Orleans County NY: The Erie Canal Runs Through It

WHY GO: The Erie Canal runs through Orleans County NY – an area of Western New York just 40 minutes from Rochester, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and the Canadian border. The County also boasts a coastline along Lake Ontario.

These two features – the Canal and a Great Lake – have contributed to a more worldly populace than you might expect from a rural farm region.

Fishing boat in Oak Orchard River Point Breeze Lake Ontario

In addition, Orleans County NY is known as one of the best fishing destinations in the region. Hard core fishermen swarm here year-round.

And, this area of New York can also be nicknamed America’s Fruitbasket, as the soil here is ideal for growing apples, cherries, berries, and an abundance of vegetables. It’s been said that “if you live in Orleans County NY and shop in a grocery store for your fruits and veggies – shame on you.”

Three towns in Orleans County NY – Medina, Albion, and Holley – are on the Erie Canal. (The town of Medina has the most “hustle and bustle” as boaters often hop off there to dine). We’ll let you in on our favorite places to go in each – as well as hot spots along Lake Ontario.

Read below to learn about a Canal-Town Opera House turned posh hotel, a 7th Generation female fruit farmer creating world-class luncheons from just-picked produce, small villages lost in time, and two Ripley’s Believe it Or Not attractions – all in Orleans County NY.

And, if you’re looking for more dreamy weekends in New York State, check out this Most Romantic Getaways in NY roundup.

Things To Do in Medina NY and Nearby

Medina NY Visitor's Center

STOP IN: Medina Visitor’s Center

For all kinds of maps, advice, and, sometimes, chit-chat, head over to the Medina’s Visitor’s Center, in Rotary Park across from Bent’s Opera House on Main St. It’s so fairy-tale cute, it serves as Santa’s House during the holidays. Pick up a walking tour brochure and then stop along the street to read interpretive signs. And, of course, shop away.

A Lily and A Sparrow owner Laura Gardner Medina NY

SHOP: Medina Downtown

Medina NY is going through quite the revival, thanks in no small part to the repurposing of Bent’s Opera House into a luxury boutique hotel. But it’s kept its character – some compare it to a “Hallmark Village” – thanks to conservationists who resisted demolishing the famed Medina Sandstone structures that line Main Street.

A Lily And A Sparrow Women’s Clothing

Owner Laura Gardner is aptly named. She tends to her customers with grace, and plants her unique, colorful, fantastic clothing and accessories (many from Denmark) around her shop to gorgeous effect. It’s nearly impossible to walk out empty handed.  

Della’s Chocolates

Pick up Della’s most popular Sponge Candy or large Peanut Butter Cups.

Rosenkrans Pharmacy

Opened in 1937, this old fashioned pharmacy has bucked the commercial CVS’ing trend, and still believes in the personal touch. Find lots of gifts, candy, souvenirs, t-shirts, school supplies – and of course, drug prescriptions.

The English Rose Tea Shop

Get your loose teas here in every flavor, as well as teapots, cozies and every tea accoutrement you’ll ever need.

Author’s Note Bookstore

A well and thoughtfully stocked indie bookstore! The mark of a well-read town.

Vintage Cigar

Cigars and smoking room with a walk-in humidor.

Creekside Gifts And Floral Shop

Need a funky pot for your indoor plant? Or the plant itself. Pick up something fun for yourself or a friend.

Blissetts

This unique clothing store offers a generous selection of wedding dresses and baby clothes, selling the necessities for two important lifecycle events.

Ellen j. Goods Vintage

If vintage is your thing – you’ll be in heaven here.

Herbalty Cottage

Feeling off? A stretch in a Himalayan Salt Room or Infrared Sauna might help. This shop offers salt lamps, balsamic vinegars, herbs and spices, essential oils, reflexology, acupressure, and nutritional therapy as well.

Downtown Medina NY from Erie Canal path

WALK: Erie Canal Path

Mile 303 of the 368 mile long Erie Canal is a block from main street – a couple of minutes from Bent’s Opera House. If you’re lucky, you can chat up boat captains who’ve tied their vessels up right in town – or get ideas from Canal bikers for a future trip.  

If you love waterfalls, ask a local how to get to Medina Falls, a bit out of town, viewable from a paved path along the Canal. It’s also where you can snap the perfect picture of downtown Medina (see photo above).

BOAT: North Star Cruises on Erie Canal

Captain Brian Hellner takes visitors on either a 22ft pontoon boat or 34 ft. yacht on a hour+ trip on the Erie Canal from Medina. It’s a great way to get a first-hand sense of this historic waterway. Seasonal.

Church in the middle of the street - medina ny

PHOTO OP: St. John’s Episcopal Church

According to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, St. John’s Episcopal in Medina NY is the only church in the USA located in the middle of a street.  

Medina Culvert tunnel with Erie Canal on top

COOL SPOT: Medina Culvert

Believe it or not, there’s another Ripley’s Believe it Or Not attraction in Medina: the Medina Culvert – the only tunnel that allows cars to drive under Erie Canal! Yes, the waterway actually teeters atop the tunnel, which is, hopefully, inspected frequently by engineers. The best photos would include a boat above and your car below, but you’ve got to have patience.

VISIT: Medina Railroad Museum

If you’re into trains – big and small – Medina has you covered. The Medina Railroad Museum has both NY Central E-8 diesel locomotives, and one of the longest model train layouts on one floor in the USA, at 204 ft long and 14 feet wide – along with over 7,000 historic artifacts.

Things To Do in Orleans County NY

Cobblestone Museum Albion NY

TOUR: Cobblestone Museum, Albion

The only museum dedicated to cobblestone masonry in the world, and designated a National Historic Landmark, the eight-building, living history Cobblestone Museum celebrates the water-washed stones left here post-ice-age. Built as a Universalist Church in 1835, it was one of over a thousand such cobblestone structures in New York State: most within 60 miles of Rochester. It fell into disrepair and disuse in the 1950’s.

To save it, and other buildings, the Cobblestone Society was founded in the 1960’s – and preserves it to this day.

Universalists built their churches without crosses and other ritualistic objects as rebellion against Catholicism. So, on an entertaining, roughly 2 hour tour, you’ll inspect the church’s rather plain interior, discover building practices of the day, and learn about the pews rented by member families on monthly basis. Most interesting, you’ll see that the cobblestones decorating the church’s exterior is basically veneer covering “rubble walls.”

Next door, at the home once owned (but not lived in) by abolitionist and newspaper man, Horace Greeley, contemplate how families lived in the 1880’s. Fans of horsehair furniture and air-pump vacuum cleaners will be thrilled.

Tours also include the Gaines District No 5 Schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, print shop, harness shop, and farm tool exhibit hall. See website for operating dates, hours, and fees.

Fishing on Lake Ontario, Orleans County NY

GO: Fishing: Lake and Rivers

This area of New York is known for its world class fisheries and is in fact a year-round angler destination. From August into September, for example, the salmon and brown trout make their way from the very deep Lake Ontario into the county’s Oak Orchard River to spawn. Three kinds of Salmon, three types of Trout, Walleye, Perch, Carp, Bass, and Pike all run in either Lake Ontario or Oak Orchard River at various times of year.  

Point Breeze at Sunset Orleans County NY

DRIVE: Point Breeze on Lake Ontario, Carlton

Walk on a riprap path out past the Oak Orchard Lighthouse, for exceptional views of Lake Ontario. The Lighthouse, a replica of the one that stood in this place from 1871 to 1916 (when it was swept away in a storm), is also a small museum.

Point Breeze, where the Oak Orchard River empties out into Lake Ontario, has a small marina, a boat ramp for trailered boats, two well-rated restaurants (Back North and Gilligan’s Galley). Come for sunset when it’s especially beguiling.

STOP: Albion

When driving in, you may be held up by the historic Main Street Lift Bridge allowing Erie Canal boat traffic to go through the center of Albion. But if you’re into Greek Revival and Italianate Medina Sandstone architecture, you’ll want to drive slowly through town anyway.

Garden cemetery buffs will find Mount Albion Cemetery deserving of a visit. There, you can walk several trails and climb to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument for lovely views. Albion also has several shops, and its Universal Church is known for its Tiffany windows.

Erie Canal boat dock Holley NY

 WALK/BOAT: Canalway Trail, Holley

There are electric and water hookups on this portion of the Erie Canal. Plus, it’s close to the well-kept little village of Holley, where you’ll also find the Old Train Depot Museum.

Holley Falls Park Holley NY

GO: Holley Falls Park

Another waterfall park – at Holley Falls Park, you’ll often find people fishing, and quite unbelievably, in season, salmon trying to jump up the falls to spawn.

Where to Eat in Orleans County NY

Hurd Orchards Farm Shop Holley NY

EAT/LUNCH: Themed Luncheon at Hurd Orchards, Holley

If music be the food of love, then love itself is the food served at a Hurd Orchards themed luncheon.  This mid-day meal is, in my opinion, the gold standard of farm-to-table dining.

Seventh Generation owner of Hurd Orchard, Amy Hurd Machamer, and her mother came up with a way to keep their 1,000-acre family fruit and flower farm relevant. A natural educator and entertainer, Machamer, and her Mom, highlight the things they grow on their farm by creating culinary events around them. The result is nothing short of spectacular – not to mention, mouthwatering.

Themed luncheon inside historic barn at Hurd Orchards Holley NY

Three days a week in season, they invite up to 75 people for lunch in Hurd Orchards’ historic 1800’s English threshing barn (leaving weekends for nuptials). The barn is decked out like a wedding reception – with flowers just cut from gardens at each private or communal table.

Even before the first course arrives, Amy thanks her guests for coming out to her ‘little ole farm” in Orleans County NY. She discusses both the geological history of the region – the glaciers receded leaving well-drained fertile soil, “perfect for growing fruit ” – and the area’s human history.

After the Revolutionary War, land around the Northeast coast was over-utilized and depleted, drawing New England farmers to Western NY in the early 1800’s. When the Erie Canal was built, in 1825, it made many a farm family here wealthy – as they could ship their goods easily East and West. Amy weaves in stories of her own family and those who have visited here.

Strawberry and Rose Petal salad, Hurd Orchards Themed Luncheon, Holley NY

And then, the main event: in my case, A Peonies & Old Roses Lunch, which of course included edible flowers. My mid-June meal began with tiny berry muffins and Rose-petal-strawberry salad, followed by quiche with rhubarb sauce, and a lovely berry coulis dessert. The ambiance, the food, the company – all together – is worth a drive from anywhere. Check online for availability and cost.

Chicken dish at Zambistro, Medina NY

EAT: Zambistro, Medina

Opened in 2006, and one of the top fine-dining spots in Medina (the other is Harvest), Zambistro turns comfort food into an elegant dining experience. Chef Michael Zambito oversees extensive and luscious seasonal menus that include steak, seafood, and even pizza in a pretty, contemporary space. My chicken cutlet was light as a feather. I had no idea it could be that good.

Harvest Restaurant Medina NY

EAT: Harvest Restaurant at Bent’s Opera House Hotel

Harvest Restaurant at Bent’s Opera House Hotel serves up innovative tweaks on what could have been your average hotel cuisine in other hands. The chefs create dishes out of what they can get from nearby farmers – true farm to fork eating. The space is gorgeous and sophisticated, with a piano lounge where you’ll find guests singing along almost every summer night.

The Coffee Pot, Medina NY

COFFEE: The Coffee Pot Cafe, Medina

This coffee-art gallery Coffee Pot Cafe is a local hotspot. The java is excellent – but the French-style pastries? Even better. And, I mean so flakey, the birds will thank you for eating outside.

EAT: Locals Also Recommend in Medina

Tapped on Main for pizza; Fitzgibbons Irish Bar; Mile 303 Bar and Restaurant for small batch spirits, and organic dishes; And Shirt Factory Coffee to Cocktails.

Where to Stay in Orleans County NY

Purple Hazel Room Bents Opera House Medina NY

STAY: Bent’s Opera House, Medina

One of the glammest, sexiest boutique hotels in a small town, the 10-room Bent’s Opera House has earned Maven Favorite status. So read our Bent’s Opera House Boutique Hotel review here.

Hart House Hotel Medina NY

STAY: Hart House Hotel (At the Newell Shirt Factory)

Another repurposed boutique lodging – the Hart House Hotel, right across the street from Bent’s Opera House – offers seven contemporary rooms and suites. Formerly the Newell Shirt Factory, the building also houses offices and a cafe

Author

  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

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