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NY’s Finger Lakes: big city thrills, mountain town charm

When you think of little towns in Appalachia, it’s easy to make assumptions.

Sailboat on Seneca Lake, largest of the glacial Finger Lakes in New York State.
  • Sailboat on Seneca Lake, largest of the glacial Finger Lakes in New York State.

Usually, when you think of little towns in Appalachia complete with serene lakes, it’s easy to make assumptions on what you can do and see. Of course, you expect beauty and quiet relaxation. But the Finger Lakes region of New York has a touch of elegance and sophistication that's more commonly seen in major cities.

I was in the “Southern Tier” of New York, thoroughly delighted to spend my birthday week there.

What to do

Watkins Glen State Park

Watkins Glen State Park

Do you crave outdoor adventure, learning about history, shopping to your heart’s content? The Finger Lakes offer some unique ways to spend your vacation.

If I had stayed in the Air Force, I probably would have learned what they have going on at the National Soaring Museum. After all, U.S. Air Force Academy grad and pilot hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger credits his soaring training and skills in saving lives on the Hudson. I learned about the history of the gliders, their specific uses in times of war. Then, I got to go up in one, checking out storied Harris Hill just like a bird!

The topography of mountains and lakes, along with the region’s historic relative prosperity, have led to some intense cultivation of certain leisure activities. Finger Lakes Boating Museum is located in some of the original Taylor Wine buildings in Hammondsport. Most of the boats in their collection were locally made to be more affordable, so lots of people could enjoy the water. The museum not only has tons of classes and workshops on every aspect of boat restoration, but also long-term volunteers who contribute and learn by helping to reconstruct and refurbish vintage boats. It keeps the traditions going and the community tight.

Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum is devoted to local golden boy Curtiss, who built bicycles, motorcycles, early planes and the first seaplane. He also won many speed and distance awards. He taught the first pilots through the U.S. Navy and is considered the father of naval aviation. Here, too, a staff of volunteers runs the Restoration Shop, which restores vintage aircraft and creates reproductions, among lots of other things. This place also cements the community.

Learning about all this water recreation makes you want to experience it – no matter what your age or physical condition. Doesn’t it just seem like it’d be good karma to sail on a schooner named True Love? You can get that old-timey, relaxing feel on Seneca Lake (pictured at top) in the morning, midday or even sunset.

If you like seeing gorgeous nature and enjoy a good physical challenge, Watkins Glen State Park has 200-foot cliffs, 19 waterfalls and a pool if you can make it to the top. I made it up a little of the way a day after a rainstorm. I had sturdy boots on and I absolutely advise that you wear some – or specialized walking shoes.

Watkins Glen State Park

If you’ve ever visited a historically maintained or recreated village, they’re usually way out of town because of space requirements. But the Heritage Village of the Southern Finger Lakes has restored the actual 1796 Painted Post Tavern in the town of Corning. Other historic buildings were then moved to the site. They’re not just doing school field trip stuff, either: there are hearth-cooking workshops and craft beverage expos.

This is a part of the world to shop for vintage treasures, for sure. I started my birthday present acquisitions at Antique Revival, just east of Corning. They have New York’s largest selection of antique furniture, vintage lighting and more. I was there during their annual 50% off sale. My Tevya windup musical doll is the best $5 I ever spent.

An interesting store in Corning is on Market Street: This and That. The owner commissions women in developing countries around the world to make big, bold, beautiful costume jewelry.

People normally think of Mark Twain as being a Southerner, a Missourian. But his well-to-do in-laws lived in Elmira and he spent his summers writing in the cool, scenic mountains. During the same time of year, you can take a guided trolley ride to see where Twain had a writing studio and his final resting place. The tour begins from the Chemung Valley Museum, which itself has fascinating local artifacts.

Modern glass art installation at Corning Museum of Glass.

Modern glass art installation at Corning Museum of Glass.

The Corning Museum of Glass is a kaleidoscope of art, crafts, history, science and industry. The 10-acre campus includes massive modern art installations, majestic Tiffany-stained glass church windows, and 35 centuries of glassmaking. I was amazed at the beautiful, intricate artistry created by our Bronze Age ancestors. I was able to try my hand at glassmaking in their workshop. You pick from several different projects, they swathe you up in protective clothing and they mail your creation home. I discovered that some colors I like – such as pink – are not available: it requires ground gold.

From the Corning, you can take a shuttle bus to the Smithsonian-affiliated Rockwell Museum. They focus on American fine art, with Native collections, Remington, Warhol and other significant treasures of our country.

What to drink

The Finger Lakes actually has several wine trails! The wine industry really took off in sophistication when they discovered how to graft vinifera (the European kind) of grape stock. The area has always had native grapes – Concord, Niagara and Catawba – but they have that distinct Welch’s/”grapey” flavor.

Of course, some people go nuts for it, but the European varieties are unarguably elegant. Pleasant Valley Wine Co. – best known for their Taylor Wine line – was founded in 1860. They have tastings in their original building and a renowned tour with fantastic historic artifacts. Heron Hill is a veritable universe of the regional wine scene. Imagine jumbo-sized tasting rooms, event venue areas and gift shopping in the breathtaking New York section of the Appalachians, with fantastic vistas year-round — though I was there during pouring rain.

Point of the Bluff Vineyards overlooks Keuka Lake and with its lush hills, looks a lot like a Tuscan vineyard. With their ice wine, I noticed candied orange peel and a salt tang. Weis Vineyards has a tiny, no-frills tasting room, but makes up for it with exquisite wines. It was founded by a young German whose father and grandfather were vintners along the Mosel River in Germany.

Where to stay

There are lots of unique accommodations in the area. Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen is a AAA 4 Diamond hotel that really takes advantage of its waterfront location on Seneca Lake. Have a meal or glass of local wine on the patio. The rooms have beachy light wood floors, sea-colored paint. Turndown service is just one of the amenities available.

For a more intimate, riotously romantic Victorian feel, Blushing Rose Inn gives all of that and more. Freshly baked cookies, luxe toiletries, large bath sheet towels and other touches add to the comfort. In the morning, the homemade breakfast is made from local ingredients and very tasty.

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