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Of Gorges, Grapes, and Grains – Discovering Ithaca, New York

Story by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

As we descended the narrow trail into Fall Creek Gorge we came upon a doe grazing on the steep hillside. After stopping a moment so as not to startle the deer, we continued our walk passing within less than ten feet of her. The doe, obviously aware of our presence, continued to graze unfazed by our interruption. After reaching the bottom of the trail, we spent about 20 minutes just enjoying the view of the cascades in the gorge and reflecting on the beauty of the scene and the experience of encountering the deer.

A scene such this is something that many people experience quite often when venturing into natural settings. The reason this experience was somewhat unique is that it occurred on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Although we have seen many beautiful college campuses, we were very impressed that two beautiful gorges, the aforementioned Fall Creek Gorge and Cascadilla Gorge, are located on the Cornell campus. These are just two of the many gorges to be found in Ithaca.

Taughannock Falls

“Ithaca is Gorges”

The clearly-intended pun in the tourism tagline for the City of Ithaca clearly highlights some of the city and surrounding area’s main attractions – the many ice-age gorges and their numerous waterfalls and cascades. In the three days we spent in Ithaca, we tried to experience them all; but there are just too many, so we did our best to see as many as we could. We started with Buttermilk Falls State Park, hiking the 1.5-mile round-trip Gorge Trail. The ascent is somewhat strenuous, but the views of the waterfalls and cascades within the gorge make the trip well worth the effort. The park has a life-guarded swimming area in the natural pool below the falls. It looked very enticing, but we were there before the swimming season opened.

Two other state parks where we hiked the gorges were Taughannock Falls State Park– its 215-foot falls is higher than Niagara Falls- and Robert H.Treman State Park– impressive stonework on the trails built by workers in the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps is a highlight here.


The Upper Gorge Trail at Treman State Park

Both of these parks also have outstanding views of waterfalls and breath-taking scenes in the gorges. All three state parks have an excellent variety of trails of varying difficulty enabling hikers of all abilities the opportunity to enjoy the wonderful natural beauty of the area. Swimming and camping is also available at each of these parks. Visit the New York State Parks website at  for more information.

If you should want even more waterfalls, there are plenty more in and around Ithaca. A favorite for locals seeking a momentary respite from a hectic schedule or a quiet spot for a bagged lunch is Ithaca Falls, an idyllic setting just minutes from downtown. Contact the Ithaca-Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800/28-Ithaca (284-8422) or www.VisitIthaca.comfor its Official Travel Guide and the “Waterfalls In & Around Ithaca” booklet.

Lucifer Falls in Robert F.Treman State Prak

Outdoor adventure in Ithaca is certainly not limited to viewing gorges and waterfalls, not with 40-mile long Cayuga Lake around. Boating, sailing, kayaking, lake cruises, and fishing are great ways to get out on this member of NY’s famed Finger Lakes. Hiking, biking, golfing, horseback riding, horseback riding, hot-air balloon rides, and even skydiving are other ways to experience Ithaca’s outdoors.

Grapes Galore!

The Finger Lakes region of NY is well-known for its many wineries, and a visit to Ithaca puts one in close proximity to more than 25 wineries. You might begin your wine region tour with a stop at the Finger Lakes Wine Center in downtown Ithaca for some information and even a tasting. Be sure to pick up the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail Map & Guide. The Wine Trail is the first organized and longest running wine trail in America. With 15 wineries, 1 cidery, and 4 distilleries you’re sure to find something to your liking. Many of the wineries offer dining options in wonderful settings both indoors and al fresco. Also check out the Vino Visa Coupon Book for discounts and free tastings. The coupon book can purchased for $15 at any of the wineries or online.

A Finger Lakes vineyard in the fall

Two interesting and enjoyable stops we recommend are Ports of New York on Taber St. in Ithaca and Corks & More Wine Bar on W. Buffalo St. in Ithaca. At Ports of New York you will meet Frederic Bouche, who will share with you the fascinating history of his family’s winery in France beginning in the early1900’s, as well as show you his equipment and process for producing his Meleau Specialty Wines.

Corks & More is a great place to experience, not the art of making wine, but rather a unique way of serving it. This wine bar/lounge features the new technology of the WineStation, a self-serve dispensing system that allows customers to use a pre-paid tasting card to dispense a 1 oz., a 2.5 oz., or a full 5 oz. serving of a wide variety of wines. If you like wine, you may feel like a kid in a candy store. A fully-stocked bar, including over 40 craft beers and a great list of scotches is also available, along with a tasting menu of small plate cuisine.

And, of course, the Grains

After hiking the gorges and enjoying the grapes of this Finger Lakes region, it’s time now to enjoy the grains – at least the ones that the local breweries and brew pubs use in their craft beers. Ithaca Beer Company is open every day for tastings and conducts tours on Saturdays. Naturally, its fine selection of craft brews is available for retail sale.

Local brewpubs featuring their own craft brews include Bandwagon Brewpub on Cayuga St. and the Scalehouse Brewpub on Cinema Dr., both in Ithaca. Rogues’ Harbor Brewing Company is located at the Rogues’ Harbor Inn onEast Shore Drive in Lansing, just five miles north of Ithaca. We can’t account for the brewpubs brews, but we can say that Ithaca Beer makes some very fine beers, especially the Cascazilla Red Ale and Flower Power IPA.

Ithaca is about discovery.

When you are done hiking the gorges, and sipping the wine, and enjoying the beer, what else will you discover in Ithaca? Plenty. What would you expect from a city where there are 758 graduate-degree-holders per square mile?

Take for instance Ithaca’s Discovery Trail, a group of eight educational organizations whose goal is to promote awareness and understanding of the connections among art, history, literature, science, and the natural world. Trail sites include the Cayuga Nature Center, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell Plantations, The History Center, Johnson Museum of Art, Museum of the Earth, Sciencenter, and the Tompkins County Public Library. With a wide arrange of activities, exhibits and hands-on fun, The Discovery Trail has something for everyone. We only had time to explore the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum of Cornell Plantations located on the university’s campus.

Culture and the arts do not take a back seat to nature in Ithaca. The many theaters, music venues, galleries, and artist studios are thriving with creative expression. From downtown galleries and sculpture exhibits, to the museums and galleries of Cornell and Ithaca College, art enthusiasts will find a wealth of creative exhibits. Music and performing arts are also thriving in the community, with a wide variety of concert venues, nightclubs, and theaters offering a wide choice of local and internationally acclaimed artists, including a number of free concert series.

Itahaca Commons on a summer day

We took in a wonderful production of a new musical, “Waiting for Spring,” at the Kitchen Theatre Company’s intimate 99-seat, ¾-round theater. If this production is typical of the Kitchen’s goal of presenting “bold, intimate, engaging” theater, then this nationally-recognized, year-round professional theater company will continue the success it has experienced for the last 21 years.

Dining can be a great experience in Ithaca– especially when you consider the fact that Ithaca has more restaurants per capita than New   York City. (In 2008 The New York Times called Ithaca a “gastronomic oasis.”) Downtown has a wealth of choices, from upscale bistros to casual cafes and taverns. A dining experience you don’t want to miss is Moosewood Restaurant, which is well-known for its 11 internationally acclaimed cookbooks. It features vegetarian cooking, with a daily fish entrée on the menu as well. Bon Appetit named this restaurant “one of the 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century.” We never knew that vegetarian cuisine could be so creative and inspired.

Another recommendation we have is for a treat – ice cream from Purity Ice Cream, which has been a popular spot for ice cream and other treats in Ithaca since 1936. (Did you know that Ithaca is the birthplace of the ice cream sundae?)

Sunset on Cayuga Lake

Lodging in Ithaca is also eclectic. There are plenty of chain hotels if that’s your preference. But Ithaca has a wealth of wonderful inns and B&B’s. We stayed at MacIntire’s Cottage B&B, and we felt like we were at a home away from home. The Cottage is located in a residential, walking neighborhood and is a mere 3 miles from the town of Ithaca and 2 miles from Cornell (the closest B&B to the college). Judith MacIntire has been welcoming visitors to her B&B since 1989 with her warm hospitality. For a complete list of B&B’s visit the websites of Bed & Breakfast of Greater Ithaca and Association of Historic Bed & Breakfast Inns of the Ithaca Area.

We enjoyed our experience in Ithaca, discovering for ourselves some of the many things available in the eclectic college town. Discover for yourself the vibe that is intimated in its slogan – “Ithaca is Gorges.”


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