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Niagara Falls' golf, casino boom moves a favorite travel destination beyond 'The Maid of the Mist'

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
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Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club
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Almost everyone walks at Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, one the better golf courses in the Niagara Falls area. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

Long a cheesy tourist trap, Niagara Falls is changing. High-end casinos and solid golf courses have transformed this town famous for The Maid of the Mist into a respectable golf travel destination.

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario - The Falls still roar, shoot mist into your face and leave many first-time visitors slack jawed. But something's changed about this longtime tourist trap.

Niagara Falls used to be all about honeymooners and kids who wanted to ride on boats and wear smelly raincoats. For the longest time, it carried all the sophistication of a trip to the Macon County Fair.

Then the golf and the high-end casinos moved in.

Now ... well, you might not recognize Niagara Falls if you only know it from a visit as a kid or from scenes in Superman II. Oh, the kitschy souvenir shops and chain restaurants are still here. But so are casinos with towering fountains and $15 minimum tables, and golf courses with showy par 5s from celebrity golf course architects.

The Maid of the Mist - that boat by The Falls that everyone who's ever visited Niagara Falls seems to have taken - suddenly has some competition.

"I've been here three days and I've only seen The Falls out of a window," vacationer Barry Melago said, laughing. "I've found too much other stuff to do."

Melago sat at a bar in the Niagara Fallsview Casino as he talked, staring across the way at a blonde who wasn't having anything to do with him yet. He'd been in this casino so many hours over the last three days that he'd long ago lost track. He did manage to find his way outside to Thundering Waters, the John Daly "signature" course that opened in 2005.

Those majestic falls? Well, it's not like they're an official seventh wonder of the world or anything.

"Didn't The Today Show come by to film them today or something?" Melago asked.

They did. "I guess I can watch that on TV,'' he shrugged.

OK, this guy is a tad extreme. You can still actually see The Falls in person on your trip. They're only about an eight-minute walk from Fallsview Casino. You want to see The Falls on your trip. Standing near the railing at the point where the water rushes over the side in the huge drop might even impress you more now than as a kid. The speed's the stunning thing.

You also want to view the 17th hole of The Rees Jones Course at Grand Niagara too.

After all, you're not going down The Falls in a barrel. But you can go for Jones' devilish pin.

"I'm surprised by how good the golf has been," first-time Niagara Falls visitor Pak Chung said. "I thought it would have one or two nice courses and a few mediocre ones. The ones I've played have all been pretty fun."

Betting on Niagara Falls' casino boom

Your first introduction to the new Niagara Falls is liable to come at one of the casinos, however. The newest, Fallsview, opened in 2004 and did a lot to change the perception of Niagara Falls as a staid old place. A billion bucks can do that.

That is Fallsview's lofty price tag, and it's not hard to see where the money went. The casino complex includes a mall, the only five-star hotel in Niagara Falls and that big fountain shaped like a power transformer (the building used to be a transformer station for the Ontario Power Company). Now the transformer fountain is used for regular light shows.

It's no Las Vegas exploding volcano, Roman statues come to life or shooting fountains ala the Bellagio, but it marks quite a change for Niagara Falls.

There is also a slightly smaller, less upscale gambling place, Casino Niagara, which opened in 1996. Often now known as the local's casino, Casino Niagara even has electronic roulette.

Don't be surprised if you're taken aback by the minimum bets in these casinos. The norm is $15 and most of the tables at Fallsview are around $25. Forget those $5 tables you can find in many American gambling retreats.

"I could go broke in there in 20 minutes," Chung said, laughing between shots at Thundering Waters.

Still, Niagara Falls golf didn't really take off as a vacation draw until the casinos did.

Niagara Falls golf courses

There are still many more ways you can see The Falls than courses you can golf in their mist. Don't expect anything close to a Myrtle Beach golf scene. Niagara Falls is a pretty compact destination, and there are only about a dozen courses, even if you include charming satellite town Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Rees Jones Course at Grand Niagara runs along the Welland River, and while it opened around the same time as Thundering Waters, it's usually in better condition. It's also not as mind-numbingly hard as Daly's design. Instead Jones gives golfers a chance to enjoy the tree and water scenes.

Legends on the Niagara eschews the big-name architect craze all together and goes with a couple of good Canadian boys in Douglas Carrick and Thomas McBroom for its two courses. Both Carrick's Battlefield and McBroom's Usshers Creek are heavy on the water hazards.

Still, if you're looking for a unique Niagara Falls golf trip, you want to work the nine-hole course right in Niagara-on-the-Lake's downtown into the trip. About 25 minutes from the Fallsview Casino area, Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club stakes a serious claim to being the oldest golf course in all of North America (it opened in 1875).

Its current vibe is all relaxed, though, as golfers walk the old grass (and refreshingly almost everyone walks) for $20 in the afternoons.

Royal Niagara and its three nines, including one that runs up to an old abandoned iron bridge, is another good Niagara-on-the-Lake option. Some think this course, which opened in 1999, has been outdone by its newer rivals, but you still get many more hills and elevation changes here than you usually get in Niagara Falls.

Of course, for the ultimate elevation change there are the actual Falls. If you find the time to work them in to your golf trip.

Direction

Niagara Falls, Ontario
Location: 30 minutes from Buffalo, right across border.
An hour and a half from Toronto.

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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf is great but FV Casino isn't doing well.

    Wendel wrote on: May 25, 2008

    Although there's some first class golf courses in the Niagara Region of Ontario, government owned Fallsview Casino is seen by many as a massive eyesore that towers over Niagara Falls. Furthermore, the Casino's vast glass expanses present a threat to the many species of migratory birds that follow the Niagara migratory bird Flyway. And, from a financial perspective, Fallsview Casino is now struggling with a major decline in its revenue. It's believed that casino profits have fallen by approximately 2/3 over the past 3 years. Placing a mega-casino next to a Great Natural Wonder of the World is a gamble that might not pan out. There's now even a Fallsview Casino opposition organization: www.closefallsviewcasino.org

    Reply

  • Lochness Links - Welland Ont

    Paul Horan wrote on: Aug 29, 2007

    Located about 20 minutes west of Niagara Falls in Welland, Ont is Lochness Links. This is a true Scottish Links course, with shared fairways/greens, pot bunkers, and treacherous heather grass just off the fairways. It's a treat to play, and depending on the wind, can be a completely different golf course from one day to the next.
    www.lochnesslinks.com

    Reply