Gregor Swiderek explores the other New York – New York State – and discovers a land of mountains, forests and lakes.
Hear the words ‘New York’ and what springs to mind? Gleaming skyscrapers? Yellow cabs? A buoyant nightlife? Probably. But let’s look at another New York – New York State. Sure, it’s home to all the Big Apple’s iconic attractions, but there’s also the ‘upstate’ region where forests, mountains, lakes, small towns and industrial heritage are the norm.
And that’s where I entered the state. Not via one of the bustling airports or traffic-choked highways of NYC, but by crossing a small bridge from Vermont across Lake Champlain. You could say it was the proverbial middle of nowhere; farms on the Vermont side of the water and forested mountains on the New York side. It was getting dark, fog had started wrapping the hills and the entire landscape was as rural as you can get.
My first stop was the town of Ticonderoga. Surprisingly, the chain hotels were all full but they directed me towards some older independent motels. The one I finally stayed at looked like it was straight from the 50s judging by its look and décor, but its owner was super-friendly. The Wi-Fi didn’t work but he was so apologetic that I just couldn’t go anywhere else. And I got a discount.
The next day the sun was shining and I hit the streets of Ticonderoga early; or rather one short main street, just a few blocks and two sets of traffic lights. But that was enough to have a good local luncheonette where I treated myself to a truly awesome breakfast, after which I was ready to visit the main reason I was in this neck of the woods: Fort Ticonderoga.
Built by the French between 1754 and 1757, it was of strategic importance during the 18th century colonial conflicts between Britain and France. It again played a role during the American Revolutionary War as it controlled an important route between the Hudson River Valley and the Saint Lawrence River Valley.
Picturesquely located on a peninsula at a narrows near the southern end of Lake Champlain, the fort is nowadays lovingly restored (or rather reconstructed – not much is left of the original fort after it quickly fell into ruin after the Revolutionary War). Luckily it was acquired by the Pell family who started its reconstruction in 1909, making it one of the oldest preservation projects in North America. Nowadays you can wander around the fort by yourself or join one of the tours led by the period-dressed guides. I would recommend the second option as these guys are really knowledgeable but also have a good sense of humour – they also offer musket firing and other presentations.
The best way to appreciate the layout of the fort is to look at it from the nearby Mount Defiance – just a 10 to 15-minute drive away, but get a leaflet with precise directions from the museum store as it can be a tricky route. Don’t be put off when the road gets rough – it is steep, narrow and full of potholes but the view from the top is amazing. You can clearly see the fort as well as big swaths of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains in Vermont and the Adirondacks in New York.
From Ticonderoga I headed south to Albany, the capital of the Empire State. That’s correct; it’s not the Big Apple. There are different explanations why this is the case (and I’m not sure which one is correct), but it doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact that Albany is a rather unique place. For a start, the state capitol has a bit of an unusual shape as it lacks a dome. Apparently there were plans for one, and even a tower, but during 32 years of construction it was discovered that the weight of the building was causing it to shift downhill, resulting in some fractures. So, no dome then. In effect the building looks like an oversized château from the Loire Valley, kind of out of place in upstate New York.
If the capitol is a bit incongruous then its surroundings are absolutely bizarre. The Empire State Plaza is a complex of state government buildings located immediately south and south-west of the capitol. Built between 1959 and 1976, it was the brainchild of Governor Nelson Rockefeller – and it’s huge, consisting of various marble and steel buildings set around a row of three reflective pools. On the west side there is a row of four identical, so-called Agency towers, each 23 storeys tall. On the east side there is the 44-floor Erastus Corning Tower and The Egg performing arts venue, named for its shape (you’ll know why once you see it). On the south end (opposite to the capitol) there is the Cultural Education Center, which looks so weird that it’s hard to describe in a few words. It is also big, with 1.5 million sq ft of floor space.
To be honest the whole complex looks and feels massively oversized for a city the size of Albany. But it’s also absolutely fascinating and photogenic, especially on a sunny day. The best way to fully appreciate it, and to get an understanding of its layout, is to visit the viewing deck on the 42nd floor of the Corning Tower (which happens to be the tallest building in New York State outside NYC). From there you will be able to see all the government buildings located around the reflecting pool as well as the rest of the city (which feels dwarfed by the complex). Then there is the Hudson River and endless mountains and forest surrounding the city, stretching far into the horizon.
Albany is an easy place to visit. You can leave your car in one of the vast parking lots underneath the Empire Plaza, which are connected to the underground walkways connecting all the buildings. For anyone interested in grandiose architecture, Albany is a must-visit destination – together with cities like Brasilia or Canberra, it is one of the largest purpose-built government complexes in the world. Some compare it to buildings constructed by Fascist governments and criticise its size and cost (approximately $2 billion, and 9,000 people were displaced during its construction). There is no denying, however, that it is a unique and well-worth-visiting place.
From Albany I headed west towards the Finger Lakes region in the centre of New York state. On my way I stopped for a night in Binghamton where, by coincidence, I also stayed five years ago on my previous trip to this part of the world. It is one of those nondescript towns where I usually end up staying in cheap chain motels and eat in one of the countless fast food joints on the strip malls that stretch for miles and miles. They are not highlights of any trip, but I have seen similar towns across America and I’ve grown to like them. I can’t explain why but I find them strangely fascinating with their grittiness and anonymity. They all look the same; it doesn’t matter if they are in Michigan, Colorado or Kentucky. This is where everyone minds their own business and you can easily blend in. By and large no-one sees you as a tourist; they don’t visit places like Binghamton, but I would say that this is the real face of America rather than beaches of Santa Monica, the theme parks of Orlando or the boutiques of NYC.
After Binghamton everywhere looks beautiful and fascinating, but Fingers Lakes is genuinely interesting. My time was limited so I only chose one destination to visit: Taughannock Falls State Park. Beautifully located on the banks of Lake Cayuga it’s home to one of the tallest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains. Its main cataract drops 66 metres, which is a full 10 metres higher than the mighty Niagara. You can hike to its base at the bottom of a long and narrow gorge (with walls reaching 120 metres tall), or you can take the rim trails that offer great views from the top of the falls. In other words, this small state park is a real gem. In fact, I suspect that in many countries in Europe it would be designated a national park.
This was the turning point of my journey. From Taughannock Falls I started heading back east, ultimately all the way to the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. But that was still hundreds of miles away and for now I was simply enjoying a peaceful drive across the New York countryside.
I would recommend upstate New York to anyone visiting north-eastern USA. Even if you mainly come for the highlights of NYC, it is well worth sparing a day or two to tour this fascinating region.
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