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100 Plus Things: Dangle over the gorge, take in the view from Aero Car

Romance is in the air.

You find it in Niagara Falls, Ont., just off the Niagara Parkway, a 10-minute drive from Clifton Hill. For more than a century it has glided, suspended from a 1,800-foot cable, high over the deep green whirlpool. All day, from April to November, it goes back and forth, making its 10-minute trip.

It is the Whirlpool Aero Car.

Until 2004, it was called the Spanish Aero Car, and most people still call it that. The old name was a tribute to the Spaniards who proposed, designed and financed this marvel. And do they ever deserve it.

You could call the Aero Car the original zipline. It can be glimpsed in the Marilyn Monroe movie "Niagara." Canada treasures the Aero Car as its only work by Leonardo de Torres Quevedo, a renowned engineer and inventor who made contributions in a number of fields. So masterful is the Aero Car that civil engineers have named it a historic landmark.

The Whirlpool Aero Car connects to two different bodies of land in Canada, but crosses the international boundary four times on its trip. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

It has not only genius but style. That whimsical red and yellow open-air carriage is the original. A little pinwheel turns this way and that -- to measure the wind, maybe. It is pretty as a picture book.

Most impressively, in all the years of the Aero Car's operation, there has never been an accident or injury. A rescue car is handy in case it is needed, but it never has been. The rescue car replaced an earlier, scarier, bicycle-like emergency contraption, fortunately also never used. Let's hear it for those Spanish engineers. Salud!

And yet ... and yet ... the ride looks so precarious.

Everyone has seen the Aero Car, floating improbably over the whirlpool, dangling from its high wire. Who has ridden it? Not many of us. I hadn't, until now.

But I'd always sort of wanted to. And as the great Spanish writer Cervantes wrote in "Don Quixote," "To surrender dreams -- that may be madness."

The time had come.

The Whirlpool Aero Car provides a spectacular view of the Niagara Gorge, right above of the Niagara Whirlpool and the Class 6 whitewater rapids on the Niagara River. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The thrill starts long before you hop on. Technically the carriage holds 40 people, but they limit it to 35. Your lucky little group assembles on a platform, watching the Aero Car make its way toward you.

If you weren't prepared for it, it would be a startling sight. The ride's trial run, on Feb. 11, 1916, had not been publicized, and a trolley passing by on the Great Gorge Route screeched to a halt. The driver blew the whistle, and his passengers cheered.

There's still something exotic about it. Even with that impeccable safety record, you might feel a twinge of hesitation. We're used to things being high-tech and computerized. It's a challenge to trust old science.

"My grandma rode it. She's 80," said Chelsey Tobin, of Niagara Parks. "She was really nervous at first, but then she was fine with it. It's slow and relaxing."

Riders enter on either side of the Whirlpool Aero Car. At the halfway point, the group will rotate so they can see the vistas from both sides. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Buoyed by such assurances, everyone filed on, people of all ages and colors. You are told where to stand. On the way back, you'll switch sides, so everyone gets to see both views.

Out we swung, over the deep green water.

And lo, it was true. The biggest surprise of the Aero Car is how relaxing it is. The car's gentle motion is a striking contrast with the roiling whirlpool below. The bends of the river appear with new clarity, as if you are riding over a map.

The bright red Whirlpool Jet Boat veered into view. Once, taking that wild ride, I laughed at how my fellow passengers and I took time out to wave at the Aero Car, passing overhead, and the Aero Car's riders waved back. Now I saw what they had seen. The boat looked like a bathtub toy, bouncing around on the waves.

There is one more odd aspect, as if we needed one, to the Aero Car adventure. Though it travels between two points on the Canadian shore, it crosses the international border four times, twice each way. Exactly why that is would take some explaining, but it's a great brain teaser to ponder as you soar over the water.

Or not.

As the Aero Car takes off, a couple waves to loved ones on the observation deck upstairs. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Sometimes, it's best to let your mind drift free. Peace fills the car as it glides down its cable. You think of all the folks who have savored this sensation over the last century -- movie stars, kings and queens, maybe your great-grandparents.

You may also whisper a quick "gracias" to Senor Torres Quevedo, whose work has held up so well. On Dec. 29, 2012, his 160th birthday, he earned a Google Doodle. He was pictured -- you guessed it  -- in the Aero Car.

As the car came to a gentle stop, we all filed out, exhilarated. A few folks lingered to watch the next trip.

Kurt Sorensen, of Denmark, called the ride relaxing in his thick Scandinavian accent. His son Michael agreed.

"We looked up and saw it," exulted Michael, 28. "We said, 'That's a cable car! Let's go.'"

More beautiful words were never spoken. Next time you see the Aero Car passing overhead, don't just stare.

Say, "That's a cable car!

"Let's go."

Michael Sorensen, left, rides with his father Kurt, both of Denmark. On right is tour operator Doreen Sooley. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

100 Plus Things: Embrace the thrills of Clifton Hill

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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