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Cheers to the Finger Lakes
[April 07, 2006]

Cheers to the Finger Lakes

(Copley News Service Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Gardens of summer flowers, a pond and an eclectic collection of garden art were enough to divert my attention off the road around Seneca Lake in upstate New York. Skyland Farm Craft Gallery and Cafe's facade promised an interesting interior, and I was not disappointed.

Never mind those bins of plastic fingers filled with popcorn (yes, it was the Finger Lakes) and that funky stuffed cow at the door. Behind them is the work of over 300 local and regional artists. Wool garments from the sheep next door, mirrors from Seneca Lake stones, jewelry, copper sculptures, beeswax and bayberry candles, handmade soaps and pottery presented a commotion of color in the rustic, wood-walled gallery. More hues met my eyes - and my palate - in the cafe's irresistible array of rich, colorful, fruit-laden gelato (Italian ice cream).

Skyland, I learned, is a stop that has something for everyone, particularly when you add a few farm animals at kid level. The warmth with which its country-friendly staff engages visitors is what I would expect much farther south.

The Skyland stop seemed to embody much of what I found while sojourning the Seneca, Keuka and Cayuga Lakes region. Away from the maddening crowds to the east, it's a slice of an era I thought we'd tossed aside. Manhattan is another country and light years away from the unpretentious, fun, friendly and wide-open culture I found there. Try to find a chain restaurant in the village of Watkins Glen. What this western side of the Empire State does offer visitors is free-flowing wine in lakeside tasting rooms; Corning's unique art collections; canyons and waterfalls; charming small towns laden with heritage; and outdoor land- and water-based fun.

I accessed the area with a flight into Rochester and a drive south into Dundee. There I checked into The Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars. The view from my window had vineyards in the fore and lake views in the background. Glenora's full-service restaurant paired nicely with the accommodations as a good base for day tripping.

Reislings, Blancs and Chardonnays adorn dozens of tasting counters, but one unique viticulture stop is Pleasant Valley Wine Company in Hammondsport. Its stone buildings and cave cellars date to 1860, when it was established as the first bonded wine company in the U.S. Those ancient walls on the National Register of Historic Places harbor testimony to survival from the Civil War, prohibition and multiple owners, from the once legendary Taylor Wines to Coca-Cola.

Hammondsport also presented a village square right out of a vintage photo album, complete with a bandstand, ice cream parlor and shops designed for browsing. The wine list of about 200 choices and seafood at Village Tavern Restaurant and Inn made for a real epicurean dining experience that reminded me of Sonoma and Napa territory.

Corning is the state's top tourist attraction after the big city and Niagara Falls, and glass is the headliner. The transparent Corning Museum of Glass brings in all ages of visitors with its exciting live and narrated glassblowing demonstrations and a workshop where takers can make their own souvenir glass art. Educational exhibits about ancient and modern glassmaking and the world's most comprehensive glass collection - 40,000 objects from 3,500 years of glass craftsmanship - are among the sparkling lures. The huge and colorful Glass Market attracted me too, and I spent a chunk of time inside it loading up with moderately priced gift items like vases, drinking glasses, flowers and paperweights.

"Glass of the Maharajahs" in the changing exhibit hall will dazzle people this year May through November with artifacts from India. Between about 1870 and 1920, elite Indian families filled their palaces and homes with unique glass furnishings made mostly in Europe. A massive, 18-light candelabra in jewel-toned glass, table fountains of faceted cut glass and a four-poster bed with rich hangings and throne-size chairs are among the exhibition's pieces from collections around the world.

Not surprisingly, I met several glass artists in their galleries a couple blocks from the museum along Market Street, a restored 19th century promenade of the historic Gaffer District. Besides shops and restaurants, it's the location for the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, the East's largest repository with 200 years of cowboy and Indian artifacts including Bierstadts, Remingtons, Russells and Morans.

The 1893 City Hall houses a renovated interior for the collection that reflects the themes of people, places and ideas of the West, even for small-fries. Children ages 8-13 can learn about Native American works in the collection by doing the interactive, self-guided tour that's inside The Native American Art Pack. It contains activities, puzzles, creative challenges and a bracelet a child can make and take home.

In Elmira, I encountered the Civil War and Mark Twain aboard The Elmiran, a trolley that tours the city's historic district. We stopped at the writer's study, a sort of Victorian gazebo formerly at the family's Elmira summer retreat, Quarry Farm. It's where he crafted such classics as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Now located on the leafy campus of Elmira College - home of the Mark Twain Studies Center - Twain quotes on the little house's walls encouraged me to pick up books I hadn't read.

The trolley also took us to tranquil Woodlawn National Cemetery where Twain, his wife and daughters rest, then on to a much starker repose plot on the site of Elmira's Union Civil War Prison. Sometimes called the Andersonville of the North, it operated only one year but holds the graves of 3,000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict. The camp's claim to historic fame is that it had the highest death rate (24 percent) per capita of any prison camp north or south.

I ended my Elmira day at Hill Top Inn Restaurant where I got almost the same sweeping view of the city below that Twain had from his highland summer farm retreat. The years have added development, but the vista of mountains and meandering river still inspire. Family oriented dining is good too, under management by the third generation of the Sullivan family. Live piano music adds to the weekend ambience.

Another diner suggested that I not miss the National Soaring Museum just out of town. It's the country's largest collection of gliders and sailplanes that chart the history of motionless flight, I learned, and it's where one may catch a sailplane ride and ascend about 2,000 feet off Harris Hill.

The weather wasn't right for soaring, but it was for a massage. I found a unique spa in Bath - not in a lux hotel but at a campground in the midst of the rural landscape. Finger Lakes Wellness Center and Health Spa is part of the 215-acre Hickory Hill Family Camping Resort where all manner of campsites, lodges and cabins welcome guests for a stay in nature. My grape seed oil and aromatherapy massage was great, and I felt even better when I learned that a portion of the spa fees go to their charity treatments program for persons with disabilities.

Campground massages and wine glass lifting aren't the only outdoor and relaxing options visitors have in the region. This is, after all, an area that's replete with lakes, waterfalls and canyons. Visitors find a myriad of boating choices, including the venerable Malabar X, a vintage schooner that cruises Seneca Lake. Passengers may help trim the sails, take the helm or just sit back and drink in a bit of local vino while the captain does his launch.

At the end of my Finger Lakes smorgasbord, it seemed only appropriate to toast the geology, culture and heritage that's in the same state as the Big Apple, but so happily apart.


For trip planning, contact (800) 813-2958 or visit

Ruth A. Hill is a freelance travel writer.

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Copyright 2006 Copley News Service

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