The next phase of our vacation took us west from Binghamton to a journey along New York State’s Southern Tier. That’s what they call that part of the state just to the north of the Pennsylvania line. Binghamton qualifies as being part of the southern tier, but there are two hundred miles more of the area, stretching westward past Jamestown to the shores of Lake Erie. It is a very pretty area of New York but is an area that is largely bypassed by tourists. It’s their loss because it consists of more than two hundred miles of rolling green hills and occasional surprises. Venture fifty miles northward and you are into New York’s Finger Lakes region, which consists of dazzlingly beautiful blue glacial lakes. The Finger Lakes are also wine country, so if you are into wineries that area makes for a terrific vacation. We spoke to one couple that took in four winery tours in one day.
Anyhow, here are highlights of our two day’s along New York’s Southern Tier. (You can read about my nostalgic return to the Binghamton area here.)
Owego. Owego sits twenty miles or so west of the Triple Cities. It too suffers from rust belt syndrome, which means it is unduly affected by abandoned or rundown buildings. Like Johnson City and Endicott, it hugs the banks of the Susquehanna River. If you can look past the decaying infrastructure, you can see lots of lovely Victorian houses and pretty public parks. If you like village life, less than four thousand people actually live in Owego. But there are better choices if you want to live in the Southern Tier, so keep reading.
Buttermilk Falls. Buttermilk Falls is a New York State park that sits just south of Ithaca. Ithaca is primarily known for Cornell, its Ivy League university, but Ithaca State is also there and is also a fine school. I had hazy memories from my youth of Buttermilk Falls. Getting to the falls in 2012 turned out to be challenging because only the parking lot near the entrance was open. No park rangers were in evidence either. So hardy souls like my wife and I walked down the road a half a mile or so and eventually found the falls, which are pretty but very modest, and are fed by a lake controlled by a dam at the summit. Walking up to the lake is worth the extra climbing, and a path will take you over the dam as well. You can hope to catch some fish but most of the time you are not allowed to swim. The falls themselves are rather uninspiring, at least during the low flow season, which was when we visited. However, a bucolic meadow near the parking lot and the muted sounds of nature walking the road made the visit strangely positive, as I felt closer to nature than I have in the last few years.
Watkins Glen. My wife thought Watkins Glen was just the location of a racetrack. So she was blown away when she discovered the actual glen at Watkins Glen. For several miles a modest stream eroding over millennium through shale rock provides a charming and beautiful example of natural forces at their finest. This glen is not for couch potatoes, as there are extensive paths and staircases through the glen, as well as a trail along the rim. Watkins Glen should really be elevated to a national park because it is that special and pretty. In spots, tunnels were blown through the abundant shale rock so that tourists could get inside the glen. There is no swimming in the glen itself, but there is an Olympic size swimming pool in the south parking area, as well as a picnic area and a lily pond. If you are in the Finger Lakes region, Watkins Glen is a must see attraction and available for the bargain price of eight dollars a car for parking. Caution: the path inside the glen is slippery when wet, and it is usually wet. A pair of sturdy hiking shoes and good calf muscles are prerequisites for enjoying the glen. My wife compared its stairs to those at Cirith Ungol (from The Lord of the Rings), only these stairs are much sturdier, and the gorge is spectacularly beautiful, unlike Mordor. No need to worry about orcs here, but it can be hard to dodge all the camera-snapping tourists, because pretty much anywhere you point the camera you are guaranteed to get a great shot.
Corning. If you had to pick a neat and healthy city to retire to in the Southern Tier, Corning is the city. It is anchored by the Corning Corporation, so the health of the city goes up and down with the company’s prosperity. Corning is known for glass, and has been a consistent pioneer in glass technologies, including fiber optic cable and shatter-resistant Gorilla Glass such as you will find on your iPad and iPhones. The Corning Museum of Glass is a four-star and unique museum that features equal parts glass art and glass technology exhibits, glass blowing and shaping demonstrations by glass artisans as well as a large gift shop where the items for sale are actually reasonably priced. The city of Corning itself is vibrant and healthy, and the higher wages that Corning pays employees promotes a broad prosperity within the city. There are many lovely tree-lined streets, mostly consisting of old Victorian houses that are well maintained and come complete with back alleys. If I had to retire in the Southern Tier, Corning would be a much better choice than Endwell, where I grew up. Brew pubs and great restaurants line Market Street. Corning is modern, but also quaint and charming. It is also surprisingly youthful and ethnically diverse. You can stay at the Radisson if you want, but we were glad to spend a night at the Rosewood Inn, a B&B on Second Street where we were warmly greeted and enjoyed an excellent room with a large, claw foot tub and a canopy bed. I took my first real bath in years, and it was delightful. Corning is the southern tier at its most livable.
Jamestown. We drove through the Jamestown and did not have a chance for a proper introduction. Jamestown is a decently sized city and at least within its city limits is quite attractive. It is also the home to Lucille Ball and annually throws a Lucille Ball comedy festival. Alas, we were too late for it. The city is located at the eastern end of Chautauqua Lake, a picture postcard pretty lake more than ten miles long and ideal for all sorts of fresh water lake recreation.
Chautauqua Institution. The Chautauqua Institution goes back to the 19th century and is anchored to Chautauqua Lake. It’s hard to explain Chautauqua but it has many fans, going back to President Ulysses S. Grant. Essentially it is a community of mostly rich white people and their children who seek refuge (mostly during the summer) in a place that values religion, music, learning and recreation. For me, it is a near ideal vacation spot because I value a mixture of nature, which the lake provides in abundance, along with learning (the institution provides fabulous lectures) along with an appreciation for the arts. Behind this large gated community are thousands of people (at least during the summer) who share similar progressive values, are highly educated, highly cultured and are basically happy people. It’s a surreal and safe place but that is part of its charm. It sort of models how society should be but rarely is. Children are especially welcome and seem charmed by the place, riding bikes down paths and streets, going to day camps and playing down on the beach. We took the official tour and found the happiness and exuberance of its residents was overwhelming. Really well moneyed people own very expensive houses on tiny lots in Chautauqua, usually passed down from generation to generation. There are also houses and apartments for rent and hotel rooms available as well. Just don’t expect a Pizza Hut or a Walmart on this campus. The very idea! Expect to walk or bike everywhere, which won’t take long as everything is very close together. Most people have to leave their cars in a lot at the edge of the property. Do expect to be surrounded by very talented people, youth full of energy and talent, and to revel in boating, fresh water swimming, wonderful lectures, seminars, lots of live theater and first class music. I haven’t priced what a vacation costs at this resort, but it looks pricey. I suspect I will scrape together the money somehow. I will be back probably as regularly as I can afford to.