Dipping Into the Finger Lakes

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 2, 2002

At the end of "Tender Is the Night," F. Scott Fitzgerald dooms his hero, Dick Diver, formerly of the Riviera and Paris, to wander New York's Finger Lakes. After spending some time here, my only reaction is that we should all be so lucky.

It's a simple place -- just villages, towns, orchards, vineyards, corn and dairy farms sprawled on hillsides, dipping into glens. Serene small towns are set in landscapes mostly free of billboards or roadside attractions.

The area's borders are, roughly, Lake Ontario to the north, Syracuse at the eastern end, Rochester to the west and the town of Elmira to the south. A line of 11 slender lakes, all running north to south, define the region. These exceptionally deep lakes (Seneca is more than 600 feet to the bottom) are sailed, fished and swum, and take their character and color from the changing skies. Stands of birch thrash in the wind, bordered by meadows, and the land rolls away to the silvery shine of waterfalls.

Vladimir Nabokov fell in love with America while living in Ithaca, the college town at the foot of Cayuga Lake. He taught at Cornell and set his novel "Pale Fire" in Ithaca, which he renamed New Wye and moved to Appalachia. The fictionalized region was apt; the country surrounding Ithaca has hollows, streams, dirt roads, the '84 Pontiac rusting next to the beleaguered porch that someone didn't quite get around to.

"Ithaca Is Gorges," say the bumper stickers. That's right on both counts, and a good place to start for a two- or three-day drive around the area. The downtown pedestrian Commons is clean, quietly funky, without chain stores or "Clockwork Orange" attitude. The Saturday farmers market has ragamuffin kids running free past stalls selling everything from Cambodian food to Hawaiian shirts patterned with '40s bathing beauties. Slow rags and jump blues are played by blissed-out musicians. Most vendors look as if they came to school here in 1970 and never left.

Gorges are everywhere throughout the Finger Lakes, and to explore one cutting directly through the heart of Ithaca, start at the corner of Court and Linn streets. In the distance is a waterfall with a path sliced out of rock leading up to it. This is Cascadilla Gorge. Like its countless mates and the 11 lakes, it was formed -- the Iroquois have it on good authority -- by the Great Spirit who blessed the country by laying on his hand, creating the fingers of water. Some people don't believe this but insist that 550 million years ago glaciers pounded through north to south and, when they thawed, carved out a singularly American place.

The waterfall is about an hour's hike up through the broken light of Cascadilla, and on late mornings it's rare to encounter another person. Within minutes you feel as if you're in wilderness, the town gone and forgotten, and find yourself whispering when the gorge flattens to water moving as slow as syrup past high walls of shale. Approaching falls and rapids at the next bend of the stream, you have to shout to be heard. Smells of moss, grapevine, wet sandstone stay constant up to the top, where a wooden stairway leads to the lip of the gorge and a sudden, startling reality worthy of Nabokov: bicycles, cars, buildings, reversed baseball caps and backpacks. Cornell University.

After your hike, stay healthy and have lunch at the Moosewood Restaurant. Yes, that's the same Moosewood beloved by hippies and vegetarians, the same people who produce the best-selling cookbooks. It is an unpretentious place with an attentive staff of college kids. The curried egg salad and vegetable soup with wild mushrooms is delicious with a glass of the local Riesling.

As you drive up the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the country opens out with lush farms and tall white silos anchored to weathered red barns. (Although Cayuga is the longest lake, it is only 40 miles south to north, so you can easily meander along its shores, then visit Seneca Lake, and make it to Canandaigua Lake by late afternoon.) Past the town of Aurora, a narrow road rises to a brick plaza next to a converted dairy barn high over the white-capped lake. This is MacKenzie-Childs, where 240 artisans create pottery and furniture in a style where country inn meets the Casbah.

A tour takes you through workshops where you can follow raw clay and rough wood making their way through skilled hands to brightly finished products. The restaurant's ceiling looks like the Sistine Chapel, if Michelangelo had used found objects instead of paint: chairs, dolls, desks, bird cages, Coke bottles, tasseled pillows. Outside are gardens and livestock, including a herd of shaggy Scottish Highland cattle -- four-legged representations of the MacKenzie-Childs idea.

The lovely drive along Cayuga, tracking hills rising and falling next to lake coves, can remind you that it's difficult to go anywhere in America, even the most idyllic spots, without traveling over a strata of tragedy. In August 1779, Gen. John Sullivan came this way, carrying a brief from George Washington to make total war on the Iroquois and "lay waste all the settlements around so that the country may not only be overrun but destroyed." It was the end of the Iroquois confederacy of six tribes, a centuries-old organization that kept peace among themselves, one so successful that New York Gov. George Clinton named them the "Romans of the West." Sullivan's men massacred or put to flight everyone in their path and burned everything to the ground.

In the 19th century, the Finger Lakes area was called the "burned-over district," not in memory of Sullivan's rampages but because of the fiery religious passions the place inspired. Joseph Smith went into the woods surrounding Palmyra and came out as the first Mormon. Other groups, who believed in celibacy for all members, weren't thinking too many moves ahead. There were Perfectionists burning for converts along with Spiritualists, as well as Jemima Wilkinson, who changed her name to Publick Universal Friend. Born of this spiritual heat were earthquake social movements, including abolition and feminism, the latter celebrated in Seneca Falls by the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

Poet Deborah Tall, who has lived in the region for more than 20 years, understands the catastrophic history and palpable sense of mysticism that seems to rise organically out of the landscape as easily as mist on morning lakes. "Everywhere I go now, I see things no one else sees," she writes in her beautiful book "From Where We Stand." "One eye on the road, one eye on the invisible, I straddle the here and there, the now and then, and feel surprisingly at home."

Finger Lakes weather is often a series of dramatic gestures, such as a storm gathering one recent afternoon in high skies over Geneva, at the top of Seneca Lake. Twenty miles to the west, in the countryside outside Canandaigua, we could see the storm flashing and rumbling up the lake from Lisa Herrick's upstairs porch at her B&B, Villa Bianca. When the rain finally swept down on the hilltop house, it was time to go inside through dark velvet curtains at the porch door. A chenille throw lay on the four-poster bed and Herrick had set a plate of mozzarella, basil and tomato on a table next to two wineglasses with a basket of freshly baked bread.

Of course, we allowed some time for vineyards and wineries -- an easy task with close to 80 sites to choose from. In the heights above Keuka Lake, Konstantine Frank, a European immigrant, proved 40 years ago that vitis vinifera, the classic European grape varieties, could thrive in Upstate New York. Two hundred years of conventional wisdom had said that winters were too cruel for the aristocratic vines. Frank, who had managed estates in Ukraine, knew better, and persevered to the point where the winery bearing his name produces truly superlative vintages, by any standard. His son Willy and grandson Fred continue to improve the tradition. Their quality reds consistently beat French and Napa offerings at blind tastings.

"Wow," said a visitor, setting down a glass of pinot noir. Willy Frank nodded and said, "Of course, wow. Now try this Chateau Frank Champagne. It's better than wow."

Stopping for lunch in Penn Yan (a town named for its original population, Pennsylvanians and Yankees), we found another version of Finger Lakes picturesque, at a place called Holly's Red Rooster -- Dwight Yoakam on the jukebox, waitresses who call you "honey" and "doll," trays of fish sandwiches, coleslaw and iced glasses of draft Genesee beer.

Afterward, heading for Hammondsport, we missed a turn and ended up on a dirt road that bumped down through woods, curved and rose up to a crossroads. Across the road, four cows in a meadow turned and four heads came up at once, chewing, staring. A hawk sailed a wide spiral. Sun shadows fled across the fields toward the lake. Time passed. We were in no hurry to check a map.

Ambrose Clancy last wrote for Travel about Harlem.

Details: New York's Finger Lakes Region

GETTING THERE: It's about 340 miles from Washington to New York's Finger Lakes region, which is about a six-hour drive. US Airways has daily connecting flights from the Washington area to Ithaca, N.Y., for about $240 round trip; US Airways and AirTran fly direct to Rochester, N.Y., which is a 30-minute drive from Lake Canandaigua, for $115 round trip.

WHERE TO STAY: Villa Bianca (4272 County Road 18, Canandaigua, 877-800-0233, www.villabiancabandb.com) has the style of a European country inn set on an upstate farm. There are views of Lake Canandaigua from the front porch, and out back are shade trees linked by a hammock, lilac bushes, a pond and open fields. Rooms, including breakfast, are $100, double occupancy.

The Hammondsport Motel (corner of William and Water streets, Hammondsport, 607-569-2600), on Lake Keuka, is a five-minute walk to the Village Square of the prettiest town in the Finger Lakes. Clean, comfortable and a bargain at $60 a night, double.

WHERE TO EAT: If you're in Ithaca, eat at Dano's Vienna (13 S. Cayuga St.). Chef/owner Dano Hutnik has removed the leaden Sturm und Drang from Austrian cuisine and left the flavor intact. There's beautiful lighting and contemporary art throughout, and an extensive menu and wine list. You might start with Viennese spreads for your bread at $4.50, followed by veal sausage and braised red cabbage, caramelized onions, spaetzle and Riesling mustard for $13.95.

At Holly's Red Rooster (12 Maiden Lane, Penn Yan), a down-to-earth, down-home bar and grill on a back street, you can eat at the bar and watch the ballgame, or take a booth. Tackle a hot meatball sandwich for $4.95, or the fish sandwich with fries and coleslaw for $5.50. Warm smiles and beer colder than Lake Keuka.

The Moosewood Restaurant (215 N. Cayuga St.), of cookbook fame, offers inexpensive, delicious vegetarian cuisine that will convert even the most dedicated carnivore. Lunch pastas and asparagus rarebit go for $6.50.

SHOPPING: Ithaca Commons has great bargains for clothes (new and secondhand), books, art, pottery and jewelry. If you're in Ithaca on a Saturday, don't miss the Ithaca Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. MacKenzie-Childs (Route 90, Aurora) has pottery, furniture, glass and lamps, all done with superb craftsmanship and panache. Get there early, Monday through Friday, at around 9:30, for the workshop tour.

TOURS: Rose Hill Mansion (east of Geneva on Route 96A, 315-789-3848), built in 1839 on a rise above Lake Seneca, is a perfectly restored Greek Revival masterpiece, one of the finest historical houses in the nation. An hour's visit to the glories of the privileged 19th century costs $3. Bring a picnic and dine on the veranda. The gift shop has wonderful local crafts.

HIKING: Urbana State Forest (southern end of Lake Keuka near Hammondsport, 607-776-2165 Ext. 36) has streams and trails through the woods, blueberry patches and shady farm lanes. Take the long way, a little more than seven miles, or goof off on the shorter route, about 4 1/2 miles. Free.

VINEYARDS AND WINERIES: Wineries abound in every part of the region, but especially along the shores of the Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga lakes. Finger Lakes wine was once correctly disparaged as tasting like grape juice mixed with a shot of vodka. No longer: The area is renowned for its Riesling and other whites, and its complex reds are making successful inroads. Konstantine Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars (9749 Middle Rd., Hammondsport, 800-320-0735, www.drfrankwines.com), a pioneer, prize-winning vineyard, produces more than 20 wines. The pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and 1999 merlot reserve are superb, and the Chateau Frank label of sparkling wines is on a par with the best French bubbly.

Lakeshore Winery (5132 Route 89, Romulus, 315-549-7075, www.lakeshorewinery.com) has good, refreshing whites, and food is often served at the tastings. There are picnic tables and a boat dock on Lake Cayuga.

INFORMATION: Finger Lakes Association, 800-KIT4FUN, www.visitfingerlakes.org. Central Finger Lakes chambers of commerce, 800-228-2760, www.finger-lakes.com.

-- Ambrose Clancy

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