The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park; photo by Robin Catalano.
The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park; photo by Robin Catalano.

Testing the Waters of Travel, Riding Currents that Restore

A post-pandemic road trip navigates stunning upstate New York scenery—and new ways of finding human connection.

The gorge at Watkins Glen State Park; photo by Robin Catalano.

“Wait,” my husband, Floren, says, and catches my arm. He holds out his hand, a blue fabric mask dangling from one fingertip. I take it and pull it over my nose and mouth. Ill never get used to this, I think, and head for the hotel lobby.

Four months into the pandemic that’s finally loosening its grip on New York State, and I still step out of my car and head toward my destination, as if nothing has changed, only to double back when I remember the one thing that seems to be keeping most of the world’s population healthy. Floren and I have embarked on a four-day road trip from our home in the upper Hudson Valley to the Finger Lakes and Thousand Islands, our first since the pandemic began. We’re relearning, moment by moment, what it means to be responsible travelers.

Exploring Watkins Glen & Seneca Lake

We arrive in Watkins Glen, a once-famous spa town located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, on the tail end of a booming Sunday-evening thunderstorm. It’s already past five, meaning most businesses, already on reduced schedules, are closed. We walk along North Franklin Street, the village’s main drag, getting the lay of the land, mentally marking places to try later.

The next morning, we’re up early for a short hike in Watkins Glen State Park. At 7:00 a.m., the parking lot is nearly empty. We walk the Gorge Trail, marked for one-way traffic to promote social distancing, and strewn with delicate magenta wild rose petals shaken loose in yesterday’s storms.

The rising sun is burning away the morning fog, angling hazy shafts of light over the gorge and its waterfalls. Whether by luck, natural alchemy, or both, we have this moment completely to ourselves.

Traveling by rail, staying in cozy, right-sized independent hotels, and enjoying local fare, carefully prepared, was just the way things were done not so long ago. The Bartlett House's iconic dining room preserves the character of days gone by, while offering a menu with international tastes; photo by Meg Pearce.

Afterward, we rent a kayak from Summit to Stream Adventures, just down the boardwalk from the hotel, and guide it under a bridge, past a pair of marinas. Boats nod rhythmically in their moorings, rocking against their neighbors with tock-tock or the hushed squeak of vinyl fenders. We have little company here, as well, save for a glossy-furred mink that seems to follow our boat from the shoreline, and the double-crested cormorants that perch on branches with open wings, like matadors flourishing their capes, before arrowing into the water for a snack. I reach for my phone to take a picture, then curse myself when I remember I forgot to bring a dry bag on the trip and had to lock the phone in my car.

A Finger Lakes favorite pastime: wine tasting. Because of the pandemic, several wineries have moved their tastings outdoors—which means incredible views paired with excellent wines, like this flight at Atwater Estate Vineyards; photo by Robin Catalano.
A Finger Lakes favorite pastime: wine tasting. Because of the pandemic, several wineries have moved their tastings outdoors—which means incredible views paired with excellent wines, like this flight at Atwater Estate Vineyards; photo by Robin Catalano.

In the afternoon, we shift our focus to a favorite Finger Lakes pastime: wine tasting. The glaciation of the last Ice Age, which shaped the geography of the area, has created ideal conditions for grape growing. The region is replete with vineyards and sleekly designed wineries, as well as cideries and distilleries—30-plus along Seneca Lake, the second-largest of the Finger Lakes.

One emerges as our favorite: Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars. Under an outdoor tent, Floren and I sit on the same side of a picnic table so we can share the view. The tables are set at least ten feet apart, with each flight placed on a barrel beside them. These safety measures are necessary, I know, but the distance they create is notable. I wave to the trio at the table closest to us and sip a bright, peachy Moscato, and refocus my attention on the expansive view of vineyards that slope down to the lake.

Exploring the Thousand Islands on Land & Water

In two and a half hour mostly scenic hours, Floren and I arrive in Clayton. Our hotel room is on the fourth floor, and I rush up the stairs toward it, eager to offload my bags. I’ve no sooner allowed my backpack to slide off my shoulder than I notice the windows against the far wall, and walk up for a look. “Whoa,” is all I can come up with.

Our room looks out onto a conversation-stopping view of the St. Lawrence River. To our right, Washington Island, its outer edge ringed with homes. To the left, the adjacent pair of Governor’s Island and Calumet Island. Watching the commercial boats and cabin cruisers shush by, I understand why this region was once the summer playground of the Gilded Age wealthy.

A view of the St Lawrence River from the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel_Robin Catalano
St. Lawrence at Clayton

Outside, we follow the Riverwalk into downtown Clayton. The streets are under construction, so we stick to the sidewalks. I cross to the gas station parking lot, where a preteen Amish boy staffs a table piled with handmade baskets. He takes a step back as I approach, so I halt, say hello, ask a few questions. Traveling at a time like this has made me self-conscious about everything: where I sit or stand, what I touch, and how I interact with people I would have engaged without a second thought just six months ago. We’re all navigating new ways of connecting.

In the morning, we’re back on the road. Thanks to its rural setting and severe winters, the Thousand Islands region is sparsely populated. Wellesley Island, known for its hiking, is no exception. We cross the scenic Thousand Islands Bridge and follow the curving blacktop to the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. After tucking the parking receipt on our dashboard, we set out on the River Trail, which makes a half-loop around the shoreline of Eel Bay, The Narrows, and South Bay.

A view of the St Lawrence River from the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel_Robin Catalano
St. Lawrence at Clayton

The initial half mile or so is peaceful, if a bit buggy and lacking in payoffs, save for a few glacial potholes—rock basins formed by the slow, erosive forces of eddies of water swirling stones around in river bed depressions for eons. But we keep going, until the trail veers off to the right. At the top of a cliff, we’re met with a dramatic, worth-the-trip panorama of moss-covered gray rocks that drop straight into a still, silent bay the color of malachite.  

Next we head for Alexandria Bay—Alex Bay, as locals call it—where, despite the promise of rain, the sidewalks of James Street are clogged with tourists, many mask-free. At the pier, we board Uncle Sam Boat Tours’ Island Wanderer, bound for Dark Island. Millionaire’s Row—home of the most extravagant of the Thousand Islands’ Gilded Age mansions—is visible off the port side. Off the starboard side, several of the archipelago’s 1,864 documented islands and ship-grounding shoals. At approximately 2,340 miles, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway grants passenger and cargo vessels access deep into the American interior. I find myself wishing, not for the first time, that I’d completed my scuba certification. The astounding water clarity—up to 50 feet—makes it possible to dive to the dozens of shipwrecks, some dating back to the 1800s, that rest against the riverbed.

Singer Castle, all sharp angles, arched windows, and rust-shingled rooflines, materializes out of the gloom at the edge of Dark Island. Created by Frederick Bourne, former president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, it was modeled on the tricked-out castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Woodstock, and took four years to build. For adults, Singer Castle is more interesting from the outside than the inside, but it’s still a worthy stop. So is Boldt Castle, on Heart Island, another four-years-in-the-making project, and one of the great tragic romance stories of the region. Boldt was created by a rags-to-riches German emigre for his young wife, who died just a year before its completion.

A view of the St Lawrence River from the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel_Robin Catalano
Singer Castle

Uneasy with the crowds in Alexandria Bay, we head back to Clayton. We linger over a late lunch at the Channelside, which has a spacious back deck that seems to hover above the river. Several tables are occupied, but the restaurant is quiet, easygoing. We share a salad with fresh local greens, spiced chickpeas, pecans, and goat cheese, and a house-made black bean burger topped with guacamole and a buttery grilled bun. This region doesn’t have the foodie appeal of, say, the Hudson Valley, but the Channelside is a bright spot.

In the early evening, we walk around town, taking photos of the historic and handsomely rendered modern architecture, like the Clayton Opera House and the Antique Boat Museum, both of which are closed. Also closed: the Thousand Islands Museum, though we peer through the windows at its mannequins in period costumes. I poke my head into the joyfully merchandised Golden Cleat, which stocks a colorful home accessories, and River Rat Cheese, purveyor of a dizzying array of New York State Cheddars, and even Midwestern-approved squeaky cheese curds. 

Although I usually pack my vacation agenda full of sights and experiences, somehow this pace, in this place, feels just right. So instead of cramming in one more activity, one more stop, one more something, we pull up a pair of red Adirondack chairs to the fire pit on the hotel patio. I nurse a cocktail and watch the sunset throw Calumet Island’s stone water tower, the last vestige of a tobacco tycoon’s once-grand estate, into specterlike relief.

On our last day, we drive south on Route 12E, its edges lined with leggy purple asters and Queen Anne’s lace that sway in the wake of passing cars. In Cape Vincent, we make a quick stop at the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse—which marks the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River—and continue on through a series of increasingly rural villages that look more than a little like my own town.

Roadtripping to Sackets Harbor

Tibbetts Point Lighthouse
Sweet in its simplicity, the circa-1830 Tibbetts Point Lighthouse in Cape Vincent marks the spot where the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario flow into one another; photo by Robin Catalano.

At the narrow strip of white-sand beach overlooking Henderson Bay in Westcott Beach State Park, we find a few groups of locals gathering on towels laid out in the sand, their edges tacked down with shoes, coolers, and tote bags. There are even fewer people in the downtown, which has the old-fashioned gentility of the historic towns along the New England coast—a few blocks of Federal-style and Italianate brick buildings interrupted by small green spaces, restaurants, and even a brewery with a wide porch with views of Black River Bay.

At the end of the street lies Sackets Harbor Battlefield. I’ll admit that I usually find historic battlefields to be a bit of snore. But Sackets Harbor Battlefield, a strategic site during the War of 1812, proves an exception. If features a sizeable parklike expanse of lawn in the middle, abutted on two sides by beautifully preserved Colonial buildings. On the far end, there’s a sweeping view of the river that prompts Floren and I to muse that our forefathers had good taste in their choice of fighting locations. 

We take our time stopping in a few of Sackets Harbor’s open shops. I’m thrilled to find Tea Thyme, a tiny gem of a store lined wall to wall with an impressive range of teas and tisanes, some blended by hand right on the premises. They also stock an array of tea paraphernalia, including glazed ceramic cups, Japanese iron teapots, and Moroccan tea glasses. We select four teas to take home with us, and order a passionfruit bubble tea to go.

Out on the village green, we claim a park bench in the shade of a big oak, and pass the clear plastic cup of sweet, milky tea back and forth, juicy tapioca pearls bursting on our tongues. Three towheaded boys fish from the boardwalk. A woman in an American flag mask walks a tiny, moplike white dog along a grassy clearing. A man with tanned, sinewy arms pulls in the fenders of his boat and pushes away from the dock.

There’s something so easy about the scene that for a while, I let go of my concerns—about work, about the illness, social unrest, and political disputes that have dominated our spring and summer. I shade my eyes with one hand to watch a herring gull coast on the breeze, and think, I could get used to this.

Westcott Beach State Park_Sackets Harbor
Westcott Beach State Park

Robin Catalano

Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.

Previous Story

Review: Addictive Wellness Raw Chocolate

Next Story

TLC #83: Billy Wylder at the Foundry

Latest from Travel & Leisure