by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Everyone needs a summer break, even during COVID-19. Having seen gorgeous photos of Watkins Glen State Park, it’s been on my hiking bucket list, so we loaded up the car on a Sunday morning and headed to the Finger Lakes.
Traveling midweek instead of weekends means fewer crowds, better hotel prices and less traffic on the roads. Our first destination was Mount Morris, NY, where we checked into the Allegiance Bed & Breakfast, a 46-room Greek Revival mansion. Each of eight guest rooms is named for a local historian from the 1800s. The Allegiance B&B itself is named in honor of Francis Bellamy, a neighbor, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Owners Steve and Glenda Luick are transplants from Los Angeles who dreamed of living their retirement years running a B&B where they could enjoy four distinct seasons and lots of country comfort. When they saw the building, they knew instantly that this was their place. What they didn’t know until after they moved in was that their home would ultimately develop a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the world. The spirits are friendly and make themselves known only occasionally, but never to intentionally frighten anyone.
Steve greeted us, wearing his COVID-safe mask, making sure we were wearing ours, and showed us around before taking us up to our room on the second floor.
This is a great location for hikers who want to spend a day at Letchworth State Park. The B&B is located one mile from the park’s north entrance. There’s not a whole lot to do in the area, especially during COVID times when so much is closed. That’s okay, though. The B&B oozes laidback elegance, and after a short walk into town for a casual dinner, we found that sipping a glass of wine on the front porch was the perfect way to unwind before heading up for a comfy snooze.
Letchworth State Park received the 2015 USA Today Readers’ Choice Award for Best State Park in the United States. It runs about 17 miles from top to bottom on either side of the Genesee River. Aside from the north entrance in Mt. Morris, you can enter the park from the south (Portageville) and west (Castile – the most popular gateway). With 14,000 acres and 66 miles of hiking trails, the Upper and Middle Falls are most popular, and most crowded, so arrive early to enjoy walking while remaining socially distant.
The water level in the Genesee River, due to a hot, dry August, was relatively low. I imagine that in spring after the snowmelt, the park’s 30 waterfalls would be magnificent; autumn’s foliage would be simply breathtaking.
Letchworth State Park is called the mini Grand Canyon of the East. The Genesee River has created a deep gorge bound on either side by cliffs higher than 500 feet in spots. White water rafting through Adventure Calls Outfitters was closed, possibly due to COVID-19 or possibly the fact that the water level was pretty low. Class 1 and 2 rapids make this a perfect activity for families with children or first-time rafters.
You can find overnight accommodations inside the park at the Glen Iris Inn and its affiliated properties, with everything from motel-type cabins to balcony suites overlooking the Middle Falls. Make reservations early because the convenient location attracts tourists. Campsites can be reserved through the park.
Letchworth State Park and Watkins Glen State Park both offer free admission this summer, with a modest parking fee for a full day. Both parks prohibit swimming in the gorges, partly due to safety concerns. Hiking is on well-defined trails high above the waterline. However, both parks have big, clean, family-friendly swimming pools.
Aside from hiking, farming and incredibly bucolic scenery, the Finger Lakes are known for their vineyards, so off we went to explore the wine trail. Canadaigua Lake may have the most well-known wineries. There’s also a wine trail around Cayuga Lake. We headed for Seneca Lake, which has more wineries, almost 70, than any other lake in NY State. We started at the top in Geneva, with plenty of time to hit up three vineyards along the lake on our way down to the village of Watkins Glen at the bottom.
First Stop on the wine trail… Belhurst Castle Winery, Inn and Restaurant (They also produce craft beers) overlooking the lake in Geneva. I was wondering how COVID-safe the tasting would be, but when I walked over to the tasting bar and picked up the menu, I was quickly scolded for not checking in with the host, and reminded that they’d now need to re-sanitize those two seating areas for someone waiting their turn. Oops. OK, no worries. I was happy to see the standard of cleanliness.
Second Stop… Keuka Spring Vineyards in Penn Yan, proud to share their unoaked Seyval Chardonnay, Riesling and ice wines. The Finger Lakes are known for sweet whites, although the dry Riesling was quite nice. Jim at the bar was happy to tell us about the ice wine process. He collected our names and phone numbers for contact tracing, “just in case we need to notify you,” he said. That was reassuring. It was clear that extra space had been added to keep tasting parties (of two) distanced from each other.
Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee was next, with a restaurant and modernish accommodations overlooking the lake. We were just about 10 meandering minutes away from our destination – Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel at the bottom of Seneca Lake. If you want to stay on the water, this seems like the only choice for Watkins Glen. Because of the state park, there’s a demand for modest motels and camping. The park has 54 electric and 241 non-electric campsites. A few B&Bs seem interesting. This is the only large hotel with a dock for transient boats and indoor/outdoor waterfront dining.
Arriving at Watkins Glen State Park before 8 am the next morning gave us sample time for hiking and photos before the crowds started rolling in around 9:30. For coronavirus safety, the famous Gorge Trail, with 19 waterfalls, is one-way up and then one-way down on the Indian Trail. It’s a good idea. All together it only takes about an hour and a half so we drove the two-minute ride to the other side of the river and hiked the South Rim as well… still getting back to the hotel in time for lunch. (Normally there’s a shuttle that runs between the park’s three entrances, but it’s not operating during COVID-time.) We discovered a small casual restaurant down on the waterfront, the Village Marina, that seems to be a favorite spot for locals. They have sandwiches and salads, plus a full page of local wines by the glass.
Two miles from the hotel is Castel Grisch Winery. Their COVID-safe tasting flight is pre-poured, and you take the five samples outside where there’s plenty of space. Filling out contact tracing forms was required.
All in all, we packed a lot into a four-night getaway, but it never seemed too busy. Driving around on quiet back roads was a real flashback to less complicated times, and just the break I needed to ease the anxieties of the never-ending coronavirus era.
Other places to visit in Watkins Glen:
Schooner True Love –for sailing experiences such as Sails & Ales and Wine & Winds on the Water. Unfortunately, they are not operating this summer due to COVID-19, but you can still buy a T-shirt online to show your support.
Seneca Cheese Company – for artisan cheese, charcuterie, locally crafted wines and beers
Watkins Glen International speedway – “The Glen” is closed for racing this summer due to COVID, but hoping to open to host the October 30 Finger Lakes Beer Festival featuring over 40 New York State breweries, distilleries and cideries.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a travel advisor, travel writer and publicist. She plans small group and independent journeys as owner of Friendly Group Travel. During COVID-19, she shares safety information and updates. Visit friendlygrouptravel.com or connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel
by Marcia Simon, CTA
After five months of diligent self-protection against the coronavirus and pining for travel, it was time to get away, but where?
From the Connecticut shoreline, it’s a two and a half hour drive to Cape Cod, adding another hour for the forty-mile ride to the tip. This is Provincetown, the Mayflower’s first landing in the New World in 1620 (Yes, the Pilgrims stopped here for five weeks before sailing on to Plymouth. Or so it’s told.)
P-town, as it’s known, is a welcoming haven for artists and the LGBTQ community. Here you can be yourself and feel free… as long as you wear your face mask. Signs are posted regarding the mandate to wear a face covering on Commercial Street, the main tourist strip lined with restaurants, ice cream shops, t-shirt and souvenir stores… as well as colorful nightlife in “normal” times.
As of mid-July, for the most part, bars, night clubs and cabaret shows are closed, although the Crown and Anchor’s popular cabaret show premiered its reopening this month with scaled-down outdoor seating. Numerous art galleries and restaurants are open – with limitations. Curbside take-out is available as well as limited indoor and outdoor dining. Provincetown offers lots of safe-looking restaurant choices that provide ocean views or a clear shot of the activity along Commercial Street. Enjoy patio dining with some of the freshest fish and lobster you’ll find anywhere, or walk up to a take-out stand and grab a comfortable spot on the beach overlooking Mac Millan Public Pier, the meeting place for ferries, fishing boats, and whale-watching tours to Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary. Provincetown is one of the world’s natural deep water harbors ~ attracting boats of all sizes. Whale watching, fishing and sailboat trips were operating – limited to 50% occupancy as of mid-July 2020. The Pilgrim Monument and Museum, one of the most popular tourist stops offering a magnificent bird’s-eye view – with 116 narrow steps taking you to the top of the tallest all-granite structure in the United States – was closed during my July visit. So was the adjacent Provincetown Museum. Visitor Centers in town and at the National Park were closed as well. However, public restrooms were open and clean.
Because the bars are closed, night life fades early, with many restaurant kitchens closed by 9 pm. Phase 3-Step 1 reopening requires no more than six people at a table in restaurants, so large parties and family groups will be split up. To cut back on surface contamination, most restaurants ask you to scan a QR code either at the hostess station or at your table to download the menu to your phone. If your server sees that you’re sadly tech-deficient, you’ll be offered a paper menu, but shared surfaces in general are out. Ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper are served in single portion packets.
A Note About Lobster Rolls
New Englanders know all about lobster roll preferences. In Connecticut, for instance, a perfect lobster roll is served hot, on a buttered, toasted (or grilled) hot dog bun with a portion of melted butter on the side for dipping. However, in Provincetown, if you don’t specifically ask for a hot lobster roll, you will most likely get a cold lobster salad, very little mayonnaise, and usually with a leaf of lettuce on a hot dog bun. And if you order it hot, there’s a good chance your bun won’t be toasted. Just sayin’.
Exploring the coastline
Parking in P-town can be tight. Walking lets you meander, and offers lots of opportunities to take photos you might otherwise miss. Bicycling is popular, with ample inventory at the local bike shops in and around the town. Because the terrain is basically flat, cycling is easy, and what’s better than bicycling along a long stretch of coastline? The Cape Cod National Seashore has bike paths ideal for families with young children; these are generally protected by the shade of the forest canopy.
The National Seashore is a pristine 40-mile stretch of beautiful sand, dunes and pitch pine forests. We hiked one of the park trails in nearby Wellfleet. The 8.8 mile-loop zig zagged between shady pine-needled forest and sandy beach. While pets are welcome in the park, there are stretches along the beach where the habitat is protected for piping plovers and other endangered species of birds. These are no-pet zones (because dogs tend to scare the birds and disturb their natural environment.)
1. While some of the trails run through a shaded forest, parts take you onto the beach, which is gorgeous, but the sand can be very hot on bare feet, and the sun can feel scorching.
2. It’s easy to access Jeremy’s Point and sandbars during low tide, but the tide comes back in quickly, making for a wet walk back. If you can catch a morning low tide, it would be a great time for a summer hike. This area would be magnificent in autumn’s cooler weather.
We encountered very few people along the hiking trails and, for the most part, were able to keep our face masks in our pockets. Race Point Beach was uncrowded enough to allow for easy social distancing. Walking from the parking lot to the stretch of beach along the narrow sandy path was a bit more trafficked, so masks are recommended for that, but once you’ve staked out your spot, the mask is not necessary if you are comfortable with the safety of your travel companions.
Accessing many hiking trails in the park is free. But if you want to park to access the beach, the fee is $25 per car. We spent a half day at the National Seashore’s Race Point Beach. Umbrellas are highly recommended to protect you from the intense summer sun even when the ocean breeze is blowing. And the water is cold. Very refreshing, but cold.
To Go or Not to Go? Assessing Your Personal Risk
Whether to venture out or stay home is a personal decision, based on your risk factors, overall health and immune system, others in your household who may be high risk, and how careful you will realistically be with safety, masks, sanitizing and social distancing when you're out and about.
Overall, Provincetown seems surprisingly quiet this summer. Even the ride over the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges that cross the Cape Cod Canal from the mainland were delay-free, which is a true rarity. Crowds will likely build through the rest of the summer. Midweek is always less crowded, and lodging less expensive, than weekends.
This was a fun 3-night getaway. Just what I needed to renew my energy. I felt safe – because I was very proactive about my personal safety, social distancing, sanitizing, and wearing a mask in public places. Visitors, residents and people who work in the Provincetown community embrace masks. In fact, the souvenir shops have some pretty unique and fun mask designs. (The t-shirts are great, too.) If you are part of the anti-mask culture, do not go to P-town. Stay away. This is a community that is doing its best to stay safe; if you do not support that, you shouldn’t be there.
If you love long walks on the beach, early mornings on the water, sunsets over the horizon, lobster and an open-minded, nonjudgmental vibe, go and support the economy of a town that relies heavily on tourism.
One waiter, concerned about his own safety while being engaged with customers all evening, summed it up nicely: “Of course we want people to come here. That’s how we make our living. On the other hand, we really don’t want people to come if it increases our risk for coronavirus.”
So wear your mask. Bring sanitizer. It’s a matter of your personal safety and respect for people around you – making your getaway enjoyable and safe. For more information about Provincetown and COVID-19 travel updates, visit:
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, is a journalist, publicist and travel advisor who gets around as much as possible, and plans small group and independent journeys as owner of Friendly Group Travel. Connect at facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel, twitter @friendsgotravel and Instagram @friendgrouptravel.
by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
You’ve got to love New York. Where else do they decide to build a new neighborhood and in couple of years come up with Hudson Yards, aptly named because it’s on the Hudson River overlooking the West Side Yard where Long Island Rail Road trains are stored between shuttles back and forth between “The Island” and Penn Station.
The new neighborhood is billed as “a triumph of culture, commerce and cuisine – a place to live, work, and play.” Skyscrapers housing apartments, high-end retail shops, restaurants and a new luxury hotel are all in the works. Oh, they added a subway stop at Hudson Yards to accommodate the traffic. And if people aren’t flooding in yet to shop, visitors are surely interested in The Vessel.
Contemporary urban designer Thomas Heatherwick created the bronzed steel and concrete Vessel just so people can climb the 2,500 steps of this 16-story recreational sculpture. It’s free to explore with a ticket you can get online or at one of the kiosks at Hudson Yards, although you may have to wait an hour or two for an available time since the number of people at one time is limited. There’s an elevator that makes the Vessel accessible for everyone.
The Vessel is located at the north end of New York’s popular High Line, a public park built on a historic rail line above the city’s west side streets. It runs from 34th Street near the Javits Center to Gansevoort Street, three blocks south of 14th Street. Along the way you can have a seat on one of several benches, or stop for coffee, a smoothie, ice cream or other snacks. Kids seem to like The High Line as much as adults.
For anyone who hasn’t walked the High Line recently, new “spurs” are being added as viewing areas and urban woodlands with a mix of grasses, perennial flowers and shrubs, all of which are native flora.
Marcia Simon, APR, CTA, is a travel advisor, public relations practitioner and principal/owner of friendlygrouptravel.com. Connect through facebook.com/friendlygrouptravel or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.