For many race-fans a trip to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York involves a visit to the classic Watkins Glen grand-prix-style racing circuit. I first attended a car race at Watkins Glen in 1959 and I have attended at least one race there every year since. But, even though I went for the racing, I found that this region had many more attractions – and, right from the start, I combined my race visits with taking in some of the other features of the region.

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For starters, the Finger Lakes and the post-glacial countryside in which they sit make for a wonderful, scenic cross-county trip – the essence of what road trips are about. By my count there are four major finger lakes – Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga – plus a number of other smaller lakes in the group. These lakes have been summer holiday areas for Americans from the northeast since the 19th century. It is not just the lakes, the ice age glaciers carved out a system of hills or ridges and deposited drumlins (aka streamline hills) which make this countryside a beautiful green rolling landscape reminiscent of some of the romantic vistas of the Cotswolds and similar regions in England.

There are many routes I can take from my home in the Toronto area down to the Glen. My favourite is across Highway 20A from East Aurora (south of Buffalo) to Mount Morris and then down the interstate to Bath and across the back roads via Hammondsport to Watkins Glen. Along the way I see the rolling hills as I cut across the north-south running ridges and I see a combination of the old-style family farms and the more recent wave of vineyards. The general economy in the region has not been all that strong for a long time so that the towns have not suffered from the kind of “progress’ that sees all the old buildings replaced by modern ticky-tacky. It’s great country for antiquing.

Last summer I had the loan of a new Mazda MX-5 to use for my research. I previously owned and enjoyed two different first-generation MX-5s (or Miatas, as we called them then) and this new fourth-generation version is strongly reminiscent of the first version car – only better. I can’t think of any other sports car on the market that is a true competition for this new MX-5 except perhaps the Fiat version on the same platform. What can be better than driving through the glorious countryside of the Finger Lakes region in a red Mazda MX-5?

So, other than the car races at the Glen, what is there to see here? From the first trips, I would trek up the waterfall-filled gorge in Watkins Glen. Now a state park, this has been a big tourist attraction since the 1800s. I also like the spectacular waterfall right in nearby Montour Falls. 

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In addition I liked to visit the Glass Center in nearby Corning. This is a museum of glass at the headquarters of the big Corning Glass factory. More recently, this museum has been given a major rebuild and it now stands as a much-larger, excellent, modern museum worth a trip to this area in its own right. There are many other things to see in Corning, notably the Rockwell Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum of American art, located in downtown Corning a few steps away from the Glass Center.

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Hammondsport was the birthplace of Glenn Curtiss, a pioneer of aviation who stands alongside the Wright brothers in significance. There is a well-done local museum in his memory, the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum at the south end of Hammondsport, celebrating his achievements. He started out as a bicycle maker and graduated to motorcycles. They have a reproduction of the powerful V-8-powered motorcycle with which he achieved a remarkable speed of over 137 mph on the beach at Daytona in 1907 – but unfortunately the engine broke before he could make an official run. Early on Alexander Graham Bell supported his efforts to get started in the aircraft business.

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To the north of the region, up by the Erie Canal (which is worth a visit in its own right) we visited two significant historical sites, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls and Palmyra which is the birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (more popularly known as the Mormons). The former commemorates the first Women’s Rights Convention, which was held here in 1848.

The Finger Lakes have been a wine-producing region since the early days. Those of us in Ontario do not see many of the New York state wines here but their wine-producing history is similar. Once the local varieties like the ‘Concord’ grape made up most of the wine produced. Later, they experimented with making hybrids, crossing native varieties with European ones. Dr. Konstantin Frank, who came from Ukraine after the war, was an expert in the growing of the classic European grape varieties in colder climates by grafting them to domestic root stalks. This new kind of viticulture has transformed wine-making in both upstate New York and in Ontario’s Niagara peninsula.

One major difference between the two wine-producing regions is that, while in Ontario winemakers recently have concentrated almost exclusively on the European-style grapes, in the Finger Lakes they make wines for all tastes including wines based on native grapes and hybrids as well as the European varieties. A friend of mine, who knows the wine industry on both sides of the border pointed out that many of the hybrids available in New York state are worth consideration, giving more choices in their offering of wines.

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How big is the wine industry in this region? Each year, in mid-July, the Watkins Glen racetrack organizes the Finger Lakes Wine Festival which includes over 80 wineries from the area. Of all these many wineries, we visited four well-known ones. The first was the Dr. Frank winery, which, as you would expect, given its heritage as a pioneer in European varietals, produces outstanding hard-line European-style wines. It located on the high banks on the west side of Lake Keuka just north of Hammondsport. The Bully Hill Vineyards, a little down the road towards Hammondsport, was a rebel offshoot of the once-dominant Taylor wine operation. It is one of the most aggressive wine marketers in the region, offering a mind-boggling variety of wines from across the whole spectrum from dry Euro to sweet native wines. For sure Bully Hill has a wine to your taste but you probably won’t like them all.

Over on Lake Seneca we visited the Glenora Wine Cellars which is about ten kilometres north of Watkins Glen on the west side of the lake. They were pioneers in the changeover from the big industrial-style wine makers to the small-scale varietal wine making – and their wines have been recognized for their excellence for years. The winery and its accompanying wine tasting facility have grown to include a restaurant (Veraisons Restaurant) and a small upscale inn. Orlando Rodriguez has been brought in from Connecticut to manage the kitchen and he has a focus on ‘farm-to-table’ menus. Down the road, a little closer to the Glen, we visited the Lakewood Vineyards which produce a wide variety of wines for all tastes. They have a big, welcoming tasting room.

On our most recent visit we stayed at the recently-built and highly-rated Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. One shortcoming of the Watkins Glen area and the Finger Lakes in general has been the lack of top-quality accommodation. For sure, the Harbor Hotel has changed all that and, if you can afford it, you can’t do better – or even come close – anywhere in the region. The big race weekends attract a lot of high rollers so I imagine that you need to book well in advance if you want to stay there when there is a race on. 

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While the Harbor Hotel is a new landmark in the Glen, the rustic Seneca Lodge up the hill alongside the camping entrance to the state park has been an icon for generations of race fans and outdoors people. The Lodge’s founder Don Brubaker was one of those instrumental – along with Cameron Argetsinger – in getting the racing started back in 1948 – so the Lodge has been a centerpiece for race fans ever since. The bar is a collection of racing mementoes going back to the early days and it and the friendly, informal dining room is still a must-do for true race fans to this day. There is modest accommodation but it is hard to get a booking. Even if you don’t stay there a visit to the bar – where you get your change in two-dollar bills – is a must. They have recently added their own craft brewery to the location but I still have a Genny when I make my ritual visits each year.

Of course there are many more choices for accommodation across the region. Bed-and-Breakfast establishments are another choice. Two examples close to Watkins Glen are the Blackberry Inn; this lovingly restored 1830s Greek Revival is steps away from downtown attractions right in the downtown area and the Idlewilde Inn, a historic, 18-room Victorian mansion, set on a hill overlooking the village of Watkins Glen.

People come here for the lake views and there are two popular lakeside restaurants on opposite sides of Lake Keuka that I like. Locals cruise up in their boats to dock alongside at both of these places. On the east side of the lake the very popular Switzerland Inn (‘The Switz’) is a big place with a big, but basic, menu and lots of drink choices. There is a large deck overlooking the lake but it has always been jammed full by the time I get there, coming home from a race. In other words, this place is really popular and deservedly so. 

I actually prefer the Waterfront Restaurant across on the west side of the lake a bit north of Hammondsport. It’s not so wildly popular but perhaps that is part of the attraction. It has a bit more upscale menu and I can usually get a table on the water level deck with a nice view out over the lake. The sun sets to the west so, unlike ‘The Switz’, you can look out over the lake in the late afternoon without being blinded. There are few restaurants in America with such a nice setting and this one has to be my favourite of all.

Of course the Glen has all that car racing history and activity. As for history it is a ‘must do’ to drive around the original road course that went right through the village of Watkins Glen. Go to the International Motor Racing Research Center (610 Decatur St) and pick up the leaflet which takes you around on a self-guided tour of the original circuit. You can book a driving experience at the current road circuit on days when the track is not otherwise in use. The vintage car races are held at the track each year in early September and, in the village on the Friday, they stage the Grand Prix Festival on the main street of town, There’s no admission charge, lots of food and drink, a friendly crowd and lots of old cars to see and people to talk cars with. Late in the afternoon, the race cars come down from the circuit and do a couple of laps of the original circuit – a must-see experience.

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In short, the Finger Lakes region is not just a destination for the car racing fans or wine buffs, it has something to offer for everyone.