96 miles NE of Albany; 203 miles E of Buffalo

Utica gets a bad rap. Has the city seen better days? Sure -- specifically, much of the 19th century, when the Erie Canal helped attract both businesses and travelers to central New York's Mohawk Valley. Even the founders of the Oneida community -- a utopian society responsible for some of the country's finest flatware -- settled in these parts; the legacy of their industry can be found at the Oneida Outlet Store, 606 Sherrill Rd., Sherrill (tel. 315/361-3662). While the Mohawk Valley's boom-town days are long gone, a drive around some of the old Erie Canal towns will yield some pleasant surprises. Little Falls and Canajoharie are two with considerable charm, and they deserve a look-see. The surrounding area, too, is home to plenty of year-round outdoor activity -- from the beaches of Lake Oneida to the hidden worlds of Howe Caverns -- while re-openings and expansions of cultural and historic landmarks promise good things for the future.

The Iroquois Nation -- Long before the arrival of the Europeans, this area was the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy. The five original nations were the Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and the Cayuga, with the Tuscarora joining in 1722. They played a tremendous role in the conflict between the British and French for control of North America.

A Good Read -- We can't think of a better accompaniment to a drive around the Mohawk Valley than one of Richard Russo's hilarious, big-hearted, character-driven novels. Russo, who grew up in Gloversville, set The Risk Pool, Mohawk, and Bridge of Sighs in fictional towns very closely based on his hometown.