Sara Samuel of WhirlAway Travel recently traveled from Pennsylvania to the Finger Lakes in New York, where she saw some beautiful sites and chased some waterfalls. Here’s her report.

We began the trip with an easy four-hour drive from the Philadelphia area to Watkins Glen State Park, which is located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, one of the five main Finger Lakes in New York. The park is one of the most popular in the region and it is easy to see why. The scenery of cliffs and waterfalls is spectacular as you walk The Gorge Trail through the deep chasm. The rock, the light, the water and the stunning rock formations are captivating. Within two miles, the water descends 400 feet, past 200-foot cliffs, generating 19 waterfalls along the course. Most visitors begin, as we did, at the bottom of the gorge and wind their way up the 832 stone steps along the clearly marked trail. The rim trails on either side offer breathtaking views of the gorge as you make your way back down. 

The terrace of the nearby Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel was our next stop for lunch, accompanied by our first taste of the wine for which the Finger Lakes region has become renowned — Seneca Lake alone is home to 35 wineries. This AAA Four Diamond hotel overlooks the picturesque Harbor Park and Glen Harbor Marina. 

At Finger Lakes, Sara Samuel visited wineries, admired waterfalls (Shequaga Falls, shown below), and shopped at Mackenzie-Childs (bottom).

Next, we were off chasing waterfalls at Taughannock Falls State Park. After a scenic 30-minute drive we found ourselves on the southwestern shore of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes. The afternoon sunlight through the fall foliage was gorgeous as we walked the easy three-quarter-mile path along the riverbed to the falls. With a 215-foot drop, Taughannock Falls is the highest falls east of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, the preceding dry month meant little water was flowing over the falls during our visit, but the towering cliffs were still impressive, and we enjoyed the unique experience of our walk back through the relatively dry river bed. 

After another scenic drive through nearby Ithaca and then north along the western shore of Cayuga Lake, we arrived in the village of Aurora, our home for the next three days. The alluring charm of the Inns of Aurora truly was the motivation for this trip. I had heard about this picturesque collection of historic properties, owned by Pleasant Rowland, the creator of the American Girl doll brand, and I was intrigued. Inns of Aurora is a collection of five inns that are all located along an elm-lined main street within the under-one-square-mile historic district.

Each inn has been impeccably restored with its own distinct personality. We stayed in the Zabriskie House and it was absolutely delightful. Originally built in 1904 and restored in 2019, this grand home is decorated with a contemporary blue, green and white color palette that is simultaneously energetic and calming. It’s that perfect combination of modern and historic. The original three-story staircase is both stunning and cozy with its dramatic glass chandelier and inviting window seat. Contemporary art and worldly antiques from founder Pleasant Rowland’s personal collection are displayed on each of the three floors. 

All of the 11 guestrooms are unique and they do vary quite a bit. Their website offers good descriptions and photos of each room and guests reserve specific rooms when booking. Zabriskie House does appear ready for an Architectural Digest photo shoot but it is also quite comfortable and welcoming.

On the Saturday morning of our trip, we woke to a glorious fall day, lingered over coffee on the wide front porch, and then headed off to a wine tasting about 15 minutes north of Aurora. Heart and Hands is a boutique winery that focuses exclusively on Pinot Noir and Riesling from which they make high-quality still and sparkling wines. Susan, one of the owners, guided us through a fun and informative tasting in their tent set in the vineyard. (Their cellars are currently closed to visitors due to COVID.) We continued on to Treleaven Winery, about 10 minutes south of Aurora, where we enjoyed lunch at The Hangtime, which is their very cool pavilion. The atmosphere was lively and fun. In non-COVID times this is the place for live music on Friday nights. 

Aurora Cooks! is the demonstration kitchen at the Inns of Aurora where they do private events for up to 30 people. We arranged for our group of six to do a private dinner and it was a highlight of our trip. The chef customized our three-course menu and the wine expert we were traveling with (aren’t we lucky?) coordinated a really fun blind wine tasting. Our event began with a beautiful selection of charcuterie and cheese accompanied by sparkling wine cocktails. We chatted with the chef as he cooked for us and our gracious server took great care of us. 

Sunday morning, we hiked the newly completed trail at the Inns, which took us through golden woods up to a hilltop where we were rewarded with expansive views of a deep blue Cayuga Lake surrounded by rolling hills of fall foliage. This is the site of the Inns’ new spa facility, slated to open early 2021. With over 25,000 square feet of space, indoor and outdoor pools, 10 treatment rooms, a café and more, this is expected to be a true destination spa and I, for one, am ready to book my visit. The building is beautiful and the site is stunning.

Brunch at the Inns of Aurora’s 1833 Kitchen & Bar is known as the best in the area and it did not disappoint. We dined on the elegant deck that overlooks the sweeping lawn and lake. 

Headquarters for the Mackenzie-Childs company, makers of whimsical and colorful ceramics and home furnishings, is just a few minutes up the road, so we had to pay a visit. The shop is a delightful sensory overload, especially if you’re a devotee of “Courtly Check.” Bags in hand, we headed back to our inn, where we met Matt, our boat captain, for a tour on the lake with Bianconi Tours. It was lovely to be on the lake and to learn about the area from Matt, who was born here. Bianconi Tours also offers wine tours, which is a great way to visit the wineries on the other side of the lake. After our tour, we relaxed in Adirondack chairs on the lawn overlooking the lake, as the sun sank down.

Monday morning, we left Aurora and spent the day in Corning, visiting two museums. The Corning Museum of Glass, which is dedicated to the art, history and science of glass, has the largest collection of glass in the world. Admission here is valid for two days and that’s because there is so much to experience. From the stunning galleries to live demonstrations, there is something here for everyone. The Rockwell Museum is another worthwhile stop in Corning. A Smithsonian affiliate, this museum explores the American experience — “the people, land and ideas that shape America through the eyes of American artists.” The collection is interesting, diverse and you can see everything in well under two hours. 

While we fit a lot into these four days, it was a very relaxing fall getaway with friends. This area has a lot to offer and it’s beautiful. I’m looking forward to a return visit.

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