This Empire State Road Trip Has It All

Enjoy Rolling Farmlands to Race Cars, Apple Orchards to Amish

Mention New York and most people think “City.” They picture the urban center of skyscrapers, 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 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 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.

Each place offers unique reasons to visit, while also sharing appealing traits and treats. Let’s begin with the latter.

Foodies — Be Forewarned 

You may have to loosen your belt during the sojourn through this diet-busting destination. Farm stands and pick-your-own fruit orchards vie with cheese shops and bakeries to tempt 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 shoreline of Seneca Lake alone, almost half of them connected by a driving Wine Trail.

Museums Large and Small 

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 powerboats. 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 one of a number of wealthy tycoons who, during America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1920s), built opulent mansions on islands in the archipelago region of the St. Lawrence River. 

A Love Castle on an Island 

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 flower beds be planted in the same shape.    

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 adrenaline-boosting experience for Fyllis and me. We knew that Watkins Glen is a race car fan’s dream destination but wasn’t sure why until we were introduced to the story.  

Whizzing Around the Track 

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 a straightaway with banked pavement leading into sharp hairpin curves. Despite the admonition not to exceed 60 miles per hour, I must admit that for a few moments I saw my speedometer hit 80.  

Contrast that velocity and the roar of automobile 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 adorned with the image of a quilt painted on the side. 

Trails for Hikers of All Staminas 

An even slower pace is set by hikers following trails that criss-cross the area and offer something suitable for all stamina and skill levels. Our personal favorites provided much 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 that are squeezed into the first mile of the path. Some plummet over sheer cliffs while others trickle across flat rocks in the river bottom. 

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.  

[xyz-ihs snippet="Lead-Ad-3"]Notes for visiting:

Some attractions along the Empire State Road Trip itinerary are open seasonally so it’s best to check ahead for those you wish to visit. The Harbor Hotels have been following a strict Coronavirus protocol to protect guests and staff.

For more information call (607) 535-3759 or log onto harborhotelcollection.com/experiences/empire-state-road-trip.