I have written several posts about waterfalls because they are among my most favorite elements of nature. I have driven, hiked, and climbed on many occasions to reach them. I have seen everything from little trickles of water falling from rocky ridges in the mountains of Appalachia to white misty veils crashing from great heights at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Columbia River Valley. I have been mesmerized by all of them.
When my wife and I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Niagara Falls as a result of being in Erie, Pennsylvania, we both agreed it would be worth the two-hour drive around the Lake Erie coast to see this iconic natural wonder. Like the Grand Canyon and so many other magnificent landmarks around the world, photographs and videos simply cannot capture the grandeur of something so massive and powerful. Seeing the scope of the falls, hearing it, feeling the moist air and spray on your face, and even feeling the rumble of the crashing water is impossible to replicate electronically.
With almost 76,000 gallons of water pouring over the edge of the American falls every second, the volume is quite hard to imagine. Yes, that’s over 4.5 million gallons a minute! The water is about two feet deep at the crestline, which gives the edge of the falls a deep emerald hue. It is stunning. The deepest section of the Niagara River is just below the falls. It is so deep that it equals the height of the falls above, which is 170 feet. Upstream from the falls between its northeastern banks and Green Island, the Niagara River rumbles and rolls as it makes its way to the main attraction.
Niagara Falls has never been on our bucket list of places to visit, mainly because it seemed too much like a tourist trap. However, we were pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of chain restaurants, souvenir shops, and other retail vendors nearby, but the American side of the falls is bordered by a state park that makes no attempt to outshine the headliner. The Canadian side is full of high-rise hotels and some casinos, which is probably an enticement to cross the border for some visitors. We were perfectly content with the marvelous wonder of Niagara Falls with very few distractions. If you can stand on the observation deck beholding that vista and not say “wow,” I’m not sure what would impress you.
My mother loved Indians. More accurately, she loved the traditional characterization of the Indians in American arts and crafts. It was a romantic view of the people who were inhabiting North America when Europeans began to migrate west and “settle” on the continent. My mother was not interested in bows and arrows, spears, or war paint. She collected inexpensive artwork (prints, plates, figurines, etc.) featuring lovely brown-skinned people in traditional Indian attire as they were portrayed by Hollywood, for the most part. I would be the last to criticize her taste because some of the pieces she decorated our house with were indeed beautiful. She probably didn’t know much about the history of the numerous nations and tribes that were scattered all across North America, and she didn’t need to in order to appreciate her image of the Indian.
When I was young, one of our family’s favorite vacation spots was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist mecca in the Great Smoky Mountains with attractions, miniature golf, sky-lifts, and shops selling everything from taffy to stuffed black bears. To get to Gatlingburg, we had to go through the smaller town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is also the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We always stopped in Cherokee because, in the 1960s, it was a place of wonder where local residents used about the only thing they had, their history and heritage, as a way to scrape out a living. The town had live bears wasting away in cages, shops filled with Chinese-manufactured Indian souvenirs, and the occasional celebrity walking around the town to be photographed with visitors. I had my picture taken with Jon Provost, whose name probably means nothing to most folks today, but to a young lad in the late 1960s, he was an almost grown-up version of a television hero: Timmy Martin, the boy who had a dog named Lassie.
I also remember that, along the roadside passing through Cherokee, there would always be local men, young and old, dressed up like Hollywood Indians. They wore leather loincloths and moccasins, were often shirtless, had their faces decorated with paint, and usually had full feather headdresses (for the record, the Cherokee traditionally did not wear full feather headdresses at all). Vacationers were expected to pay them for a photograph, and looking back, I can only hope that this type of enterprise was not their only source of income, although it certainly may have been. The town of Cherokee today still has a vestige of the tourist trap atmosphere of the mid-20th century, but much of the most deplorable exploitation I remember from my childhood is gone. Some would argue what has taken its place is just as bad. The tribe owns a fairly large casino resort in Cherokee operated by Caesars Entertainment under the brand Harrah’s. The Eastern Cherokee do not live on a reservation, which is defined as land given by the federal government to a tribe. They own 57,000 acres of land which they bought in the 1800s and which is now owned by them but held in trust by the federal government.
There is an attraction in Cherokee that has moved away from the trappings of my childhood memories and beyond my mother’s fantasies of the “noble savage.” It is a temporary refuge from the slot machines, the gift shops, and the traffic. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers a cultural and historical overview of the people of the southern Appalachian Mountains going back 13,000 years. Contrary to popular opinion about appropriate nomenclature, it is actually more acceptable and accurate to use the term “American Indians” than “Native Americans” when referring to the tribes that occupied the western hemisphere before European exploration began. Combining interactive video with intriguing displays, the museum invites visitors to take a self-guided tour complete with computer-generated imagery, special effects, and an extensive artifact collection.
The museum’s interpretation is divided into two permanent exhibits: “Story of the Cherokee” and “Emissaries of Peace.” The first exhibit follows the history of the Cherokee from the early origins when mastodons roamed the region, through the Woodland and Mississippian periods, contact with Old World explorers and conquerors, the tragic Trail of Tears removal, and up to the present day. The second exhibit tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and how he took Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III. These narratives are told through animation, audio-visual presentations, life-sized figures, artwork, and priceless artifacts.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a tourist trap designed only for entertainment or to perpetuate stereotypes about Indians portrayed in early motion pictures. It is managed by knowledgeable professionals who care about the Cherokee people’s heritage and dignity as an independent tribe. The executive director, James “Bo” Taylor, earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in Cherokee Studies from Western Carolina University. He has learned the Cherokee dances, which he performs regularly, and can read and write the Cherokee language. Taylor also teaches the Cherokee language in intensive ten-day immersion classes. The museum’s education director, Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, earned her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1983. She has written and edited award-winning books about Cherokee history and culture, including Living Stories of the Cherokee and Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (with co-author Brett Riggs).
In addition to exhibits, the museum offers workshops, performances, guided tours of the region, publications, and classes. The museum archives is a repository of thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts, personal papers, and digital collections, all of which are accessible to museum members and qualified scholars. Visitors to the museum can spend an hour or two strolling through the halls, or a day or two becoming completely immersed in the displays and collections. This facility is a real treasure and not to be missed by those who are truly interested in the story of the Cherokee Indians, or as they originally called themselves, Aniyunwiya, “the principal people.” Enjoy the casino, but take a break from the tables and check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and make sure to use part of your winnings to purchase a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop.
In recent years, the literature about travel has been focusing on the importance of creating or taking advantage of experiences rather than seeking the traditional rewards such as entertainment or relaxation. Of course, how we define a memorable experience is all over the board. Foodies may be looking for something much different than hikers, and history buffs may not appreciate the same experience that is meaningful to a photographer or painter. Then again, there may be significant overlap. In any case, if we want to learn as much as we can about a destination while we are there, we have to be willing to invest. We have to spend time doing some research before we ever leave home, but even so, that preparation may not be enough in some cases to get a true appreciation for what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching.
If we want to make sure we are doing the best we possibly can with our financial investments, we seek the advice of an expert. If we want to take full advantage of the time we have to exercise and stay fit, we may pay a trainer or an instructor. We may also pay teachers to help us learn particular skills or develop our hobbies. And, there are times when it makes sense to pay someone to ensure that our travel experience is as rich as it can possibly be. Yes, travel agents come to mind, but web-based services have almost made this profession obsolete, although they do still offer a valuable service for many individuals and groups. I’m thinking of a service that is a bit more, well, personal. On several occasions, we have paid to have a guide at special places of interest. Some places are just impossible to completely enjoy even with such assistance because of poor crowd control, cheap audio equipment, or an inexperienced guide. The Vatican Museum comes to mind — they pack way too many people in at a time, and it becomes a real challenge just to stay with your guided group.
For the most part, we have been very pleased with the guides we have had and felt that this investment provided us with a deeper appreciation for what we were seeing. The two best examples that come to mind of where guides were invaluable to us are the Colosseum and Forum in Rome and Versailles Palace outside Paris. In Rome it would be almost impossible in a short time to see the most historically-significant parts of the Colosseum and the Forum without an experienced guide. I don’t remember her name, but our guide’s knowledge of these two attractions was certainly impressive. We hired her for an individual tour, which was not cheap but worth every Euro. She was able to answer in detail each question we asked. She spoke fluent English. She had a sense of humor without being silly. She took us on a walking tour, and she managed to cover essential ground, literally and figuratively, while also adding interesting anecdotes, myths, and fascinating details. It was such a rich experience.
The Palace at Versailles is a short 30 minute train ride to the west of Paris and well worth the time and effort to get there. Because the Palace is so huge and we only had about four hours to spend there, we decided to pay for a guided tour. This time, we were part of a group. We still had bad memories of being shuffled through the Vatican Museum, shoulder to shoulder, like cows being herded to the slaughter. We were prepared for the worst at Versailles. Pauline was our host, and we could not have been more pleased. She met our group at a building where tickets are sold about three blocks from the entrance to the Palace grounds. She held in her hand a brightly-colored cloth blue flower on a tall green stalk, which she held up high enough for everyone to see to make following her a bit easier. As is usually the case with guided tours, Pauline was able to bypass the longer general admission line and get us in the Palace promptly, which is almost worth the price of the tour alone.
Pauline distributed our audio headsets shortly after we entered the Palace and tested them all. The technology was much better this time than when we were at the Vatican Museum, and our ear phones allowed us to hear every word she said. Taking us through each of the rooms of the Palace that are open to visitors, Pauline not only explained the significance of the rooms, but she was always careful and creative about weaving the information back into her chronological theme of the royal families that resided at the Palace. Her approach was similar to that of a school teacher, asking questions from the group and using responses to deliver her narrative. She managed to do so without dumbing down the story so that people of all ages and education levels could appreciate the tour. She was really talented. Another skill Pauline exhibited was aggressiveness. There are always rude people in museums who will insist on edging their way in front of others to get a better view or to take a photograph, or even worse, the obligatory selfie. Incidentally, selfie sticks are prohibited in the Versailles Palace and in many museums and galleries in Paris, thank goodness. When our group encountered anyone attempting to push in front of us at the railings while Pauline was talking to us, she would quickly and firmly say, “Excuse me, this is a group tour, would you please step aside? Thank you!” It worked every time.
Traveling is a luxury that many people cannot afford, which is unfortunate. However, there are ways to make tourism more affordable. There is a considerable range of prices for transportation, lodging, meals, attractions, and incidentals. It usually makes sense to pay for many services in advance, including admission. The Paris Pass is highly recommended for visitors to the city who plan to be there a few days and want to see multiple museums and galleries. Other major cities have similar deals, and they are definitely worth considering. Most of the time, we don’t feel a need to have a personal guide or to even join a group tour, both of which can be expensive. We tend to like the freedom of seeing what interests us most and skipping the rest, which is practically impossible with a guided tour. But there are times when having a knowledgeable narrator can provide that memorable and meaningful experience that so many travelers seek.
A significant part of the expense of traveling is the cost of lodging, especially if you are in a large city or a popular destination. It really is worth the time and effort to find a place that suits your needs and fulfills your expectations. Sometimes hotels are the best option, especially if you are staying for only a night or two. There are times when the hotel itself may be what attracted you in the first place, which was the case when my wife and I decided to spend our most recent anniversary weekend at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta. We looked forward to having dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, hanging out in the bar, and relaxing in a plush bed covered in sheets that, in retrospect, must have been imported from Turkey. We also stayed in an over-the-top place when we visited Carmel, California. The name would suggest a cheesy roadside motor lodge, but our room at Tickle Pink Inn had a small balcony looking out over the rocky cliffs of the Pacific and was equipped with a canopy bed and word-burning fireplace. It was incredible, even for the one night we were there. We don’t usually splurge like that, but in both cases, the experience was worth the extra money. And, the experience is what we’re really after when we travel.
If your travels take you to major cultural centers, such as large cities or places of historical significance, then I suggest skipping the hotels and seeking out accommodations that will permit you to be immersed in the locale. This option is especially preferable if you plan to stay for more than two nights. It would appear that more travelers are embracing this idea with the rapid rise in popularity of Airbnb, VRBO, and many other agencies that provide listings of homes, apartments, villas, condos, and cabins for rent. If you want a taste of what it is like to live in a particular place, then staying in a neighborhood or borough or barrio among the people who do actually live there is the best choice, especially if you are in an area where the language and customs are quite different from your own. Shopping in local markets, eating in nearby cafes, strolling the streets and the parks, and taking in the local entertainment affords you the opportunity to get more integrated with the surroundings, to embrace your temporary milieu.
On our recent trip to Paris, my wife and I stayed in a lovely studio apartment in Le Marais, a trendy historic district that spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. The area was in terrible shape by the 1950s but was revitalized in the 1960s and is now the section of the city known for a high concentration of Jewish residents and also of gay and lesbian Parisians. It also hosts some of the most popular small, independent clothing and fashion shops in Paris. We found out about this particular apartment from a friend in the states who had stayed there the previous summer and loved it. So did we. Our fourth-floor room was tucked away in a collection of early twentieth-century buildings between a busy thoroughfare and a side street about two blocks from the right bank of the Seine River. The first floors of several of the buildings housed offices that looked out to a lovely courtyard, and the whole complex was somewhat secured by combination-code locked gates. One of the entrances was less than fifty yards from a Metro station, which was most convenient. Our apartment had a fair-sized bathroom and a small kitchen in addition to a spacious (by European standards) bedroom/sitting area. It was accessible by a circular wooden staircase that wound its way around an elevator shaft with a car just large enough for two people with healthy BMI frames — it was tiny by American standards but typical for Paris. The only times we used the elevator were to haul our luggage up when we arrived and back down when we departed.
We walked to one of the local markets as soon as we got settled into our apartment and bought all the provisions we would need for the five days we were staying in Paris. That grocery shopping experience alone is worth another blog entry — a human comedy. We walked to local bistros several nights that were quaint and wonderful. We had breakfast almost every morning at a little bakery just a quick walk down the street. The chocolate-banana pastries were like edible heaven. We were within easy walking distance of the Seine, Notre Dame, and several museums, including the Picasso Museum and the Bastille. On our last morning in Paris we strolled down to the Seine and walked up and down the banks of the river. Other than the shopkeepers and other people who provided us with assistance, I don’t think we ever heard a single word of English while we were in the neighborhood where we were staying, which is such an important part of the experience of traveling to a foreign country. From the window of our room we could hear people talking and laughing at the café four floors below our windows. We could hear children playing on the sidewalks. We could hear people going to and coming home from work or school. For a brief time, we almost felt like Parisians — well, a little. Do yourself a favor. On your next trip, find a place to stay in a great neighborhood and soak up the atmosphere you find there.