Feature

Finger Lakin’ Fun

Western New York state turns out to be a heck of a travel destination.

by Paul Gerald

The strangest thing happened to me recently. I went to New York State – in January, no less – and had a blast.

I went to visit a couple of old friends, Kevin and Tobi of Watkins Glen, and they gave me all kinds of grief for coming to see them when the ground was covered with snow and there was “nothing to do.” But then they proceeded to show me a seriously good time. They’ve got lakes, gorges, cool towns, country bed-and-breakfasts, wineries, and waterfalls all over the place. I can’t imagine how much fun it must be when it isn’t 30 degrees outside.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FINGER LAKES ASSOCIATION

The Finger Lakes area boasts of 33 wineries; all of them give you tastings of up to seven or eight wines – for maybe a buck.

We started by going to dinner in Ithaca, the home of Cornell University. Along the way, Kevin and Tobi, two lifetime residents of the area, gave me what amounted to warnings about Ithaca. Kevin described it to me this way: “Ithaca is too politically correct for its own good. It’s gotten full of itself, everything’s too expensive, and the people are all liberal and open-minded as long as you’re liberal like they are.” It actually calls itself, in a brochure I saw, “America’s Most Enlightened City.” Kevin and Tobi rolled their eyes when I read that to them.

I can dig all of that, but I also dig Ithaca. Any place that has several colleges, countless old buildings in good shape, and waterfalls right in town, is okay by me. Ithaca is a place where current and future Ph.D.s shuffle around in sandals, shopping at third-world shops and sipping espresso in ultra-hip coffee shops. The non-sandal crowd was well-dressed and looked pretty conservative. They looked like they were practicing to be rich.

We would have gone to the world-famous Moosewood Restaurant, creators of so many fantastic cookbooks, but they were closed “to renovate and recuperate.” Another reason to come in the summer. A little side cafe was open, and before I left the area I had lunch there: a bowl of Tibetan lentil soup and some outstanding guacamole.

The next morning Kevin and Tobi took me to breakfast at a place called Beach’s Diner, more commonly known as Beachville. Beachville is a blue shack in the middle of nowhere, with community seating, where the three of us got buried in eggs, toast, pancakes, home fries, and all forms of dead pig for about $10. We were eating on a hodgepodge of plates, obviously collected from all over, and Kevin seemed disappointed that our orange juice didn’t come in McDonald’s collector’s glasses.

Then we started our driving tour, which went slowly because Tobi was always slowing down, pointing, and yelling, “Waterfall!” There are actually enough Finger Lakes to form two hands. The one we were driving around was Seneca Lake, which is 30 miles long and connected by canal to Cayuga Lake, the Erie Canal, Lake Ontario, and therefore the world. A sailor I drank with told me he could sail from Watkins Glen to Hong Kong. Tobi insisted that Seneca Lake, on which Watkins Glen sits, is the middle finger of the lakes. It seemed to be a matter of civic pride.

Our tour was broken up by wineries. It was news to me that wineries even exist in New York, but it was just one of many surprises. Just for some perspective, the Finger Lakes visitors’ guide lists three dozen golf courses, countless tennis courts, 83 bed-and-breakfasts, 25 antique stores, 16 campsites, 25 state parks, scores of lakeside homes for weekly rentals, 11 tour-boat operators, year-round fishing opportunities, and 33 wineries. But that winery list lacks at least one place I know of: The Rasta Ranch. I had high hopes when I saw that sign, but Kevin said it isn’t what it sounds like, which is to say there’s no live reggae playing while you sample wines, and their wine is lame, anyway.

Exactly which winery we should go to became a topic of some discussion. We skipped one because it was “too corporate.” They said they might take me to a winery that doesn’t have particularly good wine but does have an owner who always gets into great arguments with you. We finally settled on a small family-run place, followed a slightly larger one with a deck overlooking the lake, and finally Hazlitt Winery, home of the Red Cat.

This Red Cat is a legend in the area, and in fact one of the “arguments” Kevin and Tobi had was who should be the one to tell me the Red Cat Story. They weren’t sure if I should hear it from the old guy with the gray beard who took about an hour to tell it, or from the younger guy who got a little more to the point. I wound up getting a medium-length version, with few distractions, after one bartender denied any knowledge of any Red Cats. Due to my seldom-seen sense of journalistic ethics, I won’t share it with you, but I will say that when it was over I plopped down six bucks for a bottle of Red Cat wine and am now saving it for a special occasion.

Hazlitt is the neatest of the wineries we saw, anyway. You’re basically drinking in a renovated barn, with Indian relics and mounted fish on the wall and a piano that several people made it a point to tell me some drunken Liberace is always falling off of when the place is really rocking. It was also where I met the Hong Kong-bound sailor, who it turns out owns a 1927 schooner that folks can sail on, $25 for a three-hour tour.

All these wineries give you tastings of up to seven or eight wines, and you pay a buck if you pay anything. By the end of the day I was adept at using words like “tannin” and “piquant” and “strong oak finish.” I even said that one place’s chardonnay was “a little heavy on the melon and pear.” I would have felt ridiculous about all this, but we were swallowing the wine, not spitting it out like they do in California and France. To hell with that. I was pretty smiley by the end of our little tour.

When I finally got back on the Greyhound and left western New York behind, Kevin and Tobi gave me one last piece of advice: Come back in the first week of September. That’s when the bulk of the tourists are gone, the leaves are just starting to turn, and Watkins Glen hosts its Grand Prix. Watkins Glen is a mecca of sorts in the auto-racing world, and this September is the 50th anniversary of the Grand Prix. Apparently they block off the streets and vintage-car drivers race through town, which by the way is filled up with people and winery booths and food and bands and 17 other kinds of fun.

I’ve never seen any of this, but considering the way Kevin and Tobi started giggling like schoolkids when they told me about it, I just might have to make the trip. It seems like as good a time as any to go to New York State, certainly better than when it’s snowbound, and if nothing else, New York City is only a few hours away. You could do a lot worse than a week up there – and next time I’ll tell you about life up in the Adirondack Mountains, which are even cooler than the Finger Lakes. n

(To start planning a trip to the Finger Lakes Region, call 800-548-4386 or visit http://FingerLakes.org.)


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