Fall golf is exhilarating in the Empire State's scenic northern reaches
Ben Stechschulte Autumn in New York
| Credit: Ben Stechschulte

A thought occurred to me during a long—okay, a really long—drive on the New York State Thruway. It was accompanied by something I first sensed many years ago as a college student in the Finger Lakes: The light truly is different here, and special, just as it is in Ireland, Hawaii and the Canadian Rockies. I admit I'm far from the first to take note of this—back in the nineteenth century, the artists of the Hudson River School set up their easels from the Catskills to Lake George and far beyond, capturing in opulent oils the mix of brilliance and melancholy in upstate light.

Of course, the golfer's mind could easily add a sloping green and a few bunkers to those landscapes, as nowhere is the light more inspiring than on one of the area's courses during a fall afternoon. Starting in Coopers­town and going around the horn to the Adirondacks, here is a look at three of the best upstate regions in which to entertain yourself—on the course and off—between now and the end of October.

Cooperstown and Binghamton

Tourist towns that are well kept, walkable and lined with curiosity shops often run the risk of crossing into Thomas Kinkade territory, and that goes double for one that is promoted as "America's Most Perfect Village." But Cooperstown never lays the quaintness on with a trowel. As such, it has a lot going for it as a family destination: the Fenimore Art Museum, the Glimmerglass Opera, microbrews like Ommegang's distinctive Belgian ales, aquatic recreation on Otsego Lake, and, of course, the Baseball Hall of Fame (see left).

By car, Cooperstown is roughly four hours from both New York City—a straight shot up the New York State Thruway (I-87)—and from Boston, via the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90). Continuing along I-88 brings you to the golf-rich area around Binghamton, where a cluster of courses offers excellent value and a diversity of styles.

Where to Play

Conklin Players Club

Conklin Players is the sort of family success story that bolsters one's faith in the game's future. Designed by two brothers and their brother-in-law, the course opened in 1991, and its reputation has been expanding ever since. It's known especially for good conditioning—one of the founders is also the superintendent. Regulars may warn you that the course is also notorious for its par threes, including one downhill plunge that plays as long as 259 yards over a gaping ravine.

1520 Conklin Road, Conklin. Architects: Rick Rickard, Rick Brown and Marty Brown, 1991. Yardage: 6,772. Par: 72. Slope: 127. Greens Fees: $38–$54. Contact: 607-775-3042, conklinplayers.com.

Leatherstocking Golf Course

Leatherstocking is full of antique features, including small, fast greens and slippery contours, both natural and man-made. Walkability is built into the design, as are lovely views of Otsego Lake, which figures prominently into the strategy of the closing holes. The drive to the cape fairway from the island tee on the eighteenth is a shot to look forward to.

60 Lake Street, Cooperstown. Architect: Devereux Emmet, 1909. Yardage: 6,415. Par: 72. Slope: 135. Greens Fees: $85–$95. Contact: 800-348-6222, otesaga.com.

The Links at Hiawatha Landing

Built on parkland but no walk in the park, this track just west of Binghamton attempts to approximate the windswept conditions of a British links. Most of the greens are accessible by the bump-and-run and there are no forced carries, although the absence of blind shots makes it perhaps less quirky than the average links across the Atlantic.

2350 Marshland Road, Apalachin. Architects: Brian Silva and Mark Mungeam, 1994. Yardage: 7,104. Par: 72. Slope: 133. Greens Fees: $39–$70. Contact: 607-687-6952, hiawathalinks.com.

Best of The Rest

The short but tight Chenango Valley State Park (nysparks.com) is part of New York's impressive network of affordable courses. It was designed by Hal Purdy, who was once construction supervisor to Robert Trent Jones. En-Joie Golf Club (enjoiegolf.com) in Endicott is one of Michael Hurdzan's early works and was for many years the PGA Tour's upstate stop.

Where to Stay

The Otesaga Resort Hotel Adjacent to Leatherstocking, the Otesaga is a Coopers­town institution and a fine example of the town's Federal period architecture.

60 Lake Street, Cooperstown. Rooms: from $250. Contact: 800-348-6222, otesaga.com.

Overlook Bed & Breakfast It's more modest than the Otesaga, but Overlook is just three blocks from the Hall of Fame.

8 Pine Boulevard, Cooperstown. Rooms: from $129. Contact: 607-547-2019, overlookbb.com.

Where to Eat

Alex & Ika (Eclectic) New to Cooperstown, this white-tablecloth restaurant is known for its creative flavor pairings.

149 Main Street, Cooperstown; 607-547-4070, alexandika.com. $$$

Number 5 (Steak house) A southern-tier landmark housed in an old fire station, Number 5 excels when it comes to preparing steaks and chops.

33 South Washington Street, Binghamton; 607-723-0555, number5restaurant.com. $$$

Sycracuse and the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes is a place where unexpected discoveries abound. For instance, fly into Syracuse Hancock International, then make the scenic fifty-mile loop around Keuka Lake on Route 54A, with dozens of possible stops at wineries, farm stands and antique shops along the way. Or check out a town like Skaneateles, once a bit down at the heel, now a thriving summer destination with outdoor concerts and a lively downtown. The natural setting, of course, is also a significant draw; these are some of the cleanest lakes in America.

Where to Play

Turning Stone Resort & Casino, kaluhyat Golf Club

Much has been made of the mutual attraction between golf and gaming, but seldom has the relationship seemed so linear as at Turning Stone, operated by the Oneida Indian Nation in Verona, about thirty miles east of Syracuse. Opened in 1993, the resort now offers seventy-two holes, including three eighteens that are as good as any in the region. The first of these was Shenendoah Golf Club, designed by Rick Smith. Alternating between forest and meadowland, Shenendoah conforms to the formula for resort-course design. But the second layout, Kaluhyat (pronounced "gah-LOO-yut," an Oneida word meaning "the other side of the sky"), is a strapping test that slopes out at 146 from the back tees. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., it is slightly shorter than Shenendoah but is also tighter and hillier.

5218 Patrick Road, Verona. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 2003. Yardage: 7,105. Par: 72. Slope: 146. Greens Fees: $95–$140. Contact: 800-771-7711, turningstone.com.

Turning Stone Resort & Casino, Atunyote Golf Club

Atunyote (pronounced "uh-DUNE-yote" and meaning "eagle") is Turning Stone's most recent addition. The contours of its grassland setting can be reminiscent of designer Tom Fazio's work in Florida: vast open spaces punctuated by artful bunkering and adroitly deployed water features. Good fun for average players, it can also be made challenging enough to host a PGA Tour event, which it will later this month.

5218 Patrick Road, Verona. Architect: Tom Fazio, 2004. Yardage: 7,315. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Greens Fees: $175–$225. Contact: 800-771-7711, turningstone.com.

Best of the Rest

Cornell alum Robert Trent Jones Sr. made his mark on the Finger Lakes, designing strong courses for his alma mater (open only to those connected in some way to the field of education) as well as Colgate University's Seven Oaks Golf Course (seven oaks.colgate.edu), which is just down the road in Hamilton and open to the public. For one more crack at a Trent Jones design, try Bristol Harbour Resort (bristol harbour.com) on Lake Canandaigua.

Where to Stay

The Lodge at Turning Stone This all-suite hotel boasts such luxuries as private balconies with four-person hot tubs. If you're feeling lucky, the casino is a short walk away, or cleanse your body and spirit in an authentic sweat-lodge experience at the resort's award-winning Skaná spa.

5218 Patrick Road, Verona. Suites: from $295. Contact: 800-771-7711, thelodge.travel.

The Sherwood Inn Built as a stagecoach stop in 1807, this cozy inn's guest rooms are decorated in period style but also offer modern amenities like whirlpool tubs. The Tavern downstairs features live music on Saturday nights and is great for a casual pint.

26 West Genesee Street, Skaneateles. Rooms: from $130. Contact: 800-374-3796, thesher woodinn.com.

Where to Eat

Bluewater Grill (American) This restaurant in the center of town offers indoor and outdoor seating and a convivial atmosphere.

11 West Genesee Street, Skaneateles; 315-685-6600. $$

Wildflowers (Continental) Turning Stone's fine-dining experience is driven by its seasonal menu. Try one of the specialty dishes prepared tableside, such as the flambé filet in mushroom red wine sauce.

Turning Stone Resort & Casino, Verona; turn ingstone.com. $$$$

The Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs

At more than six million acres—easily the largest park in the continental United States—the Adirondack Park seems a bit underrated. But the beauty of its lakes, ponds, rivers and peaks is most remarkable for how well those elements meld with the park's towns and resorts.

Saratoga Springs, just south of the park, combines the relaxed demeanor of a resort town with the status-consciousness of a mostly affluent clientele, all in an architectural environment that seems frozen in time. The scene is at its most vibrant in August, during the annual confabs at Saratoga Race Course (see left), which does for thoroughbred racing what Wrigley Field does for baseball. Albany International is the closest major airport to both areas.

Where to Play

The Sagamore Golf Club

Of the four-hundred-plus courses credited to Donald Ross, this design on Lake George is one of the finest. With its hog-backed greens, cross bunkering, seamless green-to-tee tie-ins and smooth playability, it's a classic example of golden-age architecture. And its first hole—which features a drive against the backdrop of the lake followed by a severely climbing approach—proves that Ross didn't always believe the opener should be a friendly handshake.

110 Sagamore Road, Bolton Landing. Architect: Donald Ross, 1928. Yardage: 6,890. Par: 70. Slope: 137. Greens Fees: $110–$135. Contact: 518-743-6380, thesagamore.com.

Saranac Inn Golf and Country Club

This course on the banks of Upper Saranac Lake is the work of the prolific Seymour Dunn, originally from North Berwick in Scotland. Many of Dunn's features are still intact, including horse-collar bunkers surrounding long stands of fescue grasses.

125 Route 46, Saranac Lake. Architect: Seymour Dunn, 1901. Yardage: 6,557. Par: 72. Slope: 128. Greens Fee: $65. Contact: 518-891-1402, saranacinn.com.

Saratoga National Golf Club

Saratoga National is a distinctly modern course set on a sprawling 450-acre site that was once a horse farm. It features five tee boxes, numerous forced carries, twenty-four bridges and an island green.

458 Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs. Architect: Roger Rulewich, 2001. Yardage: 7,265. Par: 72. Slope: 147. Greens Fees: $110–$175. Contact: 518-583-4653, golfsaratoga.com.

Best of the Rest

In Lake Placid, Whiteface Club & Resort (whitefaceclubresort.com) dates to 1898 and offers dazzling lake and mountain views. If you're on your way to or from Montreal, try Malone Golf Club (malonegolfclub.com). Just this side of the Canadian border, it's a thirty-six-hole complex with two Robert Trent Jones designs.

Where to Stay

Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa A nicely restored 1920s inn within easy walking distance of Lake Placid's town center.

77 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid. Rooms: from $290. Contact: 518-523-2544, mirror lakeinn.com.

The Sagamore A National Historic Landmark, this grand hotel, originally built in 1883, is perfect for a lakefront getaway.

110 Sagamore Road, Bolton Landing. Rooms: from $299. Contact: 866-385-6221, thesagamore.com.

The Saratoga Arms This hotel has been a fixture of the town's social scene almost since it opened in 1870. With thirty-one individually decorated rooms, it's cozy but full-service.

497 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Rooms: from $175. Contact: 518-584-1775, saratogaarms.com.

Where to Eat

Hattie's (Cajun) Saratoga has its formal restaurants, but we liked this casual Cajun place for its fried chicken and unusual beers.

45 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs; hattiesrestaurant.com. $$

Trillium (New American) For a fine-dining experience, the Sagamore's restaurant easily surpasses resort standards.

The Sagamore, Bolton Landing; thesagamore.com. $$$$

For anyone disillusioned by steroid scandals, exorbitant salaries and big leaguers who can't hit the cut-off man, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (888-425-5633, baseballhalloffame.org) will provide the antidote. Modestly scaled and unassuming in appearance, it's reverential but doesn't gloss over warts on the game's history, like racial inequality and labor strife. But the best part is the room featuring row upon row of plaques that encapsulate the careers of the hall's members. Some events during induction weekend, the Hall's capstone affair in late July, require tickets, but many, including the ceremony itself and the traditional New York–Penn League Game, are free and open to the public. Autumn visitors might consider timing their trip to coincide with the annual World Series Gala, when the Hall of Fame shows the first game on a big-screen TV and provides refreshments, trivia contests, raffles and other entertainment. The function is only open to museum members (a one-year family membership costs $70).

A day hike is a good way to take in the crisp air and vibrant colors of fall in the Finger Lakes. Most of the lakes have parks near their shores; one of the most scenic—and popular—is Watkins Glen State Park (nysparks.state.ny.us). The path along the gorge takes visitors past a stream that gradually tumbles four hundred feet, generating nineteen waterfalls along the way. A more secluded hike can be found fifteen minutes up the road at Finger Lakes National Forest (fs.fed.us/ r9/gmfl). This sixteen-thousand-acre preserve situated on a ridge between the Seneca and Cayuga Lakes has more than thirty miles of hiking trails, traversing a variety of woodland environments scored by gorges and ravines.

There was a time when a wine tour in the Finger Lakes was viewed in terms similar to a keg party, only without the music. In recent years, though, nowhere has the new wave of oenophilia been more evident than in upstate New York. The Finger Lakes now has almost one hundred wineries, some of which have gourmet restaurants on property. The region is best known for its rieslings, and whites in general are considered more refined than reds, but there's a bit of everything on offer.

It's beautiful country to visit and is less pretentious than some wine regions. Four of the lake areas have wine trails and sponsor tastings and other events. For more information, call 800-813-2958 or visit fingerlakeswinecountry.com.

The ancient Saratoga Race Course (518-584-6200, nyra .com), where the racing season runs from late July through Labor Day, is a throwback to more genteel times. General admission costs three dollars, but it's better to pay a little extra (five dollars) for clubhouse access. The buffet breakfast on the track-level clubhouse porch is a great way to watch the thoroughbreds prepare for the day's races. Saratoga's signature event is the Travers Stakes, run in late August.

At the track and around town, people-watching is integral to the scene. Stroll down Broadway, the town's main drag, or follow the ponies (and the fashions) at the Saratoga Polo Club (518-584-8108, saratogapolo .com). Matches are contested on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings from mid-June through Labor Day; tickets cost ten to twenty dollars.

But the horse culture only took off after Saratoga was well established as a spa town in the mid-nineteenth century. A classic soak can still be had at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa, located in the state park adjacent to the Georgian-inspired Gideon Putnam Hotel Resort and Spa (518-226-4790, gideonputnam.com).