In August 2019, I joined a guided tour of Manitoga, the National Historic Landmark site of legendary American designer Russel White’s remarkable forest retreat.

Listed on the national Iconic Houses Network, his experimental home and studio, Dragon Rock, is a singular mid-century invention. Hugging a ledge in a reclaimed quarry, pioneering elements include a flat green roof, Japanese-influenced interiors and continuous inside-outside flow.

As our guide explained, in exquisitely cultivating the house and surrounding 75-acre woodland landscape, Wright wanted visitors “to experience all five senses.”

[Related Content: James Doser Helps Visitors Find Rochester's Artistic Soul]

Located in the Hudson Highlands 50 miles north of NYC (private and custom tours are available, via car or Metro North train with Cold Spring Trolley), this is a place to put away your phone, set work aside, and let wonderment work its magic.

From the swaying trees honoring Martha Graham’s dancers to the choreographed hiking trails, Manitoga, Algonquin for “Place of Great Spirit,” memorably fulfills that sensory intent. 

Exploring the Empire State far and wide for the last 32 years—15 of those writing for Meetings Today—continues to be a four-season, all-senses adventure.

From tantalizing tastes and stimulating art to inspiring structures and fantasy islands, here are some tickets to a true New York state of mind.

1. The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester

Born into a Rochester family of wealthy collectors, Margaret Woodbury Strong amassed more than 27,000 dolls and everyday American household objects in more than 50 categories.

In 1968, following the “fascination” her collection inspired, she obtained a state charter to turn her home into a “Museum of Fascination.” Strong passed away 1969, but her vision was realized 13 years later with the opening of her eponymous museum.

The Strong National Museum of Play, Credit: The Strong, Rochester, N.Y.
The Strong National Museum of Play, Credit: The Strong, Rochester, N.Y.

Today, the Strong serves as a preeminent global resource for the study of play. With guiding mantras such as “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning,” the multi-venue museum’s captivating collection includes the first handmade Monopoly set and Barbie No. 1.

With rentals that include the Toy Halls of Fame, access to the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden and full buyouts, The Strong’s interactive spaces facilitate free play and exploration, as well as teambuilding exercises such as scavenger hunts and pinball machine challenges.

In 2018, The Strong commenced a $60 million expansion driven by the Neighborhood of Play, a dynamic new walkable neighborhood revitalizing the surrounding downtown area.

Phase One, slated for completion by the end of 2019, includes a multi-level 1,000-car parking garage. In 2020, Phase Two creates a multifaceted 90,000-square-foot addition to the museum, including a new high-adventure ropes course.

2. Gideon Putnam Hotel, Saratoga Springs

Ancient naturally carbonated mineral springs once surfaced in a wilderness area known to local Native Americans as Serachtague, or “place of swift water.” 

In 1802, this sacred liquid asset inspired entrepreneur Gideon Putnam to build an early spa resort. In 1816, he co-founded Saratoga Springs.

“Taking the waters” elevated Saratoga to national prominence as “Queen of the Spas” through the mid-20th century.

His effervescent legacy lives on at his namesake resort, opened in 1935 within Saratoga Spa State Park. With 124 rooms and 22 suites, the property offers 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space and the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa.

Roosevelt Baths & Spa at Gideon Putnam Hotel, Courtesy: Delaware North
Roosevelt Baths & Spa at Gideon Putnam Hotel, Courtesy: Delaware North

Delegates can access transformative hydrotherapy and wellness services in 42 original treatment rooms, while planners can consultatively customize treatments, yoga, guided meditation and other programs for attendees.

3. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Syracuse

Opened as an express takeout joint in 2008, this Syracuse original gained national fame and celebrity customers for its slow-smoked St. Louis-style ribs, tangy original sauce and other BBQ fare. Last year’s 30th anniversary saw co-founder John Stage regain majority control of the company from a George Soros-run investment management firm.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Credit: Wainwright Photo
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Credit: Wainwright Photo

The anniversary commemorated a 35-year story that began in 1983 at Harley Rendezvous, a motorcycle gathering outside of Albany. For the next five years, Stage and partners operated a mobile barbecue stand at motorcycle events throughout the Northeast.

Their Syracuse flagship has since expanded to include full-service dining, a full bar and live music six nights a week.

Two private event spaces accommodate 40 and 140 people, plus a private terrace. With other locations in Rochester, Buffalo and Troy (and Brooklyn), Dinosaur also caters offsite events.

4. Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz

Dreamily rising from the edge of Lake Mohonk, this 259-room Victorian castle celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

In 1869, twin Quaker brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley discovered Stokes Tavern by the glacial lake. Seeking to create a place of simple, peaceful retreat, they purchased the rustic 10-room inn and 300 acres of surrounding land.

True to this founding principle, the much-expanded fairyland resort, amid 40,000 acres of protected forest, transports mind, body and soul. Fourteen meeting venues include the standalone Grove Lodge, ideal for executive retreats. Nature communes include 85-plus miles of hiking trails and the legendary Lemon Squeeze ladder climb up an ancient rock crevice.

Grove Lodge at Mohonk Mountain House, Courtesy: Mohonk
Grove Lodge at Mohonk Mountain House, Courtesy: Mohonk

Hand-crafted wooden gazebos dot the grounds, many offering spectacular Hudson Valley views. Wellness and mindfulness are focal points, with resources including the Mindful Meetings package and nationally recognized spa.

5. New York State Museum, Albany

Dating to 1836, the nation’s largest and oldest state museum houses a collection of more than 15 million specimens and artifacts reflecting nearly two centuries of research in the earth sciences, biology and human history.

From geology and wildlife to a moving 9/11 tribute, over 100,000 square feet of exhibition space provide an enlightening visual portrait of New York’s natural and cultural history.

The museum notably hosted a program in January 2019 on "New York State's Great Places and Spaces."

Versatile venues for small meetings and up to 400-capacity receptions include the Adirondack and Bird Halls, and the Fourth Floor Terrace, offering stellar views of the Empire State Plaza and Capitol Building.

6. Lake Placid

Combining a rare Olympian legacy with state-of-the-art facilities and singular group activities, this historic storybook alpine village in the Adirondacks is an attendance booster for the ages.

Twice hosting the Winter Olympic Games, in 1932 and 1980, Lake Placid enjoys a rare enduring post-Olympic economy.

Featuring the greatest vertical drop in the East at 3,430 feet, Whiteface Mountain continues to host major national and international skiing events.

Olympic venues include the Sports Complex, featuring a biathlon shooting range and extensive groomed cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails. Groups can watch athletes in action or participate in programs that include bobsled rides, shooting and guided snowshoe hikes.

Both scheduled for fall 2019, the remodeled scenic elevator takes groups to the top of the 120-meter ski jump to see athletes in action, while a new gondola takes visitors from the base lodge to the 90-meter and 120-meter towers. A new zipline experience is slated to open in 2020 alongside the 90-meter Ski Jump Tower & Landing Hill.

Home of the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980, the Olympic Center is getting a major makeover.

The state’s Olympic Regional Development Authority announced in July 2019 that it is moving forward with a $100 million modernization project of the historic venue that will “define the Lake Placid experience for the next 30 years.” The connected LEED Gold-certified Conference Center at Lake Placid offers 90,000 square feet of flexible meeting and exhibition space, including 12 breakout rooms and a 9,000-square-foot ballroom.

7. Darwin Martin House Complex, Buffalo 

In July 2019, after two decades of painstaking restoration efforts, the $52 million reawakening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House to its original 1907 condition is complete.

Martin House, Credit: Patrick Mahoney
Martin House, Credit: Patrick Mahoney

Described by Executive Director Mary Roberts in a press release as “a project that has captured the imaginations and hearts of many,” the Prairie-style residential complex, also on the Iconic Houses Network, is considered one of Wright’s finest works. The same release calls the work “an important example of the legendary designer's vision to create organic architecture that promotes harmony between the built environment and the natural world.”

Inspiration is inked into the blueprint for group tours and events.

Rentals include the modern Greatbatch Pavilion for larger gatherings, with the Barton House (1903) and Gardener’s Cottage (1909) for more intimate affairs.

8. Boldt Castle, Alexandria Bay

Built for love and abandoned in heartbreak, this Thousand Islands’ treasure is New York’s Taj Mahal. In 1900, millionaire George Boldt commissioned construction of a 120-room castle on Heart Island for his wife Louise, only to abandon the project after her passing in 1904.

Rescued in 1977 by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which has since devoted millions of dollars to maintain the castle and its various stone structures, Boldt Castle today hosts seasonal tours and after-hours meetings, conferences, retreats and weddings.

Upstate New York CVB Contact Information

Discover Albany
518.434.1217

New York State Division of Tourism
800.CALL.NYS

Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism/Lake Placid CVB
518.523.2445

Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau
518.584.1531

Visit Buffalo Niagara
716.852.0511

Visit Syracuse
315.470.1910

VisitRochester
585.279.8300

1000 Islands International Tourism Council
315.482.2520