How do you transform sleepy lake country into the next wave in rural chic?Start with a presidential visit, add a senate campaign, and spiff up your waterfront digs. M. A. Farber checks out New York's newly hip Finger Lakes

By M. Farber
January 26, 2011
Ericka McConnell

There is nothing that makes life sweeter, nothing that gives more encouragement in the middle of hard work, than to spend a few days in Skaneateles.
—H. B. Dodge, editor, Skaneateles Democrat, May 15, 1879

You could write off H. B. Dodge as just another small-town booster, except that he may have been onto something. As was much noticed last September, the president of the United States, no stranger to hard work, ended his summer vacation by spending "a few days in Skaneateles"—in the left auricle of the heart-shaped Finger Lakes region of central New York State. Bill Clinton brought Hillary and Chelsea and Buddy, all but upending this lakeside village of 2,700 and festooning it with patriotic bunting and banners.

Skaneateles—pronounced "skan-ee-at-luss"—had never been graced by a sitting president, and, even in this bastion of conservative Republicanism, Bill Clinton was the real thing. Scandalously real for Doug Clark, the grizzled owner of a Skaneateles fish-fry restaurant, who blew up a storm with his nationally publicized vow not to serve a president who had "lied" to him about Monica Lewinsky. Clinton ate elsewhere. But awesomely real for 17-year-old shop clerk Monica Marsden, who served Bill and Hillary tea freezes and a concoction of French vanilla decaf, cream, and maple syrup. "Not every day the president comes to your town," said this Monica. Even the Secret Service wowed the villagers. "It's the stuff of legend," gushed Sarah Wiles, former president of the chamber of commerce and a great-granddaughter of Gustav Stickley, a seminal figure of the American Arts and Crafts movement who lived in Syracuse at the height of his career.

Clinton-wise, it's not over. For months, senatorial candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has made the Finger Lakes and other parts of upstate New York a prime target in her quest for votes. In a mantra recited on farms, in factories, and at town meetings, Hillary aligns herself with the people who haven't been lifted up by the good times of her husband's administration. She is the "candidate for working folk," she says; the champion of these "forgotten New Yorkers."

The consensus is that the Clintons' presence has finally put the Finger Lakes region—little known but within a day's drive of tens of millions of people in the eastern United States and Canada—"on the map." Not everyone is happy about that. It's as though a secret had been slipped to an indiscriminate audience. And if some here welcome prospects for a surge in tourism, others perceive yet another threat to their treasured tranquillity. Retirees from Kodak and Xerox and Corning Glass like it the way it is, explains Bob Sundell, a partner in Friends of the Finger Lakes: "They don't want all those strange people around here cluttering up the lakes and making it harder to get to the grocery store."

WELL BEFORE IMPROVED ROADS, IN FACT well before cars, determined visitors found their way to the Finger Lakes by trains that connected with lake steamboats. Often, they were families in search of fishing and sailing, fall foliage and hunting, or skiing and skating. The crowd that rented summer cottages on the lakes still comes, and it's still family-oriented. But today it has been joined by a new set of home-buyers, many from congested suburbs, seeking a bygone rusticity, the Rockwellian chic history-rich small-town America. "People are looking for a quieter, simpler time, a place where you can just sit on the lawn on Friday night," said Linda Roche, a Skaneateles real estate broker whose last three clients to buy on the lake previously owned places in the Hamptons.

"We used to laugh about how only old people go to the lakes," remarked Regina Hannon, a former Long Islander whose Skaneateles home was once part of the Underground Railroad. "But I love it here—for everything."

TO SOME, THE PRECISE BOUNDARIES of the Finger Lakes are a fighting issue. As defined by the Finger Lakes Association (founded in 1919), the region embraces nearly 9,000 square miles and 11 slender lakes spanning 14 counties, from Lake Ontario in the north to the Pennsylvania line in the south, from Syracuse in the east to Rochester in the west. But usually it's considered to comprise the swath of waters and woods, pastures and vineyards and towns, around the six major lakes that gave the region its name and bucolic character.

My wife, Sabine, and I stayed at the decidedly cozy Sherwood Inn, originally a tavern. Some of the rooms have canopy beds and polished wood floors. Ours also had a view over Skaneateles Lake—the highest, bluest, and clearest of the major Finger Lakes and among the cleanest in the country. The village itself, with its Greek Revival and Victorian houses, had an air of contentment but had managed to escape the sterility that often cloaks recently gentrified towns.

The family farms that remain are for growing corn and soybeans and cabbage, no longer for the prickly teasels once used to raise the nap on woolen cloth. Fast-food outlets and malls aren't welcome (you can find them elsewhere in the Finger Lakes). The only drive-through is at a bank, and neon signs have been banned. Yet the Main Street- style markets have, predictably, been replaced by antiques shops and boutiques, and restaurants serving grilled salmon with mustard beurre blanc.

Naturally, we dropped by Doug's Fish Fry for some clams and frogs' legs and what turned out to be the best onion rings I've ever had. On the wall was a photo of Alec Baldwin, whose mother lives nearby, and whose occasional strolls through town with his wife, Kim Basinger, are a hit. We, however, were here to see the man whose vow not to serve Bill Clinton had prompted so much ink. We found him at the cash register, wearing his trademark blue cap and blue polo shirt. His eyes were blue, too. He wasn't sorry, he told us, for what he'd said. He had lost a few customers, but people had stopped by from all over to shake his hand. Would he do it again?He wasn't sure. Maybe if Clinton walked in, he'd "just walk out the back door and have a beer."

WE CROSSED SKANEATELES LAKE ABOARD the mailboat, a 48-foot mahogany craft operated by Mid-Lakes Navigation under contract to the U.S. postal system. This is one of the last water routes for mail delivery in the country, and tourists can go along for the ride. Tooting a horn, Captain Rick Kelly nestled the boat close to the docks, where residents exchanged greetings as the mail was handed off to them.

Some of the lakeside houses, usually those that close for the winter, are called camps or cottages. That's not quite a fit description for the stone building attributed to Stanford White, with 13 working fireplaces, or the towering, pillared white mansion that belonged to a Roosevelt. I had heard of the former owner of one place, Charles Revson, founder of the Revlon cosmetics empire, but not of a current resident, Tim Green, lately of the Atlanta Falcons. I could identify Millard Fillmore, whose boyhood home was near the southern end of the lake and who became president on the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, but had never heard of Dr. W. C. Thomas, who ran a lakeshore hotel and water-cure spa in the 19th century and lived to be 107. Maybe, like editor Dodge, he was onto something.

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.

The Facts

No one has written more lovingly about the Finger Lakes than Arch Merrill in Slim Fingers Beckon. This was his "tip to tourists" in 1951: "If your fancy runs to night life, strip teasers, Coney Islandish hubbub, glitter, garishness and a wild and woolly time, you won't care much for Skaneateles, N. Y." In one sentence Merrill had . . . well, he had put his finger on it, perhaps for all time.

From New York City, it's about a five-hour trip to the Finger Lakes via I-90, I-81, or Route 17. Or you can fly into Syracuse-Hancock International Airport, which is just 20 miles north of the city on Route 20.

Where to Stay
Sherwood Inn 26 W. Genesee St., Skaneateles; 800/374-3796 or 315/685-3405, fax 315/685-8983; doubles from $85; dinner for two $60. The enclosed summer porch is perfect for the sort of flirtations that inspired The Summer of '42.
Mirbeau Inn & Spa 851 W. Genesee St., Skaneateles; 877/647-2328 or 315/685-5006, fax 315/685-5150; doubles from $295; dinner for two $80. The food is exceptional, and only as rich as your waistline can reasonably bear.
Geneva on the Lake 1001 Lochland Rd., Geneva; 800/343-6382 or 315/789-7190, fax 315/789-0322; suites from $145 (three-night minimum stay); dinner for two $90. A 70-foot pool means you don't have to brave the icy lake waters.

What to See
Corning Museum of Glass 1 Museum Way, Corning; 607/974-8271. Adjacent to the Steuben factory, the sleek museum was transformed in recent years at a cost of $65 million, and does a remarkable job of capturing both the science and the art of glass.
Rockwell Museum 111 Cedar St., Corning; 607/937-5386. Great Western landscapes, a collection of firearms, and Indian artifacts.
Watkins Glen International 2796 County Rte. 16, Watkins Glen; 607/535-2486. This year the Zippo US Vintage Grand Prix is held the weekend of September 8.
Women's Rights National Historic Park 136 Fall St., Seneca Falls; 315/568-0024. Tours of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's home and the site of the first Women's Rights Convention.

Where to Eat
Doug's Fish Fry 8 Jordan St., Skaneateles; 315/685-3288; lunch for two $15, no credit cards.
The Krebs 53 W. Genesee St., Skaneateles; 315/685-5714; dinner for two $80. This 102-year-old restaurant hasn't changed its classic American menu of prime rib and pan-fried chicken since it opened in 1898.
Rosalie's Cucina 841 W. Genesee St., Skaneateles; 315/685-2200; dinner for two $50. Sets the standard for Tuscan cooking in the area. Right next to the Mirbeau Inn.
London Underground 69 E. Market St., Corning; 607/962-2345; dinner for two $75. Sophisticated fare in a busy multilevel restaurant, with eighties-style exposed brick.
Crossing Diner 5107 Rte. 14, Lakemont; 607/243-5454; lunch for two $10. A local hangout open for breakfast and lunch only.

Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars 9749 Middle Rd., Hammondsport; 800/320-0735 or 607/868-4884.
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard 3962 Rte. 14, Dundee; 800/371-7971 or 607/243-7971.

What to Read
Persons, Places, and Things in the Finger Lakes Region by Emerson Klees (Friends of the Finger Lakes Publishing). An indispensable guide filled with historical facts, practical information, and anecdotes. Klees is also the author of a guide to the region's wineries.

Don't Miss
The 215-foot Taughannock Falls in the 1,000-acre state park near Watkins Glen. Admittedly, it's not Niagara, but it is 50 feet higher.