A fab fall getaway to the Finger Lakes
Watkins Glen State Park's gorge is a natural wonder. (Rolando Pujol)
The Finger Lakes, a series of thin lakes likened to fingers, in upstate New York, are an easy drive from New York City, but might as well be a world away.
The region is renown for wineries, waterfalls and gorges, gorgeous temperate lakes, and a trove of historic 19th century towns, shaped by everything from the rise (and fall) of the Erie Canal, the birth of the women's movement and even the dawn of racecar driving.
Here are some quick picks if you can get a Friday off and make it a three-day weekend:
Friday during the day
Route 17 accounts for a big leg of the drive, and takes you through the southern Catskills and curious towns like Roscoe and Hancock. An exit not taken enough is Binghamton. Stop here for a "spiedie," a regional specialty at Sharkey's (607-729-9201), consisting of bread topped with marinated chunks of meat.
Go for a ride on one of six early 1900s carousels in town. If they remind you of a "Twilight Zone" episode, don't be shocked. Rod Serling was from this part of the world, and a Broome County Forum exhibit (607-778-2480) celebrates his life and career.
Once in the Finger Lakes, settle into Montour Falls, just south of Seneca Lake. It's a charming town replete with pretty Victorians and the Chequaga Falls (smack in the middle of town). Motel options include The Falls Motel right in town (607-535-7262). For dinner, try The Stonecat Cafe (607-546-5000) on Seneca Lake, which offers a hearty introduction to the area's wealth of fine organic food and wine.
After breakfast at rightfully beloved Chef's Diner (607-535-9975) in Montour Falls, you’ll want to hit adjacent Watkins Glen, where small painted race cars on Franklin Street's sidewalks recall the town's racecar heritage. Racecars once barreled down the street, but
now they compete at a nearby speedway. Heading north of town on Route 14, you’ll find the wineries that hug Seneca Lake's western shore, including Lakewood Vineyards, where you can pick up some ice wine, a regional specialty.
Geneva, on the northern tip of Seneca lake, features a National Register collection of dignified 19th century homes (don't miss South Main Street), enhanced by a college town air thanks to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. From there, briefly leave the Finger Lakes proper, and take a drive through countryside and once-booming towns to Lake Ontario, and the Chimney Bluffs: Spooky spire-like natural wonders shaped by the elements that are part of a rare, glacier-created drumlin.
From there, head back south, and pay respects at the Erie Canal, whose wealth developed much of the region, and head toward the town of Seneca Falls. The birthplace of the women's rights movement, the town treasures this history through sites such as pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton's home.
The town has also hitched its wagon on Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" — proponents argue that the town was an inspiration for the film's Bedford Falls, a view that is reflected in the town's Christmas celebration, and Zuzu Cafe (315-568-2230), named after the daughter of the character George Bailey.
Watkins Glen State Park features a water-carved gorge that is a true wonder, a river surrounded by towering striated cliffs and outcroppings, waterfalls and trails. Just across the street, get fortified at Mr. Chicken (607-535-2315), where the chicken nuggets and sandwich are sure to please.
A short drive away is Ithaca, explore the sprawling hilltop campus of Cornell University. The downtown offers fun shopping (Now You're Cooking kitchen store at 116 East
State St. is a delight) along with the requisite waterfalls including the famed Ithaca Falls.
There's a range of cool grub, too. For vegetarians, the Moosewood Restaurant (607-273-9610) has been a must-stop since 1973. And you'll find no shortage of greasy road eats — try the unusual pizza subs at Shortstop Deli (607-273-1030) and chomp on the Pinesburger at the Glenwood Pines restaurant (607-273-3709) while taking in the view of Cayuga Lake.