Day 15. Hamilton to Niagara Falls

In which we drive two hours before breakfast, do two more things in Rochester, and end up in a room with a view.

Today’s story starts a day or two earlier when we were roughing out our activities for the Hamilton to Niagara leg. My contribution, as it so often does, consisted of checking Rochester for rare, unique, or at least very tasty things to eat. And I found two things that Rochester is famous for; or perhaps in the case of our first meal there, infamous. Which led to a dilemma; two things to eat, but only one lunch.

“Why don’t we go there early, and have one of them for breakfast?” suggested Doreen.

You can see why I love her so much.

It would take two-and-a-bit hours to get to Rochester, so we were up very early and checked out shortly after 7am. Into The Mighty Sentra we hopped once more, and drove through upstate New York, skirting Syracuse and travelling through beautiful farming country.

Scattered through upstate NY there were wind turbines standing tall across the landscape.

Also standing tall were the late summer crops. Here we see … wheat? … grains of some type? Probably? I don’t know, I eat them, not grow them.

Breakfast In Rochester

By a bit after 9am we had arrived at Rochester and headed for our first destination.

Rochester was once a thriving industrial city built on the prosperity of Eastman Kodak. Generations of locals grew up, worked and retired spending their entire lives employed by Kodak. Kodak also famously decided in the early 2000s not to pursue digital photography – despite having developed some of the most advanced digital cameras of the time – because they thought it would cannibalise the photographic film sales that had made them rich for a century and more.

Spoiler – that was not the right decision.

Rochester, therefore, has now entered its post-industrial future. There are still lovely leafy suburbs and a leading university and hospital system, but much of the city is in decline.

Perhaps symptomatic of the decline is Nick Tahou Hots. The building it is in was once the elegant terminal of the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railway. Now, it’s kind of run down.

Nick Tahou is famous for the invention of the Garbage Plate, a carby, meaty pile of misassorted food designed to keep a hungry person going all day or all night.

At 9:30 or so on a weekday morning, things were pretty quiet. A small group of hipsters and a couple of partied-out party girls were all the customers in the place. And, us, of course.

This is where the magic happens.

A Garbage Plate is a couple scoops each of cottage fries, macaroni salad (not mac ‘n’ cheese – you get a mac ‘n’ mayo salad with a few tiny flecks of carrot and cabbage served cold), onions, yellow mustard and beef mince sauce that’s halfway between gravy and chili. You can get it with sausages (hot links, the “hots” in the name), a burger or cheeseburger or veggie burger, fried egg and lots of other combos. It’s a pile of hearty, old-fashioned goodness and you either love it or are appalled by it.

And lots of locals love them! You can find garbage plates all over the Rochester area.

Not gonna lie, cold mac salad and chili beef with a burger patty in between is a bit of a weird combo. But it’s a genuine unique local specialty, and after a couple of hours driving I was in the mood for something filling. I have to say it went down a treat, even before 10 in the morning. The real test is, would I do it again?

Yes. Yes I would. Don’t judge me.

So I don’t know, maybe Nick Tahou Hots is really sympotomatic of the Rochester spirit, a plucky underdog tenacity that takes whatever hand fate deals and makes the most of it. This is not a sociology blog, don’t ask me.

Our Kodak Moment

Another must-do in Rochester is the George Eastman Museum. Nestled in one of the leafy parts of town I mentioned earlier, it is a fantastic collection of historic photography hardware together with exhibitions of movie and photography history – when we were there a suberb collection of Loony Tunes material was on display.

The camera collection is encyclopaedic and contains classic cameras from history, even some historic ones that have been to space and back.

Cameras can be almost an afterthought – they are the tool we use to capture bits of history, we take a happy snap or two or an “I was there” shot. But sometimes history is defined by how we capture it. Photographs can drive history, not just record it. Seeing a collection like this – spy cameras, satellite cameras, cameras used in mountaneering or journalism – helps even a novice like me build some understanding of the role they have played in defining the history we remember.

The museum is built on the grounds of George Eastman‘s mansion and estate. The museum proper is in a new building to the rear of the old mansion, and the mansion itself has been preserved and can be visited on the same admission ticket

As can the gardens, which are absolutely delightful and were in full late-summer bloom when we visited.

The mansion itself is also well worth a look. Constructed just ten years later than the Breakers, it is completely different in style. While still a statement of wealth and power, it is simple and elegant in form where the Breakers is loud and gaudy. I don’t know if the ten years between the end of the Gilded Age and the start of the Progressive Age made the difference, or if it’s a Rochester versus New York City kind of difference, or if George Eastman just wasn’t trying to make as big a statement as Cornelius Vanderbilt II. But I found myself appreciating the Eastman mansion rather than being dumbfounded by it.

And, yes, that’s a real elephant head in the entry hall. Eastman was a great hunter, as was the style at the time. The word “Kodak” may have been partially inspired by the mighty Kodiak bears he hunted – Eastman said that he wanted a name that was short, simple, unique and that inspired a sense of strength. A marketing name practice that continues to this day – is anything mightier than viagra, I mean Niagara?

And the mansion of course is lovely. The floors are marble, the stairway is refined, and even the smallest urchin could not get their head stuck between the verticals.

The parlour and pool room makes you want to sit and chat, and maybe play a frame or two.

The dinner table seats six! I mean I’m sure it could extend out, but six is practically normal.

And the bedrooms are nice and pleasant too.

One last fun fact about the house before we move on. In 1919 George Eastman decided that the conservatory’s proportions were not to his liking. Too square, he wanted it more oblong. The house was cut in half; the north half was raised on hydraulic jacks and moved nine feet and six inches – just under three metres – so the conservatory could be extended. The renovation cost almost as much as the original construction.

So, on to lunch.

Well hot dog!

dogTown made it onto a top 10 list of hotdog joints, I mean yes that was in 2015 but it counts for something. It’s a simple little place half a mile out of downtown, there’s parking on site and we went there for a late lunch.

The menu is enormous. They start with good quality beef hot dogs, add them to custom-cut French bread (not hot dog buns – normal buns would not be able to cope with the toppings on offer), and finish with a huge range of options to top the basic package. Chilli beef sauce, onions, peppers, sauerkraut, mustard, slaw, different cheeses, bacon, baked beans (sure, why not?), tzatziki (a little odd), olives, mushrooms, pickles, and more. They also do sandwiches, burgers and garbage plates. They’re the whole package.

We ordered and moved out to the nicely gardeny outdoor seating. There are tables inside too, but it was a very pleasant day.

We ordered a Cincinnati Red Dog (a basic but classic chili cheese dog) and a Mongrel Dog (onions, peppers, kraut, mustard, pickle relish and melted cheese).

The Mongrel Dog. Served with a pickle, and may I say how much I enjoyed the prevalence of pickles in American lunches. A nice perky fermented cucumber is delicious at any time, and all the more so as a contrast to a somewhat meaty and cheesy hot dog or sandwich.

The Cincinnati Red Dog. You can see why a normal hot dog bun would not fit the bill here.

This is my hot dog face

The hot dogs were indeed delicious and huge, and spectacular value at $3.50 – $4.00 (plus tax. Why on earth don’t Americans include tax in the display price?). My only mistake was trying to fit a whole one in my mouth. Small bites from the side is definitely the dignified way to approach these dogs.

It’s a WonderFall Life

So after a good morning’s culture and two classic Rochester meals we headed off again.

It’s not that far to Niagara Falls. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and checked into our hotel for the next two nights, the Sheraton Fallsview.

We had booked a “Fallsview” room, which is what it sounds like. We opened the curtains and …


That’s the American falls on the left, the Canadian falls on the right, and Goat Island in the middle. The border between the US and Canada runs down the middle of the Canadian falls.

And don’t worry, the rooms are well insulated and from the 20th floor there is just the tiniest hint of a rumble of background noise.

We did go for a quick walk along the waterfront, and it’s very nice, but tomorrow’s photos are much better so I’ll make you wait for those.

Ridiculously huge and majestic waterfalls aside, what is Niagara Falls the city like? We were on the Canadian side – the views are just completely better than from the American side – so we went for a walk in our very first Canadian stopover.

Unsurprisingly the city is dominated by tourism, and the skyline is dominated by hotels, especially along the waterfront. Very, very tall hotels – everyone wants a view of the falls.

Just around the corner from our hotel we stopped into the Niagara Brewing Company for dinner.

It’s a nice venue, brewing done on site, plenty of seating, a welcoming atmosphere and friendly staff.

Nice beer, too – we enjoyed the lager and the peach radler, both very soothing after a long day.

Say cheese

And we also had our first poutine. It seems rather fitting that a day that started with a Rochester Garbage Plate should end with a pile of chips covered with gravy and cheese curds. They don’t look like much, but as I always say, when in Canada eat poutine, so away we went.

Not bad, not exciting, really, I thought to myself. Then looked down again a few minutes later and found that I had demolished the generous bowlful without even trying. They are compulsive eating, these little treats of carbs and fat covered in salt and salty gravy. Don’t tell my cardiologist.

But anyway, what about the city? Population one hundred thousand or so, dedicated to tourism yes, but it’s Canada. We were looking forward to a stroll through a lovely, dignified medium sized city, tasteful, understated, because that’s the Canadian way.

Oh come on. You knew I was setting you up with that last sentence.

Oh. Canada.

It’s as if they tried to make a new Vegas, tried to cram every bit of tacky glitz and bling in the whole country into four or six blocks for the tourists to … enjoy?

But, it’s Canada, so instead of Penn and Teller and the world’s most spectacular fountain show, you get … bowling.

And a wax museum. I mean, yes it’s the Wax Museum of the Stars, but even so we gave it a miss. Back to the hotel for one last look at the falls before a good night’s sleep.

Only to find that they have tried to bling up the waterfalls too. The colours change as the evening passes, but honestly I could do without it. When their national anthem sings of “Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow”, I didn’t picture it coming with a light show.

Ah well. Grumpy old guy nature-should-be-natural grumblings aside, it was a lovely day with lots of fun stuff. Tomorrow we get our tourist on all around the falls, walk along the gorge downstream, ride on a boat, and pass a lot of water.

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