I closed my eyes and inhaled the heady scent of nearly a dozen varieties of lavender in bloom around me. I could hear the bees buzzing at my feet and, for a moment, the warm country breeze lulled me into a peaceful, meditative state.
This was not Provence; this was Upstate New York.
The connection might not be readily apparent. This summer, I moved to Rochester, N.Y., for a career transition and feared I’d taken a wrong turn. One year earlier, I’d been on a road trip throughout the South of France. Now, my most riveting destination was Abbott’s, the local ice cream shop.
To get to know the Rochester region, I challenged myself to find French favorites closer to my new home, pinpointing lavender and sunflower fields, a canyon that rivals Verdon Gorge, as well as wine, castles, art and cheese. As I stood in the middle of Kingfisher Lavender, a farm in Fly Creek, N.Y., I knew I was off to a good start.
Getting there had not been easy. I hit a snag en route and wound up with three of my car’s tires in a ditch — and limited cellphone reception. Thankfully, an older farming couple hauled me out by tractor, assuring me I was not their first rescue.
With their guidance, I backed out of one dirt path and onto another, this time finding my way into Lynn Bass’s driveway. Bass is the owner of Kingfisher Lavender, and was kicking off her second season. As we chatted on our way to her lavender field, I learned that Bass raised horses by trade but was seeking a new challenge when she started growing lavender in her backyard; the scent reminded her of her grandmother. After a few years of trial and error, a handful of plants grew into a commercial harvest. In 2017, she opened the farm to the public.
The worn footpath stopped at an elevated field covered in tufts of violet. It’s a work in progress, with a newly built cabin to sell handmade products. Other farms throughout the state are more established, such as Lockwood Lavender, a farm that has been in operation since 1854 . But Bass’s journey as a small-business owner resonated with me.
I started to think that I had underestimated New York. Driving around Rochester, I saw wildlife such as fawns and eagles, dramatic mountain views and lakes that spanned the horizon like oceans, ebbing with their own tides. Letchworth State Park, often regarded as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” rewards hikers with double rainbows and is a fairy-tale setting reminiscent of the Verdon Gorge in Castellane, France. Sunflower fields such as those at Frederick Farms produce towering yellow flowers, proudly flourishing after a long winter, as bright as those that intoxicated Van Gogh in Arles. It’s no wonder some of America’s oldest families, from the Livingstons to the Roosevelts, have chosen to call Upstate New York home.
My France-inspired scavenger hunt led me to the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y., home to Frederick Vanderbilt, one of the last railroad tycoons. Donated to the National Park Service in 1940, it boasts original furnishings, decorations and even red velvet lining on the railings. Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt built the mansion to throw lavish, Gatsby-like parties. Notably, Louise’s bedroom chambers were modeled after Marie Antoinette’s in the Palace of Versailles. The similarities are striking, with lavish gold trim, large vanity mirrors and a bed surrounded by an ornate balustrade.
The Vanderbilts were known for their generosity and served a different wine with every course at dinner. New York residents can do the same, because the state has boomed into the third-largest producer of wine in the United States, with more than 400 wineries, many of them award-winning. Tastings are a fraction of the price of those in Bordeaux, and proprietors are regularly available to interact with customers.
My search for French varietals led me to Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley, where I hoped to identify a clear connection between wines grown in New York and France. Instead, I got a lesson in winemaking from Mayra Faña, a reserve-room specialist whose knowledge is so extensive that she has written a book on the subject. Faña explained that wine can differ even within the same vineyard, with elevation, soil quality and sun exposure all affecting the final product, but when pressed told me she thinks the Cabernet Franc in Upstate New York is comparable to that from Bordeaux.
We took a tour of the vineyards and winery, examining the Smart-Dyson trellis system patented by owner John Dyson and further discussing winemaking factors. Our tour ended in a tasting, featuring premier wines from the local estate and a few selections from its California and Italian vineyards. After an hour learning about the process, I could better appreciate the subtle differences in flavor and left a budding sommelier, souvenir bottle in hand.
Thankfully, where there’s wine, there’s cheese. New York is a dairy state, with small family-owned farms producing cow, goat and sheep milk. Milk has been declining in consumption because of dietary restrictions and increased availability of plant-based alternatives, so there is a renewed focus on developing artisanal cheese. While exploring the Finger Lakes Wine Country, with three distinct trails around Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka lakes, I stumbled upon Muranda Cheese Company, located on a dairy farm between Seneca and Cayuga lakes.
The main barn was unassuming from the outside but opened up into a grand, two-story room with strings of lights shimmering against an all-wood interior. A young girl greeted me as I entered, and at her suggestion I signed up to taste 14 types of cheese — there were more, but several options had already sold out for the day — including garlic and spicy Buffalo. It was the best $4 I ever spent.
My appreciation for New York cheese was growing quickly. Restaurants and grocery stores in New York pride themselves in sourcing and promoting cheese from local farms; names such as Sprout Creek and Crosswinds make repeat appearances on menus. I was able to sit down for an interview with Cathy Gaffney, the director of specialty cheese for Wegmans and president-elect of the American Cheese Society, who emphasized the importance of local cheese makers. Having grown up on a dairy farm, she championed collaboration with state farmers and developed the Wegmans Cheese Caves as her signature project.
The cheese caves at the Wegmans complex in Rochester are tough to reach. Security is stricter than some of the government buildings I’ve worked at, and the building is not generally open to the public. Gaffney chose this as our meeting place so I could see the caves firsthand and speak with Mathieu Callol, the chief affineur (a person who ages cheeses).
I pictured the caves as simulated nature, with rock walls and a chilly interior, but they looked more like laboratories. It turns out, making cheese is as much a science as it is an art, which is where Callol, who has a master’s degree in dairy production and biotechnology from a French school, comes in. He donned a chef’s coat and had an accent that made everything sound appealing, even his explanation of how yeast and mold are used to manipulate the flavor profiles. Wegmans cooperates with local farms so that the farms manufacture the cheese and Callol ripens it to his standards. It’s like American cheese with a European finish.
The last item on my French checklist was art. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo spoiled me with Degas and Cezanne. In Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery, which only has 10 percent of its collection on display at any point in time, serendipitously had three Monet paintings available during my visit. The most immersive aspect of the trip, however, came at the very end, when I found myself walking through a real-life Monet painting at the Mirbeau Inn and Spa. With a Japanese footbridge and koi pond modeled after Monet’s Giverny, I felt transported and rooted all at once.
Despite the initial hesitation, I fell in love with New York. Or should I say: New York, je t’aime.
More from Travel:
The Mirbeau Inn & Spa Skaneateles
851 West Genesee Street Rd., Skaneateles, N.Y.
With gardens modeled after Monet’s in Giverny and spa treatments featuring Caudalie skin-care products, you’ll find a French getaway here without ever leaving the States. The Skaneateles location has a French countryside theme, and club rooms start at $255.
4 Grinnell St., Rhinecliff, N.Y.
The historical hotel is an hour and 45 minutes from New York City by train and sits along the Hudson River. There are only nine rooms on the property and a highlight is the complimentary breakfast. Rates start at $259.
Belhurst Castle and Winery
4069 West Lake Rd., Geneva, N.Y.
Located in the heart of the Finger Lakes, this hotel has its own brand of wines named after items related to the castle, including the fireplace mosaic (Neptune) and suit of armor (Knight). Rates start at $185.
The Bocuse Restaurant
1946 Campus Dr., Hyde Park, N.Y.
The Culinary Institute of America is considered the finest cooking school in the nation. Its French restaurant, the Bocuse, makes lavender ice cream tableside using liquid nitrogen. Open Tuesday through Saturday. Entrees start at $25 for lunch and $26 for dinner.
292 Main St., Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
This Poughkeepsie restaurant is known for its generous portions, cozy booths and French onion soup so rich you’ll be ready for a nap afterward. Entrees start at $18.
182 Buck Rd., Fly Creek, N.Y.
Stroll fields of lavender and shop for handmade lavender products. Admission is free.In lavender season (late June through July), the farm is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Closed Mondays. Winter hours vary.
1682 West Lake Rd., Skaneateles, N.Y.
This “U-pick” lavender farm allows guests to snip their own lavender bouquets starting at $5. In June and July, the farm is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday to Monday.
Memorial Art Gallery
500 University Ave., Rochester, N.Y.
Under the guidance of a new director, this museum displays an eclectic collection. It resembles a gothic castle and hosts themed events like Harry Potter dinners. General admission is $15. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday and until 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
119 Vanderbilt Park Rd., Hyde Park, N.Y.
The former home of Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt can be toured in an hour ($10) with a park guide. The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Go in the spring and summer to see the gardens in full bloom. The grounds are open from sunrise to sunset, and admission is free.
Millbrook Vineyards & Winery
26 Wing Rd., Millbrook, N.Y.
Owned by John Dyson, Millbrook Vineyards & Winery has been repeatedly voted “Best Winery” in the Hudson Valley by Hudson Valley Magazine. Guests can visit noon to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and until 6 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Tastings start at $12.50 per person.
Muranda Cheese Company
3075 State Route 96 South, Waterloo, N.Y.
This cheese company is owned and operated by the Murray family, who are experienced dairy farmers. Admission is free, and cheese tastings cost $4 per person. The barn is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery
1285 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo
The gallery offers a varied collection of modern and contemporary art, including well-known European artists — like Monet and Renoir — and an outdoor sculpture garden. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Admission costs $12; children 6 to 18, $6; younger free.