The Finger Lakes Point to Fun

By Rob Hoffman on July 9, 2018 at 6:42 AM

People love to use the term “hidden gem” when describing something they have found that they believe nobody else is on to. It’s one of those ways we gain the upper hand on those around us. New York state possesses many “gems,” and the vast majority aren’t very hidden. New York City, Niagara Falls, and much of what lies in between pretty much falls under the banner of “known commodities.” However, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few attractions that haven’t been overlooked, and can in fact constitute “hidden gems.” For example, people all around the world know about the Statue of Liberty, as well as Ellis Island, but how many tourists know enough to visit Governor’s Island, the ugly step-sister of New York City’s harbor islands? A real hidden gem that is hiding in plain sight.

I may owe the governor an apology. It looks quite exquisite. Forget the Bahamas, or the Virgin Islands, if you’re looking for me when I retire, I’ll be enjoying the warm summer breezes of Governor’s Island…suckers!! (New York Times)

There are many hidden gems throughout New York State, particularly because so much of New York is dominated by its namesake’s city. Niagara Falls is claimed by New York, (Even though almost all of what makes “the Falls” worth visiting is on the Canadian side.) further pushing those areas found in between into the shadows. Sure, most New Yorker’s know of Lake George, Lake Placid, the Hudson River, the Adirondacks and the Catskills, and all of the beauty that lies within, but nestled in the region of New York State known geographically as “Central, New York,” is a geological and cultural treasure trove referred to affectionately as the Finger Lakes region. It is the closest thing New York State has to Napa or Sonoma counties in California, and New Yorker’s would be wise to investigate it.

Geology at work, the Finger Lakes don’t quite rank as “Great’, like their cousins to the north, Erie and Ontario, but they’re damn good. (Hoffman Collection)

Even before the Finger Lakes region of Central New York State became known for its wine, it has always been a geological anomaly. Located southwest of Syracuse, and southeast of Rochester, easily accessible via Interstate 90, the Finger Lakes formed via glacial carving of old stream valleys that took place over two million years ago. (Or as Vice President Mike Pence would describe it, “About 6000 years ago.”) There are 11 lakes in all, and two of them, Cayuga and Seneca, are amongst the deepest in all of North America, with bottoms that reach below sea level. Cayuga Lake is also the longest of the 11 lakes, and the city of Ithaca is located at its southern tip. The southern parts of the lakes have high walls, cut by steep gorges.

It’s not quite the Grand Canyon, and there’s no “wax museums,” or “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” exhibits like there is at Niagara Falls, but Taughannock Falls in the Finger Lakes isn’t shabby by anybody’s standards. (Hoffman Collection)

The Finger Lakes region of New York State was under the control of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy for many years. Over the better part of two centuries, the Iroquois skillfully played the British against the French, and kept both European powers from settling the territory. However, the America Revolution caused a schism in the Iroquois Confederacy, and they were eventually defeated by 1779. The Iroquois were shipped off to reservations, and settlers from Pennsylvania, New England, and the rest of New York State moved into the area. Its history includes the “Great Awakening,” a religious movement of the early 19th century, as well as being a key location along the route of the Underground Railroad, including what would eventually be the home of Harriet Tubman in Auburn, New York.

The woman’s rights movement also received its shot in the arm in the Finger Lakes. The famous Seneca Falls convention took place in…wait for it…Seneca Falls, located right in the Finger Lakes. It was there in 1848, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others, that the Declaration of Sentiments was written and signed by these brave freedom fighters. The Declaration codified their demand for equality and basic human rights, including the ladies’ most pertinent request, the right to vote. A “scant” 70 years later, the fight for full enfranchisement was finally reached. (Considering how popular wine drinking has become amongst so many women, perhaps it is more than a coincidence that the Finger Lakes region became the genesis of the women’s rights movement as well as the New York State winemaking craze.)

The Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, where 160 July’s ago, the first meeting demanding social and legal equality for women was held. It’s unknown whether they served red, white, or rose’, but my guess is none of the above considering it was a church. In fact, it’s more than likely that the only thing served at this convention was “comeuppance.” Boo-ya! (Getty Images)

The Finger Lakes are of course known today primarily for wine-producing. In fact, the region produces more wine than anywhere else in New York State. Two of the oldest wineries in the United States can be found in the Finger Lakes including, O-Neh-Da in 1872, and The Pleasant Valley Wine Company founded in 1860. The lakes provide an excellent spot for grape growing, protecting the crop from early frosts in the fall, as well as spring frosts.

The wine produced in the Finger Lakes that they are best known for is typically of the white variety. The grapes that seem to thrive the best in this region include Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer. (I’m a little sketchy on the pronunciation of that last grape.) Pinot Noir grapes grow there as well, but a lot of wine connoisseurs (snobs) will tell you that the only wine worth drinking and purchasing from the Finger Lakes is the white variety. (I will not offer comment on this since what I know about wine would fit into a bottle of “Manischewitz.”)

Acres and acres of vineyards, with Cayuga Lake in the background. It’s not quite Sonoma, but it’s still beautiful, and it’s all New York! (Hoffman Collection)

About 10 years ago, my wife and I sojourned out to California wine country, and had a grand old-time. We played golf, we went from winery to winery, and enjoyed this section of California very much. We have often spoken of going back, but it’s a considerable journey just to drink some wine. (Interestingly, we weren’t even supposed to go to Napa or Sonoma. We were actually on our way to Lake Tahoe, but the town literally caught fire, and not wanting to end up like Fredo in “Godfather II,” dying in Lake Tahoe I mean, we ended up calling a last-minute audible, and ended up loving California wine country instead.) For years we discussed visiting the much more convenient Finger Lakes hoping for the same type of experience. Unfortunately, the one time we were all set to go, my father took ill, and those plans were shelved.

However, as another one of my birthdays approached, my wife, perhaps inspired by the thoughts of wine tasting in the heart of the birthplace of the modern woman’s rights movement, purchased us a wine-tasting tour, and a night in a quaint bed & breakfast at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. While we were both giddy at the prospect of this, the weather, the bane of every person over the age of 50, began to rear its ugly head, and brought about a pause in our prospects. Last Thursday, my Weather Channel app alarmed me to the idea that the following week was about to drop on the good people of upstate, New York, the longest and hottest heat wave in quite a while. For the Hoffman’s it was at least one in-ground pool ago since we’d seen heat like this.

I innocently mentioned to my wife about the on-coming heat-wave, and I asked with a considerable amount of concern in my voice if the bed & breakfast we were booked at had air conditioning. She said, “You know, it never occurred to me to ask, but I’ve been getting nervous about it ever since I saw the weather forecast.” Why was she nervous you ask? She knows her man, that’s why. I like the heat when I’m at the beach, sitting out at my pool, and that’s about it. Otherwise, give me air-conditioning, and a cup of coffee, that’s a perfect summer day in my eyes. At any rate we called the nice lady at the bed & breakfast who told us that while they didn’t have air conditioning, she did have a few fans, and oh, by the way, the money wasn’t refundable.

Sorry, but there’s not enough cold hard cider in the world to keep me from going through an epic shvitz when I don’t have access to air conditioning and the mercury is approaching 98 degrees. (Hoffman Collection)

Fortunately, the nice lady on the phone offered us a credit, and we will be back in the fall. However, we weren’t quite ready to surrender our stay in the Finger Lakes, so we searched the interweb, and discovered a place called Halsey House, located in quainter than quaint Trumansburg, New York. The Halsey House, built in 1829, is operated by “recovering lawyer,” and current chef Dave, and his partner…Dave. The two gentlemen provided us with a wonderful stay in their grand, and historically registered house, as well as a sizable room air conditioner that kept my perspiration at bay.

With our home base secured, my wife and I frolicked about the various Cayuga Lake wineries, reaching four in all. They included Hosmer, Shalestone, (A rarity amongst Finger Lakes wineries being that they only make reds, in a climate that seems to favor whites.) Goose Watch, and Buttonwood. We also stopped at an authentic Austrian heuriger. A heuriger is an establishment found in eastern Austria where the proprietor serves only his wine, along with food in a garden like setting. We had gone to several in Vienna several years ago, and this one in the Finger Lakes, called Danos was pretty legit. The food was not unlike what we had in Vienna, and my wife and I snacked on Weisswurst, Bratwurst, and hot sauerkraut.

The Weisswurst is not the most appealing item I’ve ever ingested. By the way, the Austrians aren’t real big on fruits and vegetables. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the pretzel in Austria constitutes a vegetable. (Getty Images)

While it’s not exactly San Francisco, Ithaca, New York turns out to be much more than a college town, and it is a fine place to go for dinner after a day of enjoying the wineries. There are numerous shops and restaurants in the town, and it seems far too high-end for the average college student to hang out in, although if they attend Cornell, then they can probably swing it, although, shouldn’t they be inside studying? I also feel bad for the Ithaca College students since no matter how hard they try, they are always going to be the second brightest college students in the city of Ithaca next to those who are attending Cornell.

We tried to go to a Tapas bar, but the wait was an hour, (Even though it looked empty.) and the restaurant was closing in an hour. They told us that they couldn’t guarantee us that the restaurant would still be open by the time they got to us. My wife began to debate the illogic of this point with the hostess, but I chose the bona-fide “Hoffman approach,” which means that the second the person you are speaking to has proven to be kind of a moron, you walk away lest you get sucked into their “moron-vortex.” We ended up going to some other place which was just fine, but I couldn’t help but think what it would have been like to attend a college with a really hip and nice college town surrounding it. I loved SUNY Oswego, don’t get me wrong, but going to an Ivy League school would have been interesting for many reasons. Still, I didn’t see a “Wing Wagon,” or a bar featuring “Five Dollars, All You Can Drink” specials, so the hell with the Ivy’s.

Somewhere down there, a Cornell University student is cutting class. (You Tube)

The next morning, Dave and Dave promptly served breakfast at 9am, and we were dazzled with an array of treats which included homemade waffles with blueberries, frittatas, chicken sausage, a potato stack with mushrooms, and the best freakin’ biscuits I’ve ever tasted in my life. The dining room setting was exquisite, but I would add that one of the things that differentiates the bed & breakfast from a regular hotel is that you dine with strangers. The people seemed nice, and my wife was in an unusually sociable mood, so I didn’t have to do card-tricks or pull out my glass eye to keep the conversation lively. (The glass eye trick is really more of a threat since I don’t really have one.)

I’m certain there are those who wouldn’t even consider going to the Finger Lakes, claiming that the wine is nothing special. I say, a pox upon their snobbish airs, fun is fun. It’s a beautiful setting, with lots to do. I’m sure I could blindfold one of these so-called Sommelier’s, and give them a taste test between a Sonoma or Napa red, and a Finger Lakes red, and probably fool a large percentage of them. I mean, it’s not like wine is beer, and it takes a truly developed palate to figure out what’s quality, and what is how do you say…”Le-trash.” Therefore I say, go my fellow New Yorkers, go and taste the good fruit of the vine that is produced in Central, New York. However beware, if you imbibe too much of the fruit of the vine, you could be found wandering around in your “Fruit of the Looms.”

Mmmm, grapey! (You Tube)