This Northeastern Wonderland Is So Much More Than Its Famous Lakes

There are also 100 vineyards and a billion waterfalls.

So named—presumably by somebody with a fundamental misunderstanding of human anatomy—for the 11 long, crooked lakes that dot its densely forested landscape, Central New York’s Finger Lakes region is a pure distillation of New York’s natural allure and laid-back rural lifestyle. But if you think the region is all small-town charm, lazy days at the lake, and outdated The Office references, you can count yourself as one of the many, many people who are sleeping on this paradisal land hiding in plain sight. 

Carved by ancient glaciers, the Finger Lakes are boat-friendly touchstones of a region overflowing with incredible nature. Here, sweeping gorges butt up against twee lake towns seemingly untouched by time. More than 100 wineries pull their wares from fertile soil, and dozens and dozens of waterfalls provide a mystical backdrop to hikes. You’ll find old-school inns and boutique hotels, rustic camping and comfortable clamping. And here, choosing your own adventure can mean everything from sipping wine on a dockside to soaring in the clouds. Back on the ground, you’ll be able to experience welcome bars and restaurants among the Ivy Leaguers, hippies, artists, and nature lovers who call the place home... and maybe contemplate a day when you can do the same. Here's how to do the Finger Lakes right. 

Skaneateles Lake | Matt Champlin / moment / getty images

Get the ultimate lake-town experience in Skaneateles

Skaneateles is a concentrated shot of everything that makes this region so special. In this town of less than 8,000, you can fully immerse yourself in the small-town vibes while enjoying a the lake life. Rent a boat and tubing supplies at Skaneateles Marina for a high-speed tour of the namesake lake before sauntering around for some requisite boutique window shopping. Then prepare to indulge.  

Doug’s Fish Fry is the local, state fair-approved institution offering batter-dipped classics and lobster rolls, though if you leave without consuming an obscene amount of the signature honey curry dipping sauce, you’ve done something wrong. Follow it up with chocolate snails (just go with it) at impossibly adorable Vermont Green Mountain Specialty Company. And if you’re here during the holidays, go full Bob Cratchit with Dickens Christmas, a time-warp celebration featuring chestnuts, carolers, and perhaps the soothsaying ghost of your dead business partners. 

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Watkins Glen State Park | Mark Foard / EyeEm / getty images

Waterfalls, lakes, and more waterfalls

The 11 lakes that give this region its name are a huge draw, but this is also home to a ridiculous wealth of waterfalls. Watkins Glen State Park alone has 19 of them. Taughannock Falls in Ithaca are near mystical in their beauty, especially when the surrounding rock formations are crystallized and sporting drooping icicles. During the summer months, you can find natural swimming holes right next to waterfalls at Buttermilk Falls State Park and Robert H. Treman State Park. They just keep going and going
Camping is definitely an option all across the region, with prime spots at Cayuga Lake State Park in Seneca Falls, Cayuga Lake State Park & Campground in Watkins Glen, and Taughannock Falls State Park. But if sleeping on a cold, dirty ground isn’t your thing, Firelight Camps offers up clutch glamping options. Here you can hike, fish, swim, and explore while still ending the night with a hot, steamy shower in a comfortable bed within a private safari-style tent. They source local products for breakfast and each guest gets a s'mores kit with scratch-made ingredients. Hell, there’s even a bar. 
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Skaneateles Lake | Ben Girardi / Aurora Photos / getty images

Find adventure on land, sea, and air

If floating around a lake on a kayak or strolling a beachside forest is your thing, you’ve got 11 very good options to keep you interested, ready to accommodate boats of all speeds. But if you’re looking to get your blood pumping, head to Elmira. South of Seneca Lake, it was once Mark Twain’ summer home. But it’s also the HQ of Harris Hill Soaring Corporation, which will tow you by plane in a sky-bound glider then release you to soar like a paper plane over the lake. 
Meanwhile, in Cortland (more on that later), the pilots at 7:47 Aviation will straight-up teach you to fly a plane from Cortland to Skaneateles, taking in views of the whole region along the way. Closer to the ground, Greek Peak Mountain Resort offers outstanding fall-color views from the vantage of ziplines. Once you’re done with that, zoom downhill on the mountain coaster, then settle in for a drive-in movie with a beautiful mountain backdrop down below. 
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Lake Seneca pier | Peter Unger

Explore the towns of Corning and Watkins Glen

Corning and Watkins Glen are only about  30 minutes apart, making them an ideal one-two punch to visit. Tiny Corning is perhaps best known for the Corning Museum of Glass, a deep dive into 3,500 years of translucent history that includes huge displays and fiery blowing demonstrations. The town is also home to the Gaffer District, a highly walkable downtown stretch loaded with boutiques, destination-worthy restaurants, and enough confectionaries to merit its own Chocolate Trail.  
While Corning embraces its cozy-chic side, Watkins Glen is all about nature. Here you’ll be strolling through the main strip’s antique shops then — BAM! — you’re at the entrance to the park hiding a huge gorge. Take in views from the water at the iconic Seneca Harbor Station or book a historic tour with Captain Bill’s Boat Tours. Finish it all off with a wood-fired, honey-drizzle margarita pie at Colonial Inn & Creamery, an old-school boarding house with 32 serious new-school flavors of ice cream.

Finger Lakes Wine Country

Raise a glass in one of America’s most overlooked wine regions

There are many benefits to the Finger Lakes’ waterways, but they reach well beyond pontoon enthusiasts and mosquito breeders. In fact, the unique geography here is ideal for vineyards. There are more than 100 wineries in the region, which, paired with the laid-back vibe and rustic landscape, makes the Finger Lakes a much more accessible and relaxed cousin to its bougier counterparts. 

Finding the right spot for you is a matter of trial and minimal error (this guide helps!), but the town of Penn Yan’s CK Cellars is a fantastic place to start: Here you’ll score the property’s own Torrey Ridge Winery and Rooster Hill Vineyards in addition to honey mead from Earle Estates and boozy cider from Worthog. Over in Burdett, J.R. Dill Winery in Burdett specializes in riesling, while Watkins Glen’s Lakewood Vineyard is heralded for its dry and fruity Bubbly Candeo. Regardless of where you end up, you’re bound to discover your new go-to bottle… likely at a fraction of what you’d spend elsewhere.

Spiroview Inc / shutterstock

Step out of time—and into a haunted castle—in Geneva

Geneva’s one of those dreamy New York destinations that can really make you feel like you’ve wandered onto some sort of parallel continent. One minute, you’re strolling along the shores of Seneca Lake State Park, the next you’re cruising for wine and cheese in a blissed-out VW bus on a Winewagen Tour. Stop to see the historic pastel row houses—often referred to as Rainbow Row—along South Main Street before popping into a few shops like chic Stomping Grounds or the old-school Geneva Antique Co-Op. Then grab lunch at Main Street’s timelessly cozy Beef & Brew (plan on steamed clams, pray for beer-cheese soup). After a couple pints, you might be a little surprised to find yourself headed to a legit castle. 

Belhurst Castle and Winery is packed to the ramparts with award-winning wines, including a bubbly rose called Isabella. That delectable drink is named after the ghost of an opera singer, but also refers to the lady in white who supposedly haunts the castle grounds. Book a room and they’ll give you a skeleton key—you’ll need it to access a latch door within the castle walls containing a secret wine spigot. 

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Moosewood Restaurant

Hike and eat your way through Ithaca

Perhaps the most famous and bustling of the Finger Lakes towns, Ithaca is beloved for its wealth of nearby waterfalls, in addition to other stunning landscapes, including a six-story treehouse called Treetops behind the Cayuga Nature Center. There’s also the matter of one of America’s most beautiful Ivy League campuses at Cornell, where the dulcet sounds of Here Comes Treble hang endlessly in the wind.

The town itself is full of character, quirks, and next-level chill. You’ll find the expected small bookshops and libraries that would give Belle envy, while the food scene is anything but expected. Moosewood is making a splash with its unique vegan options; you’ll find Italian delicacies both upscale (Gola Osteria and wood-fired (Ciao!); and regional farm-to-table fare at the converted train station housing Agava. For a real taste of Ithaca, though, plan to hit the Farmers Market for a globe-spanning dive into Vietnamese, Cuban, Thai, Japanese, Tibetan, Hungarian, and other cuisines. Follow it all with more wine (and tapas) at Just a Taste in the Ithaca Commons, or hit up the historic Argos Inn and the adjoining Bar Argos for craft cocktails and a much-needed nap.

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Jessica Kelly is a contributor for Thrillist.