New York's Finger Lakes Region: Eat, Drink and Be Merry
By Esha Samajpati
Never thought I would recommend this for a summer weekend, but here I am back from upstate New York with cheese wrapped in brown bags, bottles of wine and blue-green baskets of dark-red cherries, waxing eloquent about our trip!
Yes, I have discovered that summers can mean more than just hiking, biking and beach-bumming… farmer’s markets and vineyards can be as much fun!
At the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, lies Ithaca, our recent weekend destination, decided on a whim. Being home to Cornell University and Ithaca College automatically makes it a great place for finding diverse cuisines and some pretty amazing architecture.
Dumping our bags in Embassy Motel, which for $75 a night, is really clean and perfect for a night’s stay, we set out to explore. If you have plans for hanging in the hotel, then you can choose from plenty of other option. There’s no dearth of hotel chains and boutique inns near the Finger Lakes region.
Walking up and down the Cornell Campus, in and out of arches, we were quite impressed by the variety of practical subjects offered, which explains why Cornell University is the most educationally diverse member of the Ivy League.
We climbed 161 steps up to the top of McGraw Tower where we saw a student getting ready to play the chimes. A small group had gathered around him. He played Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” made famous by the late Heath Ledger in the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You
One of the largest instruments of its kind, the Cornell Chimes are technically a “chime,” which is different from a carillon or a pipe organ.
You have to play the chimes standing up, using both hands and feet. There is no electronic assistance to the playing mechanism, so you can guess how much hard work the “chimesmaster” puts in.
The tower resonated with the sound of the chimes and as the mini-concert reached its end, vigorous applause filled the tiny room.
We climbed further up the winding iron staircase and found ourselves in the belfry. Miles of rooftops, treetops, patches of green sliced apart by roads which appeared to converge and diverge forming crazy patterns and of course, the still waters of Cayuga Lake in the distance made for a pretty interesting panorama.
On our way back, we stopped for coffee just outside the campus and found out about Ithaca’s most favored weekend hangout, where the locals go for their organic fix - the Farmer’s Market. It opens at 10 am on Sundays, which, luckily for us, was the next day!
Breakfast in Ithaca Farmer’s Market
Sunday morning dawned bright and a tad bit sultry as we made our way to Steamboat Landing by the Cayuga Lake in search of the famous Farmer’s Market.
Live local music, berries, artisan bread, beeswax candles, pottery, organic greens, eggs, potted plants, freshly-squeezed juice, paintings, mushrooms, cherries, flowers, cheese, jams in pretty jars, vinegars and wines in lovely bottles, hand-made jewelry, hammocks and so much more was on display.
The parking spots were filled by ten-thirty. The vendor stands were covered but the market opened out to a lake-front garden in the back with plenty of seats and a beautiful dock.
“Mommy look… a duckie,” squealed a girl, not more than a couple of years old. People sat on the dock’s edge with their legs dangling over the water as kayaks passed by from afar and ducks swam haphazardly nearby, occasionally fighting among themselves for the rare crumb. Private boats were tied on one side and many signed up for a narrated boat-tour down the calm waters of Cayuga Lake.
Trucks and trailers were backed up to each stand, ready at hand to provide fresh supplies as and when the sellers ran out of goods. All the vendors were from within 30 miles, so I can safely say I was a ‘locavore’ for a day.
We got ourselves coffee, juice, a Greek gyro with a dollop of yogurt-based tzatziki sauce and a couple of warm Hungarian pastries and sat on a picnic bench right by the tour boat.
“I will blow the horn real loud,” warned the captain as she deftly maneuvered the boat away from the jetty and set off down the lake.
If you visit the market, I recommend taking a bite from Veronika's Pastries (their coffee was great too) and if you are really hungry, go for the gyros at On the Street Concessions and for juice, try Biz & Benny's Juice Company. Although they have ATMs in the market, my advice would be to carry cash.
For details on timing and everything else, the Farmer’s Market website is very useful. Some claim that this place is East Coast’s answer to Seattle’s Pike Place Market and well, they are not wrong. Apart from wineries, waterfalls and gorges, this market is one of Ithaca’s biggest draws and has found favorable mention in the New York Times, not once but twice!
See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Savor, Swallow, Score
From Ithaca, if you drive towards Seneca Falls keeping Cayuga Lake to your right, you will find yourself in the midst of farms and vineyards. Clustered around the four main Finger Lakes (Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga) are the respective wine trails and nearly 100 wineries so it comes as no surprise that New York is the third largest producer of wine in the United States.
Boasting some of the oldest vineyards in the country, New York’s geographical latitude is not unlike that of Europe’s finest grape-growing regions, making the Empire State a great place to produce world–class wines.
You probably know this state for its raging blizzards, which might make you wonder how grapes thrive in such climatic conditions.
Well, the deep lakes around the region control the temperature and buffer against frosts, creating less severe extremes in either winter or summer. Furthermore, the moving glaciers formed a shallow layer of top soil on sloping shale beds, making the terrain ideal for producing a variety of grapes.
Winner of the 2008 Winery of the Year & Governor’s Cup, the Swedish Hill Winery seemed just right for lunch. With a Scandinavian festival in full swing, the place was crammed with cars.
Like most wine-tasting rooms, this one too offered a wide variety of wines and wine memorabilia and a small group of staff who were quite helpful and knowledgeable when it came to choosing wines.
As we swirled and sipped, I was curious about a sweet wine named “Doobie’s Jack Ass Red.” As it turns out the winery has a pet donkey with the same name. He is a peaceful looking fellow who we found later grazing in a nearby patch of grass.
We ended up buying “Radical Raspberry”, a sweet red dessert wine and “Blue Waters Chardonnay,” a dry white, which I presumed would be a perfect match for the sharp cheddar we got from the Farmer’s Market earlier.
Armed with two bottles, we headed to where lunch was being served. The menu consisted of Swedish meatballs, potatoes, cheese, pickled/creamed herring, pancakes with blueberries, rice pudding with raspberry sauce and of course, lots of wine.
We sat on wooden picnic benches, spearing cubes of cheese and meat with gusto while folk music played in the background. Post lunch, we got up to check where the music was coming from. Dancers hopped, jumped and yelled in Scandinavian finery to the beat of folk tunes while the sides were lined with stands offering a wide variety of arts, crafts and tastings.
The foodie in me was drawn to the cheese samples. The lady from Muranda Cheese Company who helped me to the cheese told me that they are now part of a new organization, the Finger Lakes cheese trail.
“It is made up of 10 artisan cheese makers along 80 plus miles, from Jordan, Onondaga County, to Nichols, Tioga County.” Her samples mainly offered different varieties of cheddar, and I just loved the garlic cheddar so much that I had to bring some home with me.
Take Me Home, Country Roads
On our way back to Connecticut, we drove through long winding country roads with forested hills and clear blue lakes in the distance.
I did a quick check on my phone and found that agriculture makes up for twenty-five percent of New York State’s land area with cheese, milk, apples and berries being some of the leading products.
Red barns, tall silos, piles of logs, strapping horses, splotchy cows and the rare man or woman riding a tractor in blue dungarees and straw hats… that’s the kind of scenery you get for miles before you hit the Interstate.
Although the farms are primarily owned and operated by small, family businesses, it is a multibillion-dollar industry that creates and supports many jobs beyond those on farms.
We paused by the fields to soak in the landscape around us, because in less than four hours, the green of the meadows and the orange of the wayside flowers would become a memory.
If you visit the Finger Lakes area, here’s a list of nearby attractions which might be of interest:
Taughannock Falls - Located in Ulysses, New York and part of Taughannock State Park, this is the highest vertical single drop waterfall in the Northeastern U.S. It’s great for camping, swimming and moderate to easy hiking.
Robert Treman State Park – This Park in Ithaca offers plenty of swimming and hiking opportunities as the trails meander past 12 waterfalls.
Watkins Glen – If you have heard of NASCAR, I doubt you haven’t heard of Watkins Glen International Racetrack where American Road Racing was reborn after World War II. For their 2010 event schedule, click here.
Esha Samajpati worked in advertising in India, before moving to Connecticut and becoming a travel writer. “Even now, when I visit a city, the billboards draw my attention,” she says. “How a city advertises tells me a lot about the place and the people.”