Finger Lakes region offers unique opportunities for fun and relaxation
No wonder the Iroquois people who first lived in the Finger Lakes region of New York state called their home “the chosen place.” The lakes and lush green surroundings in the nine-county area provide plenty of eye-popping scenery that must be as beautiful now as it was when they lived here before the American Revolution. They believed the Creator made the lakes by laying hands on the land to bless it — a much more romantic story than the scientific one that they were scoured out by glaciers.
Today the lakes still bear the names of the Iroquois tribes who once lived around them. Now, however, interesting small towns and villages tucked here and there offer fun things to do, whether you are on a romantic getaway with a special someone or a family vacation for the whole gang.
“The Finger Lakes region is world-renowned for its natural beauty with 11 pristine lakes, rolling hillsides, 650 miles of shoreline, 1,200 waterfalls, a 16,000-acre national forest, 26 state parks, diverse agriculture and more than 2,000 miles of hiking and biking trails, but it only begins there,” says Cindy Kimble, Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance president. “Finger Lakes culture, history and local people who truly cherish where they live all make the Finger Lakes one of the most visitor-friendly destinations in America.” Here’s a sampling of what she’s talking about.
Canandaigua sits at the north end of the lake of the same name and offers plenty to do, whether outside in pristine surroundings or indoors soaking up art and history in museums.
What to do:
Of course you’ll want to spend all the time outside that you can while you’re here. Eight city parks welcome you to walk, run or bike, and the lake is right there for swimming, fishing, boating, canoeing and kayaking. If bird-watching is your thing, head for Risser Road Swamp, MaryFrancis Bluebird Haven, Cumming Nature Center or Sandy Bottom Park. Or just hang out at the City Pier to see plenty of waterfowl.
Don’t miss the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park, where you’ll stroll through formal gardens and tour a Queen Anne-style mansion. The Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum was once the home of Gideon Granger, who served as postmaster general under Presidents Jefferson and Madison. In addition to touring the house you can also visit three barns that house more than 100 carriages, sleighs, carts and wagons dating back to the 1800s.
The Ontario County Courthouse, built in 1858, is where Susan B. Anthony was found guilty of voting illegally and fined $100. The nearby Ontario County Historical Society houses the collections of artifacts and antiquities that reveal the town’s history.
Where to eat:
Start with a home-cooked breakfast at Ray’s Restaurant and move on to lunch at Macri’s Deli and Café for Italian fare. Wine aficionados will want to spend the afternoon on the Canandaigua Wine Trail, and beer-lovers can try the Bee Hive Brew Pub, Brew and Brats at Arbor Hill or the Farmhouse Brewery. Hollerhorn Distillery caters to those who prefer spirits.
For dinner it’s Nolan’s on Canandaigua Lake for steak, seafood, pasta and burgers. Rio Tomatlan serves up cuisines from every part of Mexico, and those who prefer French will delight in the food at Bon Ami Bistro. Save room for dessert at Monica’s Pies or a bit of chocolate at Sweet Expressions.
Where to stay:
The Sutherland House Victorian Bed and Breakfast offers rooms appointed with period furnishings and a gourmet three-course breakfast. The Lake House on Canandaigua is new with a clean, spare vibe. Here you can also visit the Rose Tavern, the Sand Bar and the Willowbrook Spa without leaving the premises. Woodcliff Hotel and Spa Chalet will spoil you with spa treatments, an upscale restaurant and a grab-and-go cafe.
Known as the “Lake Trout Capital of the World,” Geneva sits at the north end of Seneca Lake, the deepest of the Finger Lakes. In addition to fishing, agritourism, golf and a lively culinary scene are other reasons to visit. Watkins Glen, at the south end of the lake, is known for its role in the automobile-racing world and puts you close enough to Corning to tour the Corning Museum of Glass and try making glass yourself. This is fun for both children and adults.
What to do:
To take advantage of the great fishing, plan to charter a boat from several such services that include Reel Stories Fishing Charters, Roy’s Boys Fishing Charters and Captain Joe’s Seneca Lake Fishing Charters. Golf is also popular here, and some 17 golf courses in and around Geneva — many of them public — invite duffers and experts alike to come and play. Try the scenic Big Oak Public Golf Course, the Seneca Falls Country Club or the nine-hole Pheasant Golf Links.
Another way to be outdoors is to visit the Kashong Conservation Area, 84 acres of former farmland that is being reforested. Enjoy 2.75 miles of hiking trails and extraordinary views of Seneca Lake. You’re welcome to volunteer here, too. Seneca State Park is where you can bike, swim, play and grill.
Indoor fun and education can be had at Rose Hill Mansion, built in 1839 on what became a busy and productive farm. Tours focus on the Swan family who lived here from 1840 to 1890. Exhibits at the Geneva History Museum, located in a historic house, will tell you about the days when the Iroquois were here and the 300 years over which the small town came into being. A children’s discovery room will entertain the kids in your group.
Shopping downtown is a real treat in unusual, locally owned shops. FLX Goods calls itself the “general store of the Finger Lakes” and with good reason. Everything here is sourced locally and hand-crafted. Choose from food, clothing, home décor items, artwork, and the list goes on. Stomping Grounds provides new and vintage books, antique maps and gifts in an atmosphere where it’s fun to browse. Cyclists will want to stop in at one of the premier bike shops in the country, Geneva Bicycle Center.
Where to eat:
Start with breakfast or brunch at the Water St. Café for the usual fare plus breakfast sandwiches and specialty omelets. The menu also includes vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices. For a quick bite to take with you, it’s Club 86 Bagels and Cakes.
The Seneca Wine Trail will direct you to 31 wineries, and during the five-hour Finger Lakes Brewery Tour ride you’ll visit four hops farms to learn how beer is made and then sample it.
For something different at dinnertime, choose FLX Table. This intimate spot features a prix-fixe menu that changes daily, depending on what ingredients the chef can source from local farms. At Kindred Fare you’ll dine on a four-course meal curated by the chef, and at Halsey’s Restaurant experience such dishes as Lamb Lollipops, Pork Belly Poutine, Chickpea and Eggplant Croquette, and Scottish Salmon Filet. Stop for dessert at the Simply Sweet Bakery.
Where to stay:
Belhurst Castle, once a private residence, is now three separate hotels — Chambers in the Castle, Vinifera Inn and White Springs Manor. While you’re here, indulge at the Isabella Spa & Salon, then dine at Edgar’s Restaurant in the Castle. Geneva on the Lake invites you to stay in elegantly appointed suites and feast at Lancellotti’s — either by candlelight in the dining room or on the terrace overlooking the lake.
This town at the southern end of Cayuga Lake is most often mentioned in connection with Cornell University, but many more things to see, do and learn await.
“We have a really welcoming community of artists and academics, living in a little city that has big city-vibes surrounded by real natural beauty,” says Jodi LaPierre, Visit Ithaca’s director of visitor experience. “One highlight is our waterfalls, with more than 100 in our region, including Taughannock Falls, which stands three stories taller than Niagara Falls. During summer, music can be found someplace almost daily, with big music festivals in June and July.”
What to do:
Don’t be fooled by the name of the Ithaca Children’s Garden. It’s a place to connect with nature for everyone. Visit a kitchen garden with honeybees and hens, a bird garden, troll house, blooming bulb labyrinth and much more. The three acres of gardens are free of charge and wheelchair accessible. Another place to get in touch with the natural world is the sustainable Lively Run Dairy, where you’ll take a tour, interact with cows and goats, and sample cheeses and cheesecake on the porch. Other places that will appeal to kids are the Sciencenter and Museum of the Earth.
The university contributes many points of interest to the local scene, such as the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Said to be one of the finest university art galleries in the country, it is situated in a lake-view building designed by I.M. Pei and boasts a permanent collection of more than 40,000 items. Be sure to check out the outdoor sculpture that honors Carl Sagan, who was a professor here.
If shopping appeals to you, head for Ithaca Commons, a two-block-long pedestrian mall that is home to offbeat and unusual stores.
Where to eat:
While you’re at the Commons, start with breakfast at Waffle Frolic, where they serve up both sweet and savory waffles with every topping you can imagine. Spend the afternoon on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, then choose a spot for dining from anyplace that appeals to you on Restaurant Row. The vibe here is multicultural, so you’ll find Asia Cuisine at one end of Aurora Street and Viva Taqueria at the other with Japanese, Chinese and Korean along the way. Dine on steaks, seafood and burgers at the Mahogany Grill.
Where to stay:
Vacation homes and guest houses for rent are prevalent here, or bunk in at Thomas Farm Bed and Breakfast, a restored homestead complete with antiques, quilts and gourmet breakfasts. Fancy staying in a stone cottage or storybook tower cottage? Then Stone Quarry House is the place for you. But who could resist a mansion with a name like the Inn at Gothic Eves? It sounds deliciously mysterious but in fact offers beautifully appointed rooms, massages and breakfasts made with local ingredients and produce from the innkeeper’s garden.