Although his most famous stories herald rambunctious adventures in the wilds of the south, great American writer Mark Twain spent his happiest days (and did most of his writing) in the tranquil haven of New York’s Finger Lakes region, which he once called, “a place in which to take a foretaste of Heaven.”
Standing in his original study, which was transported in full from his former summer escape Quarry Farms to the leafy grounds of Elmira College, I was not surprised to feel that, yet again, Mr. Twain was right. But the taste of heaven that is the Finger Lakes goes far beyond its idyllic and inspirational scenery. In this fertile region you’ll find literal tastes of heavenly goodness—along wine trails, beer trails, and cheese trails (oh my!)—and that’s to say nothing of the friendly folk, deep history, and varied attractions.
On a recent weekend in the Finger Lakes, I had the opportunity to sample a little bit of everything.
A California girl, I am admittedly something of a snob when it comes to natural beauty. On day one we strolled into Watkins Glen State Park (3530 State Route 419, Watkins Glen), a natural wonderland of stone tunnels and ragged rock carved wondrously by ancient glaciers. Waterfalls big and small (there are 19 in total) make this place as much about soundscape as it is about visual drama.
But beyond natural beauty, the Finger Lakes region is dotted by sleepy whispering historic tales. One such spot is Hammondsport, where we stopped to take in the town square but were sucked in by a quiet lane lined with one fabulous art shop after another, from Hammondsport Mercantile (57 Shethar Street), which overflows with vintage treasures, to The Wine Barrel (59 Shethar Street), where retired barrels get new lives as handcrafted furnishings.
Across the street AROMA Coffee Art Gallery (60 Shethar Street) does a little bit of everything. The husband-and-wife team serves up freshly made munchies that you can enjoy while perusing the art on display (much of which is the product of Simon, the owner). Proceeds from art sales benefit classes for the disabled, and the couple also has a fleet of bikes for rent ($5/hour or $25/six hours).
Meanwhile, in Corning, the beauty lies in both the town and its respected art museums. A prime example of this juxtaposition is the Rockwell Museum of Western Art ( 111 Cedar Street), which showcases native American and western art inside a stunning 120-year-old building that was formerly the town’s city hall.
A short trolley ride away is the Corning Museum of Glass (1 Museum Way), also known as the world’s largest glass museum, featuring 35 centuries of the fascinating art from ancient Mesopotamia through Venetian glass, Tiffany, and right on up to the brilliant cookware that is ubiquitous in the modern kitchen. Catching a glass demonstration was fascinating, but the thrill of rolling and pulling my own glass flower was surely the highlight of the visit.
One only has to look at the verdant landscape, with its rolling vineyards and acres of farmland, to know that this region is fertile. And dining out is an exploration of the cornucopia it produces. At Veraisons Restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars (5435 State Route 14, Dundee), we supped on roasted beets and rich Baked Gnocchi Truffled “Mac & Cheese” while the sun set over the vines and their glistening lake backdrop.
At Charlie’s Cafe (205 Hoffman Street, Elmira), we sampled the “official cake of the region,” Finger Lakes Harvest Wine Cake, a deliciously light concoction made with Riesling and Finger Lakes Apples. A FLX Restaurant Week participant, Red Newt Bistro is set in a charming red farmhouse overlooking the lake and offers a truly local and memorable experience. The restaurant sources from more than 30 local farms to create its exquisite and innovative offerings like roasted hen with cornbread bacon stuffing and riesling-herb butter glaze. The three-course pre-fixe means you can’t help but try the wonderful array of desserts too.
And, of course, it’s necessary to explore the region’s bounty on your own, via the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail. At Sunset View Creamery, we met some of the barn animals, learned about the cheese-making process and got to taste the results. Be sure to check with the individual farms about opening hours (or to make an appointment) before hitting the trail.
Wine trails wind around Cayuga, Keuka, and Seneca Lakes, and many of the wineries are family farms whose history dates back long before wine was a regional staple. The Fulkerson family, for example, has been on the same land more than 200 years, and now operate Fulkerson Winery (5576 New York 14, Dundee), where visitors can not only taste but participate in a variety of offerings from a Upick program to winemaking classes, or even horse-drawn vineyard tours on weekends.
Meanwhile, the pretty plot of land where Dr. Konstantin Frank (9749 Middle Road, Hammondsport) wines are made is home to some of the oldest vineyards in the United States, and the family is now four generations into the winemaking business.
In this region, bright and crisp whites tend to be king, especially rieslings, which grow well in the area. Another local specialty, Ice Wine takes advantage of the climate. The practice began in Germany, but works well in northern New York. For traditional ice wine, the grapes freeze on the vine during the first frost, creating a highly concentrated, sweet wine.
But wines aren’t the only things imbibed in these parts. There are many sudsy stops on the Finger Lakes beer trail, and Finger Lakes Distilling Company (4676 New York 414, Burdett), the area’s first stand-alone distillery, turns out fine, small-batch whiskeys and other spirits in a true Kentucky style.
The four-year-old Harbor Hotel (16 N Franklin Street, Watkins Glen) is central to exploring town and Watkins Glen State Park. Rooms are airy and bright, and many boast lake views (from $109).
To get a little more familiar with the history of the region, groups might consider a stay at the Fulkerson Farmhouse, a lovely home that was built in 1856 and remodeled in 1948. Its expansive kitchen is great for trying your own hand at cooking up a farm-fresh meal, and the four bedrooms are done up in antiques. Treasures abound here, from adorable historic trinkets, to the original 1948 guest book, with many a sweet (or silly) entry. (Rental for the whole four bedroom house is $350/day with a two-night minimum.)
For something even more “down on the farm,” try the Farm Sanctuary (3150 Aikens Road, Watkins Glen), a lovely place where abused animals can live out their days in peace. People can stay in peace as well—the Sanctuary’s three rustic cabins hold up to five people each (from $110 per night), with restroom and shower facilities located a short walk away. Guests can enjoy a complimentary vegan breakfast each morning, and are welcome to wander the farm or even volunteer. (If you’d prefer not to stay, the sanctuary also offers regular tours.)
How to get there: Take the Shortline bus from New York to Elmira. There is no transportation between Finger Lakes towns, but there are a number of wine tours that will take you around. Cyclists will discover the joys of exploring the region by bike. Visit fingerlakeswinecountry.com for packages, tours, local transportation companies, and more information.
Photos: Finger Lakes Tourism, Suzanne Russo, Red Newt, Brianne L., Fulkerson Farmhouse, Farm Sanctuary, Keith Ewing