In general I’m disappointed by Niagara Falls -- the city, that is. At least on the American side.
I could dismiss a single negative visit as an “outlier” to the average experience. But it has sucked the hopeful enthusiasm out of me every time. I had such high original expectations; figured the area would be a collective pool of American pride to match the incredible beauty of the actual falls. That couldn’t be further from the case. The area outside the state park doesn’t feel like America but more like a 3rd world country. As such, when searching for the area’s best golf course I literally had no expectations of greatness, or even goodness. I was willing to settle for any place golfers could go pass a few peaceful hours far removed from the “Running of the Bulls on a boat” experience that is Maid of the Mist. I no longer expected to find it on the American side -- but this time when those expectations weren’t met, I was THRILLED!
I heard Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino had a stay-and-play package with a local Robert Trent Jones Jr. course called Hickory Stick and figured I’d start my search there. Contrary to everything I just said about the rest of Niagara Falls, Seneca Niagara Casino is rather impressive -- a legitimate AAA Four Diamond modern facility with exceptional food and service, and quite possibly the cleanest building in the city. On the American side? I’ll never stay anywhere else.
Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino was, in my mind, the first significant step in the city’s redemption. Hickory Stick was the second. I love nothing more in golf (besides golfing with my son) than to be pleasantly shocked by a course design and/or round of golf. The other national publications don’t give Hickory Stick a lot of credit. I think it’s listed as New York’s 14th best in one and not even mentioned in others. That’s hogwash. In no uncertain terms, Hickory Stick is a top-10 public golf course in the state. Arguably even top five. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s challenging and it’s fair -- a brilliant RTJ design. (I think even Gary Player would like it.) It’s a phenomenal tournament and event host, with superb conditions throughout. All of that made sense when I discovered it was a KemperSports-managed property. The two entities are the truest of complements to each other.
Seneca Hickory Stick projects what every establishment in this area should: a clean image, evidence of American pride and a fun atmosphere. Those components together make for an all-around positively memorable experience. Especially when you sink a 60-foot putt for birdie on 18.
I love Niagara Falls on the Canadian side, and from the state park on the American side. Now, thanks to Seneca Hickory Sticks, I like the U.S. Niagara Falls region a little more like I originally expected to.
America’s oldest state park (circa 1885). A 400-acre wonderland molded by storied landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed New York’s Central Park. (Trust me, you’ll note some similarities.)
Niagara Falls State Park: Let me make this perfectly clear right now, lest the rest of this article lead you to believe otherwise: I absolutely LOVE Niagara Falls State Park. I love standing right next to the thundering water at the top, particularly out on Goat Island. I love the earthquake sensation and foot soaking you get from the Hurricane Deck of the Cave of the Winds experience. I love walking across the various bridges, watching the Lighting of the Falls (dark to midnight most nights) and the fireworks detonating above (and reflecting upon) the water on Friday and Sunday nights throughout the summer. The park itself and the falls themselves, they’re well worth the trip. Just don’t expect much beyond the state park unless you’re crossing over to Canada. I’ll explain later.
Cave of the Winds: This attraction in Niagara Falls State Park made the top on my wife-and-daughters’ East Coast activity lists. It’s hard to describe just how much water is rushing by you at any given moment (3,160 tons per second) as you stand there, getting soaked in your poncho on the Hurricane Deck, at the base of the ginormous roaring whitewater. You’re way closer to the falls than the Maid of the Mist ever gets, and the perspective looking up is that much more moving than the sensation you get looking down. This activity is money well spent, especially for kids.
Wings: Most people come to Niagara Falls to see the actual falls. But bird-in-the-hand fanatics also flock to the area for chicken wings. Barely 20 miles from the waterworks, Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., claims “the Original Buffalo Wing.” If dissecting history is your thing, start there. Personally, I prefer to table up at Gabriel’s Gate or Duff’s (The Man vs. Food Winner). Try one, try them all -- point is, there’s no question it’s Buffalo (and not Red Bull) that actually gives you wings.
Maid of the Mist: WARNING: Brutal honesty. My parents taught me early on that if I had nothing good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. I don’t always take that advice, but this time I will. (For the most part.) It’s your money, but I suggest skipping the cold, stinky, wet, crowded shove-fest (save your money) and go stand in line in a blizzard at a Best Buy on Black Friday instead. It’s a LOT more fun.
Canada side: I don’t doubt that the U.S. Niagara Falls Tourism board is unlikely to offer me employment, particularly after I reveal the falls are SO much more beautiful, the hotels so much more modern and clean, and the dining/attraction options so much more plentiful, on the Canadian side. The messy clutter around Niagara Falls State Park on the American side needs to be cleaned up, the flea market environment toned down, and the dumpy hotels shuttered. Until then you’d be wise to bring your passport and head across the bridge and border to truly appreciate the spectacular natural Wonder of the World that is Niagara Falls.