Family Fun in New York’s Finger Lakes

By Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Most families in the Northeast have heard of New York State’s Finger Lakes region. The reputation of its many wineries is world-renowned. What many parents don’t realize, however, is what a great destination this region is for family travel. It’s perfect for family road trips and action-packed family vacations.

In addition to all the award-winning Finger Lakes wine, the beautiful scenery of the Finger Lakes offers a magnificent backdrop for a wealth of outdoor activities. The area is also home to a variety of kid-friendly museums, as well as some very exciting adventures and hands-on experiences that are sure to keep a family entertained for however long they chose to visit this beautiful area.

Hot Glass, Fast Cars and Cool Waters

One of the most popular area attractions, located in Corning, NY, is the Corning Museum of Glass. Now, before the kids start to complain about visiting a “boring glass museum,” tell them that this museum is as much about having fun as it is about learning. With its continuous live demonstrations and multitude of hands-on exhibits, the Corning Glass Museum is a fun and informative experience that will keep the whole family entertained for hours as they learn about the many ways glass has changed the world. We were fascinated by the live demonstrations, such as one on the strength of glass, and were a little disappointed that we didn’t have even more time to explore all that the museum has to offer.

Adults and kids will enjoy the glassmaking workshops, where participants create their own glass souvenir. An additional fee is charged for these workshops and it is a good idea to reserve your time online before your visit, as they fill up very quickly. Young ones will also enjoy the “Glass Kids” activities, such as the Glass Detectives booklet that encourages kids to search the glass collection galleries for examples of glass shaped like animals. You can find out more about the museum and the glass workshops by visiting www.cmog.org. Talk about a real family value – teens and kids are admitted to the museum free.

Another very popular attraction is Watkins Glen International Raceway. Racing enthusiasts are quite familiar with the special place that Watkins Glen has in America’s history of road racing, and The Glen’s popularity continues with its busy racing schedule which includes Grand Prix and NASCAR races each season as well as many more racing events. Many of the race events are free for kids 12 and under. Families will like the MacDonald’s’ Kids Zone and Family Grandstand which have free attractions for kids adjacent to a smoke and alcohol free grandstand. And if watching a race is not for you, maybe the kids will enjoy the Thunder Road Tour, where you can take three paced laps on the historic Watkins Glen International road course – in your own car! For $25 per carload, you can experience the twists and turns of The Glen from a unique perspective. Thunder Road Tours are offered every day from May to October except for days during racing events. Advanced tickets for races and Thunder Road are available online by visiting www.TheGlen.com or calling 607-535-2338.

True racing buffs will enjoy the self-guided tour of the original Watkins Glen Grand Prix Circuit; however, you will have to explain to the kids just what it is you are doing as you drive the 6.6 miles of public roads through the town and out into the countryside that once served as the official race course. Accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places, the original circuit is brought back to its racing life during the Grand Prix Festival in early September with a race re-enactment of classic racing cars. A pamphlet for the self-guided tour can be picked up at the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce or the International Motor Racing Research Center on Decatur St. in Watkins Glen.

Another major attraction of the Finger Lakes region is its cool waters found in the area’s beautiful lakes and cascading down numerous waterfalls. The best way to experience this natural beauty is with a hike on the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park. The hike, a moderate one if taken to the top of the trail, follows Glen Creek past deep pools, water-sculpted rocks and nineteen waterfalls. We were astounded with the spectacular beauty and dramatic landscape of the narrow gorge found just minutes from Main St. Less enthusiastic hikers can take a shuttle bus (when available) to the Upper Entrance and walk the 1 ˝ miles back down to the Main Entrance. In addition to hiking, the park has picnic areas, camping facilities and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Call 607-535-4511 for the park office or visit www.nysparks.com for more information.

The beautiful waters of Seneca Lake can be experienced in a number of ways – perhaps aboard one of Captain Bill’s Seneca Lake Cruises, which include sightseeing excursions, dining cruises, and teen cruises. Also available are guided kayak tours, sailing adventures and boat rentals. Wouldn’t the family love a day on the lake on a pontoon boat? For information on the many activities available in Watkins Glen and on Seneca Lake visit the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce website at www.watkinsglenchamber.com.

Soaring, Geocaching, Museums and More…

One of the most unique – and exhilarating – experiences we have ever enjoyed was when we visited the Harris Hill Soaring Center in Elmira, NY. We must admit to experiencing a bit of trepidation as we were each strapped into our two-person gliders. Each of our pilots spoke with obvious confidence, as they described what we should expect during our “silent” flights. However, for both of us, it was not until we pulled the release cord that attached our crafts to the tow planes that we began to feel reassured. And for a long time following our touchdown after 20 minutes of soaring, the excitement of this experience remained. The thrill of flying silently was unlike any experience we have had. Sailplane rides are available April - October, weather permitting. Contact the Harris Hill Soaring Center at 607-734-0641 or visit www.harrishillsoaring.org for more information about sailplane rides. Glider rides are $70 - $80 depending on the type of glider and are 15-20 minutes in length depending on conditions. All rides are done on a first-come, first-served basis.

While at Harris Hill be sure to visit the National Soaring Museum and view the extensive collection of sailplanes and gliders, learn more about this exhilarating style of flight, and even sit in the cockpit of a flight simulator and test your flying skills. Visit www.soaringmuseum.org for more information. Families will also enjoy a visit to Harris Hill for the amusement park located next to the soaring center. The park has motorized kiddie rides, arcade games, batting cages, a driving range, and a micro-race go-kart track. The park also has picnic areas, miniature golf, and a large heated swimming pool.

Another museum that families will find intriguing, particularly those interested in the development of aviation, is the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY. The museum houses a fascinating collection of motorcycles and numerous aircraft that illustrate the remarkable innovation of Glenn H. Curtiss, a true pioneer in the world of aviation, as well as an eclectic collection of artifacts related to the history of local wineries, classic cars, antique tools, toys, home-furnishings, fire equipment, and much more. A hands-on interactive center with toddler play area and entertaining educational zones allow children to perform experiments, experience flight simulation, and learn about early aviators. For more information about this intriguing museum visit www.glennhcurtissmuseum.org or call 607-569-2160. Hammondsport is a charming little town with a number of unique shops and eating places surrounding a central square reminiscent of classic, small-town America.

An aviation museum that we didn’t get a chance to visit, but about which we heard good things, is the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center located at the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport. This museum offers a historic aircraft collection, simulators, as well as aircraft and glider rides. Visit www.wingsofeagles.com for more information.

A museum that families may find interesting is the Rockwell Museum of Western Art located in Corning. There is a free shuttle bus from the Corning Museum of Glass to the Rockwell and back, so it’s very easy to include a visit to the museum that touts the “Best of the West in the East.” Kids and teens are free at the Rockwell, and during the summer months a number of kid-friendly activities are included for free. Activities include an Explore the West Activity Booklet; an Art Hunt; an ArtPack Activity, which includes a backpack filled with creative activities, puzzles, and more; and the Kids’ West Play Area, where kids can dress up in old-time costumes, learn about a trading post, or play in a child-size tipi. For more information on the Rockwell Museum of Western Art call 607-937-5386 or visit www.rockwellmuseum.org.

Families who are into geocaching will be interested in the Sojourn Geocache Trail, which presents a series of caches along the shores and within the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers. For those who don’t know about geocaching, it is essentially a treasure hunt while exploring the great outdoors, whether hiking, biking, or paddling. All caches of the Sojourn are officially registered with geocaching.com, and Sojourners will need to register on this site to retrieve the coordinates and other location information. Registration is free. Geocachers can obtain a Sojourn Passport that provides information about the trail and things to do nearby by calling 866-946-3386 or e-mailing sccvb@corningfingerlakes.com. For more information on the Sojourn Geocache Trail visit www.FL-Sojourn.com.

Mark Twain Country

The City of Elmira in Chemung County is loaded with history. Elmira is home to the #1 Literary Attraction in America, as identified by USA Today. Mark Twain’s study, where he wrote many of his most famous works, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, is located on the beautiful campus of Elmira College. A good way to visit this site and many others in Elmira, as well as learn about much of the interesting history of the area where Mark Twain summered for twenty years, is to take a ride on “The Elmiran,” a one-hour guided trolley tour into Mark Twain Country. In addition to the Mark Twain sites, other historical stops include Civil War sites of Woodlawn National Cemetery and the Civil War Prison Camp.

World-Class Wine

A trip to finger Lakes Wine country wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the award-wining wineries surrounding the glacier-carved lakes. Tastings at these wineries are very reasonable, around $2 to $5 for a flight of wine sampling. Many of the wineries offer free grape juice for the kids, and many of them present a perfect spot for a picnic lunch with fabulous views of a lake and the surrounding hillsides planted with grapevines. Choosing where to stop for some tastings may be a bit overwhelming, as there are so many wineries. If you plan to visit some wineries, a good place to get some information to plan your trip is the Seneca Lake Wine Trail – call 877-536-2717 or visit www.senecalakewine.com. A number of great wineries are also located on the hillsides along Keuka Lake and Cayuga Lake, both of which also have a designated wine trail.

Where to Stay, Where to Dine

Whether in a luxurious hotel, an economy motel, a campground or cabin, or a lakeside vacation rental, the Finger Lakes Wine Region offers visitors a wealth of choices. Most of these accommodations are family-friendly and many are budget-friendly as well. Just log onto to www.FingerLakesWineCountry.com and use the “Accommodations” database to search by location, price, and amenity to find your perfect place to stay. We stayed at a wonderful, more upscale hotel located right on the southern shore of Seneca Lake. The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is conveniently located to many of the region’s attractions and is within walking distance of some great restaurants. Rooms and suites are wonderfully appointed, some with a stunning view of the lake. And the hotel has some wonderful amenities, such as an expansive fitness center, an indoor pool and Jacuzzi, a fine restaurant, the Blue Pointe Grille, and a relaxing outdoor patio for al fresco dining. Log onto www.watkinsglenharborhotel.com for more information and images of the hotel.

Finding places to eat is easy when you log onto FingerLakeWine.com and search the “Dining” database for restaurants by location, price or kind of restaurant you’re looking for. Our suggestions: when in Corning check out the Gaffer Grille located on Market St. in the Gaffer District, Corning’s center for dining, unique shopping, and entertainment. The Gaffer District offers Experience Trails, including the Chocolate Trail, for a delectable treat as you mosey along the brick-lined sidewalks. Two places we liked in Watkins Glen were the Wildflower Café & Crooked Rooster Brew Pub – great burgers, personal-sized pizzas, and some great microbrews on tap - and Seneca Harbor Station, located adjacent to the Harbor Hotel. Seneca Harbor Station, which is a converted railroad station, has some great views of the lake from both the dining room and its covered deck. And while in Hammondsport we had a wonderful meal at the Union Block Italian Bistro. All of these have children’s menus except Union Block. However, they are quite accommodating for children, as they will prepare anything off the menu in a children’s portion.

Plan for Family Fun

With so many choices for the wide range of activities available in the Finger Lakes region, it would be wise to spend some time planning your trip. All of the attractions mentioned here are no more than 30- to 40-minute drives from each other. We hope to have given you some ideas about the many things to do in the Finger Lakes, and we definitely suggest that you visit the website www.FingerLakesWineCountry.com for even more information about this beautiful, fun region in upstate New York.

Jeff and Stephanie are retired English and Social Studies high school teachers who have been freelance travel writers for over 21 years.

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