Have you ever accidentally discovered a small town-anywhere in the USA-that you immediately felt at one with? It’s hard to define exactly what it is about these places that draws you in. Is it the people? The landscape or geography? The shops, bars, and restaurants? Or a combination of any of these elements that creates a certain chemistry, creating the essence of a place?
When Carla and I recently vacationed downstate, we found ourselves with a free Saturday night. Rather than sitting in the airconditioned Airbnb, we braved the heat and ventured out to explore the area. Driving along, we discovered Kauneonga Lake, a charming hamlet in Sullivan County situated on White Lake. Why did we stop there? Because it’s just plain adorable! And affordable. And, the modest restaurant row on the lakeshore has lovely views wherever you decided to settle in with a cold drink and watch the sunset.
We chose Benji and Jake’s, on Horseshoe Lake Road, where the brothers have been crafting their innovative pizzas for over a dozen years. The pizzas are cooked in what their website says may be “the world’s first wood-fired oven on an old jet ski trailer” ad feature farm-fresh produce. They looked so delicious that I was disappointed we’d eaten such a late lunch! Jazz was working the bar there and turned out to be quite the cocktail wizard. I stuck with my usual IPA, in this case Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine. What cracked me up about this beer was its apparent identity confusion (look at the glass it came in!). Carla proved more adventurous. After being assured “Tell me what you like and I’ll make it!” by our energetic bartender, she received a colorful, fruit-garnished, rum concoction, very beachy!
While waiting to order our drinks, I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple, she from downstate and he from Astoria, and soon learned that they’re huge fans of the Finger Lakes wineries. We compared notes and it was reassuring to be reminded that, though we “true” upstaters and the big city folk may have our differences, it’s really not that hard to find a common ground. The media often focuses on tensions between down and upstate New Yorkers but none of that was evident on a hot summer night in July in Kauneonga. Everyone was friendly and gregarious, from the staff and employees, to the first responders, to the vacationers docking their boats to come ashore for food and drink after a sunny day on the lake.
Of course, with Carla being an artist we had to stop in at the Bethel Council of the Arts, which features a variety of local artisan pieces in mediums including clay, painting, and sculpture. There we met a man who grew up on a dairy farm in Moravia (NY), but left to seek his fame and fortune creating art. People’s life stories are so interesting! I window-shopped and Carla bought an unusual necklace. Last, but certainly not least, were the firemen we chatted with on our way back to the car. One even had a Canandaigua connection, a relative who works there! I’ve come to the conclusion that New York is almost as full of towns with unpronounceable names as Iceland!
This easy-to-overlook community was pretty (lots of gardens and flowers), the perfect size, and had a great deal to offer a first-time visitor looking for a place to relax after an action-packed trip to Woodstock. I would definitely come back and explore it further, hopefully for a longer period of time. But I, and the rest of you out there, better hurry! When I got home, I found out that I’m not the only one to have Kauneonga Lake on my travel radar https://www.travelandleisure.com/trip-ideas/kauneonga-lake-bethel-new-york-real-estate Maybe I’ll go back this fall with my kayak!
A perfect follow-up to our nocturnal wanderings was the small, well-maintained park we found the next day. The only drawback to Lake Superior State Park was that I couldn’t use my 2022 Empire Pass there. Though it’s called a “state” park, it’s actually county-managed, so we had to fork over the ten-dollar entrance fee. However, it was worth it. The picnic area was lovely, a grassy hill ending at a sandy, guarded beach area, and there’s a creaky dock where you can rent rowboats or sparkly paddle boats if the urge to explore overcomes you. Since gas motors are prohibited, the lake is both calm and quiet enough to really enjoy this activity. Another bonus is that family and friend groups gather there to BBQ, play music and lawn games, and socialize so there’s lots to hear, smell, and look at!
Since we hadn’t brought our lunch, we treated ourselves to a last meal at the Bethel Country Store where I had an amazing turkey BLT, potato chips, and iced tea. A perfect summer lunch served by yet another genial waitress. Life doesn’t get any better than that does it?