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WHY GO: There are over 100 waterfalls within ten square miles of Ithaca NY. Most cascade through fractures in the earth: a landscape that endows the town with the perfect tagline, “Ithaca is Gorges.” Throw in the longest of the 11 Finger Lakes – Cayuga – and you’ve got yourself a region that is downright poetic in beauty. Outside of the CG movie, Avatar, you’ll hardly see a locale quite like this. Ithaca claims to be the birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae, and is also home to two colleges – Cornell and Ithaca College – adding culinary, cultural, and intellectual assets to this already bountiful table.
You will be forewarned about Ithaca’s very steep streets about ten miles out, when signs alerting truck and car drivers to “Check Your Brakes” start appearing along the road – alerts that should not be taken lightly. These steep grades, of course, are what make Ithaca so attractive to outdoor enthusiasts looking for good, strenuous hikes. But “soft adventurers” will find much to love here, too.
There are four State Parks in the Ithaca area – three gorges and one marina on the lake. But spend some time exploring the smaller, lesser known falls, nature areas, restaurants, and a rockin’ new hotel in a diverse friendly community that many folks would describe as “out of the 60’s.” Read on….
What to Do in Ithaca NY
TOUR: Experience! the Finger Lakes Offering the most popular vineyard and waterfall van tours in the area, Experience the Finger Lakes! has some pretty serious wine knowledge cred. Laura Winter Falk (author of Culinary History of the Finger Lakes: From the Three Sisters to Riesling) – who owns the tour company with her husband Alan – earned a PhD in Nutrition from Cornell and is a Sommelier as well. She and other trained guides drive guests around all of the Finger Lakes in posh 14-seat vans stocked with snacks and take-home plastic bottles filled with cold water. Interactive and engaging, Laura compares her ride to “Cash Cab” – handing out candy instead of cash, for correct answers to questions she peppers her guests with along the way. The majority of requested full day tours are “wine related,” and include four stops at partnering wineries (“which elevates the experience for visitors as each winery has a great story”) and lunch. EFL also offers hidden waterfall tours, guided hikes, and interpretive walks.
I took the 2-hour “Fabulous Falls Above Cayuga” tour, which introduced me to several waterfalls around town, and served as a tutorial on the area’s natural and human history. Beginning with Cascadilla Gorge, you can “see the geology of 300 million years” all at once in the shale and limestone layers of the rock walls that were once underwater in a vast inland sea and that now form the sides of the gorge.
Here, Laura presents rocks and fossils found nearby, including those of clams, bi-valves, and “lucky stones” with naturally occurring holes. In the late 1700’s, veterans were offered land in Central NY, part of the Military Track the Government established to reward soldiers who participated in the Revolutionary War. They settled around waterfalls that could power mills. Following the Civil War, the Morrill Land Grant funded Agriculture & Mechanics (A&M) colleges around the country. In 1865, Cornell was founded as one of these Land Grant schools, admitting women from the start, and now operates as both a Private and Public University.
The tour continues past Carl Sagan’s study, a contemporary cottage perched over the gorge, with another stop at the Cornell Height’s Suspension Bridge that sits 150 feet over Fall Creek, the site of many a marriage proposal. Look down to see the old hydropower plant from the 1920’s – a sure sign that Cornell was on the cutting edge of sustainable energy nearly a hundred years ago.
Of course, no visit to Ithaca is complete without a walk to the base of the bewitching Ithaca Falls. But, please heed the warnings about NO Swimming here – it’s easy to underestimate the force of the water until too late. As a Cornell Police rescue diver states, “Even as a highly trained, properly equipped professional diver, I wouldn’t swim there if I did not have to recover a body.” Tours from $35 per person, can customize for groups, check website for tours and rates.
VISIT: Taughannock Falls State Park. If you don’t have time to hike from the Lower Falls to the main event, drive up to the brand new Visitor’s Center, and pop out for a few minutes to see this mesmerizing torrent of water pouring 215 feet into a wide basin below.
GO: Buttermilk Falls State Park. What you see from the base of this sun-splashed cascade that falls, like a fancy Victorian wedding dress, over tiered slabs of limestone, is dramatic of course. But climb the mile-long Gorge Trail and its overlooks for bigger thrills, and misty chills.
BOAT TOUR: Discover Cayuga Lake Boat Tours on MV Teal. (From Allan H. Treman State Marine Park). On your two hour narrated tour six miles up and back on the 39 mile long Cayuga Lake, try to imagine it’s the late 1800’s, and this is just one of the 17 passenger ferries plying the water, transporting summer residents to their cottages along the shoreline. Back then, though horse and buggies trudged the dirt roads that ringed the Lake, steamships were the most efficient and comfortable option.
In 1916, the rock-salt mining company, Cargill, opened up on the banks of the Cayuga, and is now, with gigantic mounds of road salt under tarps, and elevator shafts that bring miners 2,500 feet underground, the most prominent feature on the Lake (and the deepest salt mine in the USA). In fact, half a mile beneath the lake is a quasi-city, where electric cars move workers ten miles on “roads” with no traffic jams. Cargill tapped into a salt vein that goes all the way to Michigan – and its local operation provides 20% of the rock salt used in roads in New York and the New England states.
Some of the current 300 employees are great-grandchildren of the original miners, according to Lansing NY Town Historian, Louise Bement, who, as a 4th grade teacher, enlisted her students to research Cargill history. The school project, which taught the budding journalists to “go to the source” for information, resulted in a book called “The Rock Salt Mine.” I met Bement, who was traveling with her family, by chance on my Discover Cayuga cruise, and she was a font of information about the area. I learned about “Cornell Chicken” (a cider-vinegar and egg-based marinade) and “Salt Potatoes.” Irishmen who processed table salt from the depths of Syracuse NY would throw raw potatoes into pans of briny water that cooked as fires beneath the pans evaporated the water, leaving comestible salt (and delicious potatoes).
There are several tour options on the MV Teal; one that enlists guests in the sampling of water quality and clarity measurements for the DEC. Or others that stick to historic narration, or that incorporate themes. Regardless of what you do, it’s fantastic just to get out on the water. Check website for times and tour types.
WALK/VISIT: Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. Before getting here, you might misconstrue the Lab of Ornithology as a bland science building, but, on the grounds of a 400 acre nature sanctuary with a contemporary Visitor’s Center/Library, it’s a thrilling, often overlooked attraction about five miles from campus and town. Yes, Cornell Undergrads and Graduate School students do research here, but the public is welcome with open arms and a knowledgeable staff.
Directly inside the Welcome Center, find chairs looking out over a pond through floor to ceiling windows. Sit and meditate on the birds that come by, or interact with the wooden oval “Sound Ring” sculpture designed by architect Mya Lin, that via I-pad, plays birdcalls and soundscapes both recorded and live.
To see birds of all kinds in the wild, grab a trail and bird-watching guide from the folks at the desk and take a walk on one or more of the well-marked paths that circle ponds and run through various habitats. Visitors Center open daily 10-4, Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary open daily dawn to dusk, free.
VISIT: Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell Campus. Opened in 1973, this blocky, board-formed concrete I.M. Pei designed art museum offers a quiet trip though time, from ancient to contemporary, paintings to decorative arts. Perhaps the most well known foundational holdings include Giacometti’s “Walking Man” sculpture, and a “Life Mask” of Marquis de Lafayette, but the building itself, and the views of Lake Cayuga that it affords, are reasons, too, to come here.
Don’t miss the 2nd floor outdoor patio where you can stretch out on an ergonomic, sculptural bench and stair up at the “Cosmos” by Leo Villareal: an homage to Carl Sagan, who taught astronomy on campus. The installation of 12,000 LED lights twinkle randomly on the ceiling of the patio overhang day and night, and, say many, is incredibly cool after dark.
Cross through the underground walkway to a new 2015 building extension (for events and classes) two floors beneath the lobby. Though you won’t find any galleries there, you will be rewarded with a small but stunning Japanese Garden right outside a wall of windows. Also on that level, a Visible Storage Gallery, replete with coats of armor, clay figures, masks from around the world and other artifacts that you can look up on I-Pads available throughout the room. Free, Open Tues-Sun 10-5, Thurs until 7:30.
GO: Cornell Botanic Gardens. Start in the new modern LEED Gold Welcome Center to get your bearings in this 3,000-acre multi-section linear park along two banks of Fall Creek. The Garden includes the 100-acre F.R. Newman Arboretum (voted #1 Most Beautiful College Arboretum in the USA), Bebe Lake, Mundy Wildflower Garden, Herbal Garden with interpretive signage, ponds, sculpture, benches, overlooks, perennial gardens, 15 waterfalls, paved paths and 35 miles of hiking trails within its Cornell-stewarded borders.
Don’t miss the Botanic Cultivated Gardens adjacent to the Welcome Center, then drive (or walk a few miles) to the Newman Overlook. The distant view of hills and undulating greenery and water is lovely, but have a go ringing the gong that stands among the bushes. Just make sure to announce that you’re about to strike: the sound is loud and quite alarming. Before leaving, find the Shrub Garden in the Arboretum and take a tranquil walk through alleyways of bushes on soft paths of grass. It’s as intimate and quiet retreat as you’ll find here. Welcome Center Open Mon-Thurs 9-5, Fri/Sat 9-6, Free.
WALK/BIKE: Cayuga Waterfront Trail. This 5.5 mile paved trail hugs the shoreline around the inlets of southern Cayuga Lake, and is a popular way to get some exercise in the warmer seasons.
SHOP/EAT: Ithaca Commons. You’ll find head shops and other college’y stores and restaurant on this pedestrian mall in the center of town. Some noteworthy shops include: Handwork, 15 Steps, American Crafts by Robbie Dein and Sunny Days.
SHOP/EAT: DeWitt Mall. This multi-level indoor mall is where you’ll find the Moosewood Restaurant – and inside, Café DeWitt – a ultra casual, waste composting, locally sourced, biodegradable tableware, spot for your Farmhouse (two eggs, roasted potato, house jam, $9.95) or European (2 soft-boiled eggs and café au lait $10.95) breakfast. Next door, you’ll find Green Star Natural Foods, which, along with Moosewood, places you squarely in the 1960’s. Groovy Man.
GO: Discovery Trail. Families will want to follow the Discovery Trail that includes the Ithaca Sciencenter, Cayuga Nature Center, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell Plantations, The History Center, Johnson Museum of Art, Museum of the Earth, and Tompkins County Public Library.
NIGHTLIFE: Hangar Theater. Local staged theater in a repurposed airplane hangar. Check website for schedule.
SPA: August Moon Spa at La Tourelle Hotel. Though it sounds hippy-dippy, this small, intimate professional massage and body treatment establishment is one of the best places in town to sooth your post-gorge-hike muscles. Open daily 9am-8pm.
COMING SOON: Two museums are slated to open in the near future: The Tompkins Center for History & Culture, and the Wharton Studio Museum in Stewart Park, where back in the early 1900’s many a silent movie was made.
Where to Eat In and Around Ithaca
EAT: Maxie’s Supper Club and Oyster Bar. Open for 20 years and still going strong, Maxie’s is the brainchild of Chick Evans who attended Cornell and wanted to open a place where he could focus on oysters and seafood. When this low-slung New Orleans style corner building became available, says Chick’s sister and co-owner Karen, “we snapped it up.” Chick now lives in Chicago, so Karen oversees this festive place brimming with good home-cooked southern-comfort delights – like the signature Shrimp and Grits ($14.50) and BBQ Tofu Plate ($11.95). But of course, the oysters are the hit here, and you don’t even have to go to the Big Easy to get them.
EAT: Simeon’s American Bistro on Ithaca Commons and Aurora. This Ithaca landmark, owned by chefs Rich Avery and Dean Zervos, has been through expansions and changes both planned and unplanned (the latest rebuild after a horrific accident 4 years ago when a tractor trailer barreling down the hill missed the turn and crashed into the building). Though it all, Avery and Zervos kept the “Bistro” menu and ambiance: a style that “leans more toward an upscale NYC Steakhouse” than a college town eatery.
The menu is refreshingly succinct – not overwhelming – with a focus on oysters, steaks, and house-made pasta dishes that change seasonally. Dishes range from aps like Warm Kettle Chips Fondue ($6) and Marinated Olives ($8), to entrees the likes of Salmon ($29) and the 14oz Steak Frittes (that, at $45, is the most expensive menu item). But my Ahi Tuna Burger ($14), paired with a glass of wine, was absolute perfection. The juicy fish patty with tangy slaw on a toasted Sesame Bun offered a perfect balance of flavors: a dinner par excellence just steps from my hotel room at the new Marriott Downtown.
EAT/TASTE: Finger Lakes Cider House. This hilltop cidery is both tasting room and delightful restaurant, with Hard Cider on tap and elevated pub food like Cast Iron Grilled Cheese ($12). The fermented juice of apples named Rose, Switchel, and Scrumpy (British slang for someone who picks fallen fruit from the ground), and more, range from ultra dry to faintly sweet. Try some of each with a 5-taste flight ($5).
EAT: Moosewood Restaurant. It’s still the hippy-dippy spot made famous in Mollie Katzen’s cookbook of the same name. Though Katzen, one of the founders of the “Moosewood Collective,” decamped to California to write her recipe book (yes, controversial!), the original restaurant is still going strong.
EAT: Locals also recommend Glenwood Pines – on the Western side of Cayuga Lake for “Best Burgers,” Coltivare – a contemporary teaching restaurant from TC3 Community College, Boathouse Grill overlooking the inlet from which diners can watch college Crew Teams practice, Taste of Thai for great Thai food, Just A Taste for tapas.
ICE CREAM: Cornell Dairy Bar. Aggie schools seem to have the best ice cream in the world, and up untill my visit here, Penn State and UConn were neck and neck at the top of my Best Ice Cream All Time list. But one taste of the Triple Caramel Bliss at the Cornell Dairy Bar, and, like a fickle lover, I swooned; and then re-configured that list. Rich and creamy like frozen custard, deeply flavored like Gelato, with the perfect amount of mix-ins, I’d be in deep trouble if this ice-cream parlor was anywhere near me.
ICE CREAM: Purity Ice Cream. The first ever Ice Cream Sundae was dished out at Platt & Colt Pharmacy in downtown Ithaca in 1892. Now, you can get that initial version – scoops of vanilla with cherry syrup and a candied cherry on top, or other sundaes of your own choosing – at Purity Ice Cream, open since 1936 on Rt. 13. Purity doesn’t forget the dogs. Get some frozen stuff topped with a dog biscuit for Fido, and a cone filled with “Bulldog Crunch” or “Finger Lakes Tourist,” for yourself, at one of Ithaca’s most popular ice cream shops.
Where to Stay In Ithaca NY
STAY: Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons. There’s a new boutique-like hotel in town, right on Ithaca Commons, an up-and-comer where rooms and common areas appeal to style-seeking travelers. Not your standard issue corporate Marriott, the smallish lobby encompasses a two-person reception area, one wall fashioned like a library with stocked bookshelves, some seating, and a larger restaurant area where on any given night you might find a raging game of Trivial Pursuits or a Wine or Food tasting event. It’s a happy, happening place, and a great center of town option for a mid-high-end stay.
Modern guest rooms are small and compact – with teak platform beds clad in white duvets, one wall stamped with graphic art, and plenty of outlets: two above each nightstand are super convenient.
Bright bathrooms sport large contemporary glass/tile showers and perfectly apt photos of area waterfalls.
There’s dining in-house at Monk’s – and if you’re in the mood for toothsome “Bar Bites” and craft cocktails, beer, or wine, stay in an enjoy the convivial vibe. Otherwise – walk a few paces to Simeon’s next door for an upscale Bistro meal, Bol for Asian inspired ramen bowls, or a cornucopia of choices a short walk away. My breakfast at Monk’s was fine – an overflowing plate of two eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and toast done just right.
Just the Facts
Rates start at $144 per night and can top $700 for high demand weekends