BY CARRIE WATTU
Have you ever heard of Watkins Glen, New York? I hadn't until a friend told me about a beautiful animal rescue farm where you could stay and volunteer as a family. With our summer calendar filled with traditional New England beach destinations, we decided to "drive the other way" for a getaway focused on animals and the outdoors.
As we planned the five-hour drive from central Mass. to upstate New York, we found family fun along the way for all ages and interests.
While there is a lot to do, what we were most excited about was our stay at the Farm Sanctuary, the nation's largest farm animal rescue and protection organization. It was one of the most memorable things we've done as a family.
Open heart, open mind
Farm Sanctuary is set in a beautiful location in rural mid New York, nestled in the Finger Lakes region. On your way, you'll pass exits for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Howe Caverns - both worth a visit. We also stopped at Cornell University, spell-bound by the Uris Library, known as the "Harry Potter" library for its nooks, scrolling ironwork and bridged tiers of impressive-looking books. The quaint college town of Ithaca was another great stop for its clever shops, hip restaurants and stunning flower baskets.
Once at the farm, everything slowed and quieted. Surrounded by hills of green, big sky and red barns, you'll take a guided tour and meet hundreds of rescued cows, pigs, turkeys and other farm animals. Afterwards, you're free to spend one-on-one time at your leisure with each animal friend you've met. For animal lovers, it's the most satisfying kind of peace or joy.
You can also volunteer on the farm. Our assignment was to clear leaves, stones and sticks from the pathways, which may not seem "Instagram-worthy" to your kids, but is part of the attention to detail that is so important here. Committed volunteers and staff members constantly and lovingly care for the area, making it a super-tidy haven for animals that have made incredible journeys to live here.
Your visit will require an open heart and open mind as the farm's mission is to combat the abuses farm animals face in the modern factory farming industry. The animals each have a story, which are insightful but not always easy to hear. Our guide knew each sheep, goat, and chicken by name and provided background on their extraordinary survival. We learned of animals escaping trucks en route to the slaughterhouse and others saved from squalor and abuse. This information made their trusting nature and desire to be petted and hugged by the species who hurt them even more special. Here, a goat called Cynthia nuzzles your face like a house cat and a bull named Merlin craves affection like a gentle, supersized black lab.
Plan to spend a day and get accommodations in town - about 20 minutes away-- or, if you can get a reservation, stay in one of the charming cabins or tiny houses right on the farm. They serve breakfast in the morning. Out of respect for the rescued animals at Farm Sanctuary, all food on the premises is vegan (no meat, dairy, eggs, or animal byproducts), and education about embracing a plant-based diet is part of the visit. Be prepared for literature and displays on factory farming that may be intense for visitors. However, you don't have to be vegan to visit. Our family of five is a mix of meat-eaters, vegetarians and one vegan, and like the animals that live here, we all felt welcomed and respected.
Farm Sanctuary National Headquarters
Watkins Glen, NY
While in the area, you can explore the wineries, the NASCAR race track and Lake Seneca. Be sure to check the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce calendar (watkinsglenchamber.com) as the region is very busy during peak NASCAR weeks.
We meandered the neighborhoods in town and Lake Seneca harbor. A wonderful memory was stumbling upon an old-fashioned gazebo concert, enchanted by older adults waltzing in the summer air.
An attraction you'll definitely want to check out here is Watkins Glen State Park, the most famous of the Finger Lakes state parks. If you Google it, you may think the photos of mossy bridges, water-sculpted rocks and rocky walkways are from some far away land or enhanced with photo filters. Not the case. They're the real deal. We walked the three-mile gorge trail on stone steps, bridges and through a tunnel. We even walked under two waterfalls. People visit from all over the world, and we found it busy with room for everyone. Plan for an hour and a half to two hours and be sure to wear good sneakers.
While swimming isn't permitted on the hike, it's shady and you will get some spray from the falls. There is a pool in the park, which we didn't see, but could be worth checking out if your family wants to swim.
Watkins Glen State Park
$8 per car
Go Down Under at Howe Caverns
At first glance, Howe Caverns looks tired with all the makings of a tourist trap, but don't second-guess it. Once you take the elevator to the tunnels and stone walkways below, you won't be disappointed.
The cavern was accidentally discovered in 1842 by a farmer, Lester Howe, who noticed his cows gravitating to a particular spot on the hottest days. There, he found an opening emitting a cool breeze of air. Howe lowered himself into the hole with a rope and discovered a magical pathway of twists and turns complete with a river running through it. It's awesome!
Many families take the popular 90-minute cavern tour but you can also opt for a Sunday night flashlight tour. A guide leads you for the first hour and takes you on a short boat ride, reminiscent of Willy Wonka without the terror and the candy. Then the lights shut off and we found ourselves in total blackness. We had never experienced this before - the kind of dark where your eyes will not adjust and you can't see hands in front of your face. Using lanterns and headlamps, you'll make your way back to the entrance. It's really fun!
Flashlight tours on Sunday evenings only
$35 per person
If you decide to drive the other way this summer, you'll definitely create memories. You also may find yourself building an enclosure in your yard for a new pet turkey or two.