Mention New York and most people around the United States and the world think “city.” They picture the urban center of skyscrapers, Broadway shows, the Statue of Liberty and countless other attractions.
But there’s another side of New York which, while less well known, is equally inviting in other ways. This is the upper western area of the state. In contrast with the more famous metropolis, it’s a region of rural countryside, rolling farmlands, dense forests and tiny towns.
It’s also a destination with a long, diverse list of sightseeing and activities. One afternoon during a recent visit, my wife Fyllis and I were tooling around an automobile race track behind a pace car. On another, we slowed down to pass a horse-pulled Amish buggy.
Then there were hikes through other-worldly environments, visits to intriguing museums and opportunities to become acquainted with the opulent lifestyle of the wealthy.
We were following an itinerary that links some of the most enticing things to see and do with inviting accommodations along the way. The trip was laid out by the Harbor Hotel Collection, three properties about a three-hour drive from each other in Chautauqua (pronounced Sha-ta-qua), Watkins Glen and Clayton, the latter located in New York’s 1000 Islands District.
Each place offers its own unique reasons to visit, while also sharing appealing traits and treats. Let’s begin with the latter.
Foodies Be Forewarned About the Empire State Road Trip
You may have to loosen your belt during the sojourn through this diet-busting destination. Farm stands and you-pick fruit orchards vie with cheese shops and bakeries to temp passersby with hard-to-resist taste treats. Wineries, craft breweries and cideries provide beverages to accompany those delicacies.
Oenophiles may think they’ve gone to grape heaven. More than 70 wineries line the shore of Seneca Lake alone, almost half of them connected by a driving Wine Trail.
Museums Large and Small Abound During the Empire State Road Trip
And those gastronomic temptations are just for starters. Museums range from tiny establishments to world-class collections. The often-overlooked Fenton History Center, located in the mid-19th century home of a former U.S. Congressman, Senator and Governor, tells much more than his story.
One room is devoted to the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain, much of which was waged along the New York-Canadian border. Other exhibits bring to life the role of people who were active with the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from bondage in the South.
The Fenton History Center would fill only a small area of the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, the heart of the 1000 Islands area. It houses a priceless collection of more than 350 vessels ranging from canoes and kayaks to sleek power boats. Even a landlubber like me can appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of the exhibits.
Visitors may row a traditional St. Lawrence River skiff, ride in a triple-cockpit speedboat and tour La Duchesse, an elegant houseboat that was built for George Boldt. He was a hotelier and joined other wealthy tycoons who, during America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1920s), built opulent mansions on some of the islands in the archipelago region of the St. Lawrence River.
A Love Castle on one of New York State’s 1000 Islands
Boldt planned his castle as a gift of love for his wife Louise. He changed the name of the island on which it was being constructed from Hart to Heart, had stone and wood hearts carved throughout the structure and directed that flowerbeds be planted in the shape of hearts.
When Louise died before the palatial palace was completed, Boldt abandoned the project. The six-story, 127-room castle has been restored and is open for visitors, who reach the island following a 10-minute trip by boat.
Another ride provided a much more adrenalin-boosting experience for Fyllis and me. We knew that Watkins Glen is a race car fan’s dream destination but weren’t sure why until we were introduced to the story.
Whizzing Around the Race Track at Watkins Glen, New York
The first chapter was written in 1948 when a race was held over a 6.6-mile route along streets in and surrounding the town. After a mishap several years later resulted in the death of one onlooker and injuries to others, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Race Course was constructed.
Our introduction to the “Drive the Glen” program began with a briefing, signing a release form and lining up with eight other vehicles, including one snazzy corvette, a stylish Nissan and our somewhat clunky Honda sedan. The pace car took its place in front and led us out onto the track.
The motorway combines stretches of straightaway with banked pavement leading into sharp hairpin curves. Despite the admonition not to exceed 60 miles per hour, I must admit that after slowing to open the distance between our car and the vehicle we were following, I saw my speedometer hit 80.
Contrast that velocity and the roar of engines with the gentle clip-clop of a horse pulling an Amish wagon through quiet countryside. Here and there residents of local Amish communities cling to their traditional lifestyle. These pockets of the past are comprised of tidy farms and massive barns, some with the image of a quilt painted on the side.
Trails for Hikers of All Skills and Stamina in Upper New York State
An even slower pace is set by hikers following trails that criss-cross the area, and offer something suitable for all skill and stamina levels. Our personal favorites provided more than just a walk in the woods.
Panama Rocks Scenic Park in Chautauqua County is an ancient forest that has been attracting visitors since the 1880s. A mile-long loop leads through a jungle-like world of towering rocks, deep crevices and small caves. Signs identify features with names like Indian Fireplace, which Native Americans used as a natural stone oven.
A very different environment is encountered at Watkins Glen State Park, where a deep gorge cuts through a landscape of water-sculpted rock and dense northern forest. Adding to the dramatic setting are 19 waterfalls which are squeezed into the first mile of the path. Some plummet over sheer cliffs while others trickle across flat rocks in the river bottom. The route requires climbing up, and down, a total of 832 stone steps.
If thoughts of this mountain goat experience don’t excite you, it’s likely that other opportunities available during the Empire State Road Trip will. From apple picking in an orchard to speeding around a race track, the challenge is selecting from among the long list of something-for-everyone choices.
If you go. The three Harbor Hotel properties share pleasant waterfront settings, AAA four-diamond caliber facilities and touches of their locations and history. The use of stone, unpainted wood and water designs provides hints of their surroundings.
Among vintage photographs that line lobby walls in the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel are some depicting the amusement park that occupied the site from 1893 to 1962, and Frank Sinatra, who performed there. Memorabilia related to car racing is scattered about the Watkins Glen property, while antique boats are a focus of photos and displays in the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel.
The hotel dining rooms offer the same menu, plus nightly specials. A cheese plate of four choices plus sides is more than enough for two people to share. Two Maine lobster rolls and fettuccini with roast chicken are other popular favorites.
Some attractions along the Empire State Rod Trip itinerary are open seasonally so it’s best to check ahead for those you wish to visit.
For more information call (607) 535-3759 or log onto harborhotelcollection.com/experiences/empire-state-road-trip.
Authors: Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block are a husband-wife team of experienced travel journalists who have gallivanted throughout the United States, and to nearly 80 countries around the world, and written about what they have seen, done and learned. Their articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and on websites across the Internet, and they each have won numerous writing awards. They love to explore new destinations and cultures and uncover off-the-beaten-path attractions. Read more of their work at The Rambling Writers