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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Water and wine in the Finger Lakes


By Stu Gallagher, courtesy Finger Lakes Wine Country


Collectively, the skinny string of lakes that stretch across New York State’s middle are called the Finger Lakes. They are two hands’ worth of lakes plus one, 11 in all, in a not-quite-tidy row. About 100 miles separate the furthest to the east, Otisco, from the furthest to the west, Conesus.

The lakes run north to south, so narrow you can see the eastern shore from the western shore of any of them, including the largest, Seneca, which is about 3.5 miles at its widest point. Seneca and Cayuga, the two longest lakes, stretch about 40 miles.

In the Finger Lakes, wineries, about 100 in all, and water seem to be everywhere.

“There’s always a body of water — a lake, a stream, a waterfall. You see them as you are just driving by,” said Ally Mead, director of sales and development at the Mirbeau Inn and Spa in Skaneateles. “The rolling hills, the vineyards. It is pretty magical and it helps ground you.”

The lakes and lands around them add up to a region “about as large as Vermont and New Hampshire,” said Bruce Stoll, director, Ithaca/Tompkins CVB.

Towns are small; roads are two-lane. No one ever built a bridge across a single one of the Finger Lakes, so cars sidle around them. Where there are no towns, there are farms and wineries.
From the air, the lakes look like a hungry man’s fingers. But at ground level, they seem more like claw marks, blue scars torn into the earth by great glaciers.

The claws seem to have dug in on the lakes’ north ends, leaving level shorelines for villages like Skaneateles and Canandaigua. At the lakes’ south ends, ground that was dragged along piled up, giving towns like Ithaca and Watkins Glen towering hillsides above lake-level downtowns.

There’s nothing mega in the Finger Lakes. Lakeside inns and hotels that qualify as boutique are easy retreats for businesses, association and government groups from Rochester, Sycracuse and even Buffalo and Albany.

Here are four towns to check out.

At the south end of Cuyaga Lake, Ithaca is home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College. Both campuses sit high above downtown, and a big view of the lake beyond is a reward for a long climb to campus.

Unlike many of its peers, downtown Ithaca does not adjoin the lakefront. The best places to enjoy the water near downtown are at it farmers market, a covered pavilion where 150 farmers set up shop, and Cass Park, on the lake’s west shore, and Stewart Park, on the east shore. Cass Park proves a perfect place to watch a regional Dragonboat races in mid-July, one of many sporting competitions that are drawn to the area’s waterways.

Although it is not on the lake, downtown Ithaca is pretty and packed with life. It has hung on to its 1970s-era pedestrian mall; in fact, Ithaca has spent the better part of two years improving its Commons, as the mall is called, and in August, the project is expected to be completed.

The original design “was very industrial, with lots of concrete,” said Stoff. “Now with planning and urban design, it will be warmer, softer and a more human scale.”

Seating, new trees and other plantings and areas designed for performances and festivals will be among its features.

Although downtown is bursting with restaurants and shops, it is not brimming with meeting space. Ithaca’s newest hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn, has 104 guest rooms but only 1,200 square feet of meeting space after it turned ground-level meeting rooms into retail shops.

Downtown’s other hotel, the Holiday Inn Ithaca Downtown, has 3,000 square feet of meeting space now, but will soon begin construction on a convention center that will give the hotel 15,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 6,000-square-foot ballroom, and a 10-story guest room tower, for a total of 174 guest rooms. The hotel will end its agreement with Holiday Inn and become an independent property, the Hotel Ithaca. The project should be completed in 2016.

Hotel owner, Buffalo’s Hart Hotels, apparently does see that there is a need for more meeting space, a lesson perhaps learned from the success of its Harbor Hotel in nearby Watkins Glen.

Also expected to be open in 2016 is the Marriott Downtown Ithaca. Work should begin this spring on the 159-room hotel at the top of the Commons; it will have about 1,500 square feet of meeting space.

The hotel that today is most active in the meeting business is high above downtown, deep in the Cornell campus.

Compared to many of the other buildings near it, the Statler Hotel is modern, built in the 1980s on the footprint of the 1950s-era Statler Inn. A complete renovation of its 153 guest rooms was done in 2009.

Guests know they are at Cornell at every turn. They can walk across campus to see art in the school’s museum or hear the sounds of a roaring waterfall that pours through a gorge on the campus’ edge.

The hotel worked with the university’s esteemed photography department to select photos for guest rooms and other areas that give guests a ‘then and now look” at campus. Historic photo of buildings, for example, are positioned next to the building as it now appears. An alumna’s paintings brighten some public areas.

With access to 16,000 square feet of meeting space and additional space when students are away during the summer, the Statler attracts state, regional and even some small national meetings.