Originally published July 2019 in The Globe & Mail
I’M SORRY, YOU WANT ME TO GO WHERE?
The Finger Lakes region is in New York State, about three-and-a-half hours from Toronto. It boasts a lot of lakes (11, officially) and—guess what?—they look like fingers! This vineyard- and nature-rich region comprises 14 counties, but many visitors coming from the GTA will cross the border at Niagara Falls and plant their flag in the city of Rochester first.
IS THERE ANYTHING ACTUALLY WORTH SEEING IN ROCHESTER?
The most well-known stop here is the Strong National Museum of Play, which houses the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls and games. It’s like the Smithsonian of toys, but you can actually play there. In addition to the behind-the-glass gathering of vintage collectibles, there are also huge interactive areas, including a model Sesame Street (you know you need your picture on those famous brownstone steps under the “123”) and almost an entire floor of retro video and arcade games. Be sure to save some tokens, which you can buy cheap by the bucketful, for the pinball-machine room near the exit.
Yes, the Strong is great for kids, but it’s also a draw for toy collectors, nostalgia buffs and anyone who’s still mad that their mom threw away all their important stuff when they moved out 30 years ago. If you want to see a 47-year-old man almost cry, show him a perfectly preserved Star Trek play set he had when he was 8 that his grandfather got him. Works. Every. Time.
I DON’T CARE ABOUT TOYS AND MY HEART IS A STONE. WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
A pretty happening art scene, for starters. Rochester is a university town and because of a reasonable cost of living and lots of warehouse space, the cool kids have colonized areas such as NOTA (Neighbourhood of the Arts). There, you’ll find the Memorial Art Gallery – don’t miss its adorable sculpture garden – hip coffee shops, hipper breweries, boutiques and small independent galleries.
THIS IS STARTING TO SOUND GOOD. ANY RECOMMENDATIONS ON WHERE TO STAY?
The Strathallan Hotel & Spa. A DoubleTree by Hilton, the Strathallan features oversized rooms, a rooftop sushi and cocktail lounge and warm cookies at check-in that your kid will keep trying to get more of. The rooms are generic but comfortable, but the real draw is the location. It’s within walking distance of NOTA and downtown and is surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of picturesque Victorian, Georgian-Revival and Edwardian mansions and apartment blocks. Don’t miss the George Eastman Museum, the one-time estate of the founder of the Eastman Kodak Co. and the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography.
WHAT IF I WANT A MORE ADULT ESCAPE? SOMETHING A LITTLE ROMANTIC …
How about sleeping in a castle? Belhurst Castle on Seneca Lake was originally an 1880s private home with a colourful history, including a stint as a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The lakeside view practically screams “get married here,” but if you’re hard of hearing, the whirlpools right next to the beds in the Vinifera Inn, a 2004 addition, should bring that wedding-night message home. If not, how about the rumors of a ghost in a wedding dress wandering the grounds? The rooms in Vinifera are larger, but the charm is all in the details of the original building, where you can dine on scallops at Edgar’s Steakhouse while keeping an eye out for ghosts on the lawn.
I’LL TAKE SOME MORE FOOD SUGGESTIONS. IDEALLY OF THE NON-HAUNTED VARIETY
In Rochester, check out Swan Dive, a groovy pizza and cocktails joint as Instagrammable as the latest Brooklyn spot (and the bespoke pizzas are darn good, too). If you’ve never had a vanilla shake with a shot of bourbon in it at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, you’re going to have to hit F.L.X Fry Bird in Geneva for next-level fried chicken sandwiches and waffles. If you’re feeling fancier come dinnertime, check out its sister restaurant F.L.X Table. It has only 14 seats and a communal dining table, but the seasonal farm-to-table menu changing nightly has set foodie hearts ablaze.
BEYOND ROCHESTER, WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO IN THE REGION?
Kids will dig the Genesee Country Village & Museum, where costumed re-enactors bustle about doing all the old-timey things in 18th- and 19th-century buildings gathered from around the region. (There’s even a small reproduction of a Civil War camp.) Young pioneers can measure their Xbox skills against the 19th-century toys and games at Thomson’s Tavern or play a civilized game of croquet on the lawn before getting an ice cream at the Victorian-era open-air pavilion. More discerning history fans can get their fix strolling through the flowery 50 acres of the Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Site. The truest nerds of all will enjoy the quirky Antique Wireless Museum in Bloomfield, whose collection – which includes the first cellphone, an exact replica of the Titanic’s wireless room, countless vintage radios and televisions and the original set from the Voice of America Delano California station control room – will take you on a tour through communication history.
KEEP GOING. MY KID HAS A LOT OF ENERGY TO BURN OFF
Spend the day riding the waves at Roseland Waterpark in Canandaigua. At 56 acres, it isn’t so big as to be overwhelming and, unlike many industrial waterparks, includes lots of fragrant foliage for charm and that all-important amenity: shade. Or if you’re more of a tree family, get rigged up at the nearby Bristol Mountain Aerial Adventure Park. Courses range in difficulty from not-as-easy-as-it-looks to heck-no. Each course is made up of 12 to 15 elements such as zip lines, rope ladders, bridges and tightrope walks suspended between the trees where kids 7 and up can show up their parents with aplomb. Two courses are specifically geared to four- to seven-year-olds.
TREES ARE GOOD. GIVE ME WITH THE BEST OUTDOORSY ACTIVITIES
Put on your hiking shoes and jog over to Letchworth State Park, known as the Grand Canyon of the East because of its stunning gorge and three major waterfalls surrounded by forests. Choose from 66 miles of hiking routes, as well as trails for horseback riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and biking. Or you can just be lazy and eat an old-school lunch at the Glen Iris Inn in the heart of the park. Bowl of clam chowder, please!
The writer travelled as a guest of Finger Lakes Tourism Board. It did not review or approve this article.