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Racing, Soaring, Sipping and More In New York’s Finger Lakes District

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By Hope S. Philbrick

Breathtaking views invite me to sit back and gaze, but New York’s Finger Lakes region offers a myriad of opportunities to experience the area in all sorts of hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves and get-dirty ways. So during a recent visit I chose to carpe diem, get busy and resist the temptation to lounge my week away—and I had a blast! Among the many interactive ways to experience the region, several are memory-making standouts.


Generally speaking, I am not a fan of museums. (Too often they seem stuffy, pretentious and dull.) And so when I recommend one it’s pretty special and when I tell you that the Corning Museum of Glass is a place where I wish I could have spent more time, it’s quite a ringing endorsement. I LOVED it. Honestly, my husband and I can’t wait to go back and spend at least a whole day there. It’s seriously that cool.

The hands on environment at the Corning Museum of Glass guarantees that visitors will have fun.The hands-on environment at the Corning Museum of Glass guarantees that visitors will have fun. Photo: Corning Museum of Glass

Vessels that we take for granted and let pile up in the sink actually have an impressive history: It took awhile for humans to figure out how to make glass and even longer to master the process. In time and talented hands it evolved into an art. Exhibits showcase over 45,000 objects across thirty-five centuries of glass art, from ancient Egypt to contemporary times. There are live demonstrations, interactive galleries and a huge boutique.

A hot glass demo at the museum.Hot glass demo at the museum. Photo: Corning Museum of Glass

There’s also a studio where you can take classes in all levels of glassmaking. Beginner ‘make your own glass’ projects let you blow an ornament, form a flower, create beads, make a sun catcher, frost a glass and more. I opted to form a flower and was shocked to feel how quickly molten glass hardens. It was great fun to release my inner artist, even though my flower is rather lopsided and so I’d like to take another stab at it. Next time I’d also like to blow an orb because experts say you don’t need to use as much breath as you’d think. Fascinating.


When visiting a place defined by eleven narrow lakes that stretch out like fingers across the area, it’s hard to resist a chance to play in the water. When I initially agreed to bike across Lake Canandaigua, I expected that I’d tire out in mere minutes.

I’d never seen a HydroBike and imagined it would be similar to a pedal paddle boat—those two-seaters in which you and a cohort sit back and pedal and exhaust your legs for very slow and minimal forward propulsion. They are nothing alike. HydroBikes (made in Minnesota, the land of lakes) are far more efficient and quite easy on the legs, even for a non-athlete like me.

You sit upright on what feels like a regular bike only it has pontoons instead of wheels. Dean and I pedaled across waves and even did multiple laps around New York’s smallest state park, the tiny Squaw Island in Lake Canandaigua. For their ease of use and novelty, I highly recommend the HydroBikes, but Canandaigua Sailboarding also rents kayaks, sailboards and SCUBA gear.


Virtually every major racing series has raced at Watkins Glen International and you can, too. It’s possible to drive three laps around the 3.4 mile track. To be fair, I must admit that I’m not a racing fan(atic) and so I didn’t initially grasp the appeal of driving around a racetrack in our own car. Not only had my husband recently informed me that our seven-year-old Honda Civic Hybrid needed new tires but we had bottles of New York wine in the trunk. I didn’t exactly want to whip around at lightening speed and risk breaking anything. But the pace car driver assured me that we wouldn’t exceed 55 miles per hour.

“You’ll get a sense of how fast 55 miles per hour is,” he said. Going straight on a highway is one thing, taking the curves of a racetrack is another. “It’s almost like a roller coaster in your own car,” he promised, smiling, as if that was a good thing.

Get a feelfor racing by driving your own car on the track at Watkins Glen International.Get a feel for racing by driving your own car on the track at Watkins Glen International. Photo: Watkins Glen Int’l

Dean was excited; I was afraid. Dean drove; I clenched my teeth as passenger. The car, the wine and we all survived without incident, of course. But it wasn’t until we passed between the empty bleachers that I started to feel a bit of a thrill: I imagined the stands crowded with screaming fans and a bit of joy slipped in alongside my panic. The experience has given me new respect for racecar drivers. What we accomplished at 55 mph on a virtually empty track they do at speeds over 100 mph while trying to pass each other.


As a frequent traveler, I’m no stranger to airplanes. But I found two new ways to take to the air. At the Harris Hill Soaring Center I rode in a Schleicher ASK-21 glider. HHSC boasts the world’s largest junior training program—youths can fly solo in a glider at age 14 and become an FAA-certified private pilot at 16—and so my 22-year-old pilot who had started flying at 14 was more experienced than I might have guessed at first glance.

No engine means you can enjoy peaceful views on the glider ride over the green landscapes of western New York state.No engine means you can enjoy peaceful views on the glider ride over the green landscape of western New York state. Photo by Hope S.Philbrick

While being towed into the air by a small plane the ride was a bit bumpier than I anticipated (as was the ride overall since a rainstorm was rolling in that day), but the second we were free it was instantly smoother and silent. The glider ride was peaceful, picturesque and just may be the best way to tour the Finger Lakes.

However, a historic World War II biplane is another good option. At the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center Captain John explained that the specific biplane we’d be riding in was used as a primary trainer for the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Navy. There’s something about the feeling of wind hitting your face that really makes you appreciate flight in a whole new way. The Continental engine on the plane is very loud, but headphones help block out the noise.

We enjoyed a very pleasant flight at speeds under 100 miles per hour without any high jinx for which biplanes are known – like barnstorming or flying upside down. Only 3,769 of these planes were ever built, so being able to say, “I flew in one!” is a special thrill.


Food and drink is central to any trip that I take. Finding a place that’s rich in local specialties is like winning the culinary tourism lottery. In that sense, Western New York may be its state’s power ball and the New York Culinary Center in Canandaigua is where to cash in.

The center’s mission is to promote New York agriculture through food, wine and beer (and, perhaps after a few licensing issues are hammered out, spirits, too). It’s a place where you can sample tasty treats side-by-side and then purchase your favorite foodstuffs, beverages and culinary tools. Cooking and wine classes are also available.

At the tasting bar I opted to try five microbrews while Dean sampled five refreshing white wines. We sipped from each other’s glasses and didn’t find a stinker in the lot. (Remember that on this trip our trunk quickly filled with bottles….)

Ride + Learn

How to improve upon touring with a local expert? Do it in style! There may be no better way to learn about a place than listening to a tour guide share factoids, anecdotes and juicy tidbits—except possibly doing all that while getting a feel for a different time period by riding around in a historic vehicle.

Starting from the Granger Homestead (a Federal-style mansion circa 1813-1816) we enjoyed a forty-five-minute carriage ride through beautiful historic neighborhoods and the stunning Sonnenberg Gardens while listening to our charming driver share tales from Canandaigua’s past. The carriage, which offered a much smoother ride than I’d anticipated, is part of the Carriage Museum’s fascinating collection of one hundred locally built carriages, sleighs, wagons and other horse-drawn vehicles.

Stepping back in time at the Granger Homeastead is another way to take in the sights.Stepping back in time at the Granger Homestead is another way to take in the sights. Photo by Hope S. Philbrick

We rode through Elmira aboard a one-hour Trolley Into Twain Country tour that detailed the town’s interesting history and ties to famous folks like Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Laurel & Hardy, Brian Williams, Babe Ruth, Tommy Hilfiger and others.

Elmira boasts many stately Victorian-era homes, the historic Dunn baseball field plus a historic swimming pool, several Civil War sites including a prison camp and Woodlawn Cemetery (which houses the northernmost Confederate monument in the United States), and the study where Twain penned several of his best-known works. Our tour driver was very entertaining and he provided insights I never would have discovered on my own.

There’s more to do in the Finger Lakes than I had time to experience in one week—such as ski, hike, boat, fish, shop, stroll through quaint towns, seek out waterfalls and so much more. It had rained the week before my arrival and so I was told repeatedly that I’d gotten lucky with the sunny weather. But with so much to do indoors and out, any weather in any season is a fine time to visit. Guess that means I’ll have to go back. Can’t wait!

If You Go


Radisson Hotel Corning
125 Denison Parkway East
Corning, NY 14830

Hammondsport Lodging
Hammondsport, NY

Two locations, Champagne House and Gulfstream House, both centrally located in downtown Hammondsport, just minutes from the public beach at Keuka Lake.

4069 Route 14 South
Geneva, NY 14456

An opulent and historic property on the shores of Seneca Lake that includes on-site restaurants and a vineyard. Accommodations are available in Belhurst Castle, Vinifera Inn and White Springs Manor.

The Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars
5435 Route 14
Dundee, NY 14837

On the shore of Seneca Lake amidst vineyards. Offers 30 guest rooms plus a two-bedroom cottage that sleeps up to six.

Holiday Inn Riverview
Elmira, NY

Two locations in the Finger Lakes area for this moderate chain. One in Elmira the other in Horseheads.


There was so much to do in the Finger Lakes that we needed a separate article for the culinary delights. So please read Wining and Dining Your Way Through NY’s Finger Lakes to discover the best restaurants and wineries in the region.


Detailed in this article:

Canandaigua Sailboarding
11 Lakeshore Drive
Canandaigua, NY 14424

Rent a HydroBike for $15 an hour ($7 for each additional hour) or $40 a day. Windsurfing, kayaking and SCUBA rentals and lessons are also available.

Corning Museum of Glass
One Museum Way
Corning, NY 14830

A combination ticket to the Corning Museum of Glass and the Rockwell Museum of Western Art costs $16.50 per adult; children 19 and under are free. A free shuttle provides transportation between the two museums. “Make Your Own Glass” sessions cost $25 per person and can be reserved online at http://reservations.cmog.org.

Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum
295 North Main Street
Canandaigua, NY 14424

Carriage rides cost $20 for adults and $10 for children age 4-12 for a 45-minute tour; 10-minute rides cost $5 for adults and $3 for children age 4-12. Museum admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors and $2 for students K-12.

Harris Hill Soaring Center & National Soaring Museum
51 Soaring Hill Drive
Elmira, NY 14903

Glider rides cost $70 to $80 per person. Located next door, the National Soaring Museum boasts the nation’s largest collection of restored sailplanes and gliders and also has historical exhibits, interpretive displays and flight simulators. Museum admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors (60+), $4 for children age 5-17 and free for children under age 4.

New York Wine & Culinary Center
800 South Main Street
Canandaigua NY 14424

Taste any single wine or beer for $2. Flights of five samples start at $3 and go up depending on the selections included in the flight.

Trolley into Twain Country Tour
Elmira, NY
877.863.4780 or 607.734.4211

Tours run from July 1 through August 31, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Tours run on the hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fare is $4 for adults and $2 for children under 12.

Watkins Glen International
2790 County Route 16
Watkins Glen, NY 14891

Drive your own car three laps around the track for $25. Tickets for NASCAR, IndyCar, Grand-Am and other races vary, though best rates are generally on tickets purchased in advance. The U.S. Vintage Grand Prix is scheduled for September 11-13, 2009.

Wings of Eagles Discovery Center
17 Aviation Drive
Horseheads, NY 14845

Flight prices vary based on airplane and flight length selected. The WWII biplane ride cost $195 for a half-hour. The museum houses an impressive collection of historic planes and helicopters, WWII displays and flight simulators. Admission is $7 for adults, $5.50 for seniors (62+), 4 for children age 6-17 and free for children 5 and under.

Also worth a visit:

Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
8419 State Route 54
Hammondsport, NY 14840

This museum honors an inventor who held 87 U.S. patents, made the first pre-announced public airplane flight, held the motorcycle speed record from 1907-1930, made the first U.S. city-to-city flight in 1910 and more. The fascinating collection includes historic bikes, motorcycles, planes, camper, housewares and much more. Youngsters will enjoy an interactive play area and the chance to explore a scale model biplane. Admission is $7.50 per adult, $4.50 for children age 7 to 18, and free for children age 6 and younger.

Patterson Inn Museum
59 West Pulteney Street
Corning, NY 14830

History is comprised of the lives of individual people and this museum showcases the lives and lifestyles of folks who worked at and passed through this inn built in 1796. The property also houses the town’s first tavern, a log cabin, blacksmith shop, barn schoolhouse and more.

International Motor Racing Research Center
610 S. Decatur Street
Watkins Glen, NY 14891

This research library and archive aims to preserve the heritage of motorsports. The collection includes over 2,500 rare and reference books, periodicals, photographs, 1,000 race films, plus posters, drawings, sanctioned records and art.

Rockwell Museum of Western Art
111 Cedar Street
Corning, NY 14830

This museum’s mission is to preserve Western and Native American art and culture. Exhibits include paintings, sculpture, beadwork and more. Interactive programs with prizes are available for free for children age 12 and younger. A combination ticket to the Rockwell Museum of Western Art and the Corning Museum of Glass costs $16.50 per adult; children 19 and under are free. A free shuttle provides transportation between the two museums.


Steuben County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Corning, N.Y.

Finger Lakes Visitors Connection
Canandaigua, N.Y.

Top photo by Nicole Young. View of lake and vineyards at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars.

Hope S. Philbrick is a freelance writer because she doesn’t think work and fun should be mutually exclusive. For more of Hope’s writing on food, wine and travel visit her blog at www.insathope.blogspot.com.

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