the best of things. After all-we’d overcome the hurdle of having to forego our vehicle [see Part 1], we’d find a way to mitigate this current crisis.

Evening in Buffalo and the streets were deserted, a few pieces of garbage blowing around in a stiff breeze and some tumbleweed rolling down the road in contemptuous abandon. As we approached what could be the centre of town there were cinemas, bars and restaurants, but patronised by no one. We saw no more than 2 or 3 others in the town. We walked on and selected a bar, part of a luxurious hotel complex. You could be forgiven for thinking we’d walked into a dystopian future world where unwitting tourists were lured by aliens to be consumed later.

There were 2 couples in the otherwise empty bar. We ordered beers and watched the TV screen, where ice-skating was being shown. Husband intimated that he’d prefer to watch paint dry. Then 2 men entered and we got chatting. ‘So how come you 2 ended up in a place like this?’ one asked. My thoughts exactly. We explained and I asked why the town was empty and quiet. He shrugged. ‘Used to be a boomtown, but it’s all old industry and now it’s died’. His wife was Scottish and they’d be visiting Scotland in the fall.

We left the bar and walked back up the dead street, now neon-lit but no more lively for it. En route there was the sound of a rock band playing, practising perhaps? A crumbling, stucco-fronted house held the sign ‘The Roxy’ over its porch. The windows were dark. It was a club. Inside was a strobe-lit disco floor [empty] and a bar with a few noisy teenagers [mostly girls] and a loud, blond, gum-chewing barmaid. The girls shouted and argued-mostly for display purposes. We returned to The Lenox, having judged Buffalo to be a sad place.

Next morning we rose quickly and went down to reception. The receptionist rang us a cab and we grabbed a coffee. Back at the bus depot we had time for a ‘biscuit’ filled with bacon, egg and cheese and more coffee. We climbed on to the Niagara bus, which pulled out and went swinging and lurching off to the falls. The one hour drive was unremarkable, although I always enjoy riding through foreign suburbs where the more trivial, domestic aspects of life are played out. There were pastel-coloured timber homes, porches with swing seats, screen doors and all the sights we are familiar with from watching movies.

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At the falls bus station all went according to the new plan and we deposited our luggage in a locker before walking the 4 blocks down to the Niagara river. Then there was a modest sign: Pedestrian Walkway to Canada. Through some gardens there was a visitor centre which provided a map. There were tantalising glimpses of the river but as yet, no falls. Here the flow was fast and foamed into rapids, separating past small islands and rushing along, a dim roar in the background.

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We walked down towards the American Falls and there was a sudden cut-off point where the river appeared to stop in mid-air. Moments later the American Falls were in sight, water roaring fiercely over a precipice in billowing clouds of spray and creating a sunlight rainbow. We were awestruck, although once the Canadian Falls, the ‘horseshoe falls’ came into view the American Falls were forgotten. A few hundred yards down the road a semi-circular tract plummeting over a cliff. We’d need to cross a bridge to Canada to see properly. Our Amtrak train would leave at 1.30pm. We’d have time.

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We spent time looking from different viewpoints, cameras in hand, then walked back, crossed the bridge, through a turnstile, into Canadian customs for a passport stamp before setting foot on Canadian soil, with an increasingly dramatic view of both sets of falls.

Eventually we reached a place at the top of the horseshoe falls where the Niagara river thundered over the cliff in a pale green arc of froth and fell in a billowing spray below. Small sightseeing boats chugged, ant-like into the spray, carrying blue plastic-covered sight-seers.

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We lingered as long as we dared, until time ran out and we needed to get our bus, then our train, but we felt euphoric to have made the effort. We arrived to the bus depot with 5 minutes to spare, retrieved the luggage and boarded the bus to Buffalo station, where we had an hour to wait, there being nothing but a water tap and the surly ticket clerk.

We were to return to New York, retracing our route before we could set off once more to execute the final part of the plan-to Boston!

New York 1997. Part 2.

So-New York then; sans car but with enthusiasm and itchy feet.

We walked, we got a sumptuous breakfast in a swanky diner. We took the subway to Penn Station. With no way to drive to Niagara we’d decided to try the train. How hard could it be? After managing, with some difficulty to decipher the timetable, we bought two tickets to Buffalo, from where [in our ignorance] we assumed we’d be able to access the falls. The tickets were for Tuesday morning, leaving us some city exploration in the meantime.

We left the station and went to the pier to get a Circle Line ferry trip around Manhattan Island with tour guide narration, an informative but foggy voyage marred by rain, the sights described mostly obscured by thick mist. The tall skyscrapers of the skyline had their heads in the clouds. Nevertheless the famous landmarks of New York duly appeared-The Empire State Building, The World Trade Centre, The Statue of Liberty, all misty but thrillingly real. We passed the apartments of the rich and famous, learning of outrageous property prices and chugged under the Brooklyn Bridge. A chilly wind sprang up. We sipped hot coffee and leant on the cylindrical outer cover of the engine for warmth. On board we encountered a Welsh rugby team, while the English wife of a businessman confided that she would probably go and see a Broadway matinee that afternoon to escape the weather.

The rain continued as we disembarked and walked towards Theatreland and Times Square then on to Macy’s. It is unthinkable to visit New York without ascending the Empire State Building but with ‘zero visibility’ we were told to buy the tickets and return next day when the weather just might have cleared up.

When we got to Greenwich Village the towering skyscrapers gave way to brownstone terraces decorated with iron fire escapes. By this time my jacket, supposedly impermeable had allowed the layers underneath to become soaked. We found a bar and had beers, punch-drunk from the bombardment of experiences. We had walked for hours. Revived a little by the Greenwich Brewery ales we headed off to find a subway, going via Christopher Street and discovering a whole shopping area of gay shops, sure enough crossed by ‘Gay Street’. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to peruse the wares and we browsed a couple of stores, innocent displays of ‘sportswear’ in the window and increasingly outrageous as we moved through the shop. We exited, passing one or two intense young men and a somewhat older man sporting a luxuriant wig. At last we located the subway and sank down gratefully to be conveyed all the way back to Westside Studios.

We returned to Times Square for the evening and to find somewhere to eat. Times Square is a magnificent overstatement in neon, surpassing all but Las Vegas in trashy vulgarity and is completely wonderful. The Chinese restaurant we selected must serve nice meals, we imagined, because a number of Chinese were eating there. On requesting beer we were firmly shown the teapot on the table. Our selection of three or four dishes to share was rejected by the waiter. ‘You very hungry?’ he asked. ‘Three is enough!’ This provoked much hilarity, as never before had either of us been told we’d ordered too much food in a restaurant-and of course, New York, like the rest of America enables the diner to bag up uneaten meal portions, ‘to go’.

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel. Tomorrow was the Empire State day…

New York 1997. Part 1.

In these times where travel is reduced to pedestrian or armchair varieties, Anecdotage posts will not be related to current travel or even to travel plans, as who knows when or where the next journey will be?

But all is not lost, reader, because travel for this writer began long before blogging. And along the way, hand-written travel journals began to accompany the journeys, so it is to these journals that I am turning for inspiration, with a little modern history included.

To provide some back story, this first set of posts concerns a 1997 trip to New York, taken very early in Husband and my relationship-five months in, in fact. That the idea had hatched during one of Husband’s previous dalliances might have been off-putting was something I set on to the back burner, the exciting thought of a visit to such an iconic city proving a more powerful pull than retrospective peevishness.

We began by booking a ‘Flydrive’, meaning to augment the week’s visit by a drive up to Niagara Falls via Boston-a cunning plan, as we thought. In many ways this only serves to demonstrate that detailed planning of trips does not always lead to holiday perfection…

We packed, we grabbed our tickets, we took advantage of a friend’s offer of a lift to Heathrow airport, then we were underway, a brilliant flight taking us in an arc over Canada and offering some spectacular views below. This is something I’ve continued to love about flying, the fascinating bird’s eye landscapes, but while I indulge in this pastime on flights, Husband will always have taken the opportunity to sleep, arriving refreshed and ready for anything, while I will be wiped out and needing an immediate snooze.

Arriving to JFK and getting through we duly found our way to the car hire depot to pick up our vehicle. There it was that we discovered neither of us had thought to bring a driving licence. It was a poignant, wince-making moment. ‘Could my friend fax it through?’ I asked the po-faced staff member, and ‘NO’ was the reply.

Without our own wheels we took a cab into the city and to the room we’d booked at ‘West Side Studios’. The cab cost a hefty slice of our holiday budget, the driver was taciturn and spoke minimal English. Had we been armed with more research we’d have known that the airport is served by a subway straight into the city.

It was late evening and dark by the time we reached the north Manhattan block but having deposited the luggage we gamely struck out into the locale and found a jazz bar where a competent trio were playing live. By this time I was struggling to stay awake and Husband was up for a late evening at the bar. And, remember, we’d not long been an item. There is nothing like travel for discovering compromise.

In the morning we set out to explore Manhattan, using the subway and our feet. My initial misgivings of riding the subway were quickly dispelled. It was safe, clean and easy to use. We were only a few stops from Penn Station so everywhere was accessible. We walked the streets, marvelling at the perpendicular nature of the city and craning our necks.

We’d been recommended a ‘Circle Line’ tour on a ferry that circled Manhattan; a good way to start, except that New York was shrouded in thick fog. It was, nevertheless atmospheric and informative, though cold and damp. We stood by the funnel to catch its warmth.

Meanwhile, as we walked, subwayed and ferried our way around we pondered on one knotty problem. How would we get to visit Boston and Niagara now, without a vehicle?