This post has been updated to reflect the latest COVID-19 information as of November 2020.
Watkins Glen is a great place for a scenic getaway where outdoor activities in every season allow for social distancing. There’s “something special around every turn,” notes Michael Hardy, executive director of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce.
As of this writing, there are just 25 active cases of COVID-19 in all of Schuyler County, where Watkins Glen is located. Get the latest data here. When you travel here or elsewhere, remember to wear a mask and to check current state and local quarantine requirements before you go. You will also probably want to contact each of your planned destinations to check opening hours, make reservations for activities, and to determine any other current requirements for enjoying your visit safely.
First-timers checking in to the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel might not know where to begin their Watkins Glen, New York weekend. Should they visit a nearby winery? Check out Seneca Lake? Cruise the charming village of Watkins Glen? Try to find that gorge? Do something, in an area associated with NASCAR, with motor cars? Fortunately, a tuned-in concierge offers plenty of suggestions and can follow up as needed. Remembering that this is a getaway, what visitors might want to do first is find their guestroom.
Why Watkins Glen?
What did I do on a recent road trip to this oh-so-scenic and suddenly quite trendy destination located halfway, sort of, kind of, between New York City and Niagara Falls? The former vacation destination of the likes of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil fame, this village received 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a year back in the 1870s, a correspondent for the New York Times reported way back when.
The lure then, of course, was the fresh air, the glen and the convenience of train lines that converged in the general vicinity.
As motor cars, not quite as reliable as they are today, emerged as a popular form of transportation, Watkins Glen made for a good stopover for those trekking between the Niagara River and Manhattan.
Things to do in Watkins Glen
What’s Watkins Glen’s draw now? This village of just under 2,000 people offers a little something for every type of traveler. Outdoorsy sorts trend toward Watkins Glen State Park to see more than a dozen waterfalls propel water along a 400-foot descent through a gorge formed by glaciers.
Even city dwellers might like a hike through the park, which features sturdy walkways, staircases, and railings. Still, be prepared to get just a little wet! That cascading water likes to go its own way, and some puddles seem never to quite dry up. Sensible shoes most definitely become a necessity here.
Note: As of Oct. 23, 2020, the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park is closed for the season for maintenance to be performed. Other trails remain open. Before visiting the park, be certain to get updates. An app is available here.
Still wanting to gaze at waterfalls? There are plenty to choose from! “Chasing waterfalls is a photographer’s dream Fall, Winter Spring and Summer!,” Hardy says. For lists of area waterfalls, go here and here.
Driving the Glen
Just five miles from the village is Watkins Glen International raceway, a 3.5-mile long course with nine grandstands and my favorite location for viewing a race, the Jack Daniel’s Club. Even if car racing is not your thing, the 1,800-acre “Glen” hosts what it charmingly designates as “non-racing events” like beer and wine festivals. Be certain to check the raceway’s calendar and to purchase tickets (and make hotel reservations) as early as you can. Other travelers have already figured out how much fun is on sale here.
Possibly the best deal in the entire world is the opportunity to drive the raceway yourself. For $30 per vehicle (and a willingness to sign a liability waiver), a driver can do three laps around the track behind a pace car.
Not one to watch NASCAR races on television, I had possibly the best time of my life pushing my VW Beetle to its limits, images of “Herbie Rides Again” dancing through my head.
Seriously, the experience thrilled. I must go back. Be certain to check the raceway’s website for specific availability as blackout dates apply.
Note: NASCAR events at Watkins Glen International raceway are postponed until 2021. Be sure to check the raceway’s website for the most up-do-date status of activities.
Follow the Seneca Lake Wine Trail
Those seeking a very different sort of adventure might appreciate that wineries and vineyards in the vicinity of Watkins Glen make up a part of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which some might call the Napa of the East (although this particular place in the East more likely would describe Napa as the Seneca Lake Wine Trail of the West). Indeed, in 2018, a USA Today Readers’ Choice poll named the Finger Lakes as the Best Wine Region.
I stopped by family-owned and operated Lakewood Vineyards in Watkins Glen and savored some Lemberger and a few other options during a wine tasting and tour. From my position on the covered patio, I looked down the hill toward Seneca Lake while sipping some very sustainable product (what with the grapes growing just yards from where I stand). I couldn’t help but appreciate sunny days here in the seat of Schuyler County.
Also, the wine vastly exceeded my expectations, which is how I ended up with more than a few bottles of New York state wine in my own tiny little cellar. For those preferring harder stuff, nearby distilleries, such as Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, also offer tours in season.
Note: While Wine Trail events are canceled for 2020, wineries are open. Check out the wine trail website here for current information. Remember again, you will probably want to make a reservation—and remember your mask!
A room with a view at Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
Standing in the lobby at the Watkins Glen Harbor hotel with the weekend before me, having breezed through check-in (friendly and fast, my favorite way to travel), I opted to set my gear in my room before heading back out to explore Seneca Lake, which happened to be just yards away. I almost couldn’t bring myself to leave my waterfront suite (Room 300) with a living room, bedroom, a vast bathroom with a whirlpool tub, and a balcony that was absolutely perfect for reading and just being.
Ready for a bit of refreshment, I headed down to the Coldwater Bar’s outdoor seats facing the lake.
Built just over a decade ago, the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel reinvigorated an area that had seen better days. It’s a sparkling addition to a region not necessarily associated with upscale hotels.
Finishing my wine, I abandoned my perch on the hotel patio to take a 30-second walk to the Seneca Lake pier.
The largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake’s 38 miles allow boaters to reach the Atlantic Ocean, eventually, thanks to New York State’s canal system. Several boat tours offer more immediate ways to appreciate the lake.
Note: The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel has instituted cleaning and sanitizing protocols and other measures to make visitors’ stays enjoyable and safe. Unfortunately, nightly turndown service is on hold right now. Daily housekeeping, as at other hotels open right now, is suspended for short-duration stays of four days or fewer. Seating capacity is limited at the hotel’s restaurant. Be sure to make a reservation, and have fun! Details about the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel’s protocols are here.
Feeling the love for Watkins Glen? Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel is offering micro wedding packages for 50 or fewer guests. Contact the hotel for details.
A revitalized Village of Watkins Glen
On this visit, though, I wanted to explore the village of Watkins Glen. Originally named Jefferson and later renamed for Dr. Samuel Watkins who happened to own a certain gorge in town, “Glen” was appended in 1926. Today, charming shops and restaurants grace the first floors of elegant historic buildings in the Village of Watkins Glen.
The privately owned gorge opened to ticket-buying visitors in 1863. New York State purchased the property in 1906. The village entrance to the state park is just a bit over a half-mile from the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.
Back from my walkabout, I stopped in at the hotel’s Blue Pointe Grille for seafood scampi that beckons and pairs perfectly with a sauvignon blanc by Shaw Vineyards of Seneca Lake. Then it was up to my tub for a soak and a book before a long evening’s nap.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Situated at the head of Seneca Lake, the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel offers an ideal launch point for plenty of weekend of activities, most of which are conveniently nearby.
- The hotel, with its indoor pool and hot tub and suites featuring whirlpool baths, is perfect for a romantic getaway, a girls’ weekend or a solo adventure. No matter with whom you happen to be traveling, indulge in a martini and dessert in the Coldwater Bar for a memorable and somewhat decadent vacation combo. I am partial to the apple pie, but far more chocolatey options also beckon.
- The concierge can arrange for wine tours and drivers and put together activities for hotel guests.
- The Blue Pointe Grille, the on-site restaurant at Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, offers waterfront views and friendly and prompt service, but should you be fortunate to be staying in a room with a balcony and a lake view, order room service and enjoy that vista all on your own.
- Opt for turndown service at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel. Staff will turn down your bed and generally make your room comfy for the evening by rearranging pillows and drawing drapes. Plus, there’s chocolate!
- Remember that even on hot days, a 38-mile-long lake can become a little windy. Bring a sweater.
- Consider wearing a hat and a rain poncho on any visit to Watkins Glen State Park. There will be water.
- Off-season can be an ideal time to visit for those seeking a more quiet getaway that still offers impressive scenery.
IF YOU GO
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Photo credits: Photos of Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel and Seneca Lake Boat House courtesy of Hart Hotels Harbor Hotel Collection. All other photos by Lori Tripoli.
Disclosure: Hart Hotels Harbor Hotel Collection sponsored the author’s journey.
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