Nature's Health Club: New York's Finger Lakes

April 1, 2011
Filed under Travel

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Hillsides of plump purple grapes vie with eye-popping scenery for my attention, as I meander through the Finger Lakes region of central New York. I’m not in search of the next winery but rather opportunities to experience the outdoors and other attractions.  

Travel Finger Lakes biking along Honeoye LakeThe area has a well-deserved reputation for its wines. Its five official wine trails and more than 100 wineries, most open to the public for sales and sampling, attract legions of visitors every year. Perhaps less known is its reputation as Nature’s Health Club, an apt moniker as it’s a prime area for outdoor recreation from biking, hiking and birding to water sports — no surprise given that the region has 11 glacier-carved lakes and a number of state parks and natural areas.

With only a few days to explore, I had to make a choice: wineries or outdoor activities? A little of both ended up being the perfect mix. I based myself near Canandaigua Lake in Ontario County, home to five finger lakes and a number of RV campgrounds, including the relaxing Bristol Woodlands Campground (585-229-2290) in Bristol Center and the excellent Canandaigua/Rochester KOA (585-398-3582) in Farmington.

It also may explain why, on my first day in the area, I find myself — instead of sipping wine — circling Honeoye Lake by bike, beads of sweat forming on my brow as I pump my legs hard to reach the crest of the next hill. The downhill coast affords teasing glimpses of the bucolic, deep blue lake. The 20-mile ride, one of many popular bike treks in the region, is considered easy. I find it challenging, probably because it’s been years since I last rode a bike.

Later, as I wait at Steamboat Landing in Canandaigua to board the Canandaigua Lady, I watch sailboats and motorized craft — as well as people-powered water bikes and jet skis — whiz by. Less than a century ago it was steamships that traversed this lake. During the steamboat era, which lasted from the early 19th through early 20th century, as many as 19 steam-powered paddle wheelers plied the waters of the 16-mile long lake, transporting both passengers and freight.

Travel Finger Lakes waterbikingToday The Lady, a replica Mississippi-style paddlewheel, recreates that fascinating period of history with narrated cruises telling passengers about the people and places of Canandaigua Lake, including the tiny, colorful boathouses. Packed side by side like sardines on mini-piers off the main City Pier, many of these architectural curiosities were built on the lake more than 150 years ago and have been passed down from one generation to the next.

Wandering through the New York Wine and Culinary Institute, which opened on Canandaigua’s lakeshore in 2006, I learn about the state and region’s agriculture — including its wineries — from a series of well-illustrated exhibits. In a nearby kitchen, a handful of eager amateur cooks listen intently as the instructor gives step-by-step instructions on how to prepare the main course before signaling the class to start. I head to the educational theater to observe a renowned Food Network chef demonstrate how to make chilled pea soup and pasta with a beet and goat cheese sauce.

Visitors can try wines and seasonal dishes prepared with locally produced foods at Taste of New York Restaurant. The on-site restaurant and lounge also features a rotating selection of beers from New York’s 60 microbreweries.

The Finger Lakes Wine Center, located on the grounds of the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion Historical Park, also in Canandaigua, provides another introduction to the wine trails and wineries. My reason, however, for stopping is to tour the 40-room 1887 Queen Anne-style mansion and nine theme gardens including the Japanese garden and moonlight garden with its fragrant white and silver flowers.

Travel Finger Lakes Sonnenberg Gardens MansionSonnenberg, German for “sunny hill,” is the former summer cottage of New York City bank financier Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife, Mary Clark Thompson. It was Mary who designed the gardens, based on observations and ideas from her numerous trips to Asia and Europe. The Conservatory complex, one of the few remaining Lord & Burnham conservatories in the country, was built between 1903 and 1915 and includes greenhouses filled with orchids, cacti and other tropical plants.

The rhythmic clip-clop, clip-clop of horses fills the air as I tour the grounds of Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum, another popular Canandaigua attraction, by horse and carriage. The elegant three-story Federal-style house was the retirement home of Gideon Granger, the U.S. Postmaster General under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Two barns on the 10-acre property are chockablock with vehicles, more than 90 in total, including hand-pulled fire wagons, a horse-drawn hearse and other 19th and early 20th-century carriages. One section showcases the original farm equipment used by the Granger family.

The drive south to Naples takes me through farmland, past grape stands selling the local harvest and jams, jellies and other grape products. State Route 364 follows Canandaigua Lake’s eastern shore before connecting with state Route 245 at Middlesex. Although this route is longer than the more direct state Route 21 to Naples, from Canandaigua through Bristol Springs, that narrow road twists and dips in places like a rollercoaster ride, making it less suitable for RV travel.

The purple fire hydrants are the first sign that I am entering Naples, a storybook village famous for its grape pie and annual grape festival in late September. Artizanns on Main Street offers original artwork and crafts by close to 200 Finger Lakes’ artisans. On weekends a rotating slate of artists, photographers and musicians demonstrate their craft on the front porch through its Artists in Action program.

Ontario County has several good hiking trails including the Ontario Pathways Trail, which was once the Canandaigua Corning Railroad Line. The Canandaigua to Stanley leg stretches 11 miles along the old railroad bed before continuing north to Phelps on a grassy track for nearly nine miles.

I choose an easier walk at the Cumming Nature Center in Naples, a 900-acre environmental education center. The dense forest is filled with warbler song and squirrel chatter as I make my way along the Helen Gordon Trail.

I also go bird-watching at the Mary Frances Bluebird Haven in Victor, northwest of Canandaigua. The trip to Victor takes me north from Naples on state Route 2 through Bristol Springs, where I stop for a wine tasting at Arbor Hill Grapery.

The land for the bluebird sanctuary once belonged to Robert and Mary Frances Butler. Robert donated the property to the town in 1996 in memory of his wife, who loved to watch the bluebirds swoop through the meadows. I also walk the trails at the nearby Ganondagan Historic Site. Its full-size replica of a 17th-century Seneca bark longhouse shows visitors how the Seneca tribe, one of the six nations in the Iroquois Confederacy, lived 300 years ago.

Geneva, a straight shot east from Canandaigua along U.S. Routes 5 and 20, is located on the northernmost end of Seneca Lake, the largest finger lake. Its streets are easy to negotiate by bicycle, and it’s also a good starting point for a bike ride — or drive — around Seneca Lake. The town has a lot of interesting historic architecture including Belhurst Castle, now a restaurant and accommodations; and Rose Hill Mansion, an 1839 Greek Revival home that was once the centerpiece of a working farm.

I end my journey in Clifton Springs to take “the waters” (mineral baths) at The Springs Integrative Medicine Center and Spa at Clifton Springs Hospital. In the 1800s the wealthy traveled to this small community for the Clifton Springs Water Cure developed by Dr. Henry Foster. It was widely believed that a soak in the sulphur springs would cure all ailments.

Although there’s no scientific proof that the treatment works, the soak is quite relaxing, as is my stroll afterward through the Clifton Springs Sanitarium Historic District. Visitors here can view the original sulphur springs, the 19th-century Clifton Springs Sanitarium and Foster Cottage, where the founder of the cure lived. Many of the stores on the Foster Block have original tin ceilings and other architecturally interesting features.

It’s no surprise that a long weekend isn’t nearly enough time to see everything. So before I even left the area, I had already made plans to return again to sample more of what Nature’s Health Club has to offer.

Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, (800) 536-7488, www.fingerlakes.org
Finger Lakes Visitors Connection, (877) 386-4669, www.visitfingerlakes.com 

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