The closest I’ve ever come to a chipmunk was watching Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. Until last week when I almost stepped on one.
I’m at Corbett’s Glen in Rochester, Upstate New York, walking with Nicole Kazimer, the founder of HikYoga. After a spot of stretching amongst the trees in this woodland-like park, followed by a beautiful walk down to the water and back – with a pinch of meditation thrown in at the half-way point – we’re making our way back when two things move so fast and unexpectedly in front of me that I scream as I grab Nicole and bravely hide behind her for protection. Nicole turns round to look at me. And laughs. ‘What was that?!’ I demand.
‘A chipmunk,’ she replies, bemused. It’s at this point my excitement ramps up to a Tom-Cruise-expressing-his-love-for-Katie-Holmes-on-Oprah’s-couch level. I’m used to badgers and foxes, but chipmunks are the things of cartoons. Seeing them gleefully chase each other around in real life is surreal.
This is the first charming surprise in the other New York: New York State, as opposed to New York City, that is. Specifically, the Finger Lakes region. Where, instead of concrete jungles, people who never sleep and air quality that lacks something to be desired, you have wide-open spaces, so much natural beauty it makes your eyes hurt and lots of really good, really yummy wine.
To drive up to Rochester, where I begin my trip, would be around a six-hour journey. And many do it. Once they’re done with the bright lights of the Big Apple, the more adventurous rent a car in search of a holiday that actually feels like a holiday. You know, something with a little R&R.
And, en route, they take in a few other places: Beacon, which is under two hours from Manhattan by car (I highly recommend the C.I.A here – an intelligence of another kind as it stands for the Culinary Institute of America); followed by the glass museum and Market Street at Corning, which is roughly three and a half hours from Beacon; then onto Watkins Glen, which is a mere 30 minutes up the road from Corning; followed by Letchworth State Park, a one-hour-and-a-half trip from Watkins Glen; then Rochester, just 50 minutes from Letchworth; before heading to Buffalo, an hour and 20 minutes from Rochester; before arriving at their final destination – Niagara Falls.
As for me, I flew up on a quick hour-and-20 flight from JFK. And picked up a car at the airport. It was simple and I’m amazed just how far the Ford Focus has come on since Prince William learnt to drive in one (which is the last time I sat in one).
If New York State has a capital of culture, Rochester is it. With over 140 festivals every year, you can’t help but stumble across one when you’re in town. As I arrive, the Xerox International Jazz Festival is just kicking off its week-long calendar of concerts, and the town centre has been taken over by giant tents, music lovers and food stalls.
Then there’s the museums, like the George Eastman Museum. You may not have heard of him, but you’ll have heard of Kodak. Eastman was actually looking to buy land in far-away climes, not to start a camera company. But the equipment and potions required to take a camera with you in 1877 were so cumbersome, Eastman thought there had to be a better way. So he came up with one. And Kodak was born.
The museum is Eastman’s original house, with much of it restored to how it was when he lived here – working organs and all. It’s now home to hundreds of thousands of artifacts and photographs that belonged to Eastman and many, many other people, like Andy Warhol and David Levinthal, thanks to kind donations over the years. It’s also where you’ll find one of the few cinemas worldwide that is able to show films on nitrate. And there’s a festival for that too.
There’s also The Strong – the only collection-based museum in the world solely dedicated to the study of play. I was a 32-year-old child tearing around the joint, taking photos on Sesame Street, drooling over Game of Thrones arcade pinball machines, creating virtual bubbles featuring my face, and doing several takes as I walked past their Harry-Potter-esque wall of moving portraits. And their National Toy Hall of Fame is a trip, including the freaky and ahead-of-its-time talking doll created by Thomas Edison in 1890.
As for galleries, the Memorial Art Gallery, also known as the mini Met, in Rochester has truly stuck gold. Just the right amount to see – with the right balance of classic and contemporary, from Waterloo Bridge by Monet to George Condo’s The Clown. I’m not sure what I love more – making my way around the room dedicated solely to how women portray women in art, dancing along to the video art installation featuring NYC’s drag queen Lady Bunny, or witnessing a mural being painted to life by local artist Sarah C. Rutherford as she works on #hervoicecarries. Or, as I leave, the familiar works of Tom Otterness – the sculptor behind the little bronze men dotted around 14th Street – Eighth Avenue Station in Manhattan.
After Rochester, I’m back on the road, making my way past open fields of green and American barn-like buildings as far as the eye can see, to Letchworth State Park. My first taste of what a state park has to offer in America. It costs $10 to enter the park by car and a car you will need to drive around this 17-mile long nature site, with 50 overlooks to stop at while you travel from north to south or vice versa.
Even though this is under an hour from Rochester, Letchworth State Park feels like a million miles away from it all. With dense forestation that can be explored by foot, the Genessee River stretching as far as the eye can see and three mighty waterfalls (lower, middle and upper) it’s good to lose yourself in this natural paradise.
Just driving around and stopping at a handful of overlooks takes half a day, easily. But the park is open 24/7 and you can camp, rent a cabin or stay in the one on-site hotel here. With the various footpaths, family gatherings, and abundant wildlife (if you have the luck of the Irish, you might catch a glimpse of the endangered bald eagle here), it has tones that remind me of my childhood summers spent at River Dart Country Park in Devon.
There’s even a pool. Completely free to use. Or, for the more adventurous, you can opt to whitewater raft down The Genesee or body surf and do the ‘Leap of Faith’ en route. There’s also night and bird-watching hikes. Or, if you buy a rod and license from the local Walmart (I’m as surprised as you) outside the park, you can even fish to your heart’s content. It’s an affordable way to disconnect from normal life. Had I the time, I would have booked into a cabin, started my camp fire and explored the undergrowth quicker than you can say ‘Letchworth’.
It’s also worth mentioning that Tonawanda is an hour by car from here. An Indian Reservation where native life and customs are preserved and where visitors are very welcome to come and observe.
I reluctantly leave Letchworth, and set off for my final destination of this weekend breakaway to Watkins Glen.
As with the rest of the trip I arrive with zero expectation and discover it has its own distinct personality, just like Rochester and Letchworth. This is a boating, life-on-the-water type town. The vibe is laid back. The dress code nautical casual smart. And, there’s not a single miserable or bad-tempered person around. It’s like negativity has been banished.
I catch the last boat tour of the day and my captain and tour guide Terry shares his encyclopedic knowledge of the area and the ecology as the sun sets. While I, sat at the back of the boat, catch the odd refreshing spray off the lake. Back on dry land, I headed to the town’s movie-like high street and stopped off at GRAFT wine + cider bar. Its owner, Katie, is a ray of sunshine – not just with her golden-like mane, but she emanates happiness.
I don’t have a chance to visit any of the regions many wineries, so this one-stop shop, with a menu dedicated to New York producers is ideal. Even more ideal is their wine tasting option, that provides me with one of every colour: an Atwater rosé, a N.Kendall white, a Billsboro red and a Hermann J. Wiemer sparkling white. On a balmy summer’s evening the Atwater and Hermann J.Wiemer really hit the spot, matched by a frisée, strawberry and edible flower salad, prepared by chef Christina McKeough, who is a graduate of the aforementioned C.I.A. Her gnocchi is also to die for.
That night, I sit on the balcony of my palatial, top-floor room at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, feet up, soaking up the clear views across the harbour and lake beyond. I must have fallen into a very deep sleep because, when I wake, I’ve managed to make it to my bed but I’m still wrapped in my robe. Countless nights of disturbed sleep in the city melted away.
After breakfast I take a (very) quick drive along the road to Watkins Glen State Park. Unlike Letchworth, you can’t drive around this one. But you can enjoy the pool for free, once you’ve paid the $8 entry charge, and walk along the gorge where the stream descends 400 foot along its course, creating 19 magnificent waterfalls. At least one of which you can – and should – walk behind. Despite being popular, with various trails, it’s easy to lose the crowd and get some solo time to reflect.
And reflecting is what I’m asked to do when I drive back up the road to Quintus Gallery. Except, this time, owners Joe and Cathy stand me in front of a painting, put a glass of Dr Konstantin Franks’ Dry Riesling in one hand, and a sweet and salty concoction of pretzels, M&Ms and rocky road in the other. This is their new ‘pairing’ experience, where they match food and wine to the art, as you talk and learn about the artist and piece they have chosen. They even pair it to music – in this case, Beethoven’s Fur Elise. I certainly didn’t see it coming and I really enjoy my time with this lovely couple who champion so well the international artists they represent.
But I can’t drink too much as I have one last thing planned – kayaking on the lake. The water is calm, but it’s still hard work. But worth it, being able to go down narrow channels a boat would never be able to navigate. And, just as we are paddling back, along the rocks by the bridge, I see something move. ‘What’s that?’ I demand. ‘It’s a mink,’ says Chloe. And just as my trip starts, so it ends on another first.
For more information about the Finger Lakes and upstate New York, including things to do, maps and trip planning, visit www.visitfingerlakes.com.