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8 Hidden Attractions in New York State

A New York vacation has so much more to offer than the hustle and bustle of the big city. From Lake Ontario to Long Island, New York holds a bounty of surprising, hidden attractions that offer both affordable and unique travel opportunities you won’t find anywhere else.

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1. Naples Valley

If you wander around the village of Naples in the Finger Lakes region of western New York, you’ll notice a particular fondness for grapes and the color purple. Here, the fire hydrants are painted purple, and so are the police cars – and they even have grapes painted on the doors.

This is a place where 70,000 grape pies are sold every year, where a Grape Festival is held each September, and where two wineries open their doors to the public for tastings and tours.

The village itself is a picturesque throwback to the 1950s, with a single Main Street and offshoots fanning up into the glacier-created Bristol Hills. Surrounded by the Hi-Tor Wildlife Management Area, with its turkey, deer, and the occasional bear, the spot where Naples is set is so beautiful, even longtime residents take the two-hour paddleboat tour around the lake to enjoy the fall foliage.

Wizard of Clay Pottery, north on Rte. 20A, spirits away fallen leaves from the hills and incorporates them into its Bristol-leaf pottery glazes. Fifteen studios offer an array of creations, from wildlife sculptures to glass works to pottery.

Hiking trails in Ontario County Park at Gannett Hill connect to the extensive Finger Lakes Trail System, and Grimes Glen’s 60-foot waterfall in the village is a restorative sight.

(Photo courtesy of visit-fingerlakes/Flickr Creative Commons)

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2. Ausable Chasm

This spectacular sandstone gorge has been an Adirondacks tourist attraction for 138 years. A geological wonder sculpted by the powerful current of the Ausable River over thousands of years, Ausable Chasm features breathtaking views of 150-foot cathedral-shaped cliffs, waterfalls, and strange rock formations, such as the Elephant’s Head, Hyde’s Cave, and the Broken Needle.

Visitors can explore the chasm along three miles of self-guiding walking trails and also by floating down the Ausable River in a raft or inner tube. On Friday and Saturday evenings visitors can explore the chasm after dark by lantern light. Be sure to carry drinking water with you. These two-hour guided tours start at dusk and include a campfire marshmallow roast.

(Photo courtesy of jimflix!/Flickr Creative Commons)

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3. Boldt Castle

Situated on a five-acre island in the Thousand Island region, Boldt Castle is the most extravagant of the Gilded Age estates and the setting of a heartbreaking love story. Designed in the style of a Rhineland castle, this 127-room turn-of-the-century stone mansion was built by hotel magnate George Boldt. Boldt conceived the castle as a testimonial to his beloved wife, Louise. Tragically, Louise died when the castle was only 80 percent complete. Devastated, Boldt halted all construction and never returned to the island again. For 75 years the castle fell into ruin. Today, however, Boldt Castle is finally being restored according to Boldt’s original vision. Visitors can take a self-guiding tour of the castle buildings and grounds and learn about the Boldt family’s lifestyle, the restoration of Heart Island, and the history of the Thousand Island region.

(Photo courtesy of Guddemischi/Flickr Creative Commons)

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4. Sackets Harbor

This small lakeside village with its calm, relaxed air was not always so. During the War of 1812, the settlement, situated beside a bluff commanding access to the St. Lawrence River and blessed with a fine harbour, became an important naval base for the United States, which hoped to take Canada and expel the British. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and shipbuilders arrived here by the thousands; timber was cut, barracks flung up, a shipyard established, and a fleet built. Twice the British attacked, each time unsuccessfully, but the second assault, in May 1813, delayed the American effort to control the lake.

With the approach of winter in 1814, nearly 3,000 workers were engaged in constructing two vessels that would each carry 1,000 men. News of peace arrived before the ships were completed, and the young nation’s largest shipbuilding venture was halted. Sackets Harbor, however, remained an active naval yard until the late 1800s.

The battlefield, a state historic site, is now a waterfront park offering views of Lake Ontario and a few reminders of the past. Nearby are officers quarters built in 1847 and the 1817 Union Hotel, now called the Seaway Trail Discovery Center, which houses exhibits about the War of 1812. Start your exploration of this picturesque harbor community and the War of 1812 at the Sacket Mansion, home to the village’s visitors center and the headquarters of the New York State Heritage Area.

(Photo courtesy of A.V. Photography/Flickr Creative Commons)

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5. Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge

One of the best-kept secrets of Western New York, this wildlife refuge is a nature lover’s delight. Part of what the locals call the “Alabama Swamps,” these 10,828 acres of wetlands, grasslands, and shrublands, are teeming with wildlife in all seasons.

More than 268 species of birds, including waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, and birds of prey, plus mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians can be found here. The refuge’s wetlands host more than 100,000 Canada geese and 20,000 ducks and swans annually, many en route to and from nesting grounds in Canada.

Three trails, four overlooks, and a section of the historic Feeder Road that passes through the refuge offer unique opportunities for wildlife observation, nature photography, and renewing your spiritual connection to the world of nature. Free nature programs are scheduled in spring and fall.

(Photo courtesy of Victor Hsu/Flickr Creative Commons)

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6. New York Wine & Culinary Center

Located in the heart of the picture-perfect Finger Lakes region, the New York Wine & Culinary Center is a stimulating showcase for the wines, agricultural products, and culinary traditions of New York State. Opened in 2006, the center quickly became known for its innovative exhibitions, hands-on cooking classes, wine education classes, and inspiring culinary experiences.

An exhibit hall, paneled with recycled 100-year-old redwood wine barrels, highlights New York’s unique agricultural heritage with engaging, interactive displays. A wine-tasting bar allows visitors to sample award-winning wines from all regions of the state. Upstairs the stellar Taste of NY restaurant serves seasonal dishes paired with fine New York wines and microbrewed beers.

The center also offers informative, entertaining culinary classes for people of all skill levels. A recent schedule included classes such as Personal Winemaking 101, New England Clam Bake, and a Knife Skills Workshop. 

(Photo courtesy of visit-fingerlakes/Flickr Creative Commons)

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7. Museum of the City of New York

The permanent and rotating exhibits in this unique museum, housed in a five-story neo-Georgian building across the street from Central Park, explore the past, present, and future of New York City. Exhibitions include Perform, spotlighting the history of New York theater and Broadway; New York Interiors, re-creating furnished rooms in the Dutch and English traditions; and Trade, depicting how the ports of the city led to its dominance in trade and commerce.

The extensive vintage toy collection, long beloved by New Yorkers, includes mechanical toy banks, board games, cast-iron vehicles, and more. The stars are the dollhouses, which present a picture of 19th-century New York home life in miniature.

(Photo courtesy of fusionpanda/Flickr Creative Commons)

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8. Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge Center

Perhaps the most singular feature of this watery wilderness is its contrast to the surrounding cityscape. In spring and fall thousands of birds swoop down to these wetlands for shelter and food, unfazed by the millions of people rumbling by in cars and the jets roaring overhead. In proximity humans and birds follow their own rhythms.

For city people the 9,155-acre refuge (which has five miles of paths) offers easy access to the natural world. Most visitors come during the migratory seasons, when many warblers, hawks, and waterfowl can be seen. Roughly 150 other feathered species are seen here.

But the summer and winter are also rewarding times to visit the refuge, not only for birding but for enjoying the scenery, the relative peace, and the pleasant illusion of being nowhere – but still within the sight of Manhattan’s skyline.

The refuge is particularly lovely in wintertime, when crystals of ice form on the trees and grasses and the sense of solitude is heightened.

(Photo courtesy of peterjr1961/Flickr Creative Commons)