Chautauqua is a small town in western New York best known for the Chautauqua Institution, a lakeside resort that offers weekly educational programing for nine weeks each summer. Over 100,000 visitors participate in one or more of the Institution’s over 2,000 lectures, art exhibits, outdoor symphonies, theater or dance performances, opera and classes each year. Additionally, Lake Chautauqua offers opportunities for fishing, swimming, sailing, boating and canoeing. Chautauqua is an easy two-hour drive from Cleveland, and we have friends who regularly vacation here or own a second home in the area.
We ended up making an unplanned stop in Chautauqua while driving back from New England in October 2016. We typically book hotels in advance but had not because we were not sure how far we would make it after leaving Amherst, Massachusetts in the late afternoon. None of the larger cities on our route along I-90 were “must-sees”, and the kids ended up holding up on the long drive better than we expected. At around 10:30 pm, we briefly considered driving straight home. Luckily, my husband took a look at a map and suggested we spend the night in Mayville, the seat of Chautauqua County and booked us room at Chautauqua Suites.
We arrived at the hotel with three sleeping kids around 11:30 pm and quickly got them changed and into bed. Our “suite” was roughly the size of a normal hotel but had two small sleeping spaces that were separated by the bathroom at the center of the room. The setup would have been more useful if we arrived earlier in the evening and wanted a separate space after putting the kids to bed. Nevertheless, Chautauqua Suites totally met our needs for the eight or nine hours that we were there. The included breakfast buffet was an added bonus that saved us a morning stop.
After breakfast, we stopped at a playground right on the shore of Lake Chautauqua. The playground had all the traditional equipment, but the gorgeous view of the Lake really set it apart from the typical play area. With the park completely to ourselves, we had one of our most memorable mornings just relaxing and playing on a beautiful and warm fall day. I knew as soon as we arrived that this was definitely the perfect I-90 pit stop. Luckily, this was just the beginning of a wonderful unexpected day.
After finishing up at the playground, we headed to Panama Rocks, which is about a 15-minute drive from Mayville. It was listed as #1 on Trip Advisor’s list of Chautauqua County activities. And, we could see why – Panama Rocks is probably the best privately owned nature park that I have ever visited. There is a one mile trail that is an easy, Class 1 hike in an ancient forest. It is not stroller accessible, but my two year old daughter walked a good bit of it herself and enjoyed the view from her carrier or on my husband’s shoulders the rest of the time.
- Kid Facts: To be classified as an ancient forest, a forest must be at least 200 years old and have large trees, dense canopies and diverse wildlife. Panama Rocks has been privately owned and operated since 1885.
The colored leaves covering the ground added to the beauty, and we saw some of the most brilliant reds of the whole trip on the hike.
There are towering rocks, deep crevices and caves that guests are welcome to go off trail to explore, and you can be sure that my boys thoroughly investigated the rock formations and caves. Hiking boots might be helpful, especially if the ground is wet, but we all found our sneakers to be adequate.
- Kid Caution: While exploring off trails is permitted, close adult supervision is necessary. Caution is always needed when climbing rocks. There is also a short part at the end with cliff edges where we were extra careful and made sure our daughter was safely in her carrier.
We received an initial treasure hunt clue after paying our admission, and following the clues, which provided facts and history about the park was as fun as exploring the rocks, caves and forest. We located a locked box near the end of the hike and used the clues to determine the combination and solve the mystery.
Panama Rocks is definitely a park we would recommend to families and all nature lovers and plan to return ourselves. It is a perfect place for kids to explore nature and learn about the plant life and geology of the area. The treasure hunt also helped us to look carefully and take in our surroundings. Of course, the boys loved the “mission.” Note that it’s only open seasonally and generally closes at the end of October.
After lunch, we decided to stop at a winery before heading home. We ended up at Noble Winery in Westfield, about 15 minutes from Mayville on the way to I-90. Noble is one of over 20 wineries in Lake Erie Wine Country. It is located on a secluded hill with an absolutely spectacular view overlooking the vineyards and Lake Erie.
Westfield is known for concord grape production, and a Welch’s plant is located here. So, unlike Napa where grape juice was not produced at any of the vineyards we visited, it wasn’t surprising that grape juice was available by the bottle at Noble Winery. My husband and I enjoyed sitting on the large porch while the kids ran in the field in front of the winery. We had a clear view of them playing on the gentle slope, and they came back every few minutes for another sip.
I even spent some time frolicking in the field with the kids.
Our visit to Noble Winery capped off our perfect unplanned day. Even without the Chautauqua Institute and local marinas buzzing with activities, we found Chautauqua to be a lovely place to visit during the off-season. Our first family visit to the area was so enjoyable that we would love to return again in the spring or fall and explore some more.
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