Destination of the week: Ithaca, N.Y.
Gorges, waterfalls and a vibrant wine and food scene make this college town worth a visit.
Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 07:47 AM
Central New York's Finger Lakes region is south of Lake Ontario and the upstate hub of Syracuse. A mostly rural area known for its gorges, lakes and waterfalls, this is also a land of wineries, state parks and water sports.
Rochester is the Finger Lakes' main city, but Ithaca is arguably its most attractive and user-friendly. Located on the shores of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca is a college town known for its Ivy League tenant, Cornell University. But there are plenty of non-college related attractions in this small but surprisingly progressive city. State parks, lakes and waterfalls are all easily accessible from Ithaca's inns, camping spots and bed-and-breakfasts. Foodies will find one of upstate New York's best dining scenes and plenty of organic and Earth-friendly eating options. These features, plus a cutting-edge, eco-friendly real estate development and a culture of conservation make this one of the best places to use as a base for a low-impact, nature-themed vacation.
The Ithaca Farmers Market is not only a great place to find locally grown produce; it is also ideal for plugging into the regional winemaking and boutique food industries. The market runs four days per week during the summertime and also has a run in the winter leading up to the holidays.
Ludgate Farm and Market is a family owned food producer and grocery store that specializes in organic goods and locally produced dairy products. The Greenstar Co-op is another place serving up organic groceries and acting as an outlet for local food producers and farmers.
The locally grown movement also has a foothold in Ithaca's restaurants. Two of the most notable are the Moosewood Restaurant and Taverna Banfi. The Moosewood is a large and popular eatery that started its life as a small natural food cafe. It has grown into a respected vegetarian restaurant with a largely organic menu. Tavera Banfi dishes out Tuscan style Italian dishes using fresh, local ingredients. It is located inside the classy Statler Hotel.
The Finger Lakes area is one of New York's best wine-growing regions. Two nearby New York wineries have a strong focus on sustainable grape growing and wine production. The Red Tail Ridge Winery uses well-planned growing practices, natural heating and cooling, and locally sourced building materials to increase its eco-friendliness. The winery is also trying for LEED certification for its new wine processing building. The Heron Hill Winery uses natural fertilizers and is involved in local wildlife conservation efforts. MNN recently included both Heron Hill and Red Tail Ridge in a list of the top eco-friendly East Coast wineries.
Ithaca's groundbreaking Eco Village is a model for alternative suburban development. Most of the land that makes up the village’s two neighborhoods remains in its natural state. It is possible to visit the community and stay at the on-site guesthouse or in a rental property. The Frog's Way Bed and Breakfast is a short distance from the Eco Village. It offers a small scale sleeping experience and access to the same natural landscapes that village visitors and residents enjoy.
There is camping in the state parks around Ithaca and plenty of other tent-pitching venues in and around the city. State parks feature both electric and non-electric campsites and cabins that can be rented for the night. A more unusual tent option is the tipi campground at Turtle Dreams B&B. These traditional Native American shelters can handle a large group of people. Other area bed-and-breakfasts, including the historic William Henry Miller Inn (built in 1880), offer great low-impact accommodation.
The TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit) is the only public transportation option in the area, with routes throughout the city and to the surrounding suburbs. However, tourists who want to explore the Finger Lakes in depth will need a car. That said, park-and-rides are found along some routes, making it possible to use the bus for city excursions while getting behind the wheel to hit eco-tourism sites around the region. Biking is possible in urban and rural areas, though rural riding without dedicated bike trails can be dangerous as there are many two-lane roads with limited shoulders. The Finger Lakes Bicycle Club has information about rides through the region, and there are several trails that can be used for lengthy sightseeing pedals around lakes, to waterfalls and around wine country.
Many of the eco-tourism attractions are located in and around state parks. There are a few venues in Ithaca, more specifically on the Cornell campus, that are worth mentioning. The Cornell Plantations has a wide range of gardens and natural areas. The on-campus gardens are free to enter and often host informal classes or lectures about gardening, botany and plant life. In total, there are 200 acres of gardens on campus. An arboretum takes up the majority of the land, while 50 acres are dedicated to the botanical gardens. The gardens are divided into a dozen sections featuring everything from herbs and peony to wildflowers and exotic poisonous plants. Cornell also owns and protects more than 4,000 acres of natural landscapes outside the city. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the other worthwhile attraction at the Ivy League school, dedicated to the study and conservation of birds. There is a 230-acre preserve called the Sapsucker Woods as well as a large visitors center (with exhibits and bird feeders) and events that are open to the public.
The Cayuga Nature Center is another convenient natural attraction for Ithaca visitors. It has 120 acres of woodland, hiking trails and a lodge/interpretative center. Many of the educational opportunities at Cayuga are geared toward schoolchildren and groups, but there are more informal events such as guided hikes that visitors can join for free (though a donation will be requested).
The Finger Lakes National Forest, located between Cayuga Lake and neighboring Seneca Lake, is a good destination for those looking to get outside Ithaca for a long period of time. There is camping inside the park as well as 30 miles of trails for hiking and skiing. State parks around Ithaca are a more convenient and accessible choice. Robert Treman State Park is home to one of the area's more scenic waterfalls: Lucifer Falls. A challenging 5-mile trail follows a gorge to the falls, passing other smaller falls along the way. During the winter, parts of the trail are closed because of snow and ice. Buttermilk Falls State Park is another nearby natural venue. It also features trails that lead past photo-worthy waterfalls, including the park's spectacular namesake falls.
Taughannock Falls State Park is home to one of the highest waterfalls east of the Continental Divide. The Taughannock Falls tumble 215 feet, making them taller than the American side of Niagara Falls. Of course the low volume of water that flows over Taughannock makes it seem much humbler than Niagara. There are several trail choices in this state park, including a basic one that passes the foot of the falls and a more challenging (but arguably more rewarding) trail that runs up the side of the gorge. Like other area parks, the gorge-side trails are closed during the winter.
The Cascadilla Creek Gorge is the most convenient gorge of all. It is also, unfortunately, the least natural. The “gorge walk” passes several waterfalls and stretches for over a mile. This walk is more user-friendly than the similarly placed trails in the state parks mentioned above.
Ithaca is a great base for exploring the Finger Lakes region of New York. Eco-tourists have plenty of low impact sleeping, eating and drinking options in and around the city. Nature is never far away, with several state parks within a short drive of the city limits. The prevalence of eco-friendly organizations and a general love of nature are major positives for Ithaca, at least as far as environmentally minded visitors are concerned.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.