Even those who live in the United States may not be familiar with the Finger Lakes. They are a well kept secret, the part of upstate New York that sits beneath Lake Ontario and the Canadian border. But just imagine lakes and waterfalls; steep slopes covered with vineyards; and quaint historic towns. And that’s just for starters…
Read on to find out why you need to visit the Finger Lakes, and how you can get there.
The Spectacular Landscape of the Finger Lakes
On a map the Finger Lakes look like a series of fingers pointing upwards to Lake Ontario. There are eleven long thin lakes, the remains of glaciers from the Ice Age. Native American tradition has an alternative account of their creation, saying that the Great Spirit blessed the land by laying his hand on it, leaving massive fingerprints that filled with water.
Whichever version you believe, the landscape is certainly blessed. The lakes are surrounded by high gorges and spectacular waterfalls. The slopes are covered with vineyards and fruit farms, and there are several state parks where visitors can enjoy the countryside. There are lots of opportunities for hiking, canoeing and kayaking. Pleasure boats cruise the lakes, and you can take to the skies in a seaplane or a glider. Or, for those who prefer spectator sports, there is road racing at the famous Watkins Glen Race Track.
Wine, Beer and Agritourism in the Finger Lakes
If you are a wine enthusiast you don’t need any further reason to visit the Finger Lakes. With more than 100 wineries, the region has won numerous accolades. Most recently it was voted Best Wine Region in the USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards 2018. For me, the wine was one of the highlights of my trip – I went to several wineries, tried some new wines, and learnt a lot. Read more about Discovering the Wines of the Finger Lakes…
But it’s not just wine. You will also find award winning craft beers and ciders. Then there are distilleries, locally sourced food and farmers’ markets. If you want to explore the food and drink scene more fully you can even stay on a working farm.
Corning: America’s Crystal City
At the centre of the Finger Lakes region is Corning, which has been dubbed “America’s most fun small town”. Many visitors choose to base themselves here: it is an easy drive to the various attractions of the region, and there is plenty to see in Corning itself. The historic centre – known as the “Gaffer District” – is full of old buildings in various architectural styles. Today they cater for visitors with a mixture of boutique style shops, bars and restaurants. If you want to learn more about the buildings and their architecture you can download an app to help you explore on your own.
But Corning is best known as the Crystal City, the American town of glass. For more than 160 years it has been a major centre for the manufacture of glass, leading the world in design and innovation. You can explore the history of glass and much more at the Corning Museum of Glass.
The Towns of the Finger Lakes
I was surprised to discover that the region was full of small towns with historic centres and interesting architecture. Hammondsport, at the southern end of Keuka Lake, has a particularly attractive centre, and Elmira, the summer home of Mark Twain, is a must for literature buffs. A particular favourite of mine was Montour Falls, with several waterfalls including a 156ft cascade right in the middle of town!
Rochester, 100 miles by road from Corning, is the largest city, and the gateway to the Finger Lakes. I was lucky enough to spend three nights exploring this lively and interesting town (read more about my visit to Rochester). Ithaca, the home of Cornell University, is also worth visiting for its culture, culinary scene and its natural landscape with waterfalls and gorges.
How to Get to the Finger Lakes
For many visitors, the Finger Lakes is a convenient stop on the way from New York City to Niagara Falls. But it is also a destination in its own right. If you are already in North America, it is a 4-5 hour drive from New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC or Toronto. Or there are several regional airports, including Elmira Corning (just 15 minutes from the centre of Corning) and Rochester.
International visitors have a choice of airports, including New York, Philadelphia and Toronto. You could take a connecting flight or hire a car – I found the drive from Philadelphia to Corning an enjoyable part of my trip. In any case, you will probably want a car to make the most of everything the Finger Lakes has to offer. Whichever way you travel, it will be a trip to remember.