From Finger Lakes to Thousand Islands at New York’s Harbor Hotels
By Bart Beeson
There are probably not many places where you can hike through a spectacular gorge, drive laps around a professional racetrack, and go to a wine tasting at a local vineyard, all within a couple of miles of each other, but that’s exactly how I spent my first day in Watkins Glen, New York.
I had come to upstate New York to check out the local attractions and visit two hotels from the Harbor Hotels collection. My first stop was the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, situated on the southern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of New York’s Finger Lakes. I stayed in one of the hotel’s Admiral Suites, equipped with a spacious living room and separate bedroom, a large bathroom with a whirlpool tub, and an ample balcony, perfect for sipping your morning coffee while taking in views of the lake and surrounding hillsides. The 104-room hotel features a heated indoor swimming pool, an outdoor patio area with several fire pits, and a full-time concierge. It also makes a great base for exploring both the town and the surrounding Finger Lakes region.
It’s an easy walk from the hotel to the town’s main strip, home to a variety of stores, restaurants and a great brewpub, Rooster Fish Brewing. It’s also a quick five-minute drive to one of the area’s main attractions, Watkins Glen State Park. The central feature of this spectacular park is a walkway that winds through a steep gorge alongside picturesque cascades, over bridges, up stone stairways, and under a rushing waterfall. It took me an hour or so to walk the length of the riverside walkway and return via a trail that runs along the less-traveled upper edge of the canyon.
After the hike, I made the short drive to Watkins Glen International, where a small group of us made our way onto the track for a few practice laps. The raceway is home to a NASCAR race, an extremely popular antique car parade, and a hopping wine festival. Driving enthusiasts can pay $30 to drive their personal vehicle several laps around the 3.4-mile Grand Prix circuit behind a pace car. As the owner of a Toyota Prius I was a little skeptical about how fun piloting a car not known for its performance abilities would be, but navigating the banked turns and ups and downs of the track turned out to be quite exhilarating, even at speeds a fraction of those that the professionals reach.
My final stop of the day was a tour and wine tasting at Lakewood Vineyards, a family-run winery that, among other wines, boasts four varieties of Rieslings, including a dry Riesling that was my personal favorite. The Finger Lakes region is said to have the largest concentration of wineries in the U.S. outside of Napa Valley, and boasts several different wine trails (as well as a beer trail with 75 microbreweries). The deep, glacial lakes contribute to a microclimate that mitigates the deep cold of the winter, providing great growing conditions for a variety of grapes. Sipping wine on Lakewood’s back deck with views of the vineyard and the lake below was a great way to cap off the day before heading back to Watkins Glen for a fish dinner at the Harbor Hotel’s Blue Point Grille.
The next day I made the three-hour drive to visit the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, NY, stopping on the way to visit the impressive Taughannock Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Rockies. Nearly identical to the Watkins Glen hotel in terms of layout, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel was designed so that 95 of its 105 rooms have views of the river. Directly in front of the hotel is a walkway that winds along the shore of the river towards the quaint downtown area of Clayton, which features a historic opera house and an artisanal cheese shop, River Rat.
Cheese, specializing in aged cheddars. Clayton is also home to the Antique Boat Museum, which has the largest collection of antique and classic boats in North America. On my first day in Clayton I spent the morning touring the museum, whose exhibits are spread out over seven buildings on the 4.5-acre main waterfront campus. The museum is a mecca for antique boat enthusiasts, and also offers more active boating-related activities: visitors can take a traditional St. Lawrence skiff out for a row on French Creek Bay, or book a 45-minute river cruise around the islands in the museum’s 30-foot, triple cockpit antique Hacker Craft.
After a brief stroll through Clayton, I headed out to visit one of the area’s biggest attractions: Boldt Castle. Every castle should have a good story, and Boldt Castle certainly does—in the early 1900s, George Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, started building what he called ‘a mammoth cottage’ for his wife, sparing no expense on materials and decorations. But as the towering six-story, 120-room structure neared completion, Boldt’s wife died suddenly, and he ordered all construction cease. The castle sat vacant for 73 years and fell into disrepair until 1978, when the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority began restoring much of it to its former intended glory. I spent over an hour on the island, exploring the main building as well as the tunnels, gardens and adjacent structures such as the “playhouse” tower, complete with a basement level bowling alley.
I capped off the weekend back at the hotel with a traditional shore dinner cooked by local fishing guide Jeff Garnsey, whose family spans nine generations in the Thousand Islands. Shore dinners date back well over a hundred years and typically consist of several courses. At first, I wasn’t convinced I would like the first course – fried strips of fatback served on a piece of potato bread with red onions and (of course) Thousand Island dressing – but the combination was surprisingly delicious. The other offerings were just as tasty – fried pieces of locally caught walleye, perch, and northern pike, the regional dish of salt potatoes, and for dessert some Canadian French toast. The feast was accompanied by wines from Coyote Moon, a local vineyard that offers two-hour wine cruises through the islands on summer weekends.
A long weekend at the Watkins Glen and the 1,000 Islands Harbor Hotels opened my eyes to the amazing culture, food, wine and scenery in the region, providing the perfect base from which to explore it all. For more information visit www.harborhotelcollection.com.
Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.