There’s a certain magic in the wine trails of the Finger Lakes. Here, traffic slows down not because of the volume of vehicles, but to accommodate a procession of Amish or Mennonite carriages, deer darting into the road or drivers suddenly mesmerized by the breathtaking scenery. And even when the population swells on long summer days and under fall foliage, there’s a calm and hospitality to this easygoing, unpretentious wine country.
The Finger Lakes are easily recognized on a map of western upstate New York as 11 vertical bodies of water that rake the terrain like a witch’s fingers. With close to 100 wineries framing the region’s three main lakes—Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga—the Finger Lakes is New York’s largest wine-producing area.
But wine is just an excuse to get you here. An easy 4–5 hour drive from Boston, Philadelphia or New York City, the Finger Lakes region offers a host of year-round activities and attractions for nature lovers, art hounds, foodies and more, all without a lot of fuss or expense.
Embarking on a road trip with the tykes can be tough, but the Finger Lakes has you covered, with its abundant outdoor attractions, easygoing locals and budget-friendly lodgings.
Hiking in Watkins Glen State Park
A visit to the Finger Lakes wouldn’t be complete without a hike along one of North America’s most breathtaking gorges. Watkins Glen State Park’s main appeal is an easily accessible two-mile trail through a narrow gorge carved out by ice age glaciers. From start to finish, the trail passes over and under a whopping 19 waterfalls. The trails and camp sites are open from mid-May to early November and the park offers areas for fishing, swimming, hunting and cross-country skiing.
Racing at Watkins Glen International
For racing fans, Watkins Glen International is legendary for its annual NASCAR and U.S. Vintage Grand Prix racing events. For kids, the big draw is the Thunder Road Tour. On selected weekends from May through October, kids can experience the tracks in the family car with Mom or Dad as driver, or ride an official pace car through the course’s loops, hills and ess turns. Watkins Glen allows camping for most big events, and this summer the NASCAR Sprint Cup from August 11–14 will feature a specially designated family zone to pitch a tent or park a camper with extra security and enforced quiet hours. Watch all of the racing action at the Family Grandstand, a smoke- and alcohol-free area complete with carnival games and other children’s programming.
Ice cream at the Cayuga Lake Creamery
This family-run roadside creamery near Watkins Glen offers house-made, premium ice cream with a dizzying array of flavors highlighting the seasons and, wherever possible, featuring local ingredients. Kids will get a kick out of maple bacon ice cream chock full of caramelized bacon and local maple syrup. Adults can indulge in an assortment of fruit sorbets infused with Riesling and Merlot from nearby wineries.
Corning Museum of Glass
Taking the kids to a museum full of glass may seem harrowing, but at the Corning Museum of Glass, it’s a fun, safe, hands-on experience. Beyond the museum’s numerous exhibits on the art and science of glass, there are interactive demonstrations and workshops for every age—assisting master glassblowers to transform molten lava into art, making your own glass beads and ornaments or smashing sheets of glass in a dramatic (yet safe) glass-breaking demonstration. Admission is free for kids and teens.
Finger Lakes Premier Properties
Looking for reasonably priced, private accommodations but don’t want to camp? Finger Lakes Premier Properties offers a wide variety of waterfrontvacation home rentals, located on all of the major lakes. From a cozy cabin for three to a luxury compound with a hot tub and firepit, you’ll find something to accommodate your entire family (pets included). Lease terms vary by the week, the month or just a few days, depending on the season.
From misty walks along a waterfall to impromptu wine and cheese picnics on a vineyard’s edge, it doesn’t take much activity for the spellbinding beauty and languid feel of the Finger Lakes to sweep you away. Here’s a selection of unpretentious yet sophisticated destinations for two, enough to keep the embers burning all weekend long.
Exploring the art in wine at Bloomer Creek Vineyard
Winemaker Kim Engle and his wife, Debra Bermingham, an acclaimed contemporary artist, merged their passions for wine and art to create Bloomer Creek Vineyard, a light-filled barn house winery and gallery overlooking Seneca Lake. The gallery, expertly curated by Bermingham, features exhibitions of artwork from internationally recognized artists. Take time to contemplate while sipping a glass of Engle’s crisp, orange peel-hinted Riesling or his intoxicatingly perfumed Gewürztraminer.
Ravines Wine Cellar—a hedonist’s delight
A visit to Ravines Wine Cellar on Keuka Lake promises an indulgent mix of fine wines and irresistible treats. A native of Southern France hailing from generations of winemakers, owner/winemaker Morten Hallgren is known for his devotion to dry, Old World-style wines and produces excellent Rieslings, Cabernet Francs and rosés. This April, his wife, Lisa, and her brother, Chef Abel Gonzalez, will debut the Ravinous Kitchen, offering locally sourced, homemade quiches, sandwiches and a decadent chocolate bar pairing Ravines wines with Hedonist Artisan Chocolates.
Spa day for two at Belhurst Castle
Built in the late 19th century, historic Belhurst Castle has served as a private estate, speakeasy, casino and more. Now it’s a beautifully restored resort, and you can book a room for the night, or just enjoy a couple’s spa day. The Romance Ritual at the Isabella Spa features more than two hours of side-by-side massage, aromatherapy and body treatments for two. Soak up a sunset view of Seneca Lake afterwards, with a glass of Belhurst’s own wine by the cozy patio fire pit or at the candlelit bar.
Wine and dine at Dano’s on Seneca
When it’s time for dinner, the sleek, sexy ambiance of Dano’s on Seneca is the perfect place to set the mood. Despite its modern exterior, Dano’s is inspired by the traditions of the Viennese heuriger, a rustic wine tavern serving new vintage wines with simple Austrian comfort foods. Owners Dano Hutnik and Karen Gilman craft an array of charcuterie—including a delicate seafood sausage draped with a creamy Rkatsiteli wine sauce—as well as an assortment of smoked fish, spreads, salads and pastries.
Retreat in luxury at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
This hotel is a quiet refuge of comfort and luxury in the very center of Finger Lakes activity. Overlooking a bustling marina on Seneca Lake, the hotel is just steps from the gorges of Watkins Glen State Park, the race track and wineries. The luxurious rooms are spacious, pristine and offer top-of-the-line amenities—linens so plush they’re almost sinful, well-appointed spa bathrooms, oversized flat-screen TVs and fully equipped kitchenettes.
With a climate and terrain reminiscent of the Mosel, the Finger Lakes region affords wineries a chance to produce some of America’s most elegant, aromatic Rieslings, as well as delicious Cabernet Francs, Gewürztraminers and sparkling wines. There’s no better way to learn about winemaking than witnessing it first hand—walking the vineyards, touring tank rooms and meeting the people who make it all happen.
While there are too many quality producers to visit in a single trip, this list is a good start. Schedule private winery tours, which are offered by most wineries, well in advance—especially during peak seasons—and avoid long drives between stops by organizing your itinerary by lake.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars
To understand the genesis of fine winemaking in the region using European Vitis vinifera grapes, make a pilgrimage to Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars near Keuka Lake. Dr. Frank’s produces some of America’s best Rieslings, but their methode Champenoise sparklers and quirky varieties like Rkatsiteli (an ancient Georgian grape) and Grüner Veltliner are also not to be missed. Though they do not offer winery tours, the tasting room is open year-round.
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
Born in the Mosel to a generations-old winemaking family, Hermann J. Wiemer immigrated to New York in the early 1970s and knew he could produce elegant, complex, German-style Rieslings in the Finger Lakes. The Seneca Lake winery, now operated by Wiemer’s longtime assistant, Fred Merwath, and partner, Oskar Bynke, boasts a minimalist tasting room—a required stop for any diehard Riesling lover.
Known for his unconventionally trellised grape vines, late harvests and adamant views on prolonged bottle aging, Steve Shaw of Shaw Vineyard on Seneca Lake is a bit of a mad scientist among top Finger Lakes producers. An area native producing exceptional Rieslings and a surprising Sauvignon Blanc, Shaw owes his initial wine education to long chats with Dr. Konstantin Frank.
Sheldrake Point Winery and Simply Red Bistro
Plan a visit to Sheldrake Point Winery on Cayuga Lake around lunchtime—you won’t want to miss Simply Red Bistro. Chef Samantha Buyskes-Izzo, a competitor on Food Network’s Chopped, makes a “honey stung” fried chicken so crisp, it practically shatters in your mouth. For dessert, linger over a golden, honey-kissed glass of Sheldrake Point’s Late Harvest Riesling along with a tangy Cayuga Blue cheese from Lively Run Goat Dairy.
Glenora Wine Cellars
Travelers arriving at night will be astounded by morning’s first glimpse from the Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars. Each guestroom looks out onto stately vineyards sloping toward Seneca Lake. Secure a spot in advance for one of winemaker Steve DiFrancesco’s seminars, such as a recent workshop on dosage-ing your own sparkling wine; and dine at Veraisons, where a recent breakfast featured Chef Orlando Rodriguez’s perfectly poached eggs (from local Mennonite farmers) over a buttery polenta cake speckled with Andouille sausage and charred tomato salsa.
For more epicurean delicacies from the Finger Lakes, click here.