If you think you've seen New York because you've been to New York City, think again. • And if you're looking for an easy escape from Florida's heat, you could do no better than to journey to upstate New York's celebrated Finger Lakes region. Not only are the temperatures accommodating, but the vistas — of mountains, lakes and waterfalls — are nothing short of spectacular. The excitement over our family's westward journey across the state was heightened by the knowledge that our ultimate destination was Niagara Falls.
The Finger Lakes, so called because their slender, north-south orientation reminded early mapmakers of human fingers, comprise 11 picturesque bodies of water. At the region's eastern end lays Oneida Lake, the Finger Lakes' unofficial "thumb," situated near Syracuse, where we began our adventure.
Our tight five-day travel schedule prevented a visit to Oneida Lake; besides, our Northern kin had taken us there several times previously. It's worth a visit, especially for anglers and boaters, but we sought new thrills.
We departed Syracuse on I-81, bypassing the easternmost Otisco, Skaneateles and Owasco lakes to travel through Cortland and Ithaca on our way to Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes at nearly 40 miles. Cayuga Lake, like Oneida Lake, is a sportsman's paradise with plentiful trout and bass, but the heavily treed shoreline often obscures the sights. We stopped at one of many roadside pullovers to get a look and enjoy the first cool breezes of our trip.
Meandering through New York's beautiful farm country, we traversed the tiny burgs of Odessa and Catharine on our way to the hamlet of Montour Falls, home to the off-the-beaten-path Havana Glen Park. Following a brief walkup beside a number of rapids, the 40-foot Eagle Cliff Falls drops into a fully accessible shallow pool that provides a watery playground for kids of all ages.
But Montour Falls' great She-Qua-Ga (a Seneca phrase that translates as "Tumbling Waters," and a word closely related to "Chicago") is the more awesome sight. Located just a short stroll from downtown, She-Qua-Ga is a dazzling, powerful 156-foot waterfall, fronted by a small public square with tributes to its namesake, Queen Catherine Montour, a revered 18th century Seneca tribe leader.
Our day ended in Watkins Glen, a popular destination for fishing, auto racing and wine tasting. We planned to spend two days at the Harbor Hotel, which sits on the southern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes at nearly 70 square miles. It's a beautiful town and lake, with a thriving tourism economy and an unexpectedly laid-back, almost European vibe.
Morvalden Ells, now better known as Watkins Glen State Park, was our first stop. Originally opened on July 4, 1863, the park features a 400-foot expanse of the Catherine River, which, over the course of its travel through a treacherous 200-foot gorge, includes 19 waterfalls. Visitors should be prepared to trek about 800 sometimes difficult steps to get to the top. We were happy to pay a bus service to get us back to the bottom.
The Seneca Lake environs would be our wine epicenter. Near our hotel was Pleasant Valley Wine Company in Hammondsport, a retail operation offering inexpensive tastings. Those unfamiliar with New York wines should think sweet, light and sometimes rather grapey. Pleasant Valley's inventory includes reds, whites and blushes — merlots, cabernet francs (especially delicious!), Niagaras, Catawbas, Sauternes — as well as sparkling and dessert wines.
Other favorites were Barnstormer Winery in Rock Stream, home to a fantastic riesling, and especially Miles Wine Cellars in Himrod, both on the western side of Seneca Lake. The Miles Wine Cellars tasting room was in a lakeside mansion, and roaming the grounds and sitting on the spacious dock were encouraged. My wife and sons loved the unique wine slushie, made with blush wine, powdered sugar and a heaping cupful of shaved ice.
Cheese also figured into our plans, as upstate New York's dairy industry, like its wine industry, has cranked into high gear in recent decades. We stopped at the impressive Shtayburne Farm Cheese Shop in Rock Stream. It was packed with visitors, offered a large selection to sample (the jalapeno jack and cranberry jack were terrific), and the staff was friendly.
Leaving Watkins Glen, we took another circuitous route past the Y-shaped Keuka Lake to find the Southern Tier Expressway, a scenic and well-maintained road that leads away from the hills to New York's high plains. Our time was running short and we were forced to pass over the last five smallish Finger Lakes of Canandaigua, Honeoye, Canadice, Hemlock and Conesus.
We stopped at Letchworth State Park, which is trumpeted in promotional material as the "Grand Canyon of the East." It certainly is less grand that the real one, but the giant waterfall — the middle of three falls on this part of the Genesee River — was alone worth the trip. This park is a hidden gem: inexpensive, uncrowded and pristine.
After a final journey leg through Buffalo, we arrived in the Canadian city of Niagara on the Fourth of July. The decision to celebrate Independence Day on the other side of the border was not one made lightly, but friends agreed that the best views of the falls could be had from that vantage point. They were right. We stayed at one of several hotels that overlook the falls; the view and sounds from the comfort of our 16th-floor room were unparalleled.
Now the pastoral travels of the past few days gave way to a big-city experience. We slogged up Clifton Hill to Niagara's miniature version of Broadway and Times Square. Our destination was Greg Frewin Theatre, home of a Vegas-style magic show starring its eponymous owner. Frewin's effortless illusions and congenial personality made it a fun evening that ended with excellent fireworks over the falls.
Our final day was spent at Niagara Falls State Park, a must for any visitor, especially families. Niagara Falls actually comprises two waterfalls, American Falls and Horseshoe Falls, and the park provides access to both. Discovery Passes, purchased in advance or on site, enable rides on the Maid of the Mist, a cruise boat that takes passengers near the falls, as well as admission to three other sites: the aquarium, a movie theater providing a filmed historical overview of the falls and the Discovery Center, which features interactive kids' activities and displays.
We loved the park's Cave of the Winds, which, despite its name, is not a cave but a trail very near (almost dangerously near) American Falls. Visitors traverse a wooden structure alongside the falls to about the vertical halfway point. The promise of getting soaked by torrents of water is much of the fun, and the supplied sandals and ponchos are necessary, especially for those willing to brave the "Hurricane Zone." (Plan on it: You're going to get wet.)
Our holiday in upstate New York and, briefly, in Canada, took us by surprise. For years we have loved driving during the summer months to Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee. But for ease of travel, sublime beauty, good wine, great weather and a touch of the European, our new "go-to" spot lies in the Finger Lakes.
Bill F. Faucett is director of development at the University of South Florida's College of the Arts. He writes about classical music, travel and fundraising.