Sometimes your home state takes you by surprise. The Finger Lakes region is made up of 11 long, narrow, north-south lakes in Central New York State where two neighboring counties—Cayuga and Ontario— bridge the magic of this hilly, watery landscape. While downstate New Yorkers seeking nature overtake the Catskills, this place is the playground for Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and anyone else relishing life within an exquisite landscape painting. This is the story of two reclaimed Finger Lakes gems. And, oh yeah, this is New York State’s wine country.
It’s amusing when your own backyard blows you away—for example, The Inns of Aurora (there are five and a standalone world-class spa). Aurora, NY, on Cayuga Lake, has a population of 650, five churches, and is home to Wells College where the total student population is 350. This historic Finger Lakes getaway was nearly in ruins until Wells College alum and the inventor of the American Girl dolls resurrected this elm-lined Main Street into a classy resort tucked into a charming hamlet. The village doubles as an arboretum, featuring a few gigantic, ancient ginkgo trees that tower above. There’s blockbuster hiking nearby, too.
Once a dying village with soon-to-be condemned buildings, this amalgam of mansions turned inns is now a milestone-event destination. Formerly the haunts of the folks who started Wells Fargo and American Express, it’s been transformed back into American royalty. Each well-appointed inn has 24-hour on-the-ball innkeepers.
A centerpiece of this elegant throwback campus is the E.B. Morgan House (1858), a stone mansion with seven guestrooms, making it the “smallest” lakefront hotel in the collection, each with private marble baths. Here, history in luxury mode meets original modern art amid exquisite living spaces including a library, parlor, dining room, pantry, and wraparound porches. None of the inns accommodate children under the age of 14 without a private rental.
Along with being its flagship boutique hotel, The Aurora Inn (1833) is the living room for the entire community and features the onsite-farm-to-table 1833 Kitchen and Bar, where everything-from-scratch colonial traditions meet trendy cocktails (the Captain Arrrgh is a tequila masterpiece). Their extraordinary wine list is an expert lesson in worldwide grape cultivation, and you must try the Boston seafood chowder (haddock, shrimp, scallops, potato, onion, celery). Antique oil portraits and fireplaces set the mood at this inn, which was long the preferred resting place for Wells-Fargo stagecoach travelers and a major stop along the Erie Canal (there’s a remnant of an old stony port out front), as it links with Lake Cayuga. I stayed in the Zabriskie House, which has 11 guestrooms, inviting living rooms, an epic front porch, and a firepit that guests gather around nightly. Every inn has gratis nightly wine happy hours, simple-but-delicious breakfast snacks, and activities like kayaking and cycling—but the complimentary activities don’t stop there.
Steps away is Wells College; established in 1868, its gorgeous campus is, by itself, an adventurous stroll back in time. A short drive up the hill, the resort’s landmark spa has endless hill-surrounded lake views and two hydrotherapy circuits (one indoor, one outdoor, five pools total) that make getting a no-treatments day pass very much worth it, as it includes the mini hot-and-cold pools and lunch in the splendid café. Back on Main Street, you’ve got to work off some of those calories, and one way to do it is via a complimentary yoga class in the schoolhouse loft.
A few miles away “off campus” is Salt of the Earth, a restaurant beautifully presenting local cuisine in a cozy atmosphere calmed by classic blues music. Twenty minutes away is historic-and-handsome Auburn, NY, home to the Seward House Museum. Nearly elected President if he hadn’t lost to Lincoln, William Henry Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State and purchaser of the Alaskan Territory. As this is the heart of women’s suffrage terrain, it’s right next door to the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center and appropriately down the road from Harriet Tubman’s home (free tours), as Seward and Tubman were friendly allies. On the main drag, Parker’s Grill is a handsome saloon with spicy zucchini soup jazzed up by sausage and veggies.
My final Cayuga County adventure was Fillmore Glen State Park’s 2.5-mile out-and-back gorge trail over many wooden bridges crisscrossing a canyon-cutting river and its waterfalls ($8). It’s adjacent to homey Moravia, NY, where the 10-10 BBQ shack has ample outdoor seating (laidback indoor dining, too).
En route, I saw a few Amish horse-drawn carriages. An interesting county-transition experience was lunch at Mennonite-owned and run Sauders Country Storein Seneca Falls, a grocery-bakery-handmade furniture superstore with a sit-down deli and grill. Mennonite and Amish faiths are similar, however, unlike the Amish, Mennonites use electricity, telephones, and motorized vehicles.
My favorite aspect of The Lake House on Canandaigua is that it’s a park-your-car once and then walk-everywhere kind of place. Canandaigua (Kana-Daygwa), a town perched atop a lake of the same name, is the fourth largest and westernmost of New York’s Finger Lakes. There’s a lot to do here within close proximity of this architecturally focused wellness retreat. If the non-snobby Hamptons were lakeside, this is it.
Once the site of a motor inn and still adjacent to a sprawling marina, today it’s a 124-room haven where wellbeing meets a bit of wildness. Outdoors, the property boasts a heated pool next to their Sand Bar (oysters, live music, in or out) along with a dozen Adirondack chairs overlooking the lake and some colorful, private boathouses. A highlight of the onsite Willowbrook Spa experience is an hour-long detoxifying outdoor barrel sauna that’s perfect for couples. Also, take the resort’s garden tour given by their visionary gardener who will bring the multihued landscaping to life.
The welcoming and spacious lobby, complete with an expert concierge, connects to a comfortable library (coffee, cocktails) and a family room. Down the hall is the fabulous Rose Tavern, a modern barn with a vaulted ceiling showcasing the restaurant’s fetching bar and open-air kitchen. Enjoy an atmospheric candle-lit dinner inside or on the patio, or dine at the bar and mingle with the staff. The menu explodes with the region’s stellar produce and celebrated wines. Dive into the King Trumpet Mushrooms (slow cooked fennel, fermented black bean, crispy leeks). It’s also the breakfast spot. Two-hour lake cruises are available onsite.
Across the parking lot from the resort is the New York Kitchen, a nonprofit organization on a mission to create a gateway for people around the world to experience New York’s remarkable agriculture, viticulture, craft beverages, and culinary arts via hands-on cooking and tasting programs, industry certification courses, and a Junior Chef Initiative. Upstairs, there’s a stylish, signature indoor/outdoor restaurant—buffalo cauliflower? Say yes—with great vibes and live music.
Murphy’s Law Irish Pub, serving more than 100 brews from around the world, is across the street and (at least when I was there) plays music that does not involve computers. A quick lakeside stroll brings you to Twisted Rail Brewing Company, a really old house with a story, as it previously served as a frat house and an amusement park office.
A half-hour drive to the south end of the lake is nifty Naples, NY, and Grimes Glen State Park (free), a hike along and sometimes in a river leading to two impressive waterfalls and the oldest fossilized tree in New York State. On your drive back to Canandaigua, explore the east side of the lake and check out Star Cider, a hard cidery with plenty of acreage to enjoy their live concert series. Before you leave town, get some comfort food at Ray’s Restaurant, a roomy, specialty diner serving up Americana, Greek, and Mexican staples.
Saddled between Ontario and Cayuga Counties, a midpoint of this foray could be lakeside Geneva, NY, a quaint, bricky city that’s home to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Here, atop Seneca Lake, sits the excellent Finger Lakes Welcome Center, which doubles as a regional food/beverage restaurant and community center with picturesque indoor and outdoor seating. It’s near one of the two starting points (Seneca Lake State Park; $8 per car) for the 6.7-mile Cayuga-Seneca Canal Trail, a railway bed transformed into a canal-side hike or bike surrounded by hardwoods and snaking over an olden waterway connecting Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. The trail’s other no-fee access point is Bishop’s Nature Preserve in nearby Waterloo, NY, another cool town to explore—because that’s what the Finger Lakes are all about.
For more information about discovering the Finger Lakes, visit the Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council.
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