What does a travel blogger do when they’ve had to cancel three trips to Europe because Americans are banned from most of the world? Rediscover their own country. I’ve never had much interest in this, as I feel like I’ve already explored much of the U.S. — I’ve been to at least half of our states and am apathetic about the other half. But after quarantining in the same city for four months, even just a road trip upstate excites me now.
Our friends generously let us borrow their car, so after a successful overnight trip to the Hudson Valley, we decided to be a little more ambitious and drive all the way up to the Finger Lakes. I knew almost nothing about the Finger Lakes except that it’s absolutely beautiful, and I was kind of intrigued by how far away it was — if you look on a map, it’s basically Canada! So, on a weekend that NYC was about to experience a heat wave, we left for a long 5.5-hour drive to the Finger Lakes. Here are some of my recommendations:
We decided to stay in Watkins Glen, a village on the southern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the eleven Finger Lakes. While the village is known for hosting NASCAR and Formula One races — a huge turnoff for us! — it’s also the location of Watkins Glen State Park, the hike I was most excited about, and is close to many of the best wineries in the region.
We stayed at The Blackberry Inn, an adorable bed & breakfast owned by a hilarious gay couple that cooks phenomenal three-course breakfasts every morning, from carrot cardamom muffins to corned beef hash to homemade granola and yogurt. There are just three guest rooms, each with a private bathroom, mini fridge, robes, wine glasses and a corkscrew, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
If you’re only going to do one hike in the Finger Lakes, do Watkins Glen State Park. Since we were just a seven-minute walk from the entrance, we woke up at sunrise and walked over first thing in the morning. It was almost completely empty! It’s barely a hike, more of a stroll on a long, mostly-paved path, with a few small staircases. The narrow gorge looked so otherworldly that I was expecting dinosaurs to pop out at any second. We took the Gorge Trail, which has the best views. Due to covid, it’s only one-way now, so we had to either hike back on the Indian Trail or South Trail, which are higher up and don’t have much view due to the foliage. I imagine Watkins Glen State Park might be a bit frustrating when it’s crowded, as everyone has to follow a single path around the rim of the gorge, so make sure to come early or late, especially during the pandemic. The entire hike took us just over an hour.
On another morning, we drove 30 minutes to Taughannock Falls State Park right after sunrise. This park is named after Taughannock, a Lenape chief who was thrown over the falls after a battle against the Cayugas. In the Algonquin language, the name Taughannock means “full of trees.” We were in a bit of a rush to make it back to our b&b for breakfast, so we only had time to do the Gorge Trail, which was even less of a hike than Watkins Glen State Park — it’s a 15-minute stroll to a spectacular view of the waterfall. If we had more time, I’d love to do the Rim Trail for a view from the observatory deck. Since we were there at 7:00 am, it was almost completely empty again. The only folks who were there were a handful of locals, doing their morning stroll with cups of coffee. They were very friendly, which surprised us because we saw so many Trump signs throughout the Finger Lakes! (Maybe those who like to hike and those who support Trump don’t overlap, even in the same region?)
The Finger Lakes is New York’s largest wine region. The lakes’ depth provides a “lake effect” for the vineyards, warming them up in the winter and cooling them off in the spring. The Finger Lakes produces some of the best Rieslings in the world, and Riesling happens to be my favorite white wine, so of course we went to a couple of tastings while we were here. Due to covid, reservations are required and tastings are held at individual tables, which I actually prefer over awkwardly standing at the bar (as a short person).
Our first tasting was at Hermann J. Weimer, where we sat outdoors near some large wine press equipment. They offered tastings by the glass, half-glass, and bottle, so Anthony and I shared a couple glasses of Riesling, which came with nuts and popcorn. We enjoyed the semi-dry Riesling so much that we took home two bottles. It’s always best to buy wine directly from the source because they’ll cost a fraction of the price you’ll pay anywhere else.
For our second tasting, I booked a special lunch pairing at Ravines Wine Cellar. We began with a tour of the cellar as we tasted their 2012 methode champenoise sparkling wine and snacked on housemade lavash crackers. Then we sat at an antique farm table inside a huge open-air barn and lunched on a flight of eight wines and a plate of delicious snacks. This was one of our favorite meals of the trip! We loved the dry Riesling and Pinot Noir so bought another couple of bottles here. If you only have time for one winery, go to Ravines Wine Cellar for this lunch pairing.
Our b&b was a ten-minute walk from Seneca Harbor, so we ended up there multiple times throughout our trip, since the waterfront is always the coolest spot in any town. There’s a rocky path that juts out from the pier, and we sat there for hours, just taking in the immense lake and feeling the breeze.
While all drives along the Finger Lakes are beautiful, the drive from Champlin Beach on Keuka Lake to Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake reminded me so much of Tuscany, with its vineyards, hills, and winding roads. Considering we had to cancel our trip to Tuscany back in April, it was nice to pretend we were there for about 20 minutes.
The Finger Lakes is known for its wine, not its food, but we ended up really enjoying most of the restaurants we tried. We had to eat indoors for the first time (since NYC still doesn’t allow indoor dining due to covid), so we were a bit anxious about the seating arrangements, but everything seemed safe enough, and restaurants spaced out their tables properly and had the doors wide open for ventilation. (However, I am still against indoor dining in NYC!)
The hottest restaurant in town was Graft Wine & Cider Bar. Everyone kept mentioning it to us, so we decided to drop by. They don’t take reservations, but fortunately there were tables available, even at 8:00 pm on a Saturday night. Everything was fantastic, from the fresh sourdough with vegan butter, to the PEI mussels with red curry cream, to the roasted chicken and braised kale. Each of our dishes was only $18, and the wine prices were as cheap as in Europe! No wonder people were obsessed with this place.
Another restaurant we loved was Stonecat Cafe because of their cornmeal crusted catfish with smoked tomato coulis and black posole. I’ve never had catfish like that before! Request a table on the back patio for sunset views from the eastern side of Seneca Lake.
When searching for a dessert spot, I found a tiny Italian bakery called Scuteri’s Cannoli Connection and was shocked that this town had such incredible cannoli! The cannoli were filled to order, like any respectable cannoli shop, and their other pastries had sold out by the time we got there in the early evening, so come early if you want to try their other products.