Finger Lakes Road Trip

The Finger Lakes are a place I lament to admit I didn’t fully appreciate when I was in school out there; I feel like I was always counting the days until I was back in Massachusetts. Now I miss the rolling wine country terribly, and always look forward to my annual pilgrimage back to Western New York. And this year Jake came with me!

Our first stop was the little town of Skaneateles, which sits perched on its clear, crystal blue lake. It was lunchtime so we stopped into Skaneateles Bakery, where we split a turkey sandwich on homemade bread and an almond cookie (in anticipation of a huge dinner). We poked around the village, stopping in an antique shop or two and then got back on our way towards Geneva. 


Geneva is striking when you first drive along Route 14 and see Seneca Lake in all its glory; especially this time of year as the leaves turn. Colorful row houses lead the way to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where I spent my collegiate days. I pointed out the places I used to live to Jake, and took him down to the boathouse where the lake was still as I’d ever seen it. 


We met Western New York friends Katie and Aaron at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Ports Cafe, and indulged in an autumnal feast. You always start with a baked brie at Ports, which was garnished with cherries and walnuts on this particular evening, and then I enjoyed a perfect piece of halibut with butternut squash risotto. We were too full leaving the restaurant, especially after the chocolate banana tort finale, but went on to our favorite wine bar, Microclimate, anyhow.

I’m not a wine drinker anymore, but I was so happy to be back in that cozy, rustic little bar on Linden Street. I helped Jake (sort of) with his flight of Finger Lake reds, and we laughed late into the evening.


The next morning the four of us had a very trendy brunch at the new H.J. Stead Company, also on Linden, which served an impressive cast iron tostada. We took one last stroll around campus and said goodbye to Katie and Aaron, and were ready to head South along the lake to Watkins Glen, and then on to Ithaca. 

I visited Watkins Glen once previously as part of a geology class, and it was even better than I remember. The carved passageways and cool, wet air as you descend into the gorge seem so exotic, and waterfall after waterfall complemented by stone bridges, mossy sediment, and cavernous twists and turns makes you question if you’re even in New York anymore. 


Jake took a quick shower in the glittering Rainbow Falls.


The only drawback to Watkins Glen is that it's a major tourist attraction and packed with tour buses; and we were there during peak traffic on Saturday afternoon. Much better to go during an off-time in the middle of the week. 

We headed a little further South and arrived in Ithaca. It’s really such a unique place; you may have heard, it’s gorges. We stayed in the lovely Hotel Ithaca which was recently redone, scoring a fabulous corner room with a fall panorama of the city below, Cayuga Lake looming in the background. We met up with my brother, Drew, who goes to Ithaca College. He had a whole list of “secret spots” for us to visit.

First, he took us to a sunset spot just behind a bunch of creepy Cornell frats, reeking of circumstance, pomp, and cheap beer. We climbed down a wall of shale and passed through a spooky tunnel that must just be a hub of debauchery after dark. I was grateful that I couldn’t see the ground I was walking on. 


But we emerged within a gorge at the crest of a towering waterfall overlooking the luminous sunset, a second waterfall just behind us. It was a perfect introduction to Ithaca. 


More waterfalls were abound Sunday punctuated by a rugby game in which Ithaca College was victorious partly thanks to a try (score) by Drew. First we went to Six Mile Creek per Drew’s recommendation, which is made up of two major dams set amidst an old abandoned watermill; It’s a little chilling. There are plenty of cliff jumping opportunities into the emerald water, and we watched some college kids plunge into a deep spot just below the mill. 


Drew’s third recommendation was our favorite, and probably one of the most impressive waterfalls I’ve ever been to. Lucifer Falls is deep within Robert H. Treman State Park; we had a little trouble finding the trail but I think our own lack of research was to blame. Once we were headed in the right direction, we were in disbelief of this gorge and the lead up to the falls; it truly felt like you were walking along the paths of some ancient civilization, forgotten by time and reclaimed by nature. 


The falls themselves were incredible, and light enough this time of year that we could take off our shoes and wade right up to the base, letting the cool mist hit our faces. The climb back up the rim trail was a serious glute workout; LOTS of stairs, but worth it for the view.


Monday morning was rainy and grey, good weather for heading home. But not without a stop at Collegetown Bagels, where we had our favorite meal:


We took the road-less-traveled back East through the Catskills, making quick stops in Phoenicia (had to check out the Mystery Spot, and that diner with the killer branding), Kingston, and then familiar Great Barrington once we’d crossed the state line. 


The Finger Lakes are perhaps New York’s best kept secret, and I can’t wait for the next journey west.