Creating family vacation memories in Chautauqua County, NY
By Mark Stevens
While planning a summer vacation is one of the most anticipated events of the year, it can also come with a bit of stress and anxiety. There are plenty of places in Chautauqua County and things to do in western New York to fill a summer with family traditions and memories to last a lifetime. I also have a few fun ideas for parents who may want to get a sitter for their kids as well.
Depending on how old your children are, no summer vacation is complete without a trip, or two, or ten to Midway State Park on Route 430 in Maple Springs along Chautauqua Lake. Established in 1898, this historic amusement park has provided years of entertainment and family memories for me, my wife and our daughters. I started taking my 15 year-old there when she was 2, and for summer after summer we spent countless hours of fun on the Dragon roller coaster, the Fun Slide, and of course, the recently refurbished vintage Carousel. We also tried our hand at the games in the arcade and often topped off the day with a colorful snow cone at the concession stand before picking up a small souvenir from the gift shop.
My wife and I, along with our teen, have since passed that Midway Park tradition to our three-year-old daughter, who especially enjoys time on the kiddie sailboats, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the panoramic train ride around the perimeter of the park. I can already picture our newborn daughter walking around to the various attractions, hand-in-hand with her sisters on the park grounds getting a tutorial on each ride.
Midway State Park’s new mini-golf course, Putt-Around-Chautauqua, assigns a local theme or structure to each of the course’s 18 holes. Players will delight at the replica of Chautauqua Institution’s Miller Belle Tower and tributes to the Bemus Point-Stow Ferry, Lucille Ball’s legacy of comedy and our incredible lake fishing opportunities.
For a more sophisticated summer vacation experience, spend an evening of first-class popular entertainment under the historic Amphitheater inside the gates of the legendary Chautauqua Institution on Route 394 near Mayville. Though suitable for kids, my wife and I have taken the opportunity to leave the kiddos with Grandma and Grandpa so we could enjoy a date night concert. We’ve enjoyed seeing American Idol stars like Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard take their talent center stage. We’ve also taken in such productions as Under the Streetlamp, a concert celebration of classic jukebox hits of the American radio songbook from the 1950s to the 1970s, featuring members of the musical group, The Jersey Boys.
During Week Nine of Chautauqua’s 2017 season, the first ever Chautauqua Food Festival will be held. This week-long food, craft beverage and entertainment festival in Bestor Plaza will feature renowned speakers from the culinary world as well as a daily roster of food- and drink-themed events from cooking demonstrations and competitions to interactive experiences and tastings prepared by the best regional restaurants, farms, wineries and breweries. A special Food Festival Only pass is available for the week for those wishing only to partake in fest activities, and not Amphitheater performances. More information may be found here.
Not far from the inviting gates of Chautauqua sits the Italian Fisherman restaurant in the quaint village of Bemus Point, home of the Bemus Bay Pops, another summer-time must. For about nine weeks, the village is electrified with live entertainment out on the white canvas floating stage along picturesque Chautauqua Lake. Many a day and night, has our family enjoyed tribute bands to some of the most popular groups and songwriters of our time.
We’ve also watched hit movies like Frozen on the big screen outside at night under the stars. To top if off, the Bemus Bay Pops and the floating stage also play host to the popular local singing contest The Choice, where we’ve grabbed our lawn chairs and a pizza to hear local vocalists battle it out to become the newest voice of tomorrow. During the 2016 season, the Bemus Bay Pops tribute band lineup includes Journey, The Who, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger, and The Bee Gees.
Family-friendly summertime concerts are not just limited to land, or venues along the lake, but on the lake as well. Welcome aboard the Summer Wind, where visitors are invited to cruise beautiful Chautauqua Lake on a 130 passenger state-of-the-art yacht. For the better part of a decade, a trip on the Summer Wind has been part of my family’s summertime must do list. Again I go back to when our 15 year-old daughter was young and we would take a sightseeing, lunch buffet or pizza cruise excursion. Not only would she enjoy being on the ship, but the captain would let her, and other kids take the helm and actually steer the ship through the waters along the lake.
The Summer Wind experience is not just for kids. My wife and I took a July 4th, Mardis Gras themed cruise not too long ago. The party-filled excursion featured a DJ, feathered party hats and masks, as well as festive and flavorful cocktails perfect for the occasion. We capped off the evening as part of a makeshift conga line that stretched from the lower to the upper deck of the ship. The ship launches from Lucille Ball Memorial Park in Celoron.
Blast into the past
Speaking of Lucille Ball, whether you’ve lived in the area all your life, just moved here, or are a vacationer looking for a little nostalgia, look no further than Jamestown’s answer to the corner of Hollywood and Vine. No summer vacation is complete without a trip to celebrate America’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball. At the corner of Third and Main, more than 3,000 miles from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood is the Lucy Desi Center for Comedy. This salute to the Queen of Comedy and Jamestown native features the Lucy Desi Museum and The Desilu Studios.
I have taken many walks through the museum which beautifully chronicles the lives and careers of television’s first couple of comedy Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s a walk back in time complete with photos, home movies, vintage clothing and other precious artifacts like Lucy’s gold Mercedes.
The walk through Desilu Studios next door is like stepping right into an episode of I Love Lucy. The facility features three main sets from the hit show including the Ricardo’s living room, kitchen, and hotel suite from their trip to California with their friends Fred and Ethel Mertz. The studio is filled with countless pieces of memorabilia like old TV Guide covers and Lucy’s multiple Emmy awards. As a tribute to Desi, aka Ricky Ricardo, the studio also comes complete with a replica of The Tropicana Room where Ricky would perform his act. The Tropicana Room is open for special events, many of which take place during the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in August which coincides with Lucy’s birthday.
The National Comedy Center, the first national-scale cultural institution and visitor experience dedicated to the comedic arts is scheduled to open summer of 2018. A visit is most definitely on our 2018 Chautauqua County bucket list.
Sometimes we need a vacation from our own summer vacation and the perfect remedy is a day at the beach. Chautauqua County’s entire western boarder is defined by the impressive and seemingly endless Lake Erie shoreline and there are several beaches that are perfect for a little rest and relaxation. Since young children are not always so easily entertained by down-time and sand castle building provides plenty of additional entertainment, we tend to stick to sandy beaches. Barcelona Harbor Beach (to the right of the pier) in Westfield and Sunset Bay Beach Club in Irving are family favorites. Both offer dining options nearby and convenient parking. Barcelona Harbor Beach is free to the public whereas Sunset Bay Beach does charge $3 per person but the sand is groomed daily and a lifeguard will be duty from 11am-6pm when weather permits swimming.
Taste the town
Finally, for the over 21 circuit, summer vacations through the area’s grape belt are a wine lover’s dream come true. One of my great summertime memories and still must-do’s is travelling to Chautauqua County’s bountiful wineries and Lake Erie Wine Country, for a taste of one the area’s leading industries.
One of our most recent journeys included stops at Merritt Estate Winery, Johnson Estate Winery, Liberty Vineyards and 21 Brix. From sweet refreshing wine slushies to the more sophisticated dry reds, each winery offered its unique blend of taste and charm.
So whether it’s a fun-filled day at Midway State Park, a historic trip back in time at the Lucy Desi Museum or an excursion aboard the Summer Wind, an exciting summer vacation awaits the entire family.
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Originally from New England, Mark Stevens is a writer and journalist who lives in Jamestown, NY with his wife and three children. He enjoys travelling and spending time with family and friends.