Hi-ho, hi-ho! It’s off to the diamond mines we go! Unlike the Disney version, there are no pint-size companions named Sneezy, Bashful, and Doc. But if you like getting dirty, sweaty — and, maybe, lucky — this is the activity for you.
“It’s fun to be outdoors and bang on rocks — it’s a great stress reliever,” says Victor Suon, assistant manager of operations at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA Resort (www.herkimerdiamond.com) in Herkimer, N.Y. Finding a Herkimer diamond — so-called because Herkimer County is the only place in the world where these naturally-faceted quartz crystals occur — takes some doing. “Look for dolomite limestone,” Suon advised, the porous material among the piles of gray rock. “Then look inside the vugs (holes). That is where the diamonds are.” The mine provides sledgehammers and chisels, or you can bring your own. No dark tunnels here; the mine is above ground, with ledges for whacking and rocky piles with sparkly bits to sift through.
Everything you find, you keep. “Everybody leaves with something,” Suon says. Staffers appraise every find. The largest diamond cluster unearthed here was 17 inches long, but the most perfect crystals are usually less than a half-inch long. Turning those sparkly bits into wearable pieces is a popular pursuit here (the mine offers jewelry-making classes.) “You’re finding something 500 million years old from Mother Nature and making something unique. That’s the magic of it,” says Herkimer Diamond Mines owner Renee Scialdo Shevat.
Herkimer diamonds are not as valuable as compacted-carbon diamonds, or rubies, but they’re more valuable than amethysts, according to gemologists. Amateur prospectors from all over the world come there to try their luck. Folks into fossils show up looking for stromatolite. The mine sells baggies studded with diamonds and gemstones for sluicing (kids love this), plus geology exhibits and a trading post filled with gems from around the world. It’s a rockhound’s dream. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere, but people from all over the world find us,” says Suon, who is originally from Lynn.
Where the heck is Herkimer? About four hours from Boston, it is set in the Mohawk Valley of central New York, situated between Albany and Utica. Unlike the touristy zones of the Finger Lakes, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks, it’s easy to overlook this area of small towns and rolling hillsides dotted with dairy farms — although it hasn’t been overlooked by companies like Chobani Yogurt, which source much of their milk here. Often, travelers combine a visit with a trip to nearby Cooperstown. (Herkimer diamonds + baseball diamonds!)
If you go road-tripping to Herkimer and only dig for diamonds, you’re just scratching the surface when it comes to outdoor fun. Cruise the Erie Canal, float in a river, bunk in a cabin, eat chicken riggies and Utica greens, and — ta dah! —discover a distant relative of New Hampshire’s gone-but-not-forgotten Old Man of the Mountain. Here are a few more gems to unearth when you visit this diamond-in-the-rough.
Same day, different rocks
“Butts up!” “Butts up!” our companion hollered. This wasn’t some sort of booty-enhancing fitness class. Nope, we were bouncing along in a rubber tube along the West Canada Creek, lifting our behinds to avoid bumping bottoms on boulders as we navigated the riffles. So. Much. Fun! The action took place across the street from the mine, alongside the camping zone of the KOA resort. One of only 12 KOA “resorts,” this place is Family Fun Central, with tubing, a swimming pool, fishing, dining, and of course camping — lots of RVs, a smattering of tents, cabins, and lodges. Kids are everywhere, riding bikes, in the playgrounds, and lugging tubes to Splash Alley (a.k.a. the creek) for float trips. With so much included, the ability to cook meals onsite, and rates that start at around 50 bucks per night for a tent site on weekends, no wonder this place fills up. Cabins and lodges range from $120 to $350 (higher on holiday weekends). There are also a couple of nice B&Bs in the area, if that’s more your jam.
If you’ve never navigated on the Erie Canal
Did you know there have been three Erie canals? History buffs, and those who just like a boat cruise, should consider a ride on Lil’ Diamond II ($25 adults; www.eriecanalcruises.com), a 50-foot passenger boat, on the Erie Canal. Lasting 90 minutes, the narrated cruise features a trip through Lock 18, a “liquid elevator” — it’s an odd sensation to feel the water drop by 2.5 million gallons in five minutes. Spend a few minutes at the Visitor’s Center, Gems Along the Mohawk, a showcase for locally-made products. (You’ll have to forgive them for stocking Yankees sweat shirts.)
Along the canal, you’ll notice cyclists biking on a waterside path. That would be the 750-mile Empire State Trail, the longest state-maintained multi-use trail in the nation. (The section that runs east-west from Albany to Buffalo is known as the Erie Canalway Trail; www.eriecanalway.org.) Cool, eh? Currently, there are no bike rentals nearby, so you’ll have to BYOB if you want to add this to your trip.
Dig into this
You’re in for an active trip, so you’ll need some solid refueling. Eating local means lots of cheese in dairy country; they even have a cheese trail that spans four counties. Other must-tries: chicken riggies, a local pasta dish with rigatoni, chicken, and hot or sweet peppers in a spicy cream and tomato sauce; and Utica greens, an Italian-American dish made of sauteed greens, garlic, hot peppers, parmesan and pecorino Romano cheese, prosciutto and bread crumbs. You can sample both, and a stuffed Utica greens pizza, at the Miner’s Table at Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA Resort ( www.minerstable.com).
The most famous place to eat in Herkimer (and definitely the liveliest) is Crazy Otto’s Empire Diner (www.crazyottosempirediner.com), downtown. This award-winning, family-owned diner (”best diner in New York State”) has reached icon status with claims to fame like making the world’s largest omelet, and chef/owner Scott Tranter’s local cooking show. Come with an appetite — portions are huge — and don’t miss their fabulous stuffed blueberry French toast. (There’s even a local connection; Tranter is a Massachusetts guy and attended culinary arts school in Quincy.)
We had another amazing meal at the Canal Side Restaurant & Inn (www.canalsideinn.com) in Little Falls, about 19 minutes from Herkimer. (Little Falls is home to a series of drops and rapids on the Mohawk River.) Chef John Luciano is a Bostonian (his CV includes Aujourd’hui and Mistral) with a vibrant presence. His French-meets-American menu (dinner only) is just as exuberant. Highlights include a swoon-worthy osso buco and the best lobster ravioli we’ve ever had.
And if you’re missing the Old Man of the Mountain, arrive in Little Falls before dinner and head to Moss Island National Natural Landmark, set between the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. The site features a network of hiking trails, and ancient igneous rock cliffs prized by rock climbers and geologists. Head away from Lock 17, with the rock walls on your right, to see Profile Rock, with a face that looks like the Old Man’s little brother.
Yep, more rocks!
For information on the region, visit www.herkimercountychamber.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org