Corning Inc.'s major gift to the city, the Corning Museum of Glass (I-86, exit 46; tel. 800/732-6845 or 607/937-5371; www.cmog.org) is the premier and most comprehensive collection of historic and art glass in the world. Anyone with an interest in glass (even if that doesn't describe you, you're almost certain to be surprised and engaged) could spend many hours or even days here; it is quite literally dazzling. On view are 35,000 glass pieces representing 35 centuries of glass craftsmanship, beginning with a piece dating from 1411 B.C. There is also a gallery of glass sculpture and a glass innovation center, with ingeniously designed interactive exhibits that depict the use of glass in technology. The museum, now entering its sixth decade, is anything but static: It offers indoor and outdoor hot-glass demonstrations, glassmaking workshops, and some of the best shopping to be found, with a sprawling array of shops dealing in glass, crystal, and jewelry. Crystal fans familiar with Steuben glass (which originated in Corning), and particularly the work of glass artist Frederick Carder, will delight in finding a huge gallery of his works.
The museum is especially well designed for children, who usually can't get enough of the interactive science exhibits and opportunities to handle telescopes and peer through a periscope that "sees" out the roof of the building. A walk-in glass workshop allows visitors to make their very own glass souvenirs. The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm; July through Labor Day it's open daily until 8pm. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $11.25 for seniors and students, and free for children under 19. Audio guides are $3. With one paid admission, you are allowed to visit again one time in the same calendar year for free. A combination ticket ($16.50 for adults, $15.50 for seniors and students, free for kids and teens 19 and under) includes admission to CMoG and the Rockwell Museum . The museum also operates a free shuttle service from the museum to Market Street, downtown. Plan on spending about 3 hours at the Corning Museum of Glass, and more if you plan to take part in workshops.
The Rockwell Museum of Western Art, 111 Cedar St. (tel. 607/937-5386; www.rockwellmuseum.org), which occupies the former City Hall, maintains an excellent collection of both historic and contemporary western and Native American art, as well as one of the best-designed small museums in the Northeast. An inviting design of bold colors and gorgeous woods inside the shell of a neo-Romanesque building, the museum features daring juxtapositions that work surprisingly well, including a number of fantastic pieces by Native Americans. The second floor has a lodge room with a fireplace, couches, and chairs, and feels like it's been ripped from a classic western lodge. A neat idea for children: the color-coded "art backpacks" that come equipped with games and lesson and drawing books, making the museum an especially interactive place. Museum hours are as follows: July through Labor Day daily from 9am to 8pm; September through June, Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm and Sunday 11am to 5pm. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and students, and free for children and teens 19 and under. See the discount combination admissions to the Corning Museum of Glass and the Rockwell above. Allow an hour or two.
Those hungry to get outdoors south of the lakes can get up in the air. Balloons Over Corning, 352 Brewster St., Painted Post (tel. 607/937-3910), has organized hot-air balloons with beautiful views over Corning and the Finger Lakes area for the past 15 years. Flights take off 2 hours before sunset in summer. And spectacular glider flights are available at the Harris Hill Soaring Center in Elmira.
Although Elmira's most famous son currently is Tommy Hilfiger, the designer who co-opted red, white, and blue from Ralph Lauren and successfully marketed his clothing to the hip-hop and rock-'n'-roll communities, the city was once home to a more important cultural figure. Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, met and married his wife, Olivia Langdon, in Elmira, and he spent 20 summers in the area. From his study at Quarry Farm, he composed some of his most famous works, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. On the pretty campus of Elmira College, 1 Park Place (btwn Fifth St. and Washington Ave.), is the Center for Mark Twain Studies (closed to the public) as well as Twain's original study from 1874, now a literary landmark, with several original artifacts, including his chair, photographs taken at the farm, and some documents. The study, located next to the pond, is open to visitors mid-June through August, Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm (tel. 607/735-1941; free admission). Twain, his wife, and their children are buried at Elmira's Woodlawn Cemetery (Walnut St.; tel. 607/732-0151; daily 8am-9pm). Twain himself wrote many of the epitaphs on the tombstones. Nearby, Woodlawn National Cemetery hides a little-known secret: the graves of some 3,000 Confederate soldiers, making it the northernmost Confederate grave site (at one time, there were about 12,000 POWs in Elmira, which earned it the sobriquet "Hellmira," at least down south).
Architecture buffs may be amazed by the collection of Victorian, Greek, Tudor, and Georgian Revival houses, built in the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pick up a copy of A Walking Tour of the History Near Westside (available at the Tourism Information Office and several inns and hotels), which spotlights and describes a few dozen homes along West Church and West Water streets, and to a lesser degree, Gray, Walnut, and Grove streets, all just north of the Chemung River.
About 5 miles north of Elmira, the National Warplane Museum, 17 Aviation Dr., Horseheads (tel. 607/739-8200; www.wingsofeagles.com), is the place to see 37 original military flying machines from World War I to the Gulf War. Even better than seeing the planes up close, though, is the opportunity to go up in one -- whether a PT-17 or a B-17 bomber, known as "Fuddy Duddy." Flights at the Elmira Soaring School aren't cheap (starting at $350 per person; Apr-Nov only; reservations required), but they can be the thrill of a lifetime. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm and Sunday from noon to 4pm; admission is $7 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, and $4 for children 6-17.
The National Soaring Museum, Harris Hill, 51 Soaring Hill Dr. (just south of Rte. 17, exit 49, 50, or 51; tel. 607/734-3128; www.soaringmuseum.org), has the country's largest collection of gliders and sailplanes, which takes visitors through the history of motorless flight. Next door, the Harris Hill Soaring Center (tel. 607/734-0641; www.harrishillsoaring.org) offers graceful sailplane rides in either a Schweizer 2-33 trainer or a Schleicher ASK-21 high-performance sailplane ($70-$80; spring through fall; reservations recommended), a unique and mesmerizing experience. Flights soar after takeoff from Harris Hill, providing stunning views of the valley. The Soaring Center has one of the most active youth clubs in the country, and several of the pilots are teenagers and college kids. The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, $4 for children 5 to 17, and $18 for families of four.
Tip: One of the best ways to see a lot of Elmira in a short time is to hop aboard The Elmiran, a green trolley car that makes daily runs July and August, with a narrated history of the town, Mark Twain, and more. Catch it at the Holiday Inn Riverview, 760 E. Water St. (tel. 607/734-4211; $2 adults, free for children under 12).
Women Make the Grade -- Founded in 1855, Elmira College, off exit 56 of Route 17/I-86, was the first exclusive women's college and the first institution of higher learning to grant women degrees that were equal in stature to those awarded men.
Soaring Over the Finger Lakes
Taking to the sky in a motorless glider plane, or sailplane, is a singular experience, especially in a region as pretty as the Finger Lakes. Flights are available to visitors (Apr-Oct, weather permitting) at the Harris Hill Soaring Center (tel. 607/734-0641; www.harrishillsoaring.org), located between Elmira and Corning, just south of Interstate 86. I recently took to the air with a young pilot who'd been flying since he was 13 (er, yes, don't expect to fly it yourself!). While it's a thrill to glide silently above the patchwork quilt of farms and small towns along the Chemung River, it's really a trip if your pilot decides to "pull some Gs" and do some fancy maneuvers, suddenly plummeting the sailplane toward the Earth and then pulling up, yanking the bottom out of your stomach. Moves like that aren't for those with a fear of flying or heights, but anyone with a predilection for roller coasters will be in heaven. Visitors can opt for either relatively clunky Schweizer 2-33 trainers or ultrasleek Schleicher ASK-21 high-performance sailplanes. I highly recommend the latter, which can sail higher and more silently (and are only $10 more, $80 for a 40-min. ride). You can sit either up front or in back, and a tow plane tows the glider down the runway and to a height of about 4,000 feet, at which point the pilot releases and begins to soar on his own. Warm weather and cumulus clouds provide the best conditions for flight, so if you can, try to go on a sunny day, and preferably in the afternoon. Top speed in a high-performance sailplane is 140 knots, or 180 mph. Quietly flying that speed without the aid of a motor, with the world below, is a rush.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.