How to Tour the Finger Lakes of New York

The Gourmand & I are home from a brilliant six day tour of our home state. (Yes, yes, we know we live in New Jersey, but we will forever be New Yorkers!) So, how do you do it well? A little bit of nature, a little bit of food, wine and good friends, that’s how! If you don’t know anybody out there willing to show you around their beautiful lake house (Love to Nancy!) you have plenty of options for enjoying Western New York in all its splendor. Here are some tips for eating, drinking, cooking and living in a most enjoyable way:

Day 1
Arrive in Ithaca. I love it here. If I could magically wake up a Cornell Professor, I could imagine spending more than just a vacation exploring this hiccup of a city, home to hippies and hypothesists, snowshoeing and hiking and poetry reading listening-to, but in the meantime, here’s how to visit. Bring your tent and camp at Buttermilk Falls or Taughannock Falls campgrounds. (Pronounced tah-GON-ic) Both are state-owed and cheap, 14 bucks for a bare site. Arrive, set up camp, and head back into town for dinner at Just a Taste, one of the best restaurants I’ve ever enjoyed. 

Just a Taste is American tapas. But to say that, while categorically true, does not do this restaurant justice. Truly, I would eat here once a week if time travel allowed. The kitchen prepares the food as though we were old friends, and she knew exactly how I like my brussel sprouts cooked. Sincerely, Mark and I dream of this place between the times we can get there. Its perfectly priced, unlike Manhattan tapas, which has become some weird status symbol. Of course I can afford 6 twenty-five dollar plates! At Just a Taste, you get to feel like you are in your best cooking-friend’s kitchen and can drink wine served, by the taste (of course) or glass or, if you prefer, which I do, tasting flight. Sample as many as you want and marry a man willing to be your designated driver.

Back at camp. Go to sleep.

Day 2
Awake, and head back to town for breakfast at The State Diner. The blueberry pancakes are divine, the waitresses are perfectly surly and sweet and the coffee flow prepares you for a day of hiking and wine drinking.

Drive to Buttermilk Falls, even if you haven’t stayed there. There is a figure-eight hike that starts just off the parking lot and you get to appreciate all that Mother Nature had in store some billions of years ago. I know that there are all sorts of names for the eras of rock and stone, but what I see is moss and dripping water on my face from skyward overhangs and beautiful birds enjoying brunch from the crystal clear river that feeds the falls.

Lunch! After taking in your share of nature, head up 89N to Glenwood Pines Restaurant. Its really best if you get there on a Tuesday or Friday because they make a Reuben sandwich that is the stuff of dreams. Maybe its because you slept in a tent or whatever, but the sandwich is awesome. The last time M and I were there, we both had Reubens. This time, I ventured off into the specials and ended up eating more than my fair share of his lunch. I hear and read that the burgers are award-winning, but trust me. Get the Reuben. 

Now, time to taste some wines! I have a forthcoming entry planned on exactly what it means to “taste wine.” Even I think it sounds a little pretentious, but the truth is, if you know what you are doing, the experience is way better that “yeah, its good!” New York State wineries are working very hard to shed the reputation of mediocrity and in that spirit, I am going to leave your palate without my very personal tasting notes. But, I will tell you that on Cayuga Lake, on which Ithaca is the most southerly point, there are a few you should visit.

Cayuga Ridge Estate is housed in a beautiful old barn with vaulted ceilings and employ young wine conneiseurs to pour a flight of delightful, young, drinkable wines. 

Hosmer Estate makes a tasty, grapey sparkling that goes well with a cribbage game back at camp. Their Fireside Red went great on our couch on the night we got back home.

Sheldrake Point Pinot Gris is served at Just a Taste. It has the quintessential taste of powdery flowers. In the words of my good friend Willie Gluckstern, the bottom of an old lady’s handbag. In a good way.

Time for dinner? Back in Ithaca, Wegman’s grocery offers lots of prepared-for-camping meals to take away. We bought a honey-mustard marinated pork tenderloin to grill on our campfire and some salads from the salad bar. 

Day 3
Head back north on 89 and turn at Interlaken to find Lively Run Goat Dairy Farm. Yummy chevre, wild blue goat cheese and creamy, perfectly funky feta. 

The Finger Lakes region is called so because, viewed from space, the lakes look very much like someone’s fingers. So that means you have to drive around them. From Interlaken, head to Watkins Glen. I have to put a plug here for a GPS system. You could find your way with a map, for sure, but you can also turn your GPS to silent and follow any east-west farm road you come across and enjoy the view.

From Watkins Glen, find Dundee, New York. You’ll see signs on any major road for McGregor Winery. They have some pricey and impressive reds and delightful whites that are worth their price in conversation. You got that in New York?!

Right down the hill is Ravines. Ah, Ravines. I know I said I wouldn’t taint your palate but this place is it. I’d buy a cellar full if I could afford it. Sadly, Robert Parker found them and increasingly, I cannot. BUT! Go for the view for the full tasting and enjoy the storytellers and wine-inspired art on the walls. Its kitschy in the best way and the quality of the wine more than make up of the price tag. Their’s is the stuff of legend in our house because their riesling has such bracing acidity… but I said I wouldn’t do that! What the heck does “bracing” mean anyway?

Ok, so, now where? If you are without friend, you are kind of one your own to find a dwelling for the night. There are lots of small hamlets to drive through. Naples, NY gotten to by something called the Italy Turnpike, is home of Grape Pie, made out of any number of upstate grapes. The lake views are just gorgeous. Really I hate the word “gorgeous” from a storyteller’s standpoint, but if it was reserved for something, it would be for the Finger Lakes during the turning of the leaves.

I.O.U. one review of Dinosaur BBQ in Rochester, but otherwise, get out your map, and plan your spring tour, because unless you are among the very brave, its a little to chilly to camp now!


3 responses to “How to Tour the Finger Lakes of New York

  1. Good stuff! Lisa and I enjoyed our last visit up to the Finger Lakes, but that was many years ago. Will have to get back up there someday. – John

  2. I got emotional after reading this…. reminders of so many great explorations. Can’t wait for the Dinosaur column.

  3. Great review of the Finger Lakes areas you visited. You hit some wonderful wineries and Lively Run Goat Dairy Farm has delicious artisan cheeses. If you’re thinking of venturing to the Finger Lakes again, I invite you to take a look at: Up until now, I haven’t covered the foods and wines (there are other bloggers who are stronger in this area), but focus more on activities (including wine trail events).

    Thanks for sharing!


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