Cover photo: Hector Falls, courtesy Gerry Barker
It’s Day Three of our Empire State Road trip, and that means we’re saying good-bye to Chautauqua and setting a course for our next destination, Watkins Glen and the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. To get there, we’ll be traveling east on I-86 for just over 150 miles.
Watkins Glen is a charming village, population just under 2,000, situated at the southern end of beautiful Seneca Lake, one of the 11 bodies of water designated as the “finger lakes.” The lakes, which on the map look like some giant animal clawed the earth, were formed millions of years ago by glacial action. Seneca is one of the longest of the finger lakes – 38 miles – and one of the deepest in the U.S. – over 600 feet at its deepest point.
While Watkins Glen is well known for its NASCAR races at Watkins Glen International, and the beautiful waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park, the region is most famous for its wineries. There are over 100 of them, half of which ring Seneca Lake. We learned that because the lake is so deep, the grape vines stay warmer in the winter and mitigate the effects of frosts in the spring.
Like Chautauqua, Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel has a picturesque location by the shores of Seneca Lake. With its 104 guestrooms and suites, it has the same look and feel as its sister properties. Honored as “Best Waterfront Hotel in the Nation” by USA Today in 2016, it is the only area property that has earned AAA’s Four Diamond rating.
We have a second floor room overlooking the lake, tastefully decorated in neutral colors with wooden floors and a contemporary, stone shower. Guests have the use of an indoor pool and hot tub, a fitness center and plenty of Adirondack chairs outdoors to admire the lake and watch the sunset. For dining and cocktails, there’s also the Blue Pointe Grill and Coldwater Bar. A concierge is on duty to help you decide what to do and see, and there are plenty of choices.
Like its counterpart in Chautauqua, the hotel was observing the same COVID protocols.
After getting settled in, it’s lunch time, and we decide to explore the waterfront. Next door to the hotel is Captain Bill’s Harbor Station Restaurant. The dining room’s 16-foot ceilings, mahogany bar and original hardwood floors are remnants of a train station constructed in 1876. Here we enjoyed fish and chips while watching the boats come and go in the harbor.
Besides the restaurant, we learned “Captain Bill” (a.k.a. William Simiele) also runs tour boats on the lake, so we bought tickets for an afternoon, hour-long, sightseeing excursion on the Stroller IV, a 50-foot mahogany vessel. They also operate the 270-passenger Seneca Legacy for those seeking a dinner cruise.
On the ride, we heard about the working salt mines on the lake and the geology that shaped the region. The huge salt deposits underground are the result of a prehistoric ocean that evaporated millions of years ago. The mines have been in use since the early 1800s, and at one time, supplied the needs of most of the country via the Erie Canal.
We also got an impressive view of Hector Falls, which cascades over 150 feet on the lake’s east side. While you can get a close-up, partial view of the falls as you drive Route 414, you can only see the full height of the falls from the water.
There’s another famous boat that calls Seneca home — the historic schooner True Love. Commissioned in 1925, you might know her from the 1956 movie, “High Society,” where Bing Crosby serenaded Grace Kelly onboard.
After the boat, we took a stroll down Franklin St., the main thoroughfare in the village and a short walk from the hotel, where you’ll find restaurants, pubs, wine tastings and shopping.
Later, we had dinner at the Blue Pointe Grill. The menu is identical to what we had at Chautauqua Harbor, which offers a selection of appetizers, salads and entrees, along with daily specials. We found the salmon excellent, and enjoyed the pasta dishes as well. Service was uniformly good at both locations.
It had been another full day, and tomorrow we planned to hit the winery trail. After all, it’s the top wine-producing region in New York, and someone’s got to do it, right?
NEXT: Visiting Finger Lakes wineries along Seneca Lake, and going for a hike in Watkins Glen State Park.