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The 350-mile Erie Canal cuts across New York State from Albany to Buffalo. Built between 1817 and 1825 as a means of transportation for goods and people, the canal today is a recreational waterway, with many "ports of call" along the way.

While one could boat, hike, or bike along the canal to reach these destinations, the quickest and easiest way is to drive. The places mentioned here are within one or two hours of Buffalo.

We will begin our journey close to home, at the western terminus of the canal at Gateway Harbor Park in the twin cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda. One of the seven major harbors along the canal, the park is the site of the annual Canal Fest in July. Interesting sites to visit within walking distance of the canal include the North Tonawanda History Museum, the Riviera Theater, Hodge Podge gift shop, and just a short drive away, the Herschell Carousel Factory Museum.

Heading east, the next "port of call" is the City of Lockport, which gets its name from the impressive set of twin locks that had to be constructed so that the canal could travel over the Niagara Escarpment.

One of Lockport's must-see attractions is the Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises (800-378-0352, www.llecc.com), a two-hour narrated trip on the canal which includes "locking through" Locks 34 & 35, the only double set of locks on the canal. The Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride (438-0174, www.lockportcave.com) offers visitors a glimpse into Lockport's industrial heritage; the tour ends with an underground boat ride . There is a small museum next to the canal in a former powerhouse building. The Niagara County Historical Society (434-7433, www.niagarahistory.org) and the Erie Canal Discovery Center, which has interactive exhibits about the canal's early days, are just a few blocks away.

The next town along the canal is Gasport, which got its name from a gas spring discovered shortly after the canal opened. Becker Farms (772-2211, www.beckerfarms.com), a popular family-oriented destination offering locally grown produce, homemade baked goods, and even a winery and brewery, is just a few miles from the canal.

Middleport, so named because it's midway between Lockport and Albion, was a busy trade center in its heyday. Today, it serves as a docking spot for boaters. One of my favorite spots here is the Basket Factory (735-9260, www.thebasketfactory.com), a popular canalside restaurant with docking facilities, operating in a former bushel basket factory.

A stop at the next port, Medina, is not complete without a visit to the Medina Railroad Museum (585-798-6106, www.railroadmuseum.net), which is housed in a 1905 freight house. Inside, you'll find numerous railroad displays, including one of the largest HO-scale layouts in the country. My 10-year-old son could spend hours looking at this train layout! A stroll through downtown Medina takes you past shops and restaurants located in historic buildings near the canal. Some of these include Canal Country Artisans, which features locally handcrafted items from more than 40 artisans. The Shirt Factory Cafe (in a former shirt factory) sells coffees, teas, light lunches, sweets, and even has Dessert Theater (classic movies offered with a "multicourse progressive dessert").

Travel two miles east of town and look for Culvert Road, where you will find the Erie Canal culvert, the only place where motorists can drive under the canal. It was a unique engineering feat when the canal was built in 1825.

At our next stop, Albion, the Courthouse Square Historic District, a few blocks from the canal, contains 34 historical and architecturally significant buildings, including the Pullman Memorial Church. It was constructed in 1894 by Albion native George Pullman, of railroad car manufacturing fame, as a memorial to his parents. Travel about 10 miles east to the village of Holley, named after Myron Holley, the first canal commissioner. This village has a boardwalk, a gazebo, and a picturesque waterfall next to the canal. At Holley's Hurd Orchards (www.hurdorchards.com), a few miles north of the canal on Route 104, you can purchase in-season produce, baked goods and specialty jams.

There are four notable ports in Monroe County, two west of Rochester, Brockport and Spencerport, and two east of the city, Fairport and Pittsford. Downtown Brockport (www.brockportny.org) is a designated historic district, with many beautiful Victorian structures. There are numerous shops and restaurants along Main Street, including one of my favorites, Bittersweet, a local landmark gift shop that has been selling American-made pottery, jewelry, wind chimes, clothing and more for more than 30 years. You can also get light refreshments and browse for gifts at the Red Bird Cafe and shop for books on two levels at the Lift Bridge Bookstore.

A few miles down the canal, Spencerport (www.spencerportchamber.org) has a large gazebo next to the canal, which is the site of summertime concerts. There are also a few gift shops and restaurants within walking distance of the canal.

East of Rochester, the towns of Fairport and Pittsford offer a multitude of shops and restaurants, as well as scenic cruises along the canal. The Colonial Belleh sails out of Fairport for narrated scenic cruises between Fairport and Pittsford; the Sam Patch, an 1800s packet boat replica, sails out of Pittsford.

Some of the unique shops in Fairport (www.village.fairport.ny.us) include Lombardi's Gourmet Imports, which has gourmet food items, gift baskets, cookware and fine china. Diane Prince Furniture and Gifts features antique reproduction furniture as well as unique home decor items and gifts. Also in Fairport is Main Street Mercantile, an artist's co-op which has an array of locally made pottery, candles, gifts and home decor, as well as Erie Canal-related items.

Of particular interest are the shops in Pittsford (www.villageofpittsford.org; www.townofpittsford.org), in historic buildings along the canal. Northfield Commons is a quaint New England-style complex of 25 shops and restaurants located in a former lumberyard. Among the shops are Harmony in Wood, Beads 'n Things and Dolce Cupcakery. Next to Northfield Commons is Schoen Place, where you can board the Sam Patch and enjoy restaurants like the Village Coal Tower, a family-friendly place in a former coal tower, and Aladdin's Natural Eatery, which features Mediterranean cuisine. There are upscale clothing boutiques along Main and State streets, just steps from the canal.

> Wheel it

A unique way to see the canal is by bike. Parks and Trails New York will be hosting its 14th annual Cycling the Canal bike tour July 8-15. This eight-day, 400-mile scenic bike tour, suitable for riders of all ages and abilities, will take you from Buffalo to Albany along the historic Erie Canal through the National Heritage Corridor. More than two-thirds of this ride is along the Canalway Trail hiking/biking path on level ground. You also will enjoy guided tours of museums and other attractions. Eight breakfasts, six dinners and overnight camping accommodations are included. For more information see www.ptny.org.