AAA Features Elmira as a Unique Town Worth Visiting

Posted May 24, 2011

"Visiting Small Town New York"
By Lyn Dobrin

Until I was 14, I spent every summer at my grandparent’s bungalow colony in the Catskills. Coming from the relative tameness of the suburbs, I loved running free all summer with the other kids and exploring the nearby woods. Now, many years later, as the weather warms and the leaves once again fill the trees, I am drawn to the beauty found in many small towns of upstate New York. Here are four towns that offered me a truly unique experience.

With the Catskill Mountains to the west and the Hudson River to the east, Saugerties is a magnet for sports enthusiasts. Hikers, canoeists and kayakers love the region. A major riverside attraction is the 1869 Saugerties lighthouse, one of eight remaining along the Hudson. The lighthouse, which is now a popular B&B, can be reached by a short walk through a nature preserve (make sure it won’t be high tide when you want to return) or by boat.

This vibrant little town is unpretentious and welcoming. I loved the Inquiring Mind bookstore with a grand piano in the center of the store. It is a gathering place for book clubs, music groups, a chess club, and for people who just want to hang out and play a board game (supplied by the store) or talk. Many artists have moved over from Woodstock and bikers feel at home in Saugerties as well. The town’s business district, with buildings dating back to 1780, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The highlight of my visit was Opus 40, located on the edge of town. Sculpture Harvey Fite created an extraordinary work of art at an abandoned bluestone quarry. This is six acres of ramps, terraces, winding paths and an uncarved obelisk, softened with birch and pine trees. Fite had intended this as a setting for his sculpture but the quarry itself became his masterwork. It is a place to visit in all seasons.

Samuel Clemens, the beloved American author Mark Twain, wrote Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and many other books summering in Elmira, in south central New York, the hometown of his wife Olivia Langdon. The Langdon family cherished their in-law author and, in 1874, Olivia’s sister made a special gift to her brother-in-law – a free-standing study that was set on a hillside a short distance away from the family residence, Quarry Farm.

The octagonal gazebo, designed to imitate the pilothouse on a riverboat, now rests on the Elmira College campus and the Trolley into Twain Country Tour (Tuesday through Saturday during July and August) stops there for a brief visit.

There’s something about the Chemung Valley, which Clemens' study originally overlooked, that makes people want to take to the air. Elmira has been dubbed the Soaring Capital of America and is home to the National Soaring Museum, Harris Hill Glider Runway, Wings of Eagles Discovery Center and FirstAir Scenic Helicopter Tours. For those more earthbound, there are numerous hiking opportunities through woods, hills and fields.

Civil War buffs will appreciate the Chemung Valley History Museum. Elmira was a military rendezvous point for western New York. Men received their basic training there. In 1864, one camp was converted into a Confederate Prison Camp. I was brought to tears by the amazing story of John Jones, the runaway slave who had settled in Elmira. As sexton to the cemetery, it was his responsibility to bury the southern dead, a task which he conducted with reverence and respect.

Since returning from Auburn, I’ve been asking friends if they thought that the Lincoln assassination was the act of one person or a group effort. Like me, most didn’t know that John Wilkes Booth was one of three disaffected ex-confederate soldiers who planned to bring down the government. Secretary of State William H. Seward was one of their targets. I learned this story touring Seward’s home in Auburn, a place truly worth visiting. The Seward house is set up with original furnishings. It was also fascinating to learn that Seward was a friend of Auburn resident Harriet Tubman (her home is nearby) and that his home was part of the Underground Railroad, even while he was Secretary of State.

We visited the Case Research Laboratory, where talking pictures were invented, and the Willard Memorial Chapel, a rare example of the work of Louis C. Tiffany and Tiffany Glass.

Where once there was a 5 and 10 store, the vibrant Auburn Public Theater now offers music, theater, dance and film programs. The Merry-Go-Round Theatre, located in Emerson Park, produces a season of six large-scale musicals.

The 8000-acre Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, at the north end of Cayuga Lake, is a major resting place for waterfowl as they travel to and from nesting areas in Canada. In spring and autumn Montezuma’s National Bird Sanctuary thunders with the calls of a million migratory birds—a kind of avian Serengeti.

Skaneateles – peculiar name…elegant town. Skaneateles (from the Iroquois for “Long Lake”) is one of the few villages in the Finger Lakes located right on a lake, which gives the town a special allure. This is a dream vacation spot – terrific restaurants, interesting shops, scenic beauty and lots of sports activities. And romance. Seems like the village has become a favorite spot for wedding proposals: at the gazebo by the water, at the end of the long pier or on a horse and carriage ride during their Dickens Christmas.

Within the downtown area three public parks hug pristine Lake Skaneateles with water so pure that it supplies the nearby city of Syracuse, unfiltered. Yes, people drink the water directly from the lake.

Water sports abound, although, because environmental controls are strong, public boat launches are sparse. Sailing is popular as is kayaking and canoeing. The latest water sport is paddleboard where you can stand on a board and paddle around the lake. The 32-mile circuit around the lake is popular for biking.

The village has old-world charm – many of the homes dating back to the late 1800s have been renovated and refurbished. The town itself was founded by veterans of the Revolutionary War. Recently new shops – Gallery 54, Imagine THAT and Skaneateles Artisans -- have opened in town showcasing the work of local artists.

Skaneateles is also located in largest wine region in the state and nearby wineries, such as Anyela’s Vineyards, are open for visits and tastings.

To view the original article, visit

Featured Events

View All Events

Site Sponsors

Become a Site Sponsor

Current Publication

Chemung County Chamber of Commerce

Mark Twain Country