Finger Lakes

Overview

Introduction

True to their name, New York's Finger Lakes are long, thin and almost parallel lakes that occupy the region between Syracuse and Rochester. The region begins about 145 mi/233 km west of Albany and is perfect for a few days' stay en route between New York City and Buffalo.

The Finger Lakes offer great opportunities for fishing, boating and other outdoor activities. The area also has many interesting cities and towns and is home to many of the state's wineries (tours and tastings are offered at many of the nearly 100 vineyards). The region is the size of Vermont, with 11 major bodies of water carved out eons ago by glaciers; its state parks and national forest attract more than 20 million visitors each year. With numerous gorges and glens in and around the lakes, this region is hugely popular with hikers.

The names of lakes reflect the Native American heritage of the region. The largest lakes are Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga and Owasco. Three smaller lakes—Conesus, Hemlock and Honeoye—are charming and offer fun for families, anglers and boaters. Cottages and boat docks surround Conesus Lake, which stretches 8 mi/13 km south from Lakeville. Hemlock and Honeoye lakes are less built up than Conesus and more laid-back. Hemlock is great for trout and bass fishing. Sandy Bottom Park, on Honeoye Lake, has a small swimming beach.

The town of Skaneateles, at the top of the lake of the same name, came to national attention some years ago when then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and his family dropped by for part of their summer vacation. The quaint town is a bit of a throwback, with Community Band concerts at the gazebo in Clift Park on summer Friday evenings and a month-long, Dickens-themed Christmas celebration. The downtown is dotted with antiques shops and small stores with wooden signs housed in historic buildings that date as far back as 1796, though there are a few hints that the town is going upscale: Nearby is the Mirbeau Inn and Spa, situated on a luxurious estate.

At the head of Cayuga Lake is Seneca Falls. This was the site of the first Women's Rights Convention and is today home of the Women's Rights National Historical Park, with exhibits and tours, and the National Women's Hall of Fame. The town also claims that it was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the setting of the film classic It's a Wonderful Life, though no one can really prove it. Also in the area is Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, a rest stop for thousands of migrating Canada geese.

South of Seneca Falls, at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, is the city of Ithaca, home to spectacular deep gorges, more than 100 waterfalls and Cornell University. Those interested in Asian and American art will enjoy a stop at the university's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which was designed by architect I.M. Pei. A good stop for kids is Sciencenter, an interactive museum and playground with scores of exhibits, live animals and the Sagan Planet Walk.

To the west, at the foot of Seneca Lake, is Watkins Glen, site of the Watkins Glen International auto track (open April-September). The race season features everything from NASCAR events to the nation's largest vintage car race. The town hosts the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in July and an Italian-American Festival every August.

The real reason to visit the area is to see Watkins Glen State Park, a dramatic long gorge with 19 waterfalls, 832 stone steps, sheer cliffs and a heart-shaped plunge pool. There are plenty of recreational activities in the park, such as picnicking, swimming, fishing, hunting, hiking, biking and cross-country skiing.

A half-hour's drive to the southwest is Corning, a glass-manufacturing center. Stop to see the Corning Museum of Glass with its rare and extensive glass collection that spans the globe and the centuries, including some of the earliest glass ever discovered. There's a nice gift shop, too. Observing master glassmakers at work is a highlight. More glasswork is viewable in the more intimate setting of the Vitrix Hot Glass Studio at 77 W. Market St. Corning is also home to the Rockwell Museum and its diverse and extensive collection of art from the western U.S.

Nearby Elmira was for a time the summer haunt of Mark Twain and his family. Today, Woodlawn Cemetery is their final resting place. Elmira is known as the "Soaring Capital of the World." If you feel adventurous, take a ride on a glider at the Harris Hill Soaring Center (http://www.harrishillsoaring.org). The National Soaring Museum includes an impressive collection of hands-on exhibits, and a large collection of sailplanes dating from the late 19th to the late 20th century. For more information, visit http://www.soaringmuseum.org.

To the northwest is Canandaigua, where you can visit the impressive Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, a restored 50-acre/20-hectare estate with nine formal gardens. The property is also home to the Finger Lakes Wine Center, which offers the chance to taste vintages from more than 40 different regional wine makers. Canandaigua Lake is a great setting for all watersports (not to mention a relaxing lake cruise), and there are plenty of antiques shops in town. The Finger Lakes Casino and Racetrack (8 mi/13 km north of town) has Thoroughbred racing and nearly 1,200 slot machines.

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