Ithaca has long been pegged as a low-key outpost for bespectacled professors and back-to-the-land sophists. It’s not an inaccurate stereotype, just an incomplete one. Walk down the city’s newly renovated Ithaca Commons, a pedestrian-only area in downtown, and you’re as likely to see a crew of twentysomething cyclists just back from a road ride as you are a gray-bearded hippie with a copy of The Hobbit in his hand. Surrounding the town of 30,000 is everything from New York’s Finger Lakes to northeast woods and farmland to, yes, gorges — lots and lots of gorges. Here’s how to do Ithaca right.
With so many rivers, lakes, and ponds in the area, it’s no surprise that most summer activities revolve around the water: from sailing or paddling on Lake Cayuga (rent a boat from Cornell Community Sailing) to swimming in the river at Robert H. Treman State Park to lounging on the beach at Taughannock State Park. But often overlooked in the scramble to get in the water are the hills surrounding those swimming holes, particularly those in Finger Lakes National Forest, 16,000 acres of ravines, pastures, and woodlands. The best way to get a sampler platter of the forest — the only national forest in New York state — is by hiking the 12-mile Interlocken trail, which traverses the best bits.
Since it became famous in the late 1970s for cranking out fresh local fare — and turning a generation of Northeasterners onto natural, whole foods through its cookbooks — Moosewood Restaurant has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the originators of the farm-to-table movement. Today, the restaurant, tucked away in the bottom of an old high school turned shopping mall, is as good as ever. It serves an ever-changing list of dishes with ingredients primarily sourced from nearby farms.
The Ithaca Farmer’s Market is billed as the oldest farmer’s market in the nation, and while that title may be debatable, one thing isn’t: it's one of the best options to experience Ithaca’s robust farm-to-table ethos in the most laid-back setting imaginable. Vendors hawking everything from wood carvings to wines fill the pavilion’s stalls, but just about everyone comes here for the food, which includes the usual farm-fresh produce and locally raised meats, but also prepared foods like hand-pressed dumplings, wood-oven pizzas, and exotic foods like Cambodian, Sri Lankan, and Thai. If you stop in before noon, make sure to get a breakfast burrito. Just look for the line — it may be long but it’s worth the wait.
The Finger Lakes region has over 200 wineries, thanks to micro-climes along Lake Cayuga and Seneca Lake, among others. These small pockets of warm air keep the vines warmer throughout the fall, extending the growing season and creating a climate ideal for grapes. The region has earned a worthy reputation for its white wines, and touring the region’s two dozen wineries is standard tourist protocol. And it is worth it. But the best way to do it is via boat with School’s Out Charters. They’ll pick you up in pontoon boat and shuttle you across the lake to wineries like Sheldrake Point, which is famous for its Rieslings.
As charming as downtown Ithaca is, with its long-awaited Commons finally opening, chances are you’re heading to the region for its pastoral side. There’s no better place to absorb it all than La Tourelle, a former farm turned cozy resort less than 10 minutes from downtown. The resort has its own spa, with soaps and scrubs made on the grounds. Out back there’s a new lodging venture, called Firelight Camps, that will put you up in luxe canvas tents hidden in the woods surrounding the main lodge. This is glamping at its finest.
Last year, five local cider makers teamed up to open the Finger Lakes Cider House on Good Life Farm, just north of Ithaca. It’s worth a stop even if you’re just sampling the ciders, which, trust us, are far better and tastier than anything you’ve probably tried. But the real key is to go on Friday evening, when the orchard and farm hosts a dinner and music night, with area musicians providing the soundtrack and an Ithaca chef preparing dinner with local-only ingredients. How local? They don’t use olive oil in the recipes, because they can’t produce it in the area, and the salt is sourced from a nearby salt mine. It doesn’t get any more hyper local — and deliciously fun — than this.