Weekend Drives: Finger Lakes, New York

By Author: Carolyn Briggs, Date: Sep 23, 2016
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Ages ago, glaciers carved the Finger Lakes into upstate New York — 11 witchy feelers, some surrounded by forests, others by gorges and waterfalls. Today those lakes are pretty close to vacation heaven.

There are limitless things to do and talk about in the beautiful Finger Lakes, but I like to sum up why I love trips here in three points: wine, racetrack, and awesome freshwater seafood. Just a five hour drive from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, this trip is a must for anyone on the east coast.

The Finger Lakes is a huge region. Covering 9,000 square miles, the 11 lakes are home to far too many phenomenal places to stay, eat and play to list in one article. To maximize your travel potential you’ll want to stay near either lakes Cayuga or Seneca, the two largest lakes in the chain. These two fingers sit right in the middle, ensuring that nothing worth doing is more than a two-hour drive away.

THE DRIVE

A top attraction of the Finger Lakes is the huge density of wineries in the area. This should not have to be said, but please assign a designated driver before making any scenic drives after an afternoon praying to Bacchus.

The Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway

This drive circles Cayuga Lake, the longest of the 11 Finger Lakes, where you’ll find stops at nature centers, state parks, opera houses, wineries and theaters along the way. Take exit 41 off of I-90 and head east on highway 318. Head down the western side of the lake on Highway 89 and stop at Cayuga Lakes State Park or continue on to Taughannock Falls State Park for some breathtaking views. When you get to Ithaca, lunch is on the menu and we’d recommend stopping at Coltivare, a restaurant that specializes in fresh, creative, natural dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. After lunch head north on Highway 34 and then veer left onto Highway 34B to King Ferry. Turn left on Highway 90 and you’ll take that all the way up the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake back to your starting point. You’ll find plenty of roadside farm stands, wineries, and other local attractions along the way.

STAY HERE

B&B Life

When you’re taking a trip to the Finger Lakes, embrace the quaint. Every tourist town around the lakes are brimming with charming B&Bs. These two come highly recommended, but are by no means your only option.

The Chalet of Canandaigua — Canandaigua, NY

Rustic, serene, romantic, luxurious. Does it sound like I’m reading from a bed and breakfast ad? That’s because The Chalet of Canandaigua is literally everything a B&B is traditionally supposed to be. If you’re looking for a quiet weekend being pampered in the swankiest cabin you’ve ever seen, you’ve just found your heaven.

Los Gatos B&B — Penn Yan, NY

And if traditional B&Bs aren’t your game, Finger Lakes has you covered. Los Gatos B&B is a completely solar powered property. Wonderful breakfasts with food grown largely onsite are a gathering time every morning for the guests and owners; the couple who own the inn have been helping people enjoy their trips to the Finger Lakes for almost twenty years, and would love to welcome you into their funky green home.

Hotels

If you want a dose of charm without pressure to mingle, check out any of the historic hotels in the area.

Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel — Watkins Glen, NY

This is one of those “wow” hotels. This place is constantly making “best” lists, and winning national awards for their service and accommodations, but mostly for that unbeatable view. Stay here in the summer and you’ll never have to leave the property; that patio bar could keep me occupied for the whole season.

Camping

If you happen to be attending a race or show at Watkins Glen International, your might want to camp on-site. Trust me, you’re not going to have to want to drive yourself away after a full day of drinking great beer under the hot sun. The track offers a number of different camping options from fully set-up tents, to RV rental, to open lot car-camping, so there’s something to make everyone comfortable.

If you’re the nature-loving kind of camper, just a few short miles down the road is Watkins Glen State Park, home to some truly stunning waterfalls and gorges. Tent and trailer campsites are available for a small fee.

EAT HERE

Wildflower Café and Crooked Rooster Brewpub — Watkins Glen, NY

If you want something cool but not pretentious and delicious but affordable, spend a lunch or dinner at the Wildflower Café and Crooked Rooster Brewpub. A huge menu offers standard bar fare, but also includes some reinventions of classic favorites. Pair your classic jalapeno poppers (made in house with fresh jalapenos) with panko coated and fried fresh mozzarella, and don’t forget the cold beer, brewed right next door.

Ports Café — Geneva, NY

This one will be your budget buster, but you won’t regret it one little bit. Classic upscale American food made with local and fresh ingredients is a great start, but when you’re eating it looking over the beautiful Lake Seneca it becomes truly special.

Doug’s Fish Fry — Skaneateles, NY

When you’re around all these lakes you’re going to want some fish and chips. You could catch some yourself, or you could save some trouble and head to Doug’s. Plenty of places around the Finger Lakes do fish fries, but Doug’s is consistently rated no. 1. Skip the field-testing and trust the experts.

Nick Tahou Hots — Rochester, NY

There is only one time I endorse putting something called “garbage” in your mouth. That’s when you’re thinking about ordering the garbage plate at Nick Tahou Hots. The concept is pretty simple: pick two meats, a potato and a side, maybe toss some cheese in there, mix it up and garnish liberally with hot sauce. Named the fattiest food in the state of New York by Health.com, the garbage plate is one of those one-a-year guilty pleasure sort of things. You can find garbage plates at other restaurants throughout New York, but Nick Tahou Hots did it first, and they still do it best. It’s not gourmet, but at 2 AM you’re not a foodie.

Pair this with a trip to the Strong National Play Museum (featured below), because Rochester is just less than hours from Cayuga Lake.

PLAY HERE

Watkins Glen International — Watkins Glen, NY

If you’re on this site, I probably don’t have to convince you this is a good way to spend your day. This track has been home to every type of racing, from Formula 1 Grand Prix to NASCAR, Indy and SCCA regional action. Watkins Glen is one of America’s classic road racing circuits where history has been made on every straightaway and through every corner.

Currently, The Glen hosts Indycar Grand Prix, Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen and the U.S. Vintage Grand Prix. They keep the town of Watkins Glen buzzing from April through September; as long as it’s racing season, you’ll be able to catch an unforgettable one at the Glen.

Catch the track on an off weekend and you could be in for more than a race. The huge facility is used to host festivals for a massive variety of bands. One of my all-time favorite road trips wound up here, when I drove from Morgantown, WV to Watkins Glen for a 3-day Phish festival.

Aside from loving the hippie-party vibes, I was thrilled by the space. Large enough for us to create a temporary city, and well equipped with bathrooms and water stations, we had everything we needed at Watkins Glen. And how quickly the staff got us in and out was even more impressive.

For a race, a concert or a beer festival, Watkins Glen International should be a part of your trip to the Finger Lakes.

Watkins Glen State Park — Watkins Glen, NY

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And then there’s the part that man had nothing to do with. After a weekend at the track get back to nature, right next door.

Gorges and waterfalls are accessible through steps carved into the stone. There’s some advanced hiking here, but there are plenty of trails for all fitness level. This beauty should be seen by everyone.

Wine

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If you’re not in the Finger Lakes for the racetrack, you’re almost certainly there for the wine (or maybe both, which is what I imagine heaven looks like). Good move, friend, because Finger Lakes region produces some of the best wine on the east coast.

There are more than 120 vineyards in the Finger Lakes area, and it’s hard to imagine choosing wrong. Just make sure your tour includes Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, NY. Dr. Frank held a PhD in plant sciences specializing in wine-grapes, and it was his wine cellar that helped to launch the now booming wine scene in the Finger Lakes.

If you’re in town at the right time, buy a Wine Trail ticket. Wineries organize to offer themed wine and food pairing events. Travel from spot to spot, comparing the offerings and picking up little gifts along the way.

The Strong National Museum of Play — Rochester, NY

Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York
Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York

Unleash your inner child at the Strong National Museum of Play. Interactive exhibits feature a thorough history of games and toys, but also touch on the psychology of play. Why we play like we do. You could be 6 or 65, you’ll have a great time learning and playing here. You’ll have to plan ahead like an adult to stop here, though. Rochester is a bit of a drive from Lake Cayuga.

Small Town Festivals and Events

Ever watched Gilmore Girls? I think the festivals hosted every week by the town of Stars Hollow were inspired by the Finger Lakes towns. Haunted zipline tours, Civil War demonstrations, grape festivals and garden symposiums, you’ll be hard pressed to find more quaint, even in Connecticut. Local tourism boards can tell you what is happening during your visit.

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Carolyn Briggs

I grew up on the road. As a child, my family took regular trips from Wisconsin to both coasts. That's how I've seen most of this country — through the window of a car. Years later, I still feel that excitement when I toss my bags in the trunk and get behind the wheel. That's how seeing something new always begins. I've scaled mountains, dived with sharks, and stepped to the very edge of the Grand Canyon, all because I spent hours in a car. This site combines my passion for the road with my actual talent — communication and journalism. In college I rose to the position of managing editor for The Badger Herald, the largest independent student newspaper in the country at the time. I spent a year after graduating in social media marketing before moving off the grid to explore the wild beauty of West Virginia.

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