With international travel still deterring some folks from traveling abroad, domestic destinations are in hot demand. And for those who are in the Northeast in particular, Luxury Travel Advisor has scouted out a small town in upstate New York that left us wishing we stayed more than just a weekend.
Introducing Aurora, located along the shore of Cayuga Lake, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes. We stayed at the Rowland House, one of five properties that comprise the Inns of Aurora portfolio (which is a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts). Labeled a “mansion,” think of Rowland House, which was built in 1903 and restored in 2014, as a very-high-end bed and breakfast with Queen Anne-styled architecture. There are two other mansions in the portfolio with similar offerings (although each has its own style and décor), along with two boutique hotel properties, including the flagship Aurora Inn.
Rowland House—named after American Girl founder Pleasant T. Rowland (an alumna of the local Wells College)—has 10 guestrooms, each with a marble bathroom, unique—and sometimes bold—décor, original modern art, lake views and luxurious linens. We stayed in Room No. 2; although it’s technically a “village view” Superior room, due to its corner location and bay window, it still offered views of the lake behind the property. Good to know: Since the building is set far back from the road, there was essentially no street noise. One of our favorite room features, however, was the radiant heating in the bathroom floors—great for chilly fall or winter days.
Tip: For those who are fans of MacKenzie-Childs ceramics, décor and furniture, the third floor of Rowland House is dedicated to the company’s distinctive and playful designs. Fun Fact: The company was founded in Aurora and it still has an outlet location just down the road, where you can shop for first-quality samples, seconds (products that may have minor imperfections) and even retired items.
Beyond the guestrooms, there is a butler’s pantry, where in the morning you can grab yogurt, granola bars and coffee. In the evening, the Innkeeper will serve wine and cheese for you to enjoy about the property. There are two salons for relaxing, as well as a formal dining room. Outside, there’s a wraparound porch, a lawn with a firepit (ask your Innkeeper about a s’mores set-up!) and a two-story boathouse on the water with seating on the roof (a great spot to enjoy breakfast or some wine at sunset).
There are also bicycles, kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards, as well as Plein Air easels, yoga mats, a telescope and more that are available to guests. Should you want to explore the area or book a private excursion, the team at Inns of Aurora can assist.
The other mansions in the Inns of Aurora portfolio are the E.B. Morgan House (built in 1858, restored in 2005), a stone Italianate building with ivy crawling up its sides, offering seven guestrooms, and Zabriskie House (built in 1909, restored in 2019), a “brother home” to Rowland House (although in Georgian Revival style) with 11 guestrooms and a three-story grand staircase. The hotels in the portfolio include a Colonial Revival, Wallcourt Hall (built 1909, restored in 2016), which is the most modern of the properties and has 16 rooms with designer details, custom furniture, Italian fabrics and exceptional modern art, along with the federal-style Aurora Inn (built 1833, restored in 2003). Many of the 10 guestrooms here, each with a private marble bath, offer a fireplace, semi-private balcony and lakeside views.
Note: Rowland House, E.B. Morgan House and Aurora Inn are all located along the lake (meaning better views), while Zabriskie House and Wallcourt Hall are located across the street. In addition, each of the properties has an age minimum—14 years old—unless a party is buying out the entire mansion or hotel.
Should we have stayed longer, we would have liked to hop around to the different properties, but you can’t go wrong with any of them—it’s a matter of picking the one whose style fits your own (although we definitely loved having direct lake access).
Beyond its 10 rooms, Aurora Inn is also home to 1833 Kitchen & Bar, which serves brunch daily and dinner each night except Mondays. Everything Executive Chef Eric Lamphere makes is from scratch; expect a menu of steaks, seafood, pasta and veggie options. They even serve homemade ice cream for dessert. Reservations for both brunch and dinner are required.
For a more casual dining experience, head across the street to Fargo Bar & Grill. Inside is a cozy dive bar atmosphere and out back (whether permitting) is a patio with a fire pit. Expect burgers, salads and the like. Two popular choices—hear us out—are the Loaded Tots and Seared Tuna Tacos.
For the aspiring chefs or self-proclaimed “foodies,” the Inns of Aurora also offers the “Aurora Cooks!” Demonstration Kitchen. Taste Curator Grace Mattingly (a veteran of two James Beard Award-winning restaurants and the Michelin-rated Bib Gourmand in Galway, Ireland) leads a series of cooking demos, tastings, brunches and dinners. Meals are limited to six guests, while tastings have a limit of eight, so be sure to book in advance.
All that said, the “jewel in the crown” of the Inns of Aurora might be its brand-new spa. Located a few minutes down the road driving from the main grouping of mansions and hotels, The Spa opened in July 2021 and we can say it absolutely stands up with some of the nicest hotel spas we’ve visited. There are 10 treatment rooms, a co-ed sauna pavilion, steam rooms, six jetted spa pools, fire pits, two hydrotherapy circuits, and a complimentary café with a seasonally inspired menu. We suggest making a full day (or a least a half-day) of your spa visit. Beyond the body treatment, we loved the outdoor hydrotherapy circuit. Located up on a hillside, the tiered pools offered views of the lake and were a great place to unwind (especially after hiking the day before… but more on that later). Heated pools and cold plunge pools are available both inside and outside, as are a steam room and sauna. Tip: Depending on your treatment, The Spa will recommend a pre- and post-treatment circuit to maximize results.
We’re big fans of Upstate New York in the fall due to the foliage, so we visited in late October but the summer is the busy season for the Inns of Aurora. Travel advisors may contact Sara Brown ([email protected]), director of sales.
Vineyards, Breweries and Dining
One of the main draws for the Finger Lakes is its blooming wine scene. The most common varietal in the region, due to its cool climate, is Riesling but Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are also available.
During our trip, we visited several wineries but the three that stood out were Heart & Hands Wine Company, Quarry Ridge Winery and Bright Leaf Vineyard. Heart & Hands offers wine tastings (book ahead) in either the cozy indoor tasting room or on the outdoor patio. A focus of the winery is to operate intimate and informative tasting experiences (meaning the maximum party size is four people). There are two flight selections available: Red (Pinot Noir) and white (Riesling and Chardonnay), with the wines all pre-selected.
Quarry Ridge, compared to Heart & Hands, has a much different vibe. It is a much larger space and looked to be hosting a pre-wedding party of sorts during our visit. (In fact, the region is very popular for bachelor/bachelorette parties due to the volume of wineries, breweries and distilleries — but that does not make tiny Aurora, NY a party town; it’s still a very quaint and leisurely destination). At Quarry Ridge, you can sample Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Colmar Chardonnay and Riesling — and you can mix and match which wines you would like to sample as part of a flight. Good to know: Should you prefer beer, they also serve a variety of local brews on tap.
Tip: The view from Quarry Ridge’s patio, overlooking its vineyards and the lake was one of our favorites of the trip. As mentioned above, due to the lake being to the west of town, the sunsets in particular were great.
The last vineyard is Bright Leaf. We liked that this vineyard offered a chocolate and wine pairing. This pre-selected pairing offers a choice of either an all-red wine or an all-white wine flight with chocolates by Hedonist Artisan Chocolates in Rochester, NY. Beyond the pairings, Bright Leaf Vineyard also offered a selection of bites, including a charcuterie board and artisan pizza.
To properly enjoy the vineyards and wine flights, have the Inns of Aurora arrange for a private driver to take you on your own wine tour. Ours was through Skaneateles Town Car (315-575-1465) and our driver, Bob, was able to share lots of insight about both the regions.
If wine isn’t your scene, there are dozens of craft breweries and micro-distilleries in the region. The only one we visited was Summerhill Brewing, which was a short drive outside of Aurora. A bit closer to town, however, is Aurora Brewing Company. Should you venture to the west side of Cayuga Lake, heading toward Seneca Lake, there are plenty more options available.
For a little more sustenance, the area offered a great selection of dining from cozy breakfast joints and dive bars to upscale dinner restaurants.
Salt of the Earth, located in Union Springs (less than 10 minutes driving from Aurora), is a fine dining restaurant that serves a seasonally and locally based modern menu. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time. Although we didn’t dine there, another upscale eatery recommended to us was Moro’s Table in Auburn, touted as “a full-sensory experience” with farm-to-table menu options.
Dugan’s Country Grill in Scipio serves comfort food by the kitchen. It is led by Culinary Institute of America graduate Michael Dugan, who’s also a veteran of The Ritz-Carlton, Boston, The Peninsula Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village in California. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our favorite breakfast spot, however, was New Hope Mills in Auburn (just under 30 minutes from Aurora). It’s popular for its customizable pancakes menu but it also has a shop where you can take home your own pancake, waffle or biscuit mix, coffee blends, local syrups, jams and dips and more. Tip: New Hope Mills doesn’t accept reservations and it gets busy, so try to get there early (it’ll be worth the wait).
A last spot, as recommended by our Innkeeper at Rowland House, is Drifters on Owasco (20 minutes from Aurora). Although it’s a pub-style menu, there is also a selection of vegetarian and vegan options available—to go along with views right on the shore of Owasco Lake.
Beyond the vineyards, nature is probably the second-biggest draw for the Finger Lakes. Of all the parks in the area, Watkins Glen State Park is the most well-known. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Aurora but its 400-foot-deep gorge with hiking trails right alongside offering picturesque views makes it a very worthwhile stop. There are several trails available, but they are on the longer side. For a shorter hike, Taughannock Falls State Park (about 45 minutes from Aurora) is home to the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Pretty cool!
We ended up choosing Fillmore Glen State Park. Less than a half hour from Rowland House, it offers five (smaller) waterfalls as part of a three-plus mile loop. There are several trails to take but one option runs along the gorge, sometimes right beside the river and sometimes at a couple hundred feet of elevation. It was a chilly fall day for our visit but we loved that there were no crowds, which wouldn’t be likely at Watkins Glen.
Our favorite part of the Fillmore Glen hike was a small bit where a bit of waterfall flows down over the trail itself. Tip: Definitely expect to get wet and maybe bring a change of socks!
Good to know: Just 10 minutes away from Aurora is King Ferry Golf Club, a nine-hole course overlooking the east shore of Cayuga Lake, should that be more your speed.