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Family Staycation in Ithaca

mother carrying child while outside
Robert Treman State Park, upper entrance


We love spring! As soon as the first warm rays of sunshine make it through the clouds after the long winter, crocuses and snow drops poke their heads out of the ground, birdsong fills the air, and Ithacans stream out of their houses to soak up the warmth. A few particularly optimistic individuals (who are a lot heartier than I) even pull on their flip flops and shorts. 

It's a wonderful, lively time, and this year our family decided to take it in fully -- with a staycation. Two nights away from home, visiting our town from a whole new perspective, slowing down, and just spending some quality time together without the distractions of work and household demands.

Plus, for our kids, six-year-old Max and three-year-old Miki, this would be a great reintroduction to traveling after sticking pretty close to home for the past year. (I think our longest drive was an hour away, once.)

grayhaven motel ithaca entrance

DAY 1, Tuesday

Well, as it turns out, we adults, Olivia and Andrew, felt surprisingly rusty at packing and prepping, too -- despite being former semi-professional travelers for business and research. Maybe that's why it took a lot longer than anticipated to leave the house on our first afternoon. Almost immediately, our determination to "go with the flow" and "be in the moment" was put to test. 

By the time we'd settled in at the Grayhaven Motel, it was already too late to venture out again to Trumansburg to visit Taughannock Falls State Park, which was the first point on our vacation agenda. It's usually one of our favorite local destinations: The flat, 1.5-mile Gorge Trail hike to the dramatic waterfall (its claim to fame is being 33 feet higher than Niagara Falls and the tallest free-falling waterfall in the northeastern U.S.) is just right for kids.

Luckily, the Grayhaven, which is lovely and clean with a nostalgic mid-century feel, provided plenty of entertainment. Just having a motel room proved to be rather exciting. The kids immediately poked into every corner, jumped on the beds, opened each door and drawer, and stood in awe of the fully equipped kitchenette. Max: "We didn't even have to bring our own toaster!"

Actually, having access to a kitchen was one reason we'd chosen the Grayhaven. When traveling, we love having the option of not leaving our accommodations when one of the kids gets hungry...again. It's also helpful to have a selection of favorite foods at the ready in the fridge to please even your pickiest eater.

In a pandemic year, we wanted a space of our own with a separate entrance and few, if any, shared facilities. Grayhaven's owners, Alexis and Mark, did a great job of making us feel safe with their COVID cleaning protocols and contactless check-in. They still managed to welcome us warmly with a series of emails before and during our stay and an info sheet with my name on it that was waiting in the room.

That afternoon and during the rest of our stay, we took full advantage of the motel's 11 acres of natural area, fire pits, bocce court, and small playground.

We explored the walking loop past a little creek, beaver dam, wildflowers, and lots of different birds, including grackles, tufted titmice, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, song sparrows, a bluebird pair, and many more. (We also had many goldfinches visit the bird feeder right outside our room's picture window.) Inexplicably, there were chives growing all along the path.

Dinner was takeout from Spicy Asian, a Szechuan Chinese restaurant we'd been wanting to try out but that's usually too far from our house for a quick meal. We ate at a picnic table overlooking the trail we'd just walked. For dessert, we lit some of the provided wood in a fire pit, and thanks to the marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker kit that came with our room, the kids had their first-ever smores.

It was amazing: Only a few hours in, and we were already much more relaxed. In fact, bedtime was extra early for all.

bocce court at grayhaven ithaca

DAY 2, Wednesday:

In the morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of our staples from home (toasted sourdough waffles with maple syrup and peanut butter) before heading to the Sciencenter. Normally, that wouldn't be a big deal. We've gone there pretty regularly in the past. But this time, it had been well over a year since our last visit!

Even with COVID precautions, it still had everything we love about this gem of a kids' museum: a big variety of interactive displays that are fun and teach you about everything from wildlife to civil engineering. Actually, I have to admit that I kind of preferred the less frenetic pace that came with fewer open rooms and exhibits -- and fewer people, since only 45 at a time can sign up in advance for a time slot.

The kids definitely didn't feel deprived as they built a dam, sent yellow rubber ducks down waterfalls, petted star fish, played an invisible harp, ran around the outdoor playground, blew giant bubbles, multiplied in a mirror room, and admired animals such as rhino iguanas, California kingsnakes, and trout fry. Even the Curiosity Corner for younger kids was open. (For safety, each family received its own, sanitized basket of supplies -- such as colorful rods, scarves, and stuffed animals -- to use with the interactive displays.)

Oh, and per tradition, we spent about a third of our visit in the gift shop.

After so much activity, a low-key picnic lunch and rest time back at the motel were just our speed. We picked up bagels from Ithaca Bakery and some premade salads and sandwich spreads, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables from our local natural foods coop, Greenstar.

Refreshed, we ventured out to nearby Robert H. Treman State Park for the afternoon. Oops, we should have checked the website first: the Gorge Trail we wanted to take to the waterfalls was still closed for the season. Well, we wanted a waterfall! Actually, Andrew and I wanted a waterfall. The kids were perfectly content with a playground. We all got what we wanted at Buttermilk Falls State Park just a few miles down the road, closer to Ithaca. 

family at Buttermilk Falls Park in spring
Buttermilk Falls State Park, lower entrance

 

Pro Tip: If you purchase an entry ticket to one of the New York state parks, you can use it on the same day to enter other state parks. And if you think you'll be visiting state parks more than a handful of times in a year, consider getting an Empire Pass.

It was a lovely day, perfect for burgers and letting the kids run free outside of the Ithaca Beer Company.

We grabbed one of the many picnic tables on the expansive lawn outside the brewery and ordered food from the outside stand: bone-marrow-infused beef burgers with homemade ketchup and local buns and toppings, and a classic pizza with wood-fire-roasted tomato sauce and mozzarella from Lovely Run Dairy, a regional producer. It tasted as delicious as it sounds. And Max and Miki tired themselves out beautifully by running around in circles and befriending some of the other kids.

Ithaca Beer Company
Ithaca Beer Company

 

DAY 3, Thursday:

Check-out wasn't until noon, so we could take our time packing and relaxing in a hammock at the Grayhaven. For our last staycation hurrah, we drove back to Treman (with free entry, thanks to our new Empire pass) for some playground time we had promised the kids and a small picnic on the grass. We kept telling each other that we really need to do this more often, just sharing a meal at one of the area's parks.

Actually, there's a good chance staycationing will become a new family tradition, too. We loved taking a break from everyday life and dipping our feet back into traveling, all without too much prep work. Going during the week turned out to be a good idea to avoid any weekend crowds.

By the time we got home, even though we could count the hours we'd been gone, we'd shaken off our cabin fever and felt refreshed and hopeful for the year to come.

If we'd had more time, we might also have visited:

 

Guest Contributor

Olivia Hall is an accidental Ithacan, who—like so many—came to Ithaca, fell in love (with her husband and the city) and stayed a lot longer than she’d planned. After nearly 15 years, it still regularly surprises and delights her. Ithaca is a wonderful home to return to from her adventures across the globe—whether to Tokyo, Madrid, Cologne, Bucharest, Quito or Aqaba—and a place she’s proud to show off to visiting friends and family.

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