Watkins Glen, NY

Race cars, fireworks and earplugs make your Independence Day complete.



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DISTANCE: 255 mi -- about 4 hours 30 mins (up to 5 hours 20 mins in traffic)

WHY GO: Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines for the Camping World Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International racetrack (2790 County Rte 16, Watkins Glen, NY; 866-461-7223, theglen.com). But put down those Cheez Doodles and Dale Earnhardt decals, this isn't NASCAR—this is in the league of the Indy 500 and Danica Patrick, and it makes a Finger Lakes sojourn for its only race in the Northeast of the year. Racers drive low-to-the-ground open-wheel cars that go a cool 140 miles per hour, twisting around a road course rather than one repetitive loop. Tickets start at $45 (pay more for a peek at the cars in the garage area or for three-day access—the Presidents of the United States of America play on July 4). As for advance knowledge of the sport, according to Conquest crew member Jeremy Hall, remember just one thing: "Don't walk out on the track," he says. Oh, and bring some earplugs. "I guess if you're not used to it, it would be very loud."

WHY STAY: If you're not at the racetrack for the 9:45pm fireworks on July 3 and 4, you can see a similar show over the water. Seneca is the second deepest lake in the country—like, almost Loch Ness deep. "It's a little bit on the cool side," local brewer Doug Thayer laughs about the frigid temperature. "It depends on how much of a kick-start you want to your day." For winemaker David Whiting, an area highlight is a hike into Watkins Glen State Park: "There's a stunning gorge that cuts into rock and runs into town," he says. "You've got sheer cliffs [and] waterfalls. The stone steps were built in the '30s, and there are a lot of them. Your legs will be tired." And of course, there's wine tasting in this famed riesling region; Red Newt (3675 Tichenor Rd, Hector, NY; 607-546-4100, rednewt.com; tasting fee $2--$5) is only twelve miles out of town, with other wineries scattered around Highways 14 and 414.

WHAT TO EAT: "The Grand Prix is one of our busiest weekends," says Thayer of his brewpub and caf, The Crooked Rooster (223--301 N Franklin St between 3rd and 4th Sts; 607-535-9797, roosterfishbrewing.com). He calls the crowd "more knowledgeable consumers" of the microbrew he makes on the premises, Rooster Fish Ale, which is also popular among the locals. "Even the winemakers say it takes a lot of beer to make good wine," he jokes. Floyd R. Hunter Jr., manager at the Harbor Hotel, likes Italian spot Jerlando's Restaurant (400 N Franklin St at 4th St, 607-535-4254), whose meaty pizzas are available for takeout. To pack a lunch to take to the track or down into the gorge, head to Glen Mountain Market (200 N Franklin St at 2nd St; 607-535-6900, glenmountainmarket.com), where sandwiches like the Finger Lakes Focaccia are $7.25.

WHERE TO STAY: While the racetrack can hold 41,000 fans, the nearby village of Watkins Glen, perched on the south tip of Lake Seneca, is home to only about 2,000 people. Offsetting the car crowd is the steady stream of wine-country tourists, so B&Bs are thick on the ground. Local brewer (there's beer, too) Doug Thayer points to Echoes of the Glen, an English Tudor--style house (300 South Franklin St at 12th St; 607-535-2896, echoesoftheglen.com; rooms $99--$135), or the pricier Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, "a really a gorgeous facility, right on the lakefront" (16 North Franklin St at Division St; 607-535-6116, watkinsglenharborhotel.com; rooms $209--$399). To beat the crowds on race weekend, try camping either in the center of the track at the raceway (really), where first-come, first-served sites start at about $100, or in Watkins Glen State Park (Rte 14 near 10th St; 800-456-2267, nysparks.state.ny.us), where only a few spots remain, or nearby Sampson State Park (800-456-2267, nysparks.state.ny.us; $19-$25 per site).

GET THERE: You're not going to conquer the 250 miles between NYC and Watkins Glen in anything more convenient than your own (or a rented) car, playing Franchitti with the gas pedal all the way. Parking at Watkins Glen International is free, and the racetrack provides maps of alternate routes to and from the venue, so you don't spend your Fourth of July riding the bumper of an RV.

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