It seems as though the Finger Lakes region is an easy drive from most places in the Mid-Atlantic, whether you’re from Ohio, Philadelphia, New York or, yes, even Washington, DC. That’s how I found myself spending a few days exploring this beautiful part of the country, working with local tourism folks to showcase everything that makes New York’s Finger Lakes Region so much fun to visit. I had a general idea of what to expect – great food, wine and landscapes – but I didn’t fully understand how important the individual communities that surround the 11 lakes are to the travel experience. Each one has a small town feel, offering visitors hospitality and kindness that one may not ordinarily expect. Each village though is unique and very different from its neighbors, which is why today I want to share three of my favorite communities in New York’s Finger Lakes Region and what I think makes them special places to visit.
The de facto capital of the Finger Lakes thanks to its size and history, I quickly realized that an entire trip could be spent exploring what has often been called one of America’s Best Small Towns. What attracts most people, at least originally, is the world-renowned Corning Museum of Glass. Established in 1951 as a gift to the world by Corning Glass Works, the massive Museum of Glass would take days to fully experience, from learning about the history of glass through the ages to admiring the modern art in a newly designed gallery. Visiting the Corning Museum of Glass is also very much a hands on experience though, and guests can get creative with glass in any number of ways, including working with a glass artist to produce their very own piece to take home.
There’s a lot more to Corning though than its famous museum, as I learned on a walk around town on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The main street running through town is as picture perfect as could be produced in a Hollywood backlot, bursting at the seams with restaurants and cafes, shops and boutiques and artists studios, all finding inspiration in a town that has inspired so many before them. Like many wine regions, food is also an important part of the experience and one of my favorite places in Corning is Hand + Foot. This vintage-chic eatery is all about creating a comforting atmosphere where diners will want to actually talk with one another instead of gaze absentmindedly at a TV or a small screen in their hand – crazy, right? Combine that with a fierce commitment to providing amazing beer and wine and a menu as creative as I’ve ever seen and you have a restaurant that doesn’t just offer amazing food, but a fun experience as well. Add in other great museums and a general feeling of hospitality and you’ll quickly realize as I did that there’s a lot more to Corning than may at first meet the eye.
Checking into the colorful and recently remodeled Pleasant Valley Inn, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The B&B sits quietly alongside the road, signs indicating other villages nearby. One of those villages though quickly became a favorite of mine, Hammondsport. Driving into the small downtown, bunting adorned the windows and the village seemed oddly busy with folks enjoying the warm evening. Then I noticed a line snaking out of a nearby restaurant and I was curious. As I approached I realized it was my dinner destination for the evening and I instantly felt like I had won the culinary lottery snagging a table that evening. Union Block Italian Bistro is a casual restaurant specializing in home-style Italian and Mediterranean food. But don’t expect chianti bottles with candles, far from it. The food is intensely creative, served with flair and a level of customer service I’d expect to find in the best restaurants in the world. While unassuming from the outside, this should be a must-patronize restaurant for any visitor to the region.
There’s more to Hammondsport though than a nice downtown and delicious food, and I had the best vantage point to enjoy it all – from the air. I had never been on a seaplane before so I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know how excited I was. Climbing into the front seat, within minutes the pilot from Finger Lakes Seaplanes had us up and over the lakes, a rare opportunity to enjoy the region from the air. The lakes and villages radiated out in every direction and it was only then that I truly appreciated the geography of the Finger Lakes. It truly is a special part of the country, best seen from the passenger seat of a seaplane.
What didn’t surprise me about the village of Watkins Glen was the amazing natural experiences offered there. That was, after all, the reason why I was there – to hike through one of the country’s most popular state parks. Attracting curious visitors for more than 150 years, the unique natural beauty is at the core of that fascination. The centerpiece of the park is a 400-foot deep narrow gorge, cut through rock by a stream creating rapids and more than 19 waterfalls throughout the park. Traipsing along the trail, I was joined by hundreds of other people, all eager to be outside and enjoy the cooler weather found in the park. There’s always a sense of wonder and awe when I see a waterfall, and that was certainly the case in Watkins Glen. I don’t know what it is about them that attracts us, but the draw is undeniable. Add in the fact that you can even walk behind one of them, and it’s a fun way to enjoy the great outdoors in a region of New York famous for its natural beauty.
Beyond the park though I discovered a fun community that is well worth a visit. Sitting on the shores of Seneca Lake, there are any number of ways to spend your time in Watkins Glen but, of course, visiting the area’s many wineries is one of the most popular. A personal favorite was an easy drive out of town. Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery produces a wide selection of amazing wines, but they also have a brewery on site that creates just as tasty ales, porters and IPAs. With a large deck overlooking the vines and lake, it’s the perfect spot to sit back and relax.
The Finger Lakes of New York impressed me more than I thought it would, thanks almost entirely to the small villages that sit quietly along the lakes. Many trips could be spent exploring them all, to fully understand how the region’s fun eccentricities create one of the best getaways in the country.