Sustainable Destinations: Upstate New York

Upstate New York offers some spectacular scenery

Upstate New York offers some spectacular scenery

Upstate New York may currently be swathed under several feet of snow, but outside of the harsh winters, the State has a lot to offer tourists beyond the renowned city, and perhaps surprisingly, it can offer plenty in the way of responsible and sustainable tourism too.

Green Hotelier went on a tour of the State and came away with a positive impression of the beautiful countryside, welcoming and enthusiastic people, and the interesting and impressive moves to stronger environmental and cultural responsibility within the region.

Upstate New York

Although the words ‘New York’ make most people picture the famous Manhattan skyline, the city itself actually sits at the state’s most southerly tip, meaning most of the 54,556 square miles of the state - bordering Pennsylvania, Canada and New England – is rural farmland. There are several renowned cities including Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Rome, Ithaca and Albany, but the State is filled with forests, rivers and mountains, and edges the Great Lakes of Ontario and Erie. Upstate New York also houses many national and state parks including Adirondack Park which is so big you could fit the Everglades, Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Canyon parks inside it. Consequently camping is a hugely popular activity among tourists. With the current weather system there’s been much talk of ‘lake-effect snow’ and New York has more than its fair share of lakes with Lake Ontario to the north and Lake Erie to the west plus the Finger Lakes, is a group of about ten long lakes caused by ancient glacial action sitting in the central and western regions. Water has played a huge role in the historical development of New York, and in the 1800s the Erie Canal was built to stretch from Albany on the Hudson River, linking the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Buffalo and Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes. It originally stretched 363 miles and helped make New York the prosperous financial and trading city it is today. Today many towns are developing their canal waterfronts as areas of historic interest and hubs of evening entertainment for locals and tourists. And don’t forget Niagara Falls at the point where Lake Ontario drains into Lake Erie. The lakes collectively offer thousands of miles of shoreline and consequently some spectacular in-land beaches including at Verona Beach State Park and Sylvan Beach, a small, quaint, family-friendly town which is home to the renowned Harpoon Eddie’s restaurant and where you’ll find the original Zoltar machine from the movie Big in the local arcade.

Community, culture and heritage

But besides the spectacular countryside, for responsible tourists there are some really interesting programmes that can help you support and better understand the New York community. For one thing, this is Amish country. Although often associated with Pennsylvania, more than 12,000 Amish live and farm in New York, alongside the similarly German originated Mennonites. There are populations around central New York and the Finger Lakes, as well as further west around Buffalo and it is not uncommon to see people in their traditional clothes, hats and bonnets, driving horse-drawn buggies. Amish furniture is often promoted for its high-quality build, and although there is a cultural etiquette to observe when meeting Amish people, travellers who are interested in the people, their culture and heritage can follow the Amish Trail to learn more, as well as to shop for their homemade goods including pottery, toys and apparel. Upstate New York is also home to several indigenous populations of Native Americans. Obsolete practices by the immigrant nations led to family separation and a loss of many of the traditional cultural ways and beliefs. Languages were lost and despite a proud history, many contemporary Native Americans have lost touch with their heritage. The Ganondagan Heritage Center is trying to share the story of the Seneca people who were one of the six nations in the Iroquois Confederacy which played a big role in American history. True Seneca descendants can retell the history and are keeping alive many traditions including a replica bark Longhouse complete with tools, furs, pots and clothing typical of the period and people. There are several self-guided walks that tour the native trees, plants and wildlife the Center is reintroducing, and throughout the year a number of festivals and events which showcase the Seneca people’s culture. You can learn about the unique white corn that was farmed here via the Iroquois White Corn Project.

Legislative support

Of course, besides the harsh winter snow that piles in every year, New York State is no stranger to extreme weather events which occur as a result of global warming; Hurricane Sandy being a recent example. Consequently, greater awareness of our need to take measures to reduce our production of greenhouse gases has led to programmes which seek to encourage greater environmental responsibility. Following measures which decreed New York should work collaboratively with other states and the federal government to develop and implement plans and policies that would achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, in 2009 Governor of the State of New York David A. Paterson introduced Executive Order No. 24: Establishing a Goal to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions Eighty Percent by the Year 2050 and Preparing a Climate Action Plan. Consequently the Climate Smart Communities Program sprang up under which localities sign up to a pledge, and which then aims to, “With the CSC pledge as a roadmap, the co-ordinators will advise and empower local governments by connecting them with appropriate financial and technical programs, helping them to coordinate with and learn from other communities, offering practical assistance and helping communities to track and report successes and barriers.” This helped counties to support and encourage sustainable development and other initiatives like renewable energy. For example the city of Rome in central New York is placing 9,000 solar panels on a former landfill site which will help them become energy self-sufficient and saving tens of thousands of dollars annually.


Although most eco-friendly hotels are based in the city, there are a number of Green Key certified properties spread throughout the state, as well as some LEED certified gold and silver properties. Most notable perhaps is Hotel Skyler in Syracuse which is only the third platinum LEED certified hotel in the United States.

Hotel Skyler, Syracuse

Hotel Skyler, Syracuse


Built from a converted Jewish temple, Hotel Skyler has incorporated a range of initiatives including a closed loop geothermal heat pump system which takes care of the property’s heating and cooling, as well as water efficiency practices including low-flow fixtures in bathrooms and waterless urinals. The hotel has introduced measures to control storm water and reduce flooding, and has used sustainable materials in its design including organic fabrics, low-emission carpets and upholstery, non-toxic housekeeping products and specialist low emission finishes. They sourced 20% of their materials locally and salvaged lumber from a local warehouse to create the lobby bar, as well as stained glass from a local church. More than 95% of the wood used in construction was FSC certified, more than 20% of resources were recycled and 530 tons of the 700 tons removed from the site were also recycled. The hotel invites guests to separate their recyclable rubbish in the room, makes clear their linen and towel policy and has special eco amenities in the bathrooms. Guests staying in one room are donating a proportion of their room rate to a local hospital.

Tom Fernandez director of marketing says, “There are a couple of different drivers that pushed us to create a hotel that meets LEED Platinum Standards. On the energy efficiency side, we all know that hotels are energy hogs. We operate 24/7, 365, we utilise lots of natural resources and much of the business is based on consumption. Having a hotel that has geothermal heating and cooling, low flow or no flow fixtures, and highly efficient lighting systems, we can recoup much of our investment more rapidly.  We operate at almost half of the energy being consumed at a similar sized hotel working with traditional building methods. The cost savings and energy savings for the project were a no brainer.” On guest engagement with sustainability he says, “Our main goal was to assure guest comfort but to also assure building efficiency. The guests that choose us unknowing of the sustainable traits, I believe are also apt to participate in our sustainable practices. We only give very low impact, easily adoptable opportunities, such as the recycling cans. I believe all guests are making a sustainably minded decision when they choose Hotel Skyler. Most guests are very excited to learn about the property which leads to further engagement.”

Other hotels are also doing their bit, like the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel which was designed to have a low visual impact on the beauty of the surrounding environment, but even small guest properties in the community are trying hard to be responsible tourism businesses. One case in point is the Captain Visger House B&B, a beautifully restored Victorian ‘Guilded Age’ house in Alexandria Bay, Thousand Islands. Run by Sam, she undertook an authentic restoration of the 1856 Italianate Victorian property, including the original profiles, doors, mouldings and restored wide plank pine floors. Furnished with local antiques, Sam now runs the house and catering operation providing beautiful meals with locally grown, sustainable organic ingredients from the local cooperative, supporting the local economy as much as possible.


An enduring feature of many of the places and activities with appeal to those interested in responsible tourism, is that they are frequently the small enterprises – and dreams – of local people working hard to give their neighbourhood a unique opportunity to stand out and be self-sufficient. Whether it’s farming the land and producing artisan products or offering tours to visitors, many of those involved in responsible tourism in New York State have built a business from the ground up and turned it into something special and worthwhile.

Here’s a run down of top activities with a responsible tourism theme which makes the State stand out. Canal boat and cycling the Erie Canal: The Erie Canal is a real feature of the State and many notable towns have been built along it. From Fairport near Rochester tourists can enjoy a more leisurely holiday by hiring a Lockmaster canal boat which sleeps up to six people and comes complete with a kitchen and bicycles. Away from roads, cycling the towpath is a really lovely and relaxed way to experience the countryside and hop between nearby towns. In Autumn ‘leaf-peepers’ can enjoy the changing leaves of the fall.

Kayak in the Thousand Islands

Kayak in the Thousand Islands


Kayaking in the Thousand Islands: Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of America, the Thousand Islands actually number more than 1800 and lie between the US and Canada where the Saint Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario. There is plenty to see and do around the area and some unique tourist attractions like Boldt Castle, but for a more down to earth view a solo or tandem kayak will allow you to experience the scenery close at hand. Boomerang Kayak and other agents will lead guided expeditions or more experienced folk can take them out on their own.

Brewery and winery tours: One of the biggest industries in New York is farming, and though grain farming has declined, fruit, vegetables and dairy farming has seen a resurgence. What’s interesting is that several producers have begun to establish a reputation for the region by developing artisan products like goats cheeses, or specialist vodkas from their orchard fruits. It's always worth stopping by a local farmers’ market to see what delicious goodies are on offer. And, with a region of hills and lakes set along the same latitude as the Rhone Valley, the State has become renowned as an excellent wine producer with over 100 vineyards and wineries producing award-winning wines including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Popular activities in the area that support the local economy therefore include winery tours. One of the leading wineries is the New York Wine and Culinary Center at Canandaigua where visitors can sample wines, enjoy dinner upstairs, try their hand at a sommelier course or take a class in cooking skills. New York State is also renowned for craft beer brewing and even has a Craft Beer Festival showcasing the beers from a number of excellent breweries of all sizes. New York City itself houses several breweries but out of town there are more to see in Buffalo, Rochester, Ithaca and Cooperstown. Enthusiasts can support the creative endeavours of the Empire Brewing Company in Syracuse, or learn the 125 year history of the award-winning Saranac brewery in Utica.

Getting lost in a maize maze: Farms and farming are not just used for crop production, but some have reinvented themselves as family and tourist attractions where children can learn more about the origins of their foods in a fun environment. Leading in this is Long Acre Farms at Macedon where kids can enjoy a host of activities plus home made ice creams, while parents can shop for craft ciders, beers and wines. In the Autumn the farm is celebrated for its spectacular maize maze where families can challenge themselves to navigate through a field  of seven foot high maize whilst collecting clues on the way. Foodie fun for all.

Horse riding in the Finger Lakes National Forest: A visit to Upstate NY would not be complete without a stay in the Finger Lakes region. The scenery in the area is spectacular and wildlife enthusiasts will have a field day bird spotting or visiting Wetlands, Swamp Conservancy, or spying the unique Seneca white deer. One fantastic way to enjoy the outdoors and the scenery is to go on a horse-back trail through the National Forest. The Six Nations Trail offers 40 miles for the public to enjoy and a number of local stables offer guided rides on placid horses suitable for riders of any experience level.

For more information about authentic responsible tourism in New York State, including ideas for outdoor activities, local culture and accommodations visit’s travel guide:  or visit

Thousand Islands

Flights were provided by the New York State Division of Tourism and Virgin Atlantic.

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