Fanning out from the Hudson River Valley and spreading west and north across rich farm country toward Lake Erie, Upstate New York has retained an almost mystical aura. It was—and still is—home to some of the most powerful tribes of Native Americans. Its canals contributed to the region’s ascendance as an early manufacturing powerhouse. In a way, it was the early California of the East Coast, with its fostering of religious sects and utopian dreams.
Then there are the Finger Lakes—deep, linear gouges in the earth carved by glaciers. For those exploring them for the first time, a good place to start is the town of Watkins Glen, nestled in a valley against the southern terminus of Seneca Lake—the middle body of water and perhaps the most interesting one. Though there are 11 lakes in all, only four are primary. The easternmost is Cayuga Lake, home to the town of Ithaca, Cornell University and Ithaca College. Seneca is a few miles west, with Geneva at the northern end of that lake. The third is Keuka (which has a thumb to go with its finger). It’s home to the towns of Penn Yann to the north and Hammondsport to the south. The westernmost of the four is Canandaigua, whose primary town is named after the lake.
Getting from one lake to another takes longer than it would seem to from looking at a map—and that’s great if you enjoy driving through lovely farm country. Part of that farming is grapes. The Finger Lakes are synonymous with wineries. Until recently, the area challenged California in the production of inexpensive, somewhat sweet jug wines, and it’s still a major player in that market. Because of its harsher winters, the area remains a major producer of wines made from the Concord and other hardy American varieties that produce extremely fruity wines (think grape juice), along with French-American hybrid varieties like Vidal Blanc and Marechal Foch, which make enjoyable wines but seldom great ones.
The Finger Lakes are synonymous with wineries. Up until recently, the area challenged California in the production of inexpensive, somewhat sweet jug wines, and it’s still a major factor in that market.
More recently, many local winemakers have been focusing primarily on wines made with vinifera (or European) grapes—and these efforts have been impressive. On a recent revisit to the area, I stopped by the tasting rooms of Red Newt Cellars, Forge Cellars and Hillick & Hobbs Estate, all on the eastern side of Seneca Lake, for excellent Rieslings, chardonnays and cabernet francs. Hillick & Hobbs is especially noteworthy. It’s owned by stellar California producer Paul Hobbs, who grew up nearby and is known as a perfectionist.
While the east side of Seneca seems to have an edge in quality, Ravines Wine Cellars, Fox Run Vineyards and Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard on the west side also produce good wines. Wiemer, in particular, has a robust portfolio. “We made 43 wines in 2020 across two brands,” says Dillon Buckley, senior winemaker at Wiemer and an Archmere Academy alum.
Also note that the east side is quieter, and west-side tasting rooms are often packed with visitors. Most of the wineries have enough small plates of food to satisfy visitors through the middle meal (especially Ravines outside Geneva). But don’t expect to stumble across quaint little places to eat in the small villages along the scenic lakeside roadways. One exception is Dano’s Heuringer on Seneca near Lodi, which is modeled after Viennese taverns that serve traditional foods, often family style, with their new vintages of wine.
The larger towns at the northern and southern tips of the lakes—Geneva, Cayuga, Ithaca—offer a good variety of both casual and formal dining. Though not on the periphery of the lakes itself, Corning is an excellent place to eat and shop. Its East Market Street has specialty stores and restaurants to explore. Three Birds is perfect for a nostalgic and tasty dip into country-club food and service.
Corning is famous for its glass production, so be sure stop at the spacious Corning Museum of Glass. The setting is quite modern, and its collection boasts more than 50,000 objects spanning 3,500 years. Those of us who miss Simon Pearce and its glassmaking along the Brandywine can watch live demonstrations and visit artists’ studios.
Other regional attractions include the National Soaring Museum in Elmira, which celebrates flight in motor-less aircraft. Visitors can explore, then take a sailplane ride from nearby Harris Hill for an aerial view of the lake country. Early aviation history is on display at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, along with motorcycle and antique boat collections. And, in Ithaca, there’s the Cornell Botanic Gardens and the Museum of the Earth.
For a special way to enjoy Seneca Lake, take a ride on the True Love schooner sailing out of Watkins Glen. NASCAR fans also flock to the Glen for the annual stock car race at the international speedway set in the hills overlooking the lake. This year’s race is scheduled for Aug. 19.
The Finger Lakes region is well known to those who enjoy hiking, biking and camping. Campgrounds and trailer facilities dot the area, and campers abound on the roads in summer. Especially popular is Watkins Glen State Park, where the mountains quickly descend to the lake, resulting in spectacular waterfalls along Glen Creek.
Finally, there’s the matter of getting there. If you want to fly and rent a car, there are direct flights between Philadelphia and Syracuse, the nearest major airport. But it’s also a beautiful drive from the Brandywine Valley, especially via Lancaster and Harrisburg and then north through the mountains on Route 15—about a five-hour drive. Or take the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s northeast extension. It’s less scenic, but a bit faster.
Related: Travel in Style