We needed a vacation.
With our four-month-old in tow, we decided to take our first family vacation to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York for its mix of natural beauty, wineries and the college town vibe of Ithaca.
Ithaca is Gorges
You can find waterfalls all around the Ithaca area. Where we stayed, Taughannock Farms Inn, is part of a state park home to its own majestic waterfall, aptly named Taughannock Falls. It’s about a 10-minute, easy hike to the falls — though there is a more arduous route you can take. The area was once inhabited by the Cayuga tribe, who also lend their name to the closest Finger Lake which is just across the street.
Taughannock Falls is protected in its own niche of the park you cross a small boardwalk to access. The cool spray of the falls hits your skin as you approach the barrier between land and water. While there are other falls in the Finger Lakes in which you can swim, this isn’t one of them.
Buttermilk Falls is not as impressive as Taughannock — but you can swim there. The only other time I’ve been swimming in a waterfall is along the Road to Hana in Maui. This water was cold! But it was a fun atmosphere full of children and families, and the lifeguard-staffed waterfall pool even includes a diving board, which my big kid of a husband made sure to try.
Now Ithaca Falls lives up to “hidden gem” status, as this natural area is tucked away into a residential area and difficult to find even with a GPS. We inadvertently took a tour through Cornell before asking for directions and finding our way to a gravel-filled parking lot with a walking trail to the falls. We stepped onto the rocky way to see a mom sitting in the shallow water with a beach chair while her kids frolicked in the deeper pool. More impressionable was the gaggle of college girls, likely from Cornell, which had just started the new school year that last week of August, who’d walked into the area fully clothed only to strip down to their swimsuits to take a dip in the waterfall pool in between classes.
Welcome to Wine Country
I’d never been proper wine tasting until I move to Australia and lived 1.5 hours from Hunter Valley. After being pregnant and then spending the first few months of Finn’s life limiting my alcohol, I was super excited to sample some Finger Lakes wines.
There are dozens of wineries in the area and we chose to start off on the Cayuga Wine Trail, which winds along the road off which we stayed. You have options like Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery, housed in a converted barnyard that lent a cozy feel to the dreary day. We tried a mix of reds and whites from the enterprising recent college grad that served us — and then stepped over to the free fudge samples.
Other suggestions include the Sheldrake Point, Long Point and Knapp wineries. If you’re not into wine, there is Bellwether Hard Cider and Wine Cellars, which also conveniently sells cheese, and Montezuma Winery & Hidden Marsh Distillery, which has spirits and mead.
The next day, we tried the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which seemed to have the better wine. The relatively new Eremita Winery is in a converted church and has a resident dog who greets all visitors. It’s here that I tried my first Gewürztraminer, a white wine that one website describes as “like the grown-up version of Moscato.” Also not to be missed is Silver Thread Winery, a boutique winery with a cozy, sunlight vibe that’s known for its Riesling .
Most of the wineries charge between $3 and $5 for a tasting of half a dozen wines, and some will deduct that fee from a bottle you purchase. There are also seasonal events throughout the year at many of the wineries.
Ithaca: A Funky College Town
I’ll admit it: our first night in Ithaca, I picked up on a bit of seediness. There seemed to be people tucked into shadows and closed shop doorways and a bit of rambunctiousness. But it’s worth a trip into town to visit some of the city pubs and restaurants.
Bandwagon Brewpub has a mean Belgian Tripel, a good selection of IPAs and other beers predominantly from the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic region, including one of my favorite New England brews, Allagash White. They also have a full dinner menu. Ithaca Bakery has a sandwich list so sprawling you’ll take longer to order than to eat, a bakery stocked with cakes, cookies and other confections, smoothies and a coffee bar complete with iced espresso drinks like the Cold Cherry Bing, with a quad shot of espresso, and the Peppermint Freeze.
Ithaca Beer Co. is a family-friendly brewery with an outdoor area complete with fire pits, an open field where kids can run around and a Bocce ball section. They’re only open for guests and meals Wednesday through Sunday, with tours on the weekend. Year-round brew include Flower Power and Apricot Wheat.
We found the Finger Lakes to be a great area for our young family to unwind and explore, and we’d love to go back.
If you’ve been, what’s your favorite place in upstate New York?