An epic Empire State road tripAug 30, 2022 11:16AM ● By Victor Block
Anyone thinking of taking a road trip through upper New York state should be aware the journey isn’t without challenges. Fortunately, they’re good ones. The test comes when visitors face the welcome task of choosing among a long list of sightseeing activities.
One afternoon, my wife and I were tooling around an automobile race track. On another, we slowed to a crawl while passing 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.
The trip was laid out by the Harbor Hotel Collection, three properties about a three-hour drive from each other in Chautauqua, Watkins Glen and Clayton, New York. Each place offers its own unique reasons to visit while also sharing appealing traits and treats.
Fresh off the boat
You may have to loosen your belt during the sojourn in this diet-busting locale. Farm stands and you-pick fruit orchards vie with cheese shops and bakeries to tempt passersby with tasty treats. Craft breweries, cideries and wineries provide beverages to accompany these delicacies.
Museums range from tiny establishments to world-class collections. The first category includes the Fenton History Center, which is located in the mid-19th century home of a former U.S. congressman, senator and governor. It tells much more than his interesting story.
One room is devoted to the War of 1812 between the U.S. 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.
The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, the heart of the Thousand Islands area, is much larger. It houses more than 350 vessels ranging from canoes and kayaks to sleek power boats.
Visitors may row a traditional St. Lawrence skiff, ride in a vintage triple-cockpit speedboat and tour La Duchesse, an elegant houseboat that was built for George Boldt, manager of New York City’s famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Boldt was one of the wealthy tycoons who, during America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1920s), constructed opulent mansions on islands in the St. Lawrence River. He planned his castle as a gift for his wife Louise, but when she died before the palatial structure was completed, he abandoned the project. The 127-room chateau has been restored and opened for visitors, who reach the island by boat.
Off to the races
A very different kind of ride provided a more adrenaline-boosting experience. Watkins Glen gained fame as an automobile racing destination in 1948 when a contest was held along streets in and around the town. After a mishap resulted in the death of one onlooker a few years later, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Race Course was constructed.
Our introduction to the “Drive the Glen” program began with a briefing, after which our Honda fell into line with seven other vehicles. The pace car took its place in front and led us out onto the track.
Despite the admonition not to exceed 60 miles per hour, I must admit at one point I saw our speedometer briefly hit 80.
Contrast that velocity with the gentle clip-clop of a horse pulling an Amish wagon through the quiet countryside. These Amish communities are comprised of tidy farms and massive barns, some with the image of a quilt painted on the side.
An even slower pace is set by hikers following trails that crisscross the region. Our personal favorites offered more than just a walk in the woods.
Panama Rocks Scenic Park in Chautauqua County has attracted visitors since the 1880s. A mile-long loop leads through a 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.
In Watkins Glen State Park, a deep gorge cuts through a landscape of water-sculpted rock and dense northern forest. Adding to the scene are 19 waterfalls squeezed into the first mile of the path.
If thoughts of walking in lovely settings don’t excite you, it’s likely that other opportunities will. Some attractions in the area are open seasonally so it’s best to check ahead for those you wish to visit.
You might also like this other article about the Empire State: