There is quite literally almost nothing to do halfway between Syracuse and Utica in central New York. There’s an enormous casino, an even bigger lake and, well, did I mention the casino?
Casinos are hard enough sells for family vacations when there are plenty of other activity options around them. Accordingly you’d think me an outright fool for direct minivans Turning Stone’s way, wouldn’t you? Sorry, but I’d be extremely foolish not to do just that. This is one of the most golf-rich destinations in the entire Northeast. And trust me, Turning Stone is well aware of the area’s extracurricular void. So much so that they’re in the process of expanding their already luxurious gaming and entertainment menu into an even more extravagant buffet. Yes, a resort with two AAA Four Diamond lodging facilities -- The Lodge and The Tower Hotel -- and an AAA Four Diamond Restaurant -- Wildflowers -- is actually about to get even better.
In 2018, Forbes crowned the 3,400-acre resort with their Four-Star label, mostly for their Lodge, Wildflowers and Skana Spa, but also as an “umbrella statement” for the management of their 125,000-square-foot gaming floor, four hotels, 20 restaurants, five golf courses, a Cabaret Showroom and 5,000-person event center with other nightlife venues. In a nutshell, those are all good reasons to circle Verona, N.Y. on your “future travels” map.
The other reasons for venturing to Turning Stone have been major draws for others for years already. Not only did Turning Stone secure one of our family’s Fab 5 Northeast Resort golf courses (with Atunyote), but their vibrant Tin Rooster restaurant and sensational spa, Ska:na´ (Oneida for “peace”) swiped the coveted No. 1 spots in our family travel and spa categories respectively.
The excitement begins at Exit 33. That is the resort’s exit off I-90, but also the name for Turning Stone’s entire Entertainment Complex. Attracting guests by the thousand (since 2013) with their diverse live music arenas and marquee shows (like Jay Leno and Tracy Morgan), Exit 33 also has restaurants like the Tin Rooster and the top of the tower high-class TS Steakhouse (spectacular service at each) that make daily meals as much of a priority for visits as any main event. With over a dozen other restaurants already open, a food court and much more on the way, any picky palette will find plenty to satisfy at Exit 33. The resort as a whole has multiple gaming areas, an arcade, a swimming pool, the spa/salon and an exercise center as well, but until the expansion is complete, the resort’s center stage is (in our opinion) reserved for the golf.
Turning Stone Resort has five high-quality golf courses and a golf dome providing exceptional year round sports education and action. In the interests of journalistic integrity, my son and I played our way through each—even the golf dome—and the lofty expectations placed on me by the national rankings of other golf publications were actually met or even exceeded in each case, with the exception of the Shenandoah course. (Which was about to go under Rick Smith’s renovation knife and has since reopened full splendor.)
My vote for the resort’s best course is actually the only course not on the property, located a few miles away in Vernon. Tom Fazio’s gated Audubon International Sanctuary, Atunyote, is the longest Turning Stone course, and has not surprisingly hosted numerous professional events since 2006, with winners including Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson. “The Eagle” is a remarkably wide parkland routing that loops around the classy New England-style clubhouse and many stunning water features. The front is fast and friendly, with two standouts at Nos. 5 and 6, but the back is absurdly loaded with architectural genius—seriously six near flawless holes. State of the art practice facilities, awesome beverage carts and a swanky locker room certainly help Atunyote maintain its deservedly elevated status on the national rankings.
Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Kaluhyat is Turning Stone’s other acclaimed powerhouse. Another Audubon International Sanctuary, “The Other Side of the Sky” capitalizes big time on the resort’s remote beauty, blending six lakes with plenty of elevation changes and the most serene of surroundings. The lakeside 13th and 14th are my favorites on a tough course that caters farm more to shot-makers than bombers. A LOT more trouble out there than it seems.
Annually considered one of America’s best courses for women, “The Oneida Chief” Shenandoah is a course on the brink of a big rankings jump, especially after Rick Smith’s new renovations kick in this year. Yet another Audubon International Sanctuary, Rick’s collection of par 3s are the resort’s best, but if there’s any round you might start with a “snowman” it’s this one. Not the course for successful “long distance relationships” if you know what I mean.
Rick Smith also designed Turning Stone’s par-27, nine-hole Sandstone Hollow, a clever expansion to his deep par-3 portfolio. Architect of the acclaimed Threetops in Michigan, too. Testy and fun, I suggest combining these holes with any of the resort’s great 18s for an even greater 27-hole day.
The nine-hole Pleasant Knolls course is an official US Kids Golf facility and the perfect complement to the seven-story Golf Dome instructional facility next to it. The Golf Dome offers a golf superstore/pro shop with year-round instructional services and equipment adjusting, launch monitors, simulators and two levels of hitting stalls. I spent a good two hours (during a thunderstorm) watching my four kids swing away in pretty much every one of the dome’s forty stalls. My five-year-old has a wicked slice.