New York’s Fascinating Finger Lakes

By Charlene S. Mixa

Offering Natural Beauty, Rich History and World-Class Wineries

Fountain and lake view  Skaneateles LakePristine lakes, gorgeous waterfalls, and magnificent parks create a natural beauty in New York State’s Finger Lakes region. Add charming villages, a variety of museums, specialty shopping and the Finger Lakes area easily becomes a popular tourist getaway. Stretched out in a north-south direction the lakes are long and slender reminding early map-makers of the fingers of a hand, hence the name “Finger Lakes”. The lakes boast a uniqueness all their own, with two lakes among the deepest in America. Plus the Finger Lake region is abundant in its natural beauty and many attractions. Wine anyone? Easy-to-navigate wine trails wind through the Finger Lakes’ more than 100 wineries. In a beautiful serene setting, with gracious hospitality, and plenty of activities the Finger Lakes area is a fascinating and fabulous vacation destination.

On a journey across New York State, we depart the Adirondacks for Finger Lakes. Leaving the mountain vistas for the rolling bucolic terrain of the Finger Lakes, we arrive at Skaneateles on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The historic downtown area is a storybook setting on clear Skaneateles Lake and is bustling today. Strolling the specialty shops and galleries we find a wide variety of fashions, art, antiques and home accessories. Many of the shops are in restored buildings from the early 1800’s adding to the charm of this thriving community. Clift Park along the lake brings a nice respite from shopping with its pier and lake view. Bathers relax on blankets under huge shade trees on the soft grass. Stopping by the Mid Lakes Navigation for details on our dinner cruise, Sara Wiles, one of the owners offers to give us a quick tour of the town. Sara takes us by the elegant homes on the bluffs along the lakeshore and new resort and spa outside of town. In town we pop in to the historical Sherwood Inn, originally a stage coach stop in 1807. It is still going strong!

After a full day of driving and sightseeing we are ready to freshen up before our dinner cruise. Hurrah! Our hotel is just a block from downtown and the lake. The Skaneateles Village Center Boutique Hotel is a two-story crisp gray building with big wraparound porch and convenient off street parking. Our modern deluxe room has a king size bed and a welcoming Jacuzzi with champagne glasses and candles for a cozy evening. The yellow “Rubber Duck” on the plush towels is a fun touch. A separate dressing area also has a refrigerator and the bathroom though small has a walk-in shower. There’s even a guest Courtesy Kitchen with a refrigerator, ice, microwave, and washer dryer, plus complimentary snacks and beverages.

Judge Ben Wiles - for our dinner cruise
Judge Ben Wiles – for our dinner cruise


Now for our dinner cruise on elegant and scenic Skaneateles Lake. Seems everyone had the same idea as the Judge Ben Wiles, our boat, is full this evening as is the sister boat the Barbara S. Wiles. The Judge Ben Wiles was built to resemble an old steam boat and named for the grandfather of the owners. Locating our table we settle in for a relaxing lake cruise and a leisurely dinner. Sara Wiles joins us sharing history of the area and their boating business. Captain Dick escorts us grandly along the forty mile Skaneateles Lake, which is only one and half miles wide, but 300 feet deep. On the bluffs are grand homes both old and new along the eastern shores giving way to bungalows and rustic homes as we go further south. The southern end of the lake is steep, wooded hillsides and on the western shore we see more rustic cabins. Getting close to town the lake shore again changes to larger estate size homes and even a golf course. During our cruise we delight in our multi-course dinner starting with a fresh green salad, hearty clam chowder, a tasty salmon filet with baked potato and vegetables. All finished with a special dessert cake and candies. Walking on the boat we admire the serenity and splendor of this elegant lake as we watch the sunset and enjoy the enchantment of the evening. A storybook ending to our visit to Skaneateles!

Views at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge

Views at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge

Ready for a full day of activities in the Finger Lakes, we are off to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1938, the refuge is the breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. Situated in the middle of one of the most active flight lanes in the Atlantic Flyway, we are hoping to see lots of waterfowl and migratory birds. Major construction is going on so the bird population is limited. Taking the Seneca Trail we have an easy one mile walk along the Refuge and canal, spotting various birds including herons, Canadian Geese and sandpipers.

Fox Run Vineyards

Fox Run Vineyards

Our next stop is lunch and wine tasting along Seneca Lake. On the way we pass through the town of Geneva located on the northern shore of Seneca Lake. This quaint town has splendid shops of unusual gifts, antiques and local memorabilia with numerous cafes and restaurants. Driving along the shoreline of pristine Seneca Lake, we arrive at the Fox Run Vineyards with its 55-acres on the hillside above the lake. Getting a couple of gourmet sandwiches from the Vineyars’ Café, we sit outside enjoying the scenic setting of the winery and lake, Scott Osborn, the owner joins us and quickly educates us on the history of wine making in the Finger Lakes. Scott actually got into wine making in California but when he returned to New York, he was fascinated by the Finger Lakes’ “cool climate” wines with their crisper taste that is more flavorful and balanced. During our wine tasting in Fox Run’s tasting room, we agree with Scott as the wines have a cleaner taste and the red wines don’t have the tannin taste found in the California wines.

Grapes for sparkling wine - Fox Run Vineyards

Grapes for sparkling wine – Fox Run Vineyards

On our tour through the vineyards workers are harvesting grapes for “sparkling chardonnay”. Fox Run produces a wide range of wines on its fifty-five acres. Educating us on Finger Lake winemaking, Scott shares how the native grape varieties put the Finger Lakes on the map a century and half ago, and the French-American hybrids, bred for cold resistance, still have an important niche in the region. He believes that non-hybrid European Vinifera grapes can yield wine excellent enough to put the Finger Lakes in the ranks of the world’s top fine wine producers. Our visit really gives us a new appreciation for the wines of the Finger Lakes with the knowledge Scott shared. Buying a few bottles, we thank Scott for his time as we head off to our next stop on the Finger Lakes, Penn Yan.

Arriving in Penn Yan, walk through town to Birket Mills and watch as a farmer unloads his wheat. Chatting with some employees we learn a little about making Buckwheat. In fact Birkett Mills is the World’s largest manufacturer of Buckwheat products and has been in continual operations since 1797. Located on the Main Street of Penn Yan (named for its original Pennsylvania and Yankee settles), we stroll the village and find it a sleepy town this warm afternoon.

We stop by the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance to pick up some brochures and chat with Beulah Decker, who graciously assisted with our visit. Offering some books on the area, we find that the “Persons, Places, and Things Of The Finger Lakes Region” by Emerson Klees proves to be an excellent source for a visit to the Finger Lakes area. For photography buffs, “The Finger Lakes Region of New York, A View from Above”, is a beautiful pictorial of the Finger Lakes area by Charles Feil and Ernest Rose.

Keuka Spring Vineyards

Keuka Spring Vineyards

It’s time to sample more wine. Situated on a hillside high above Keuka Lake, the Keuka Springs Winery has a magnificent, panoramic view of the lake. The hillside tasting room is adjacent to the vineyards in a large rustic building. While I sample the wines, Richard chats with some of the workers outside. Dave graciously assists me with the tasting, sharing knowledge and insight on each wine. Again, I find a crisp, clean taste of these cool climate wines. Keuka Springs Winery has over 25 years of experience in consistently producing award winning wines in the red and white wines. Walking along the vineyards, we watch as workers are trimming the vines and enjoy the scenic beauty of the vineyard, hills and lake.

Staying in Penn Yan for the evening the Trimmer House Bed & Breakfast located within in walking distance of town. This three-story home is a fine example of Queen Anne architecture. The large front porch has a huge swing, wicker couch and chairs. The Proprietor Gary Smith restored the house built in 1891 by David Trimmer a wealthy wine merchant, opening it in 1997 as a B & B. Yang, Gary’s wife, greets us and quickly has us settled in to “Bessie’s Room”, a large corner room on the second floor with bay windows. Warmly furnished in period décor it has a king size poster bed, two winged chairs, dresser and private bath. Yang, takes me through the beautifully decorated library, music room, and dining room. The Trimmer House B& B achieves the beauty of a bygone era but also has the modern conveniences of air condition, a whirl pool, and television.

View Esperanza Mansion

View Esperanza Mansion

Refreshed after a short rest and shower, we are definitely ready for dinner at Esperanza Mansion. Located in the heart of the Finger Lakes Wine country with magnificent lake views, wineries and rolling hills of vineyards the Mansion is a romantic setting for dinner. On the winding driveway up the hill to Esperanza Mansion, we admire the elegance and enchantment of this historical Mansion. Dining on the patio we have a terrific view of the Keuka Lake, the gentle rolling hill and a deep orange sunset. The evening temperatures are mild as we sip the local Dr. Frank chardonnay and enjoy the smoked salmon appetizer. I splurge on the succulent lobster while Richard selects the hearty tuna steak. Everything is excellent! The service, the setting, the cuisine and the charm of Esperanza!

This morning we have another busy day and more driving as we are off on our final ventures in the Finger Lakes. Yang has prepared a hearty home cooked breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, fresh fruit, juices, and tea. Glad we got to have buckwheat pancakes since we’re in buckwheat country! We load the car and bid Yang farewell as we depart for the Pleasant Valley Wine Company in the village of Hammondsport.

Pleasant Valley Winery

Pleasant Valley Winery

Popularly known as the Great Western Winery, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company is the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes region. Proudly displaying the designation of U. S. Bonded Winery No. 1, the winery was established in 1860. Our tour of the winery takes us into one of the eight remarkable stone buildings listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Originally known for its sparkling wines, Pleasant Valley Wine has had numerous owners over its long history including the Taylor Wine Company, Coca Cola, and Seagram’s. Today it is owned by the Doyle family, who purchased the Great Western Winery portions of the buildings. Walking through the various huge rooms of the original buildings, our guide gives excellent insight into the rich history of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company. From the massive wooden tank-size barrels of wine to the rows of port in a cellar to rooms in caves for private parties, we get a great tour of the winery and its history.

Back in the tasting room at the Great Western Wine Visitor Center, with a fuller understanding of the history, we sample the various wines and a couple of sparkling wines. An especially fun one is “Chocolate Lab”, a concord wine with a natural chocolate flavor. The Visitor Center also has historic exhibits, winemaking displays and a unique Theatre-in-a-Wine-Tanks, providing even more education on winemaking in the Finger Lakes.

Sunset Skeneateles Lake

Sunset Skeneateles Lake

New York’s Finger Lakes region offers a wonderful variety of activities for travelers of all ages and interests. With its pristine lakes, beautiful rolling countryside, lush forests, and rich history there is much to see and do. The wine trails and charming towns add extra excursions for visitors to the area. Visitors will find the Finger Lakes to be fun, fascinating and fabulous.

If you go:

Adda Trimmer House Bed & Breakfast, 145 East Main St., Penn Yan, NY 14527; 315.694.0566;

Esperanza Mansion, 3456 Route 54A, Bluff Point, NY 14478; 315.536.9494; 

Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, 309 Lake Street, Penn Yan, NY 14527; 315-536-7488 or 800.548.4386; 

Fox Run Vineyards & Café, 670 State Route 14,Penn Yan, NY 14527; 315.536.4616; 

Keuka Spring Vineyards; 243 Route 54, East Lake Rd., Penn Yan, NY 14527;

Mid-Lakes Navigation Co. Ltd., 11 Jordan St., Skaneateles, NY 13152; 800.545.4318;

Pleasant Valley Win, 8260 Pleasant Valley Rd., Hammondsport, NY 14840; 607.569.6111;

Skaneateles Suites Boutique Hotel, 12 Fennell St. Skaneateles, NY 13152; 315.685.2333;

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About Charlene Mixa

Seeing new places, learning about cultures and seeing the sights has always been my dream. Growing up I was blessed with parents that enjoyed traveling and thought nothing of taking a family of seven on excursions. My career in Human Resources and later as a consultant for an international Human Resource firm offered some travel, but I knew as my husband and I approached retirement, my goal was to do more traveling and broader trips. The nine years since retirement has been filled with fantastic adventures from short local one day trips to several week excursions. Living in Florida, it is especially enjoyable to be away in the summer to cooler climates. Multi-week driving trips across the good ol' USA, settling in for a month in the mountains to explore the local area, or a combination of both fill much of our summer season. Our travels are predominantly self-orchestrated, bringing the fun and challenge of getting everything to click. It's all about doing and sharing! Experiencing a travel adventure is exciting. Reliving a special travel moment with a friend or family is exhilarating. I feel my heart race and pulse quicken, as I sharing that special moment. Thank you for joining in my travel adventures and allowing me to hear your stories.