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Utica and You: Sights and flavors to fill a family day trip

Less than 24 hours after the last day of school, I hear these words: “Mom, I’m bored.”

What to do? A full-fledged vacation may not be in the cards, but a fun-filled day trip certainly can be. Consider Utica in the Mohawk Valley as a great place to get away.

Clocking in at an easy hour via either Route 31 or Interstate 90, Utica is a multifaceted place to explore. My boys and I recently had a chilly day to take in the sights.

First on our list was the Utica Children’s Museum. This is like the mini-me of Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play and is utterly perfect for those with very small children who get overwhelmed easily. Built in 1893, this unassuming building has four floors devoted to manipulation and imagination for ages of children from babies to 10 years old. Each room has a different room: a bank, automotive store, café, and post office to name a few, where there are buttons to push, and items to manipulate.

These areas are close enough together to allow your child to wander and play while you chat with other parents nearby. The museum has a large wooden train to climb on and puzzles and blocks to handle. I enjoyed the large electronic play and dance floor—the kind that has squares that light up when you step on them—so much my sons left me there, too embarrassed to acknowledge me.

Don’t worry if it’s one of those days where the weather doesn’t cooperate, the little ones can still get the rest of their wiggles out and have a ball at the indoor playground Billy Beez in Sangertown Square. Hopefully after all that stimulation it’s naptime and there’s the opportunity for the grown-ups to wander the mall with the stroller. With familiar anchors and over 70 retail stores and places to eat, it’s a nice way to relax or gear up for more adventures.

For clear days, Utica has no shortage of parks. Sherrill Brook Park has nature trails to hike or bike, as well as a dog park. When we were up that way we stopped to watch three yearling deer munching on the grass right by the road.

Another place on our list was the Utica Zoo. This zoo sits atop the city. Greeted with a “woop, woop!” by the gibbons, you start your adventure by walking past the world’s largest watering can. It’s made of galvanized steel, weighs in at 2,000 pounds and stands 15.5 feet high. It’s been tipped and showering the zoo since 2000 and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. We had fun taking pictures “holding” the can up. The whole zoo is just under two miles to walk, which can be broken up with picnics or a break on the children’s playground.

Speaking of food, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all that the spicy town of Utica has contributed. Utica greens, of course, are native to the Utica-Rome area. This dish of hot peppers sautéed with escarole, cheese and meat is delicious. A friend in the area suggests visiting Georgio’s Village Café for authentic greens. Another popular dish with hot peppers is chicken riggies. Although no one can definitively claim to have created this chicken, pepper, pasta and creamy tomato sauce concoction, it is widely accepted with having roots in the Utica area, and Bella Regina on Genesee Street is the place to go. Tomato pie, sort of like pizza’s Sicilian cousin without cheese topping, dates back to at least 1914 at O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, which is still a family-run business. These might not appeal to the youngsters but it goes a long way toward making Mom and Dad happy. Kid friendly fare can be found in just about every fast food restaurant right in the city.

Craving a sweet? Utica is full of Italian pastry shops. I was surprised to learn half-moon cookies (also known as black and white cookies) originated in Utica in 1920. Locals name Holland Farms Bakery as the place to go. They boast several different varieties of half-moon cookies for those who are looking for something more than just chocolate or vanilla. (Editor’s note: Photographer Michael Davis encourages a visit to the Florentine Pastry Shop, at 667 Bleecker St., near O’Scugnizzo.)

Family adventures grow as our children do. For parents with older kids, there is still plenty to do and see. Oneida County is one of those places that has something to do or see throughout the year, not just the summer months. Taberg Tower Snow Tubing is about one Henry Danger episode on the DVD player in my minivan, or in adult terms, about a half-hour away.

That same Nickelodeon show (because you know the kids can’t just watch things once) can occupy the time it will take to get to Herkimer County for those who like to experience the great outdoors with a camper, tent or cabin. Herkimer Diamond Mines, KOA Resort is a great place to start. How about digging or sluicing for diamonds? These aren’t actually diamonds, they’re 500 million-year-old quartz crystals but look very real. This day trip needs planning in advance. As the miner, you will need to bring your own equipment such as hammers, small shovels, screens and buckets. Safety eyewear and gloves are must haves. The season is open until November, rain or shine, and you keep whatever you find. We did this and I had a blast wielding a hammer: It is very cathartic to hit something to break it on purpose, and a safe way to get out pent up frustration.

Another full day trip is the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Known for its Polar Express Train ride in November and December, it also offers other themed rides throughout the year such as the Soda Fountain Lunch Train and Beer and Wine Train. The Fall Foliage trip is a popular way for families to enjoy the colors of the changing trees in a climate-controlled atmosphere. For those who don’t mind starting off in neighboring Thendara, check out the Princess and Superhero Train Ride this summer, or the Christmas train at the end of the year.

Utica is also home to Saranac Brewery/FX Matt Brewing Company, where lagers, ales and beers of summer are made. Tours take place Fridays and Saturdays, and kids under 12 are free. There is beer tasting at the end for adults and their own sodas for the kids. I did this when I was very young with my parents and had a good time. During the summer the factory hosts Saranac Thursdays in the evening. With food trucks, beer sampling, and bands it’s a great way to wind down from a busy week.

Spending time with the family makes lasting memories. Get out and explore all that the Utica area has to offer.

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