New York’s Finger Lakes: Driving in Style

New York's Finger Lakes from the sky.
New York’s Finger Lakes from the sky.

Driving to NY’s Finger Lakes in a Bentley Convertible

By Margie Goldsmith

“Great car!” someone on the sidewalk calls out as I pull up to a stoplight in Elmira, New York, en route the Finger Lakes. Someone else gives me the thumbs up sign. Another yells, “Fantastic color.” I am perched behind the wheel of a 2014 powder blue Continental GT V8 convertible, a $251,000 luxury supercar and mine to demo for the weekend.

Margie Goldsmith in her borrowed Bentley.
Margie Goldsmith in her borrowed Bentley.

This little baby reaches a top speed of 198 mph, which I doubt either Jamie, my man, or I will reach on our weekend trip to the Finger Lakes. The last time I demo’ed a Bentley was two years go in Oman where I had to brake for camels.

Not much impresses Jamie, a petrol-head, but when he taps the paddle off the steering wheel (which is how one shifts in this car) and floors the accelerator, we catapult forward. The car has a powerful kick and the twin-turbo purr. “Listen to that sound,” says Jamie. “That’s a real power sound.”

Soaring in Elmira

The zrrrrooooom. sound of the Bentley’s engine is light years away from the whoooossshhh sound of the engineless glider I am riding in behind the pilot. While the Bentley hugs the road in a straight line, the little soaring plane circles silently straight up like an eagle to rise to 3,500 feet in the sky.

Getting ready to soar at Harris Hill Soaring, Elmira NY.
Getting ready to soar at Harris Hill Soaring, Elmira NY.

Elmira, NY is considered the soaring capital of the world and Harris Hill Soaring is the birthplace of American soaring. I look down at the lush vineyards and farms.

Jürgen, the German pilot tells me he originally came to the Finger Lakes over 25 years ago as a wine grower — not surprising as there are over 135 vineyards in the region. He points down to a building at the edge of a field. “That’s a monastery,” he says. They raise sheep there. You see those tiny white dots? Those are sheep.”

From here, the white dots are no bigger than bottle caps.

“And wine? Surely they make wine, too!” I say.

“Of course I would imagine so,” he says.

Montezuma Winery
Montezuma Winery

Wine is king in the Finger Lakes, which has been called the Napa of the East. After gliding, we enjoy a picnic lunch overlooking the airstrip, which includes Riesling Dry Dr. Konstantin Frank – delicious.

Charlie’s Café has also packed us a picnic basket including a pear and Finger Lakes feta cheese salad, locally harvested lox, Waldorf chicken salad, and sinful rhubarb and apple cobbler with freshly whipped cream.

Mark Twain’s Study

The most famous literary landmark in America, Mark Twain’s study is located in Elmira. The open-air gazebo sits in a place of prominence on the campus of Elmira College.

Mark Twain expert Dr. Barb Snedecor.
Mark Twain expert Dr. Barb Snedecor.

Built in 1895 as “A Female College,” Elmira was the first to offer a four-year education for women (it went co-ed in 1969). In 1952, Twain’s Study, which was rotting in the tress of his family’s summer resident, Quarry Farm, was moved to Elmira’s campus, not surprising as Twain’s wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was an Elmira alumna (Class of 1864).

We are lucky to join a special tour conducted by Dr. Barb Snedecor, the College’s Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

She says that Twain wrote many books in this little gazebo including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain, who lived here for 20 summers, called Elmira “a foretaste of heaven” where he could write ten pages per day compared to one page a day in Hartford. “Here he found his muse,” says Dr. Snedecor, ”and wrote 1,200 manuscript pages in five weeks.”

The Study, a gift from Twain’s wife’s aunt in 1874, was possibly was built to resemble a pilot’s house because of Twain’s association with the river. It was also Twain’s quiet zone and his children were not allowed to come within three feet.

Nearby in the College’s Historic Cowles Hall is “Mark Twain in Elmira,” a permanent exhibition. Memorabilia includes his wooden lap desk and cigar box (Twain averaged 40 cheap cigars per day and often a pipe as well).Twain was the first author to write by typescript (Life on the Mississippi) and the exhibition includes an antique replica typewriter.

Twain was also the inventor of both the self-pasting scrapbook and a memory game, both of which are in the exhibition. A short drive away is Woodlawn Cemetery where he and his family are buried.

Owego, “America’s Coolest Small Town”

Strawberry Festival in Owego NY.
Strawberry Festival in Owego NY.

Each summer, Owego in Tioga County hosts a two-day strawberry festival with eating such specialties as spiedies (grilled meat skewers on a submarine roll and slathered in spiedie sauce), fries of every description (jungle, cheese, curly, ribbon, sweet potato) local wines and craft beers, an a parade complete with the boy scouts, and fireworks at night.

We drive over the bridge in our powder blue princess with every eye riveted on us and cellphones snapping photos like the Paparazzi.

Surely, our Bentley is the first ever to cross the bridge over the Susquehanna River and enter Owego, voted “America’s Coolest Small Town.” We are easily Owego’s “Coolest Visiting Car,” so coveted that the Mayor insists we park in his driveway.

The town is small time Americana local art, with a gorgeous river walk path, funky little Front street shops and boutiques, galleries selling work by local artists, and cool haunted bars such as the Parkview Restaurant and Pub built in 1867 as an ice cream parlor, and which present owners Beth and Mark Johnson, who are renovating the second and third floors into a hotel, both claim is haunted.

“There are spirits and secrets like an unexplained chiming dinner bell, a sealed up hidden room we recently discovered, and our chef, who kept getting hit on the back of the head by an unknown presence.”

Chef Clark Heppleworth at Calaboose Restaurant.
Chef Clark Heppleworth at Calaboose Restaurant

In keeping with the funky Owego spirit, we choose Calaboose Grill for dinner. Calaboose (a southern slang word for jail) was indeed Owego’s former jail, now a two-floor restaurant. The downstairs has been gutted but the upstairs cells remain, and Chef Clark Heppleworth gives us a tour.

“We turned the cells into private dining nooks and even the tables are made from metal cell cots and covered with glass tops,” says Heppleworth. Calaboose’s menu includes The FBIs (Food & Beverage Insiders) Most Wanted, with burgers such as the Al Capone, John Dillinger, Lucky Luciano, and Bonne & Clyde. We begin with house-fried potato chips followed by Jail Island Salmon and Hunter (rib eye) Steak.

“Ithaca is Gorges”With over 100 natural waterfalls, many dropping hundreds of feet, lush rolling hills, and many scenic gorges, it makes sense that Ithaca’s motto is “Ithaca is Gorges” The city has a funky hippy young vibe, not surprising with both Cornell and Ithaca College.

The first ice cream sundae was created here in 1892, and the first food truck was invented here in the 1960s. It’s the starting point of the Cayuga Wine Trail and the Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway. The Farmer’s Market, one of the country’s best, has everything: local wines and cheeses, hot prepared foods, fruits, vegetables, meats, bakeries and beautifully crafted artisanal gifts.

Falls overlook visitors in Ithica, NY.
Falls overlook visitors in Ithica, NY.

We pull into La Tourelle Resort and Spa, a charming country Inn and our Finger Lakes home for the weekend. Our room is complete with a gas fireplace, spacious comfy living area, free internet, fridge, Jacuzzi tub, shower with double showerheads, bathrobes, coffee and a wall full of books (and a sign which says, “Take a book, leave a book”).

There’s a sliding glass door and a terrace with view of some of the resort’s 70 manicured and forested trails (including the trail which leads to the Lower Falls of Buttermilk Falls State Park). It’s also a perfect place from which to sip a glass of wine and enjoy an unobstructed sunset view.

Each night there‘s a wine tasting led by the hotel’s managing director, Scott Wiggins, coffee and tea available all the time, and at night, chocolate chip cookies. This summer, the resort is adding “Ithaca by firelight at La Tourelle,” a luxury “glamp-ground” in the woods.Scenic Drive around the Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway

After a finger-licking breakfast of oatmeal crusted French Toast in La Tourelle’s outdoor garden, we head off to drive the 90-mile road around Cayuga Lake, a designed Scenic Byway which, while only around a two-hour drive, offers enough to do for at least a couple of weeks.

There are 16 wineries, five craft breweries, a distillery, seven parks, waterfalls, gorges and many restaurants serving farm to table food such as the lakeside Aurora Inn which serves delicious cornmeal fried haddock and Lobster Rolls.

No trip to Cayuga Lake would be complete without a visit to MacKenzie-Childs just outside of the village of Aurora and located on a former 65-acre former dairy farm overlooking the Lake. We pull into the parking lot and join the 30-minute farmhouse tour. Every piece of tableware, all bedding, pillows, lamps, chandeliers, curtains, painted floors, walls and ceilings are decorated in eye-popping unusual MacKenzie-Childs patterns.

Chilled beet soup at Hazelnut Restaurant.
Chilled beet soup at Hazelnut Restaurant.

As the tour guide leads us through the 19th Century farmhouse, he tells us to look at the drop-dead views out of every window, facing the lake, the gardens, and the parking lot. I look out and see two women ogling the Bentley and taking endless selfies in front of it.

Wineries and Waterfalls

Neither Jamie or I are wine connoisseurs, but we check out Montezuma Winery at the top end of Cayuga Lake, perusing over 30 wines and tasting “Cranberry Bog” which tastes exactly like cranberry juice and which a salesperson says is often mixed with Vodka to make a crantini. But we don’t want to take any unnecessary chances with our magnificent supercar, so we forgo the other wineries and head to the Taughannock Falls Overlook.

Located in Ulysses, Taughannock Falls one of the highest falls east of the Rockies towers almost 400 feet above the gorge, three stories higher than Niagara Falls. They plunge 215 feet past rocky cliffs to Cayuga Lake below.

There is an overlook for the perfect photo opp and you can also hike down to them, but it’s almost dinner time, and we’re starving, so we hop back into the Bentley and head to Trumansburg, about 10 minutes away.

Exquisite French toast at La Tourelle.
Exquisite French toast at La Tourelle.


The Village of Trumansburg is tiny, a blend of historical and contemporary architecture with a number of restaurants, all within a couple of blocks, a few bars, a thrift shop and a couple of historical places of interest including the Camp House and the path of Sullivan’s Army during the Revolutionary War. We past a cement plaque in the ground, which reads:

In 1819, Shenk’s Tavern, a great resort for people of sportive tendencies, was removed board by board from this site by upset local citizens in disgust.

What could a sportive tendency be? A gambling house? We debate this as we enter Hazelnut Kitchen, a cute little bistro with only locally sourced cuisine or, as co-owner Lisa Jonckheere says, “You never know what the farmers are going to deliver till it gets here.”

We start with a delicious chilled beet soup with lemon basil sorbet followed by a smoked trout salad, strawberry salad with Chevre and smoked salami, and faro risotto with purple barley, cranberries, Chevre, zhough (a green chili paste) and local greens. Our dessert is hazelnut butter cake with salted caramel and chocolate hazelnut ice cream.

Ahh Spa

Back at La Tourelle, we head to the August Moon Spa where we are given Jamie heads for the men’s steam room and I indulge in the Taughannock Falls, a body scrub combined with a hot stone massage. After, we meet in our spa yukata kimonos in one of the two Tranquility Rooms and sit comatose in plushy loungers listening to the sound of the indoor waterfall. I am already thinking about the four and one-half hour drive back to NYC tomorrow – with the Bentley, if I open her up, we could probably make it home in two hours. Hmmm…

mapOther Things to do on the Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway:

Bet the Farm Winery and Gourmet Market: Owner/winemaker Nancy Tisch attends to every detail from fermentation to bottling. The shop offers the finest foods and carefully selected wines from fellow Finger Lakes wineries.
381 Main Street Aurora, New York 13026
Dorie’s Bakery: House-baked scones, muffins, cakes, bread, and cookies using locally produced flour, fruit, and syrups. 283 Main Street, Aurora

Aurora Arts & Design Center: Specialty antiques, artisans collective and local photography gallery.
371 Main Street, Route 90, Aurora

LaTourelle Forest Trail
LaTourelle Forest Trail

Heart & Hands Winery: Small artisanal winery focuses on making high-quality Pinot Noir, sparkling wine and Riesling. 4162 State Route 90, Union Springs

Montezuma Wildlife Refuge
: A 10,000-acre bird sanctuary with visitor center, shop, plus trails, fishing & hunting;
3395 E Auburn Road, Seneca Falls, NY 13148

Thirsty Owl Wine Company: A destination winery with 150 acres and over 2,000 feet of lake frontage. Taste fine wine and enjoy breathtaking views of the lake and vineyards. 6799 Elm Beach Rd, Ovid

Sheldrake Point Vineyards: Produces distinctive estate wines crafted from grapes grown on 44-acre site overlooking Cayuga Lake.
7448 County Road 153, Ovid, NY 14521

Cayuga Lake Creamery: Family and pet-friendly for ice cream or a light meal. Unique flavors such as lavender, maple bacon, and sea salt caramel plus sorbets, gluten free, soy-based, No Sugar Added/Fat-Free and creamy soft serve custards.
8421 Route 89, Interlaken, NY 14847

Bellwether Hard Cider: Produces a range of carefully handcrafted, premium ciders that once reigned as the nation’s most popular drink.
9070 New York 89, Trumansburg

Ithaca Antique Center: Over 14,000 sq. feet of furniture, pottery, porcelains, glass, books, Cornell and Ithaca area merchandise, vintage clothing, collectibles, art, and vintage jewelry. 1607 Trumansburg Rd., Ithaca

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