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A weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes

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Canada and the US share a thin border. Within a few short hours, you can get from one city center to another and I’m not just talking about Buffalo. Another hour on the road and you’ll hit Rochester, Upstate New York. It is a medium-sized city featuring a wide range of heritage architecture, post-industrial factories turned whiskey bars, breweries, and art galleries. But that’s not all that Upstate New York has to offer. Drive another half hour out of the city and you’ll find yourself in the wine country. Miles of vineyards are stretching across multiple quaint towns where culture and community run as deep are the never-ending supply of fresh brews and wines. I was able to see quite a bit of this region over a weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes.

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Visiting Upstate in the fall is a special experience. By mid-October, fall takes hold of the scenery turning it into hundreds of warm shades from green to blushing orange. Here they call it “Leaf peeping”. It is an actual hobby, and for some, a job that consists of keeping track of turning foliage, reports of which you can see on the morning news.

But watching leaves turn is not why I took a train to Finger Lakes. My weekend adventure was focused on the wine route and all that came with it from Rieslings to museums, and the place where Mark Twain met the love of his life.

Tourism in the region is a collaboration across the counties, referred to as the Cross Border Showcase. To say that there is a lot to do is an understatement. But one can only do so much in three days so this adventure took me to three of the bigger towns in the Finger Lakes: Hammondsport, Corning, and Ithaca. Let’s look at them one day at a time.

A weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes: vineyard

Stop #1: Hammondsport

One of the notable stops in the Finger Lakes is Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Dr. Frank arrived in the States from Ukraine in 1951 with a doctorate in viticulture – the science, production, and study of grapes. I found this bit particularly interesting. Over the years Frank invested his life into understanding grape growing in cold climates. His findings revolutionized the winemaking industry in the United States particularly when it comes to Vinifera grapes. What this tiny bit of history means for you is that this winery offers a unique grape selection that comes together into interesting wines such as Georgian Rkatsitelli and Saperavi.

The winery is situated in a fantastic location overlooking the lake directly from the tasting deck. A wonderful place to spend a couple of hours, eating cheese and drinking wine.

Keuka Lake Vineyards, on the other hand, is an artisanal boutique winery producing dry European-style wines. The winery specializes in premium Rieslings and Vignoles – naturally inspired by the findings of Konstantin Frank. Keuka Lake is a farm winery that focuses on making small-batch vintages consistently rated at 90 in notable wine publications. Having arrived near closing the tasting room was nearly empty. We had just missed the rush, which gave us time and space to taste the full lineup of offerings.

To mix things up our next stop was the Steuben Brewing Company. Being a farm brewery Steuben is required to use 30% local hops. This number grows each year which can only strengthen its position within the community. The tasting room was filled with relaxed visitors sipping Brown Ales and exchanging friendly banter. On weekends the room fills with live music while people line up to get snacks from a food truck outside. This tasting room is by definition a local bar.

A weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes: Keuka Lake Vineyards heritage image
Dr. Konstantin Frank of Vinifera Wine Cellars
Steuben Brewing Company

In the center of Hammondsport is a town square where people come to eat, read, drink, and shop. A popular dinner spot is Union Block Italian Bistro – not only because I was told so but because we ran into half of the people we met throughout the day and ended up having drinks with the winemakers at the lower bar where live music sets the mood. The food is farm to table, like most places in the region. Cicchetti, small sharable appetizers, came strongly recommended – choose your own or order the favorites.

Hammondsport is not your typical tourist destination so hotels are sparse which makes a newly built Best Western Plus The Hammondsport Hotel a popular place. Situated at the southern tip of Keuka Lake the hotel is spacious, with surprisingly tall sealing and in addition to the standard amenities also has an indoor pool and outdoor fire pits. I slept like a child and woke up to the rising sun over colorful fall trees. A wonderful way to spend the night.

A weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes: award winning wines
A weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes: winery

Stop #2: Corning

Some of you might know Corning as the company that makes glass, which is true. But aside from the glass history, Corning NY is home to a vivid art community, a variety of museums, a healthy food scene, and of course, a few breweries and vineyards.

For over 150 years the wineries of Corning and Southern Finger Lakes have been attracting attention. One of the first wineries in the region was Pleasant Valley Wine Company. Dating back to the 1860s Pleasant Valley was one of the few vineyards that survived prohibition producing sacramental wine. For the normal folks, however, there was concentrated grape juice that came with strict instructions on how ‘not to’ make wine with it. Today Pleasant Valley remains open as a winery and a historic destination.

The two cultural staples in Corning are The Corning Museum of Glass and the Rockwell Museum. Both are located within walking distance of the Historic Gaffer District. At the center of the District is Market Street where you could spend a solid couple of hours shopping, visiting art galleries, and exploring the Chocolate Trail.

Rockwell is an art museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, and home to a fantastic collection of traditional Western and contemporary Native American art. This year is a 40th anniversary year and to celebrate the occasion Steven and William Ladd curated a special gallery. The Ladd brothers work with beads and the things they make with those beads are simply mind-blowing. Quite a few of those mind-blowing pieces were custom-made for the Rockwell and those alone are worth a visit. The permanent collection features exhibits focusing on “Art About America” and the pieces explore people, land, and ideas about the making of America from cowboys to wonderful portrayals of the Native Americans.

The next few hours of the day were all about exploring the Corning Museum. Admittedly, I had my reservations about prioritizing time out of the trip for a museum of glass but it was undoubtedly worth it. Let’s get one thing out of the way: this is not a museum for plates and glassware, the said glassware and other trinkets can be found at the gift shop but they are not the focus of this space.

The museum showcases 3,500 years of glassmaking history. The newest space is a contemporary art and design wing where you will see large-scale glass pieces like the Cerith Wyn Evans’ talking glass chandelier (Morse Code) and Javier Pérez’ chattered bleeding chandelier. Among other pieces are special works by Mat Collishaw, Beth Lipman, and otherworldly contemporary artists. Throughout the day you can view various glass-making demonstrations and even make a thing or two yourself. I am currently patiently waiting for my glass bead to arrive.

Though it might be hard to pick a favorite room in the Corning Museum mine just might be Blaschka’s collection. The Blaschkas (Leopold and his son Rudolf) produced insanely intricate glass models of soft-bodied undersea creatures that were near “perfectly true to nature” and used at Cornell University for educational purposes in the 1800s.

A weekend road trip through the Finger Lakes: Ithaca

Stop #3: Ithaca

The landscapes of Ithaca were formed by glaciers over 500 years ago, naturally, the drive across it is absolutely breathtaking. The roads curve through parks, past multiple waterfalls and waterfront parks worthy of a stroll and a picnic. If you spend any time in Ithaca you will notice its friendly and vibrant community.

Much like in most cities across Finger Lakes, Ithaca supports the arts. Driving through the region you will observe a wealth of murals many of which were painted by children and youth. During my very short visit, Ithaca’s Cayuga Waterfront trail was being spray-painted with glow-in-the-dark paint for the Art in Glow festival. The public was invited to help the artists paint dandelions across the trail throughout the day. Children and adults alike were involved in creating art on one of the most publicly used walkways and that’s just one example of community collaboration.

On the other side of that trail is the Ithaca Public Market – a weekend destination for most locals. Here you can buy groceries, new art, taste local wine, beer and ciders, and listen to live music while enjoying lunch over a picnic table. Bring a tote. I left with a couple of bottles of beer, including Liberty Bell Hard Cider from Bellwether Cidery, a new painting, and a black walnut bowl – random, I know!

Just on the outskirts of the city is Six Mile Creek Vineyards. This winery makes limited quantities of wine and spirits from the hard liquor basics, such as gin and vodka, to Limoncello, Grappa, and Amore. The tasting room is a Dutch Colonial Barn with a balcony patio that overlooks a ravine vineyard. Seeing the sunset from this barn is one of my favorite experiences from the weekend.

Much like Corning and Hammondsport, Ithaca serves up a great selection of food. These options are spread across a number of small cafes and restaurants. For the evening we opted for The Rook, a West End restaurant that cooks up a modern take on old favourites such as bacon-wrapped grilled dates, porchetta, fried chicken, and flank steak to name a few. For the morning there is another local favourite, Northstar House. A lovely hip joint with a fan patio and a good soundtrack. In true hearty nature, this breakfast/lunch gets served with grits, biscuits, and gravy.

To see the adventure through Instagram look up #XOFingerLakes.

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