New York State: 7 Easy Road Trips Just over the Border
What’s right across the border from Ontario and Quebec, but a world apart from the everyday? New York State rewards vacationers with everything from classic American Main Streets to countless lakes, rugged mountains and peaceful wine trails.
If you’re only accustomed to New York day trips for the killer shopping (still a big draw, in our book), we’re here to tell you why you might want to go further, discovering not only the regions along the 716-kilometre border between Canada and New York State, but places beyond that are custom-made for your next road trip or family vacation.
Now that fully vaccinated travellers no longer need COVID-19 tests to hop either way across the land border, it’s easier than it’s been in years to head to New York for an overnight visit, a multi-region road trip or even a few weeks of holiday.
1. Greater Niagara — for foodies and tipplers
If you’re from southern Ontario, you may have crossed into New York State from one of Greater Niagara’s three international bridges for a grocery or gas run, or perhaps a day of shopping at Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls (now newly expanded with over 200 stores). But there’s more than enough to see in Greater Niagara to justify a visit of at least 48 hours (the magic number that entitles you to bring back $800 in goods plus alcohol, including fresh beer from one of the 40+ craft breweries in the Buffalo area).
In historic Lewiston – directly across the river from Niagara-on-the-Lake – you can catch outdoor concerts at Artpark, try the famous fish fry at Apple Granny or eat smoked chicken wings at The Brickyard Pub & BBQ (where the 30 beers on tap attract many an ale obsessive).
Buffalo’s Grammy Award-winning Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Albright-Knox Art Gallery (currently showcasing its modern and contemporary art collection in a temporary space while a new home takes shape) offer quick hits of culture, while history buffs can explore the battlegrounds of the War of 1812 and significant sites from the Underground Railroad.
2. Finger Lakes — for nature enthusiasts and shopaholics
Longtime residents of Toronto may remember the brief era (2004-2006) when you could take a fast ferry from Toronto’s harbour across the lake to Rochester, New York, the unofficial headquarters (along with Syracuse) of the 23,000-square-kilometre Finger Lakes region. Ferry or no, there’s no shortage of boating opportunities given the 11 glacial lakes that give the region its name. Close to border crossings in Niagara, the Finger Lakes is perfectly set up for family vacations. Not only are there ample campsites, resorts and even castles to stay at near all the lakes and state parks, there’s also Rochester’s Strong National Museum of Play, packed with the world’s largest collection of toys and interactive exhibits for the Sesame Street set.
All ages can also appreciate the shopping and entertainment at Destiny USA (New York State’s biggest mall) and the spectacle of Division I sports at Syracuse University. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge is a must for birding and nature photography, and if you can spring a visit in May, the Rochester Lilac Festival is one of the biggest open-air festivals of its kind in the U.S.
Travelzoo Tip: Find deals and discounts for this area to inspire your next trip.
3. Chatauqua-Allegheny — for comedy and culture
Road-trippers driving to the American south may already be familiar with Chatauqua-Allegheny, perhaps stopping in scenic Ellicottville to sample some sponge candy at Watson’s Chocolates or eat lunch at Ellicottville Brewing Company. But once you’re in this enchanting region (reached through neighbouring Greater Niagara), there’s no need to go further for a fulfilling holiday. Instead, consider settling into one of the cabins or campsites in Allegany or Lake Erie state parks, and spend blissful days hiking, fishing, rafting or relaxing on sandy beaches.
Culture is a big draw here, too. The not-for-profit Chautauqua Institution offers summer programs and year-round events that attract visitors interested in the arts, ideas and self-discovery (as well as relaxation and watersports). Less than a half-hour’s drive away, you’ll find historic Jamestown nestled between Lake Erie and the Allegheny National Forest. The city used to be famous for furniture-making, but now it’s known for laughs: Jamestown hosts the National Comedy Center and the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, which is especially appropriate as it’s the iconic comedienne’s hometown. Food tourism is also a delicious option; there’s an Amish Trail to explore in the Enchanted Mountains, a town — Cuba! — devoted to cheese production, a Grape Discovery Center (it’s the largest grape-growing region in the U.S. east of the Rockies) and a Sprague’s Maple Farms and restaurant, with treats like maple milkshakes and homestyle favourites like the roast turkey dinner.
4. Thousand Islands-Seaway — for water lovers
The beautiful Thousand Islands-Seaway region — which calls to all nature lovers, especially in spring and summer — stretches from Oswego to Massena and inland to the edge of the Adirondacks. It’s just a short drive from Ottawa/Kingston and easily accessible from the Thousand Islands bridge near Gananoque, the Three Nations Bridge near Cornwall and the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge near Prescott. A St. Lawrence River cruise with Uncle Sam Boat Tours showcases why the Thousand Islands became a holiday playground for some of New York State’s richest residents. You’ll pass (or even have the opportunity to tour) Boldt Castle, Singer Castle and the mansions of Millionaire’s Row.
Other must-see attractions include Fort Ontario in Oswego, a star-shaped fortification with a colourful history. First established by the British in 1755, it’s been destroyed twice and became the only Holocaust refugee centre in the U.S. from 1944-1946.
5. Adirondacks — for Olympic beauty
If you keep driving west from the Thousand Islands-Seaway region, you’ll soon arrive in one of the most geographically dramatic regions of New York State: the Adirondacks. Its namesake circular mountain chain is home to over 200 lakes and innumerable scenic destinations – including historic Fort Ticonderoga, birders’ paradise Lake Champlain and the archetypal mountain town Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Lake Placid — where you can ski, hike, bike or even try the Olympic bobsled track — is a great base to explore the region, starting with the gondola ride to the top of Little Whiteface mountain, where you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the mountain chain’s 46 High Peaks. (Climb them all to join the elite Adirondack 46ers.) Travelling with kids? Base yourself near the postcard-perfect Lake George, where the roughing-it set can camp on a secluded island, and those who prefer chalets and cabins can settle into the all-inclusive Canoe Island Lodge resort. Either way, you’ll have your choice of nature activities (think pontoon rides and white-water rafting) and amusement parks, from Six Flags Great Escape to the Jurassic Park-inspired dinosaur trail at Lake George Expedition Park and the treetop ropes and zip lines at Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course.
6. Central New York — for Americana and antiques
East of the Finger Lakes and south of the Adirondacks, Central New York bills itself as the “ultimate rural American experience” – think quaint Main Streets dotting a landscape of fields, canyons, rivers and waterfalls. And of course, there’s Cooperstown, site of the quintessentially American National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. (The Toronto Blue Jays are represented within the Starting Nine, a set of nine must-see collectibles for each MLB team. And if you’re still lamenting the loss of the Montreal Expos, you can book a custom tour experience built around them, too.)
Binghamton is famously kid-friendly, with a terrific zoo and a “carousel circuit” of lovingly restored 1920s rides, as well as a renowned craft brew trail for the older set. If you like antiquing and treasure-hunting, schedule your visit around the Madison-Bouckville Antique Week — a spectacle with over 2,000 dealers that takes over the Route 20 Scenic Byway in early June and mid-August.
7. Capital-Saratoga — for the capital and HBO-worthy backdrops
Continuing east from Central New York or south from Adirondacks, you’ll arrive in New York State’s Capital-Saratoga region. The town became the summer playground of Gilded Age families like the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Morgans in the late 1800s; they were drawn by the mineral springs and thoroughbred racing, which still attract visitors today. Founded in 1864, the Saratoga Springs racetrack is a hive of horse activity from July through Labour Day; but outside of summer, there’s still plenty to experience. Take in a concert at the beautiful Saratoga Performing Arts Centre within Saratoga Spa State Park or try “taking the waters” at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa in the Gideon Putnam Resort.
A 40-minute drive south, you can walk the same streets and see the same buildings highlighted in HBO’s popular series “The Gilded Age.” The town of Troy stood in for 1880s Manhattan in many scenes, and season two of the show will be filming there this summer.
Continuing south, you’ll reach Albany. New York State’s capital may be best experienced from the mighty Hudson River; Dutch Apple Cruises have a historian on board to fill you in on the region’s history. Don’t neglect a visit to the Capitol Building, an ornate stone landmark designed in the late 1800s by architects including Thomas Fuller, who also designed Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings.