Everybody loves New York City. Terrific. But New York is a bigger place than just the Big Apple. It’s a whole state. And it’s a really big state, too. Big and full of really small country towns in the middle of nowhere. It’s crazy, because I grew up on Long Island, and nothing was ever more than half an hour away, tops. But it’s like once you cross the Hudson River, you could drive for six to eight hours and still be in New York. Isn’t that nuts?
And whenever I do any online research, trying to find out what New York has to offer, it’s always the same old tired activities: Niagara Falls. Boring. I mean, it’s nice. But it’s really boring. And that’s usually it, just page after page of Niagara Falls. “Stop by the duty free shops to save money on purchases before you leave for Canada!” isn’t exactly a catchy slogan.
But New York State is cool, and in my limited experience traveling across New York, I’ve found some really cool places. So here you go, New York State tourism officials, just copy and paste this article onto those pamphlets that nobody ever picks up while they’re stopping to go to the bathroom at the rest stops along the Thruway, and take the rest of the day off. Here are four of my favorite places in New York State. You’re welcome.
1. Gilbert Lake State Park
In terms of upstate, for me anyway, this is about as upstate as it gets. When I was a little kid, most of my extended family would travel up to Gilbert Lake every year to go camping. From where I grew up in Long Island, it took us like four or five hours to get there every summer. Of course, I’m the oldest of six kids, and my parents had to load up a minivan and a station wagon packed tightly with our tents, cooking gear, bikes, and whatever else you need to go camping, so that was probably some really slow driving, with tons of rest stops and lots of backseat fighting.
Gilbert Lake, located in Laurens, NY, a little north of Oneonta is one of those State Parks built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. That’s how my grandparents found out about Gilbert Lake when they took my mom and her four brothers and sisters camping upstate every summer. Seriously, it’s like the cheapest, most awesome vacation you’ll ever take. So cheap, in fact, that family legend has it that my grandparents actually forgot to bring their money with them one year before they left their house in Elmont, Long Island. And this was before ATMs, so if you didn’t have any cash, you basically had to wait for another World War to come around and start generating money for everybody. But they made do with something like a combined seventeen dollars they had sitting in their pockets. “There was even enough money to stop for ice cream on the drive home,” my mother still boasts to this day.
I have nothing but great memories of spending summer nights around an open fire with siblings and cousins, riding bikes and swimming in that giant lake. The last time we went was when I was around eighteen or so, but for the past few years, I’ve been getting that itch to dig up the camping gear from my parents’ attic and see if I still have what it takes to spend a week outdoors. And isn’t it crazy that the government still pretty much runs these State Parks? That must have been awesome, having a government that actually did stuff. But it’s not all bad, I’m sure if the economy tanks again, we can all just sit around and wait for the private sector to make affordable vacation spots for working families.
2. Wolff’s Maple Breeze
A couple of generations ago, the Catskills used to be the cat’s pajamas. I don’t know what that means exactly, but apparently there were tons of cool resorts littered throughout towns in upstate New York. They called it the “Borscht Belt,” because … well, I actually don’t know why, and this is starting to sound like a really poorly planned history lesson. Just look it up.
My dad’s parents took him and his ten brothers and sisters to Wolff’s Maple Breeze every summer, and somehow the yearly vacation was still going on by the time my dad has his own family. Wolff’s was awesome because they had a really tiny lake with a plastic paddleboat permanently beached somewhere nearby. So if we spent the whole day begging my dad to drag it in there and let us paddle, eventually he would, and it was a lot of fun.
There was a “game room” where, for twenty-five cents, we could play this obscure arcade console called Rastan. He was like a Conan the Barbarian Japanese rip-off. If you had full health, his sword shot out fire. But the game was almost impossible to play, so I was only ever able to maintain full health for about three seconds. We spent almost the entire vacation begging our parents for quarters, and then begging them for more quarters when Rastan died his inevitable death.
Wolff’s also had this really cool snack bar where they made cheeseburgers with white American cheese. You don’t see too much white American downstate, and even though my mom claims there’s no difference, I’m positive that there is, and I’m always willing to prove it via a blind taste test. You hear that mom? The offer is still on the table. Just make me two cheeseburgers, one with white American, and the other with yellow, and I’ll show you once and for all that I can totally tell the difference.
3. International Delight Café, Rockville Centre
IDC as the locals call it, is one of the best restaurants on Long Island, or “Strong Island,” also as the locals call it (it’s because we’re all so much stronger than non-Long Islanders.) Located on scenic Sunrise Highway, IDC makes over eighty flavors of gelato in-house. If that’s not enough for you, they have several cast-iron waffle presses, and so you can get a waffle with gelato and hot fudge and whipped cream. It’s so much better than I’m describing it. They also have a full menu, with the best Reuben sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.
I didn’t grow up in RVC, but I worked at IDC from when I was fourteen years old. I still can’t believe they gave me a job. I was a six-foot-three eighth grader that probably broke more glasses and plates on any given night than it cost to pay for my help at the end of the night. I’m not even exaggerating. We had this giant coffee machine with something like nine pots constantly brewing. It was a big deal if someone broke one of those pots, and I can totally remember several shifts where I broke three.
I started behind the counter, but through sheer persistence, I bugged the owner enough that he finally let me start waiting tables. The accidents only got worse. One time I was carrying a tray of sixteen glasses of orange soda to the back dining room when I lost my balance and spazzed out. It was like a tidal wave of high-fructose corn syrup, all of the customers had to stand up as I started throwing paper towels down on the floor. “Why are you wasting all of those paper towels!” the owner yelled at me, “Just grab a mop, what are you stupid?”
4. The Hopewell Junction rest stop off the Taconic Parkway
Just be careful here, because there are two Hopewell Junction exits off the Taconic Parkway, they’re both back-to-back, and they don’t advertise the rest stop very well at all. If you’re heading upstate, it’s the first one. I think. I always get it mixed up. One time I borrowed my parents’ car for a weekend up in the mountains, but I botched the Hopewell Junction exits. I had to do this turnaround, and when I finally found the Taconic again, I failed to notice this huge pothole right on the entrance ramp. I was trying to execute a swift merge, but I wound up slamming the car, popping both tires on the right side, even denting the rims. I couldn’t believe how much damage that car took, it was totally disproportional with the speed at which I thought I was traveling.
But whatever, if you do manage to choose the right exit, you get to experience probably the best highway rest stop in the state. They have everything, any type of snack you can imagine, they have soda in glass bottles, it’s awesome. They even have this milkshake machine. It’s a freezer on the bottom, and you put the frozen milkshake into this special microwave on the top, and it’s preset to zap it into a perfect milkshake. I’ve never had one, but one day I will, and I have a feeling that it’s going to be even better than I’m making it out to be.
One time I was traveling upstate with my brother-in-law, and I was talking nonstop about how awesome this rest stop is. By the time we finally got there, I could tell that he was underwhelmed. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked him. “They have everything here.” And he was like, “Yeah, it’s OK, but it’s just like a regular rest stop.” And I disagreed, I said, this one is special, there’s nothing you can’t find here, they even have that sour watermelon straw candy, I haven’t seen that stuff in forever. I challenged him, I said, “Name one thing that you could possibly want that they don’t have here.” He shot back, “OK, Snyder’s spicy buffalo pretzel twists.” And I’m not even kidding, as we turned the corner, it was like timing out of a movie, that next aisle was almost exclusively dedicated to Snyder’s pretzels. They had every single flavor, buffalo chicken, everything bagel, even flavors I’d never heard of before. “Look, Matt, there they are, right here!” and even Matt had to admit that I was right, that he was just being a huge baby, that the Hopewell Junction rest stop is the best rest stop in New York, such a great state, so many awesome things to do that don’t have anything to do with NYC. “There’s so much more!” that should be the New York State motto, as in, so much more than New York City. But we won’t even mention it in the motto, as in, it’s not even worth mentioning. Hey New York State tourism people, you can use that one for free also. You’re welcome.