Published February 09, 2016
There’s a distinct homey feeling to the region around New York’s Finger Lakes.
Located more than 250 miles to the northeast of Manhattan, the Finger Lakes are the quintessence of upstate New York beauty. Filled with charming small towns and warm, inviting people, the Finger Lakes don’t feel like the popular tourist destination that they are. Instead, they feel like a place where you can effortlessly slip into the rhythms of daily life and local culture.
That’s not to say that the Finger Lakes region isn’t an extraordinary place, because it is. The area consists of 11 long, narrow lakes that run roughly parallel to each other, carved out by glacial movement millennia ago. This geological development made the area very fertile, and today the region is recognized as a hot spot for agriculture, wine and food. There are 75 craft breweries and 200 wineries in the Finger Lakes, making it the largest wine-producing region in the country after California’s Napa Valley.
I spent four days exploring the cities and towns around the Finger Lakes last fall. In addition to great flavors, I discovered a variety of historic sites, fascinating museums, cultural attractions and more that will help groups have a great time as they travel through the area.
A Foodie Find
At the north end of the 19-mile Lake Canandaigua, the city of Canandaigua enjoys a beautiful natural setting. It is also one of the culinary hot spots of the Finger Lakes thanks in large part to the New York Wine and Culinary Center.
Opened nine years ago, this nonprofit center was established to highlight the food, wine and produce of the Empire State. It features a tasting room with New York wines, a “culinary boutique” that sells state food products and a hands-on kitchen where visitors can learn to create memorable dishes with local ingredients.
The center can arrange private, chef-led classes for groups of up to 30 people.
“The professional chef stays with them the whole time,” said event sales director Karen Taft. “It can be anything from knife skills to pasta-making, always highlighting New York products.”
Group experiences usually last about two and a half hours, with a meal at the end in the demonstration kitchen or the gourmet bistro overlooking the lake.
In nearby Geneva, food lovers will enjoy a tour of the production facilities at Red Jacket Orchards, a family-owned farm that makes organic, cold-pressed apple and other fruit juices.
Factory tours highlight the pressing and bottling processes and introduce visitors to the incredible smell of sweet, fresh fruit juice. Groups can sample the juices and many other local goods at the on-site farm stand.
The area around Canandaigua and Ontario County offers visitors plenty of ways to burn off those calories, too. A favorite is Bristol Mountain Resort. Popular as a ski destination during the winter, the resort also has an aerial adventure park with nine courses and 130 tree-to-tree challenge elements. The resort recently debuted its newest attraction: a zip line course that features seven zip rides that range in length from 250 to 1,500 feet.
For a tamer experience, groups should be sure to stop in at the Seneca Art and Culture Center at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. This new museum tells the story of the area’s native Seneca nation and features a re-created longhouse, as well as an excellent gift shop selling local artwork.
Wine and Glass
There are many places throughout the Finger Lakes region to taste wine, but some of the most interesting are found in Steuben County. Bully Hill Vineyards, near Hammondsport, is a great example.
Set high on a bluff overlooking Keuka Lake, Bully Hill is one of the area’s largest wineries and wine attractions. The family-owned organization has been making wine since 1878 and is now run by the fifth generation.
Bully Hill produces 37 different wines. Groups can take a 90-minute tour that includes an overview of the production process and tastings of some of the signature wines. Along the way, group members learn about some of the local history and industry politics the family has seen throughout the generations. Bully Hill also has the state’s first wine museum, which walks visitors through the family’s history and features artifacts such as an original Finger Lakes wine press and a collection of presidential wine glasses.
Also in Hammondsport is Pleasant Valley Wine Company, a large wine producer based in a set of historic buildings that have been used to make wine since 1880. The winery made its name as the producer of Great Western Champagne, which was long considered the most prestigious sparkling wine in the country.
Eight of the winery’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and winery tours take groups to see the architecture, furnishings and decor of several of these unique structures. Groups can also peruse museum exhibits in the large visitors center. Tasting experiences at the end of the tour feature Great Western as well as numerous other table and dessert wines.
In Corning, a pair of distinctive museums await culture lovers. Named for local merchants who began its collection, the Rockwell Museum showcases American art in the former City Hall building downtown. Visitors will find large holdings in Western art and Native American art, with works by the likes of Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, John James Audubon, Andrew Wyeth and other art luminaries.
Perhaps the most famous attraction in Corning is the Corning Museum of Glass, the world’s definitive glass museum. This first-class institute details 4,000 years of glass history with more than 11,000 pieces of glass on display.
Group tours of the museum usually last about an hour and a half. During that time, participants can see millennia-old glass from Rome and Egypt in the historic wing; learn about the science of Pyrex, bottles and fiber optics in the Innovations in Glass gallery; and take in gorgeous, large-scale glass artwork in the 26,000-square-foot contemporary gallery that opened in 2015.
Among favorite group experiences at the museum are live glass demonstrations. These programs take place in a variety of places throughout the museum, but the main venue is the Amphitheater Hot Shop, where visitors can see artists sculpting molten glass in the world’s finest glassblowing studio.
The museum’s enormous gift shop is also a popular stop for groups.
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