New York State has many places to explore. And while city folk may be intoxicated by Hamptons beaches, the rolling hills of the Catskills and the art galleries and farm stands of the Hudson River Valley, there are also many other places that offer great escapes.
If you're really looking for a change of pace and can get a car for a long weekend, a place rich with activities, natural beauty and top-rate dining can be reached in just a four-hour drive. The region is called the Finger Lakes, and it's named after a pattern of lakes that extend north-to-south across central New York. Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake, the longest of the 11 Finger Lakes, are among the deepest in the U.S., and close to 40 miles long, though never more than 3.5 miles across.
The biggest town in the area is Ithaca, home to Ithaca College and Cornell University, which sits on the southern end of Cayuga Lake and boasts the best of small-college town life, from bakeries to bars with live music.
You've all seen the bumper stickers and T-shirts: "Ithaca is gorges." It is gorgeous, but the area also has many gorges, or canyons. Commanding waterfalls can be found after a hike through one.
My husband and I visited the area in April. It was spring in NYC, but in the Finger Lakes the air was cold. On our second night, snow flurries fell. Regardless, the ramps were out -- a true sign of spring. We saw them while trekking through the gorge at Taughannock Falls State Park (nysparks.com/parks/ 62).
After a breakfast of strong coffee and luscious local egg sandwiches at the Ithaca Bakery (ithacabak ery.com), we drove along Cayuga Lake to the entrance to Taughannock Falls, just outside town in Trumansburg. After an easy, 20-minute walk through the gorge, we came upon the falls, which are 215 feet tall. A pedestrian bridge crosses the stream below the falls, bringing you close enough to catch a few sprays of refreshing water on your face. Trails offering aerial views also line the gorge.
In nearby Watkins Glen, located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, is Watkins Glen State Park (nys parks.com/parks/142), another natural attraction that brings tourists from all over the region. You enter the park through a tunnel to the sound of water crashing. At the end of the tunnel is the gorge, and you walk right into it, with water falling around you and collecting in pools at the bottom. The trail is 1.5 miles long and offers vista views in addition to gorge trekking.
WINE AND SPIRITS
You don't have to go to California or Oregon for fine domestic vino. Wine producers in the Finger Lakes, best known for their Rieslings, line Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka lakes and offer tastings daily. The area was the earliest U.S. producer of Riesling, which originated in the Rhine region of Germany. Some wineries not to be missed: Fox Run Vineyards (foxrunvineyards.com), Wagner Vineyards (wag nervineyards.com) and Red Tail Ridge Winery (redtailridgewinery.com).
Visitors need more than an afternoon to visit the wineries, especially because there are also breweries and the great Finger Lakes Distillery (finger lakesdistilling.com) to visit. There, try whiskey, brandy and gin, which are distilled from local products.
Farm-to-table-loving foodies rush to the bistro at Red Newt Winery (red newt.com), located on Seneca Lake. The wine is from the vineyard on site and the restaurant lovingly prepares American cuisine with all-local and seasonal ingredients. The food is also inventive. A bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin sounds like a dish you'd order at any restaurant but, at Red Newt, the subtle flavors and additions such as micro-herbs transform it into something far more fanciful and sophisticated.
In downtown Ithaca, a great place with a fun local vibe is Maxie's Supper Club and Oyster Bar (maxies.com). Try Cajun and Creole classics such as gumbo and crabcakes or one of the many vegetarian options. Cocktails and beer also flow freely at this popular spot, which often has a wait.
There are plenty of diverse options for lodging in the region. If you're looking for luxury, opt for the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel (watkinsglenharbor hotel.com), on Seneca Lake. For camping options, visit the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance website (finger lakes.org). And for a furnished apartment or house, try Airbnb.com.
For more info, visit fingerlakeswinecountry.com