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Road Trips: A Fun Family Trip to Watkins Glen, New York

The goal? A fun family road trip. The challenge: to drive no more than five hours (at which point we were usually itching to strangle the kids) to a destination we’d never been before (which ruled out most of Ontario and Quebec) and stay for less than a five-day package at a family lodge. The possibilities? Hotel Hershey in Pennsylvania where the kids get to overdose on chocolate kisses? The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a showplace dependent on the auto, or that state’s Mackinac Island where you have to leave your car behind? To Shelburne Farms in Vermont where the kids could milk cows? What won out after much discussion was The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York State, a place subsequently pronounced “wicked”by the kids.

We had a great time, and I’ll write about the baseball-loving Cooperstown in an upcoming column. But we found some terrific surprises on our mini-road trip across the state, foremost among them Watkins Glen. It’s a summer resort town at the base tip of Seneca Lake, one of the five Finger Lakes, and a destination famous for two seemingly incongruous activities: car racing and climbing up the 600-ft. high gorge.

Drivers have been coming to Watkins Glen since 1948, when cars raced around the village streets and hillsides. Today, at least once a month during the season, it’s a 3 1/2 mile-long track with a new spectator stand that hosts major racing weekends. We just missed the Sports Car Club of America Race, open to professionals and amateurs, but we were able to see the vintage cars that raced in the 50’s and 60’s as well as James Bond’s Austin Martin from “Goldfinger” at the Glen Vintage Auro Museum in town.

This week, starting on Friday, Sept 8, at 11 a.m., a re-enactment of the original race through the town kicks off with concours-vintage cars taking a commemorative lap. Walk of Fame honor drivers, food vendors, automotive artists, a balloon-wielding clown, and an antique Auto Show will all be there on the weekend as part of the town’s annual Grand Prix Festival. And it’s all free. For details, call (607) 535-4552.

The other pursuit in this town of 2400 people is hiking the Glen Gorge, the river trail that began forming some 12,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age when glaciers from Canada started to carve out an immense trough in the cliff. Sometimes called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” this two-mile journey through what is now Watkins Glen State Park leads hikers behind waterfalls, over bridges high above the creek, and up a path consisting of 832 stone steps. We arrived unprepared—without proper hiking shoes or bottles of water for a long climb on a scorching day. Many of the steps were wet, slippery and steep, not for babies or toddlers. Nevertheless, our boys raced upwards calling to us from lookout points. We were ecstatic when, about three quarters of the way down, we came upon an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the top of an adjacent hill! It took about ten seconds to strip down to our bathing suits and plunge in.

We bought tickets for Timespell, the nightly sound and light show played against the rock walls of the gorge. Each evening from May to October, up a mere 83 steps, the sounds of dinosaurs, ice cracking, Indian chants, and storms accompany the laser pictures that tell the story of the gorge. Though pretty hokey in parts, the sounds scared some three- and four-year-olds, whose wails added to those echoing against the rock face.

We passed up the nearby wine tours, though some do offer grape juice to the kiddes, but signed onto a lake cruise with Captain Bill. The 50-minute tour around Seneca Lake took us past salt plants and the cottages high up the cliffs, (how do they manage groceries?) but the highlight was cruising in Stroller 1V, a wooden boat built in 1934 to carry passengers around the lake. I would recommend this trip for kids eight and up; younger ones raced around the boat or fell asleep. Better yet, if you’re there in July or August, send your teens on the Monday night teen cruise on a double-decker boat.

We managed to stick to our budget by only eating two meals each day in such family restaurants as “Friendlys” and buying extra at the supermarket. Campsites in Watkins Glen State Park are available at $10 per night. We stayed at the family-friendly Glen Motor Inn (607-535-2706) with an outdoor pool and tennis court and spectacular views of the lake; family rates start at $73 per night. Racing drivers stay here too with their families - the lobby is filled with signed photos. You may just see a Mario Andretti or a Jacques Villeneuve wandering past as your family tucks into pancakes and admires the panoramic sight.





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