Folks in Lake County tend to stay within a stone’s throw of home by visiting the beach, some may go as far as Key West, and the truly adventurous head to the hills of western North Carolina. But you might want to find your way to the Finger Lakes.
PHOTOS: Nancy Howell
Water, Water Everywhere
After glaciers carved out the Great Lakes 2 million years ago, nature had enough left in the tank to dig in and create 11 linear lakes—the Finger Lakes of western New York. Check out a map of the and you’ll see a roughly rectangular area the local tourism board calls “Wine, Water, Wonders.” That’s where you want to go.
This space is scarcely enough to explain roughly 20,000 square miles, so here’s a suggestion: Map out an itinerary based on a few of the destinations below, and then create a customized tour via country roads that skirt along the shores of these glorious glacial lakes.
The Chemung River that flows through the Chemung Valley is as essential to Corning today as it was in 1868. It was then, with this constant source of power, Corning Glass Works relocated from Brooklyn to become one of the world’s leading manufacturers of glass. Today it also features one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions.
More than 3,500 years of glassmaking are covered at the Corning Museum of Glass, from glass formulas written in clay to circa 1450 BC Egyptian vases to Roman mosaics that have lasted thousands of years without a scratch. In the museum, which recently added a $64 million wing, breathtaking examples of contemporary glass art are showcased in multiple galleries.
Allow around four hours here, more if you opt to make your own glass. Experienced artisans will help you create a hand-blown pumpkin, Christmas ornament, or flower, although they’ll handle the molten glass while you just pick the colors and blow. As if CMOG weren’t enough, there’s another worthwhile world-class museum a few blocks away. Downtown’s Rockwell Museum (no relation to Norman) features extraordinary paintings, many Western-themed works highlighting cowboys, Native Americans, and the majestic landscapes of our national parks.
The Rockwell is part of the historic Gaffer District, which is one of the finest examples of Americana. Here you’ll find a fabulous range of independent shops: restaurants, music stores, bookshops, bicycle shops, antique shops, cigar stores, art galleries, diners, soda fountains, a newsstand, and a historic movie theatre. You’ll think you’re in Bedford Falls and wouldn’t be surprised to bump into good ol’ George Bailey because when you come to Corning; it feels like you’re coming home.
You’ll learn quickly the Finger Lakes are designed for a road trip, with small villages and towns appearing every few miles. Minutes northwest of Corning is Hammondsport where a picturesque and walkable downtown is centered in a village green. The place readers of Budget Travel named 2012’s ‘Coolest Small Town in America’ features a picturesque waterfront park, marina, and boat launch on the shores the first of the Finger Lakes you’ll see.
It was on Keuka Lake that Glenn Curtiss, a local kid who’d already earned a reputation as a bicycle champion and the “Fastest Man Alive” (he raced his motorcycle at 136 mph at Ormond Beach in 1907) designed and tested seaplanes that could take off and land on the water.
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum features Curtiss airplanes including the JN-4D (the famed Curtiss Jenny) that helped the Allies win World War I. Exhibits also showcase his bicycles, motorcycles, and his Florida connection. After breakthroughs in aviation, he came to Florida and created Hialeah, Miami Springs, and Opa-Locka, and then invented the forerunner of the modern RV for camping trips to the Everglades.
Watkins Glen (watkinsglenchamber.com)
From Hammondsport, head east on County Road 23 and after cruising through some of America’s most beautiful hills and valleys, you’ll arrive in an absolutely gorgeous lakefront community.
Or maybe the word is gorges.
A 400-foot deep gorge with 200-foot cliffs and 19 waterfalls is the centerpiece of Watkins Glen State Park, a natural attraction drawing visitors from around the world. Its surreal appearance lures guests deep into the park where each turn and change in elevation introduces light, shadow, and waterfalls to create a photographer’s delight.
Near downtown at the southern end of Seneca Lake, a lovely park is ideal for photos, a walk along the jetty, or boarding a vintage vessel for an hour-long narrated cruise on the alpine-like lake. Just how large is the largest of the Finger Lakes? From the park, you can’t see the end of it. The earth curves long before it reaches the north shore in Geneva.
If the town’s name sounds familiar, you may recognize it as the home of the Watkins Glen International Speedway. Away from the track, each September downtown streets are reserved for a road rally featuring vintage autos.
Leaving town, head north along the west shore of Seneca Lake. As the road rises and falls it reveals constantly varied views of the water as well as what brings many travelers to the Finger Lakes.
More than 100 wineries are along the shorelines of Seneca, Keuka, and Cayuga lakes, and you’ll often find several vineyards in the space of a single mile—either small, independent growers producing boutique wines or larger operations bottling wines you may recognize. Many offer tours and have gift ships, restaurants, and tasting rooms. For a complete list of these and others, visit fingerlakeswinecountry.com.
At the northern fringe of the Finger Lakes, Rochester is no quaint village or walking town. Among the city’s numerous attractions are two highly recommended choices. First, Eastman House and Museum. After the bank clerk-turned-inventor democratized photography with his ingenious Kodak cameras, the resulting wealth gave him a beautiful mansion accented by manicured gardens. The adjacent museum chronicles the evolution of photography and adds rotating exhibits focused on different aspects of the medium, from food, fashion, and photojournalism to art, motion studies, and the simple ways
A tour of the mansion reveals how the philanthropist lived. Each morning at the same time, Eastman dined alone to the sounds of a musician playing a two-story pipe organ. That was only part of a home that includes a very-well appointed library, conservatory, billiard room, and great hall where he entertained his notable guests.
His fellow Rochester resident had a similar impact on America. Raised to believe in equality between races and genders, Susan B. Anthony’s persistence in gaining rights for women was essential in the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920.
On a tour through her Rochester home, just a few miles from Eastman’s, docents are dazzling as they tie together the amazing history of the women’s movement, from a meeting at Seneca Falls (see sidebar) to Anthony and her colleagues continuing the struggle here in a house that became the nerve center of the suffrage movement.
Women are too often overlooked by history, and a visit here sparks a desire to correct that. A block away you’ll see a statue of Anthony and her friend and fellow equal rights legend Frederick Douglass, lifelong friends who are now neighbors in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery.
This only scratches the surface of the Finger Lakes. Depending on your schedule, consider adding these other destinations
Auburn Above the north shore of Owasco Lake, you’ll find the home of William Seward, our almost-16th president who became Lincoln’s Secretary of State. He also became a punchline as the champion of a $7.2 million transaction known as Seward’s Folly. Today we call it Alaska. In 1859, Seward sold land to a neighbor who a later built a home, a hospital, and a senior center on it. You can learn about this amazing woman at the Harriett Tubman Home. To pay your respects to ‘The American Moses,’ visit the Fort Hill Cemetery where she was buried with military honors, having served in the Union army as nurse, scout, and spy.
Canandaigua South of Rochester, it sits at the north end of Canandaigua Lake. For a real treat, follow picturesque Route 16 south, which hugs the shoreline.
Elmira America’s greatest writer, Mark Twain, is most closely associated with Hannibal, Missouri; Hartford, Connecticut; and Elmira, New York. After seeing his study (it looks like the pilothouse of a Mississippi steamboat) on the campus of Elmira College, visit his gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Naples At the south end of Canandaigua Lake, this small town is known for its grapes, wines, and produce. Grab some fresh fruit at Joseph’s Wayside Market, here since 1952.
Seneca Falls West of Auburn, the name Seneca Falls is synonymous with the Women’s Movement. At the west end of this attractive walking town is the Women’s Rights National Historic Park.
Skaneateles East of Auburn and on the north shore of Skaneateles Lake, this unique, upscale village has a city park and one of the most picturesque waterfronts in New York.
WHEN YOU GO
Wine, Water, Wonders of Upstate New York
Allegiant flies from the Orlando-Sanford International Airport to Elmira, often for less than $100.