Leaf-Peeping Paradise: The Finger Lakes
By Amelia Mularz
Attention, foliage fanatics: we are approaching peak season for yellows and reds. This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test. Have your best cable-knit sweater at the ready and prepare for a weekend of extreme coziness.
Among leaf scenes, New York’s is one of the best. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently boasted that the Empire State has “one of the most vivid autumns anywhere in the world.” (For Vermont, those are fighting words.) Spotters from I Love New York track changes, issuing a thorough weekly report in which pigment progress is described in terms of percentages and words like scarlet, salmon, and rhubarb are used to distinguish between hues. It’s all very precise.
Politics aside, New York does have a pretty impressive fall array, especially upstate in the glacier-carved region known as the Finger Lakes. Here’s the scoop on visiting the region and soaking up the autumn color show.
While less intrepid leaf-peepers might be content to sit back with a glass of locally produced Riesling (see the “Drink” section below), adventurous gawkers should visit Watkins Glen State Park. There, you can climb some 800 stone steps, meander through tunnels, and explore more than a dozen waterfalls. Follow the gorge trail and you’ll come to Rainbow Falls, which takes on a kaleidoscopic effect come autumn.
You’ll also get an eyeful along Route 20, which, along with Route 5, has been deemed an “Authentic American Road.” Stop in the small town of Auburn to stretch your legs and check out a few historical hot spots. The Harriet Tubman Home and the Seward House (as in William Seward, President Lincoln’s secretary of state and right-hand man) are both nearby. And since you’re a sucker for colorful spectacles, check out the Willard Memorial Chapel, whose Tiffany-designed interior is sure to stun.
If you’re itching to get back to the trees, why not head to an orchard? Do some picking, listen to live music, and grab a glass of cider (alcoholic or virgin) at Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in LaFayette. Depending on your day (Rain?! During prime peeping?!), you may want to sample the hard stuff. No slouches with an apple, Beak and Skiff now distills vodka and gin from the fruit. Try some in their new 1911 Cafe and Tasting Room.
The city of Syracuse is always a good place for eats, and, like leaf lovers, the local fans are fond of the color orange (and blue, of course). At Empire Brewing Company, feast on an elk burger or an andouille po’boy and ask your waiter for the perfect beer pairing. Of course, the craft Roasted Pumpkin Ale is pretty popular this time of year.
Muranda Cheese Company in Waterloo (the birthplace of Memorial Day) is another worthwhile stop. You won’t get a sit-down meal, but you can do a full cheese tasting and take some Colby and cheddar, not to mention a pretty mind-blowing blue, with you for the road.
If you’re in the mood for brunch, the Crystal Lake Café in Interlaken is spot on. The restaurant sources local meats, cheeses, and produce, so the menu changes often, but recent bites have included mixed berry muffins with orange-marmalade butter and seared crab cakes with poached eggs over focaccia toast. Not only is there a view, you’ll be in prime wine-tasting position, as Americana Vineyards is right next door.
The great thing about the Finger Lakes region is that it’s easy to merge the foliage and wine trails into one. But the question remains: Does one wine complement the foliage more than another? Does a red maple go better with a Malbec than a Pinot gris? Probably a silly thought, as a bottle of anything at Chateau LaFayette Reneau is bound to satisfy both your vino needs and arboreal appreciation. For starters, grab a glass of the Hector winery’s award-winning 2013 semi-dry riesling and step out onto the Chateau’s back porch to admire panoramic views of Seneca Lake.
Then there’s Americana Vineyards, where guests can sample homemade fudge while mingling with local celebrities Max and Rubie, the winery’s two resident Labs. Try Apparition, a crisp semi-dry white with a spooky name. For more sensory overload, take a drive around Cayuga Lake on scenic Route 90. Stop at Long Point Winery in Aurora and have a taste of their estate-grown Chardonnay along the way.
For a hotel that’s as authentic (and in many cases, just as old) as the indigenous hickory trees that surround it, book a room at the Sherwood Inn in Skaneateles. Originally built as a tavern in 1807 and even serving briefly as a hospital, the establishment has changed names and owners several times in recent decades. With its lake views, fireplaces, and antique furniture, it’s the kind of place that makes you want to get comfy with a good book.
Equally charming are three lakeside sister properties—the Aurora Inn, the E.B. Morgan House, and the Rowland House, known collectively as the Inns of Aurora—that all sit on Cayuga Lake and date back more than 100 years (nearly 200 in the case of the Aurora Inn). These historic digs are all owned by the founder of the American Girl doll empire, Pleasant Rowland.
While you won’t find a mini-me waiting on your bedspread, the surrounding village is cute enough to belong in an alternate storybook reality. Case in point: wander down to Dorie’s Bakery, where you’ll find old-timey jars filled with warm snickerdoodles. Whatever the leaves are doing, this is 100 percent peak perfection.
Amelia Mularz is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @ameliamularz.