However much exists to attract visitors, the vast state of NEW YORK stands inevitably in the shadow of America’s most celebrated city. The words “New York” bring to mind soaring skyscrapers and congested streets, not the beaches of Long Island to the east or 50,000 square miles of rolling dairy farmland, colonial villages, workaday towns, lakes, waterfalls and towering mountains that fan out north and west from New York City and constitute upstate New York. Just an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, the valley of the Hudson River, with the moody Catskill Mountains rising stealthily from the west bank, offers a respite from the intensity of the city. Much wilder and more rugged are the peaks of the vast Adirondack Mountains further north, which hold some of eastern America’s most enticing scenery. To the west, the slender Finger Lakes and endless miles of dairy farms and vineyards occupy the central portion of the state. Of the larger cities, only Buffalo and Rochester hold much of interest, but some of the smaller towns, like Ivy League Ithaca and the spa town of Saratoga Springs, can be quite captivating.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries semi-feudal Dutch landowning dynasties held sway upstate. Their control over tens of thousands of tenant farmers was barely affected by the transfer of colonial power from Holland to Britain or even by American Independence. Only with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, linking New York City with the Great Lakes, did the interior start to open up.
The Adirondacks, which covers an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, are said by locals to be named after an Iroquois insult for enemies they’d driven into the forests and left to become “bark eaters”. For sheer grandeur, the region is hard to beat: 46 peaks reach to more than 4000ft; in summer the purple-green mountains span far into the distance in shaggy tiers, in autumn the trees form a russet-red kaleidoscope.
Until recent decades this vast northern region between Albany and the Canadian border was almost the exclusive preserve of loggers, fur trappers and a few select New York millionaires; these days mountaineers, skiers and dedicated hikers form the majority of visitors. Outdoor pursuits are certainly the main attractions in the rugged wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains, though a few small resorts, especially the former Winter Olympic venue of Lake Placid and its smaller neighbour Lake Saranac, offer creature comforts in addition to breathtaking scenery.
As I-90 sweeps down into the state’s second largest city, BUFFALO, downtown looms up in a cluster of Art Deco spires and glass-box skyscrapers. The city’s early twentieth-century prosperity is reflected in such architecturally significant structures as the towering 1932 City Hall (free observation deck on the top floor) and the deep-red terracotta relief of Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building on Church Street. Just west of downtown, the massive abandoned grain elevators form part of the ongoing redevelopment of Canalside into a major entertainment and shopping hub. Renowned as a blue-collar city, Buffalo also loves its professional sports teams: football’s Bills (877 228 4257, buffalobills.com) and ice hockey’s Sabres (888 467 2273, sabres.nhl.com) both draw huge crowds.
Rising above the west bank of the Hudson River, the magnificent crests of the Catskills, cloaked with maple and beech that turn orange, ochre and gold each autumn, have a rich and absorbing beauty. This dislocated branch of the Appalachians is inspiring country, filled with amenities – campgrounds, hiking, fishing and, especially, skiing.
Until the advent of the railways, the Erie Canal, which runs for 363 miles between Albany and Buffalo, was the main means for transporting goods between the Atlantic coast via the Hudson to the Great Lakes. These days it is used more for pleasure trips, providing boaters with the opportunity to get to grips with some of its 36 locks. The section of the river around Rochester retains the most character in this sense. The fertile farming country on either side comprises the agricultural heartland of New York State. The eastern parts, also known as Central Leatherstocking after the protective leggings worn by the area’s first settlers, are well off the conventional tourist trails, with the exception of the lovely village of Cooperstown. Meanwhile, the industrial college town of Syracuse only merits a visit for the Erie Canal Museum (eriecanalmuseum.org), housed in an1850s weighing station at 318 E Erie Blvd.
At the heart of the state, southwest of Syracuse on the far side of the Catskills from New York City, are the eleven Finger Lakes, narrow channels gouged out by glaciers that have left telltale signs in the form of drumlins, steep gorges and a number of waterfalls. With the exception of progressive, well-to-do Ithaca and tiny Skaneateles, few towns compete with the lakeshore scenery. That said, the area as a whole is relaxing and enjoys a growing reputation for quality wineries. It also has another area of exceptional natural beauty at the western end of the lakes in Letchworth State Park.