By Veronica Leonard
Only half a day’s drive from the Ontario / US border, the Finger Lakes region of New York state has so much to offer the fall traveler. There are eleven lakes to explore and so much to enjoy: wine touring, locavore cuisine, hiking trails and gorges, boating and fishing, a craft distillery, a port distillery and museum, the Watkins Glen raceway, the historic underground railway, and great hospitality.
1 Wineries, wine trails and wine tours
There are over 100 wineries to visit with trails around Lakes Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua. Many wineries are family owned like the very new Young Somer or well established Wagner Vineyards that both started as fruit farms and moved into wine. Ten wine tour companies are available to take the worry out of tasting and driving. For wine connoisseurs, Evan Dawson’s book Summer in a Glass makes great pre-trip reading introducing some of the industry leaders.
2. Rieslings, Meritage and Red Cat
The Finger Lakes wineries are now famous for their medium to dry Rieslings and other off dry whites as well as a full bodied red blend called Meritage; however, its wine history began with sweet Concorde grapes. One winery, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, keeps this tradition going with its Red Cat ‘the original hot tub wine’ which still leads the region in sales.
3. Accommodations of all sorts
The increase in tourism to the area has outpaced its supply of hotels, so there are other choices including lakeside cabins, excellent B&Bs and at least two wineries, Glenora and Bellhurst Castle, have luxury accommodations and fine dining to offer their customers. We discovered the historic Maxwell Creek B&B near Sodus Point that was part of the underground railroad for runaway slaves.
4. Restaurants and locavore cuisine
This is farming country, and many of the independent restaurants and wineries specialize in locavore cuisine. I recommend The Red Newt Cellars & Bistro for both their wine, and their wine paired gourmet meals. Another restaurant Moosewood Cooperative in Ithaca is internationally known for its vegetarian cuisine. Make sure you pick up one of their cookbooks.
5. Hiking trails, birding, gorges and waterfalls
The region especially near Ithaca and Watkins Glen is full of gorges with spectacular waterfalls and groomed hiking trails. Birders will love the Cornell lab of Ornithology creators of the annual Backyard Bird Count located on the Sapsucker Woods bird sanctuary with its four miles of trails and boardwalks.
6. Finger Lakes Distilling
Near Watkins Glen, Finger Lakes Distilling is a new craft distillery run by Brian McKenzie, owner and former banker, and Thomas Earl McKenzie, (no relation), distiller and seventh generation Alabama moonshiner. Their massive German copper still produces rye, bourbon, pot whisky, gin, grappa, vodka and a corn whisky that will rattle your brains.
The race track is renowned for NASCAR and Grand Prix racing as well as hosting major events like the annual wine festival and some great rock concerts.
8. Ports of New York winery
Frédéric Bouché brings old world skills of making fine port to this new world wine district at Ports of New York in Ithaca. Bouché uses the criadera system for aging his port. The wine barrels are stacked three layers deep with new wines in barrels on top solera to old on the bottom. As a portion of the mature wine is drawn off from the layer below, it is replaced by wine from the layer above revitalizing the fermentation. There is also a wine museum with historic artifacts from his family’s winery in France.
9 Boating and Fishing
There are numerous fishing and cruising boat tours on the larger lakes. Of particular interest, especially to paddlers is the 12 mile Cayuga-Seneca Canal, an extension of the Erie Canal.
10. Finger Lakes People
Last but certainly not least, the people and business operators are some of the most genuinely friendly you can meet. They know they live in a bit of paradise and want you to love it as much as they do.
First published in Travel+Escape 10 Great Finds in The Finger Lakes, October 2012
See also Wine Touring in the Finger Lakes published in the Nova Scotia Wine Examiner July 2012