Last Updated on August 24, 2023
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
By Jim Ferri
I was becoming absorbed with the minutia of things around me as I passed through so many little towns, when I realized this is one of the things to do in the Finger Lakes.
My ribbon of road slowly rose and dipped with the hills I was crossing. It was almost arrow-straight, cutting across swatches of fields and forest, past little farm buildings and neat little houses.
Signposts along the way pointed me to places called Leicester, Avon and Warsaw, all hinting at the origins of early settlers in the region.
I was in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, a wonderful new world for one so accustomed to urban life in America.
Its little towns absorbed me with the minutia I passed – a Little-League diamond tucked away on the outskirts of one town, fallow fields bursting with wildflowers in another, building fronts draped in bunting, a sign for a dentist hanging out by the street – each another little piece of the Finger Lakes jigsaw slowly forming about me.
Buffering the southern end of picturesque Keuka and Seneca Lakes in upstate New York, the area is a pretty pocket of rural America. My problem was that I had too few days scheduled there and as I drove towards the town of Corning I was determined to make the most of it.
The Top Thing to Do in the Finger Lakes – See the Incredible Corning Museum of Glass
Corning, an iconic upstate New York town surrounded by wooded hills, is filled with centuries-old redbrick buildings, many certainly lovingly restored, and a walk about it is a step back into 19th century America.
Listed as one of “Top 25 Small Cities for Art” by American Style Magazine, Corning boasts two wonderful museums and I was determined to see them both during my short stay in the city.
The first, the Corning Museum of Glass, is a fascinating place to learn about the making of glass. They host visitors with an interesting glassblowing show and every once in a while at one of the shows they’ll give a few lucky visitors some of the pieces made, which can range from a small decorative table piece to a vase or pitcher.
They also offer glass-making experiences: for an additional fee (most in the $20 – $30 range) you can join the “Make Your Own Glass” experience to make any one of a variety of glass pieces (I made a glass flower) with the help of an experienced glassworker.
You can take your pieces with you or have them shipped to your home. There is also a very large museum shop.
What Corning is famous for though, is its stunningly beautiful Museum of Glass. It contains 45,000 glass objects spanning 3,500 years, including the glass portrait of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. It has some of the most beautiful things you’ll see in any museum anywhere.
When I visited, throughout the museum there were little kiosks manned by high school or college students. They explained in hands-on exhibits the different types of glass I’d be looking at.
The Other Renown Corning Museum
The other renowned institution in Corning is the Rockwell Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian. It had previously been known as the Rockwell Museum of Western Art.
The renaming was to identify its collection as American art, not solely western art. You can reach it from the Corning Glass Museum via a shuttle bus that runs continuously throughout the day all year long.
The Rockwell is a wonderful, manageable, interesting small museum that portrays the American experience through art. During my visit I found the exhibition “The World of Man, Animals and Spirits” intriguing.
The exhibition contains nearly two dozen soapstone and bronze sculptures by artist Abraham Anghik Ruben, a gallery that had previously been in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Equally beautiful and fascinating was an exhibit of Native American contemporary pottery with interactive touch screens that let you delve deeper into the history and artistry of the pieces.
The Rockwell is in the old 1893 City Hall, which encompasses the old city offices, firehouse and police station. When you enter the museum shop look to your left and you can see the hole the ceiling where the fireman’s pole originally stood.
I stayed at the Radisson Hotel Corning, only a block from the museum.
The Fascinating Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
One of Hammondsport’s most popular attractions is the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum dedicated to the town’s favorite son. Curtiss is the “architect of American aviation,” and the museum is a fascinating place.
The museum, as you’d expect, takes you back in time. But it also opens your eyes as to the incredible problems that had to be overcome in developing the airplane prior to World War I and throughout the war. Curtiss also invented the world’s first seaplane.
Before becoming involved in aviation, Curtiss was a young cyclist. He was also a mechanic who invented the motorcycle. While the museum shows many things related to his life and inventions it also shows all sorts of things having to do with the local Hammondsport area.
As the director of the Museum told me, “we’re selling nostalgia.” As I told him, “you do it well.”
Finger Lakes Boating Museum
Later that day I visited the Finger Lakes Boating Museum. It’s a tiny museum helping to preserve the history of Finger Lakes boats and as its director, Ed Whightman, told me
The museum has a small collection of Finger Lake boats. But what I found most interesting was when Ed brought me into the workshop.
There I saw where is they teach teenagers the art of building a boat from scratch with no power tools. They also provide a hands-on class in boat restoration. If you’re interested in boats it’s worth a stop.
Hammondsport’s Black Sheep Inn
Most of the towns in the Finger Lakes are quiet little towns where everyone seems laid back. And that’s its charm. No one here is in a rush to do anything.
I experienced that charm one morning at Hammondsport’s Black Sheep Inn. It was when somehow I locked my bathroom door and was unable to get into the shower.
The lock was an old-style complicated thing and it took the good part of an hour as inn-owners Marc and Debbie were able to open it so I could get ready for the day.
It was a bit embarrassing, of course. But it was something I soon forgot when I sniffed the aromas wafting out of the kitchen. Debbie soon had me seated in the cozy dining room.
There I chatted with her and Marc about their 20-year renovation of the five-room octagonal house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Then I started my day with her “Tex-Mex Breakfast Crock Soufflé.”
I had a wonderful stay and right after breakfast set off for Watkins Glen, the town that anchors the southern end of Seneca Lake.
It was an easy journey from the inn in Hammondsport to Seneca. The rolling hillsides reminded me of drawings in a child’s storybook. And as I climbed each hill I saw one lake in my mirror, another out front. The bucolic setting of farms and forest enveloped me all the way to Watkins Glen.
The Finger Lakes Watkins Glen State Park
Many people know of Watkins Glen only for its Grand Prix held every September. In racing circles it’s known simply as “The Glen.” Watkins Glen is a state park, the best known in the Finger Lakes region.
I didn’t have much free time since I was going for a driving experience at the Watkins Glen International track. But still, I wanted to at least see part of the park.
I found it to be a beautiful place, perfect for an easy amble. Its gorge walk weaves its way between 200-foot-cliffs and takes you over and under 19 waterfalls along its length. Other trails meander all about the wooded park.
After an hour or so I returned to my car to head over to the racetrack. I had a “Drive The Glen!” ticket and was excited about driving on the famous track. But it turned out not to be what I expected.
I assumed I would be taking a ride in a racecar, as I did in Homestead, FL five years earlier. But instead I found I would be driving my own car for several laps around the track behind a pace car.
I was disappointing since I thought it was going to be a waste of my time. But once on the track I realized that despite the lack of great speed, it provided a good sense of race-car driving.
Even though I was driving at about half the speed of professional drivers, I discovered how difficult it was to navigate the track’s twists, turns and banks. It gave me a new appreciation of the skill set needed by professional drivers on the circuit.
Lunch at a Winery, a Stop at a Distillery
I spent my afternoon driving about the eastern shore of the lake. Every now and then I’d see a diamond-shaped sign with a horse and buggy on it. They were warnings about Mennonite and Amish farmers in the area who still travel the roads in their buggies.
I visited a few of the incredible number of vineyards and boutique wineries in the area. Later I stopped for lunch at the Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro for a delicious lunch. I dined looking out over the vineyards that flowed down to the lake.
The area isn’t all wineries, however. I made it a point to also stop at the Finger Lakes Distilling Company, a craft distillery. It uses locally sourced grains and other products, distilling them all in the traditional method.
Luckily, I was able to have a chat with its owner, Brian McKenzie. He explained to me all about distilling various grains to make different kinds of whiskeys and other products. I sampled a delicious Irish-style “pot whiskey,” so named since it cannot be called “Irish” because it’s distilled in America.
The National Soaring Museum in the Finger Lakes
Early the next morning I made my way to Harris Hill, home to the National Soaring Museum and the place I was to take a glider ride. I was glad I had scheduled myself to go in the morning since afternoon thunderstorms had been rolling through the area for some days.
I was dismayed to learn, however, that it was too windy to launch a glider since the wind was gusting at 20–30 mph despite the clear skies.
Nevertheless, I made good use of my time by visiting the adjacent National Soaring Museum that contains dozens of gliders – some historic, some sporty – but all beautiful in their unique designs.
The ugly duckling of the collection was a troop-carrying glider from World War II that looked more like a large shoebox with wings. Climb inside the clumsy-looking glider and you’ll experience what the D-Day troops had to endure and also see just how flimsy the craft were.
On to Mark Twain Country
Leaving the Soaring Museum I continued on to Elmira College, about a 20-minute drive away, to visit its Center for Mark Twain Studies and view the actual small woodland study in which Twain penned many of his most famous works.
The study was transported to the college from nearby Quarry Farm where Twain and his family spent most of their summers.
If you’ve ever read Twain’s works or would just like to learn more about the man who William Faulkner praised as “the first truly American writer,” it’s a stop well worth making if you’re in the area.
The Arnot Museum in Elmira
If you visit Elmira also plan to spend time at the well-regarded Arnot Art Museum. It’s a stunning small art museum, the type you only stumble upon every once in a great while.
What makes this museum so special is that it houses the collection of the affluent Arnot family in their 1833 neoclassical mansion, some of it as originally displayed.
The collection contains 17th– to 19th-century European paintings, 19th– and 20th– century American art and a small collection of Asian and Egyptian artifacts.
Its collection is so stunning it was described by one publication as “arguably the best small-town art museum in America.” You may well agree.
If You Go:
Steuben County Conference & Visitors Bureau
1 West Market Street
Corning, NY 14830
Tel: (607) 936-6544