Following the new Empire State Road Trip through upstate New York, you can drive the NASCAR track at Watkins Glen, sail to a castle on a private island in the middle of the St. Laurence River, tell a joke at the National Comedy Center’s “stand-up karaoke.”
You can blow your own glass souvenirs in Corning and climb the incredible cliffs of Watkins Glen State Park. You can sail the Thousand Islands on the antique yacht of the McNally family, of Rand McNally fame. And of course, you can drink lots of wine.
In short, you can have a blast on the Empire State Road Trip, a tour highlighting the newest hotel in a new chain of Four Diamond properties in northern New York (and already looking to into New England).
The star of the show is Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, just finishing up its first summer season. Like its sister properties in this chain owned by the Hart family, it is designed to be a AAA Four Diamond property on the water in a historic site, bringing a new level of service and food and beverage to a destination that already is drawing crowds.
And indeed, driving around the mountains and waters around the Great Lakes, and then returning to home base for some fine dining, local wines and friendly service, is somewhat akin to being on a cruise—but with your car parked outside.
That’s largely the vision of David Hart, whose family, longtime owners of Hilton and Holiday Inn franchises, took the leap and began building their own properties under the Harbor Hotels brand in 2002.
Now there are four, one in Portland, Maine, and three on waterfronts in Northern New York, in Watkins Glen, 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in the Thousand Islands, and the newest, in Chautauqua. “Were building in places people already know but that don’t have the facilities and the food and beverage to meet the needs of the travelers,” Hart said.
The trip was all about being where the old meets the new. Our itinerary began in Chautauqua and its next-door neighbor Jamestown, where the brand new National Comedy Center (named one of the “World’s 100 Greatest Places” by Time magazine last month) bumps up against the house where Lucille Ball grew up. The historic and artsy mansions of the 19th-century Chatauqua Institution this summer hosted intellectuals and artists from around the world, including Diana Ross, who sang in concert.
Set on Chatauqua Lake, home to the St. Laurent Amusement Park in the 1850s, the new hotel brings 135 rooms and 15 suites, 12,000 square feet of meeting space, a ballroom that seats 350 for weddings, a winter Fire and Ice Festival that sold out 1,000 tickets in 45 minutes.
Next we drove through Corning, where we watched as glass was blown by the experts and then made a souvenir of our own at the amazing Corning Glass Museum. But the highlight of the trip clearly was Watkins Glen, home to the second-most-visited state park and the only NASCAR race track in New York. Here for just $30 you can drive your car around the 3.4-mile Grand Prix circuit, then have lunch in the Jack Daniels Club and watch some real drivers taking some practice laps. In the evening, there are 150 distilleries, vineyards and breweries on Seneca Lake to choose from.
Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, located on the longest and deepest of the Finger Lakes brings in 50-60 weddings a year, plus corporate groups interested in sailing as a team-building exercise.
The Thousand Islands, with their huge summer homes on private islands that have been drawing the rich and famous since the 1800s, were a fitting finale. The Roosevelts summered here; bootleggers ran through in the 20s; the Antique and Classic Boat Society, based here, draws sailors and historians. In the winter, 30,000 pounds of ice turn into a giant Ice Bar complete with martini luge, and the town hosts the largest Christmas parade in New York.
The 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel here has 4,800 square feet of meeting space and 2,100 of prefunction space, spread across 8.4 acres. Executive chef Len Mitchell specializes in multi-ethnic fusion and gluten-free menus; for us he prepared harissa chicken, blue corn polenta, lobster tostadas with brie. And, of course, Thousand Islands dressing, created in Clayton at the 1000 Islands.
Here the highlight was our sail up the St. Laurence on the antique La Duchesse; while individual tourists do not usually have the luxury of renting her, “we can make that happen.”
A 10-year plan
So what’s next for Harbor Hotels? “We don’t have a next yet but we’re on the lookout,” Hart said.
The three New York properties are within a five- or six-hour drive of huge Eastern markets—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Albany, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Canada, Buffalo, Syracuse, Erie, Rochester—his 10-year vision is to have 10 hotels, perhaps reaching further south, into New England.
Also in the works are rewards programs for meeting planners and for guests, said Watkins Glen Harbor House sales manager Lisa De Santis, “hopefully by the end of the year,” along with fam trips for travel agents and meeting and event planners.