Elizabeth Hey

Must-see destinations in Western New York


Elizabeth Hey
Published February 10, 2014

In its westernmost region, New York blends natural splendor, prime grape-growing land and a human thirst for knowledge and enrichment to create a destination that will please explorers of all types.


An  American Classic: Chautauqua Institution


Is Chautauqua Institution, located in southwestern New York between Buffalo and Cleveland, the American utopia, as one book suggests? If not, some think it comes close.

Imagine an enclave dedicated to the arts, education, recreation and religion — where the intellect and the arts are freely and passionately pursued.

Chautauqua attracts 100,000 visitors each summer and hosts more than 2,200 events and 600 special study classes. It has the density of Manhattan and the charm of a historic New England town. The main “campus” or village of Chautauqua, a half-mile wide and a mile long, borders Chautauqua Lake.

Today, the entire institution, which dates to 1874, is on the National Register of Historic Places. An Ohio inventor and a Methodist clergyman rented the property as an educational experiment and training ground for Sunday school teachers.

Early on, visitors constructed elaborate tents on wood or brick platforms. Eventually, permanent cottages were built. Since then, Chautauqua has evolved into a cultural mecca. Devotees make the pilgrimage summer after summer, renting cottages or returning to longstanding family residences.

“Chautauqua is a very special and unique place that embodies the renaissance ideal of engaging all the different parts of an individual,” said Stephanie Burdo, spokesperson for the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau. “It’s a music festival, an arts enclave, a place for social gathering and life-long learning, all within the tradition of community.”

Gardens bloom with blue and white hydrangeas, hostas, red salvia, and pink and white begonias. Bikes lay haphazardly in yards and rest against gingerbread-trimmed, Victorian cottages. Strangers freely chat, brought together by their love of learning and Chautauqua’s charms. Cars serve only to load and unload luggage along tree-shaded lanes. Otherwise, visitors walk, bike or hop a free shuttle.

Chautauqua’s summer consists of nine weeks. Each week focuses on a different lecture theme, from sports to science, politics to food. The 2014 themes include “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” “The American West,” “A Week With Ken Burns” and “Brazil: Rising Superpower.” Main lectures and performances take place in the 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater, the oldest of its kind nationwide.

Adults attend lectures and author talks and take classes on such diverse topics as furniture refinishing, ceramics, investments and Italian. Kids bike to day camp, and teens choose numerous planned activities. At Chautauqua’s epicenter, Bestor Plaza, young boys shout, “Get your paper here!” The institution’s self-published newspaper, The Daily, sells for 75 cents on weekdays. It details the week’s happenings: the Chautauqua symphony, ballet, theater and opera company. Four beaches, a sailing center, a golf course, a health and fitness center, a state-of-the-art tennis facility and a farmers market round out activities.

The expansive veranda of the Athenaeum Hotel makes a wonderful gathering spot. Located near the amphitheater, Chautauqua’s grand dame was built in 1881. The hotel was one of the world’s first commercial buildings with electrical lighting. In the dining room overlooking Chautauqua Lake, groups can enjoy a three-course lunch or dinner.

Author and historian David McCullough, who has guest lectured at Chautauqua, described it well: “There’s no place like it. No resort. No spa. Not anywhere else in the country, or anywhere in the world — it is at once a summer encampment and a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat and the village square — and there’s no place, no place, with anything like its history.”


Grape Discovery Center

In nearby Westfield, the newly opened Grape Discovery Center tells the story of 150 years of grape growing. The center’s wine-tasting bar connects to an outdoor patio. Groups can taste pure Concord grape juice, selections from 24 wineries in Lake Erie Wine Country, grape products and wine slushes.

“Chautauqua County boasts the largest number of farms in New York State, and most of those are small family farms and grape farms,” said Burdo. “The area boasts the oldest and largest Concord grape-growing region in the world.”



Niagara Falls

I stood a mere 20 feet from the torrent of the 130-foot Bridal Veil Falls at Niagara Falls State Park and attempted to wrap my mind around that North American wonder. After all, like most Americans, I’d seen the falls many times in photos and movies. But in person, the falls are a jaw-dropping experience.

Decked out in a canary-yellow raincoat, I navigated the stepped wooden walkway that hugged the falls. My face was glazed with mist. Voices were drowned out by the water’s roar. I stopped to gawk at the tumbling waters from different perspectives. Near me, visitors from around the globe posed and snapped pictures.

Within the 400-acre Niagara Falls State Park, there’s much to see and do. Established in 1885 as the Niagara Reservation, the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who also designed Central Park in New York City. The park offers more than 15 miles of hiking trails. One easy and noteworthy trail bridges the Niagara River to Three Sisters Islands, located above Horseshoe Falls. Terrapin Point, at the very brink of Horseshoe Falls, is also spectacular.

That afternoon, I descended the 230-foot observation tower by high-speed elevator and boarded the Maid of the Mist. The boat ferried us to the base of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Although the Canadian side is sometimes touted as the better view, it doesn’t have the preserved parklands and variety of close-up overlooks of the American side.

Exhibits at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center explain the geologic activity of the gorge. At the Niagara Falls Visitor Center, the Imax-like movie “Niagara: Legends of Adventure” recounts the Niagara story. Groups can also view photos of the 1969 earthen dam that was built across the head of the American Rapids. The dam dewatered the American Falls, and for six months, geologists and engineers studied the rock face and the effects of erosion.



9/11 Memorial

There’s always something new to experience in New York City. This spring, the 9/11 Memorial Museum opens in the new One World Trade Center tower.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum recounts the events of September 11, 2001, through artifacts, photographs and first-person accounts. Visitors enter the museum through a pavilion located between two reflecting pools. The steel and glass pavilion houses two massive steel tridents, part of the Twin Towers’ facade.

The opening historical display presents the timeline as it unfolded on September 11, 2001. A separate “In Memoriam” exhibit commemorates the lives of those who perished. Visitors enter a gallery where portraits of the nearly 3,000 victims line all four walls. Personal artifacts and touch-screen tables allow visitors to discover additional information about each person.

In Foundation Hall, the 36-foot-high “Last Column” is covered with mementos, memorial inscriptions and missing posters affixed by ironworkers, rescue personnel and others. The column was ceremonially removed from the site on May 30, 2002, marking the official end of the nine-month ground zero recovery effort.

Upon completion in early 2015, the One World Observatory’s three-story observation deck will be atop the Western Hemisphere’s tallest building.