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Checking out New York's Finger Lake Region

With spas all the rage again, Skaneateles offers one that is spanking new and, given its location, somewhat eccentric. The owners' idea was "to create a place where guests could enter a fantasy world," and, certainly for the Finger Lakes, they have succeeded. On a dozen wooded acres they have built an extravagantly detailed version of a French country estate, called Mirbeau Inn & Spa, with pale yellow guest cottages, enclosed gardens, and lily ponds straight out of an Impressionist painting. And onto that, they have grafted a full range of spa facilities.

We spent two rainy days in Mirbeau's embrace, enveloped by a satisfying silence. Our room had a fireplace (albeit a gas fire), an enormous tiled walk-in shower and claw-foot tub, an opulent bed with Frette linens and a down-filled duvet. The only noise came from a pair of tree peeper frogs that courted outside our window. Sabine, who is French and partial to anything even faintly Gallic, pampered herself with a soothing facial and mud bath. Fearful of the treatments, I relaxed with a brandy on the veranda overlooking a copy of the Japanese bridge at Monet's Giverny.

A FEW YEARS BACK SKANEATELES PROMOTED itself as "stress-free." This is not a slogan that would readily apply to Seneca Falls, a once-thriving industrial town 20 miles west. There, as in many other upstate New York communities, the trumpeted economic boom is still distant and the loss of jobs—last year the 155-year-old Seneca Knitting Mills factory closed—has taken its toll, in confidence and pride as much as anything. Many young people, looking for work, aren't waiting around for a miracle in Seneca Falls, though an older generation seems wedded to the notion that the town inspired a cinematic version.

For decades, Seneca Falls has touted itself as the model for Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's 1946 movie of goodness triumphant, It's a Wonderful Life. Town fathers, believing Capra visited Seneca Falls just before he made the movie, put a marker on a local bridge noting the "many similarities" between their town and the fictional version. Near the bridge is Bailey's Ice Cream Shop, decorated with blowups of scenes from the movie, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. The film is shown at the high school every Christmas. As it happens, the "Bedford Falls" claim may be as dicey as the prospect for economic recovery in Seneca Falls. According to Jeanine Basinger, curator of the Capra archives at Wesleyan University, there is no more evidence to support Seneca Falls' boast than there would be to back a claim by her own hometown of Brookings, South Dakota. "I try to be tactful and say 'perhaps.' The truth is, this should stop."

Whether or not it is "Bedford Falls," Seneca Falls was certainly the birthplace of the American women's rights movement. Here Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the seminal Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded, among other things, that women get the right to vote.

The Finger Lakes are, in fact, a mother lode of Americana. At one end, in Auburn, is the home of Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame, and the elegant mansion of William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state. At the other end, in Corning, the Rockwell Museum has the East's largest display of American art with a Western theme, including splendid canvases by Frederic Remington and C. M. Russell, and Indian artifacts. In nearby Hammondsport is a museum devoted to native son and flight pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss.

But the biggest draw is Watkins Glen International, the racetrack a half-hour away, where the lure of celebrity meets an American obsession: cars. Drivers have included the greats—from Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart to Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon—as well as amateur enthusiasts, such as Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, and Jason Priestley of the now defunct Beverly Hills 90210.

Then, of course, there are the region's vineyards.

The Reverend William Bostwick planted the Finger Lakes' first wine grapes in 1829, in his Hammondsport garden. Today there are nearly 11,000 acres of vineyards, and numerous wineries, mostly around Keuka, Cayuga, and Seneca lakes. Until the 1960's the region was best known for sparkling wine, and its pungently sweet table wine produced from native Labrusca varietals such as Concords and Catawbas.

Much has changed, however, with the introduction of classic Vinifera (European) grapes. The number of wineries, many of them "boutique" undertakings, doubled, to more than 70—and growers spoke, justifiably, of a "Vinifera revolution." Whites, especially Rieslings and Chardonnays, won prizes for such wineries as Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars and the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. Reds such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc gained a foothold despite the region's problematic climate. But, with a few exceptions, California reds have little to fear from the Finger Lakes'.

The landscape of wine country is enthralling, and there are stretches along Seneca Lake and above Keuka Lake that can compete with Burgundian vistas. We stayed at the northern tip of Seneca Lake, at what is perhaps the region's most impressive hotel—Geneva on the Lake, a replica of the Lancellotti Villa outside Rome. It was completed in 1914 by Byron Nester, an architecture buff who was captivated by the Italian original.

Nearby, around the well-preserved town of Penn Yan, the landscape is dominated by dairy farms with towering silos. Many of the farms have been bought up in the last 20 years by Mennonites who wanted more or cheaper land than they could find in eastern Pennsylvania. If the insular, black-clad Mennonites caused resentment among locals when they first arrived, they are now well established. A supermarket in Penn Yan even erected a shelter for the Mennonites' horse-drawn carriages.

The economy of the modest, working-class village is centered in what is claimed to be the world's largest buckwheat processor, Birkett Mills. The mill demonstrated its prowess (or something) in 1987 when it fried the largest buckwheat pancake up to that time—a little more than 28 feet across. Maybe Hillary Clinton spied the pan when she campaigned in Penn Yan in April; she was the first senatorial candidate many folks here could remember seeing in the flesh.

WE WOUND UP OUR SOJOURN IN the Finger Lakes at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. I wanted to show Sabine something special, and we found it under a cluster of white oaks. It was a plain granite stone, in a family plot, and engraved on it was SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS, NOVEMBER 30 1835-APRIL 21 1910. In bolder letters was the name by which Clemens was better known: MARK TWAIN.

Twain witnessed any number of political seasons in this corner of the Finger Lakes, and it's surely just as well for Clinton and her opponent, Rick Lazio, that he's not around to size them up. His view of politicians was succinctly summarized in 1897 when he wrote: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

Try winning that vote.

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