There is far more to New York than just New York City and Manhattan, get out and explore New York State and the Finger Lakes region and see exactly what New York really has to offer.
When you say New York many people will instantly think of New York City; the Statue of Liberty and Central Park, the Empire State Building and Times Square, the iconic sites that have helped cement NYC as one of the worlds biggest city break destinations, but most people don’t realise that NYC isn’t all of New York, and an exploration of Finger Lakes in the wider New York State gives an entirely new and deeper experience to any traveller.
I admit, I was one of those travellers. Like most backpackers I have often eschewed North America for far flung adventures in tropical locations like Peru or Thailand, favouring trekking through jungles in Borneo or climbing mountains in Ethiopia over exploring what is to many Westerners the familiar and safe options of American cities and states.
Of course I have visited America on numerous occasions and have even spent that obligatory weekend in New York City, but I admit I haven’t spent as much time exploring in depth as I have other places.
That was a mistake.
New York City forces your gaze inexorably upwards, it awes you with dazzling lights of the big city and gleaming skyscrapers that seem to go on forever, but the Finger Lakes draws you back into the land around you, it wraps you up in a warm cultural embrace and shows you the New York beyond the TV and movies, a New York beyond all your expectations.
The Finger Lakes in New York State are one of America’s many hidden gems, known to relatively few travellers outside of the US, this amazing region is world renowned as a wine producing region and is considered the best wine producer in the US, it has some of the most spectacular scenery and natural beauty, so much so you won’t believe that you are in New York, and can really give you a glimpse into genuine Americana whilst at the same time surprising travellers with a vibrant, trendy foodie scene and nightlife to rival anywhere in the world.
If you haven’t been able to tell by now, I absolutely fell in love with the Finger Lakes, and if I haven’t convinced you to ditch the city and head out into the wider state just yet, keep reading and I promise you that you will be booking your next plane ticket before you have had a chance to finish the article!
Where are the Finger Lakes?
The Finger Lakes are in central New York State, only about four or five hours drive from New York City, yet it feels like you are entering a whole new country. It is named for the extensive group of long, thin lakes that snake their way through the region and is filled with areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The finger lakes are an absolute dream for hikers and lovers of the outdoors, and backpackers can immerse themselves in the American meaning of the term by exploring the natural beauty of the state, but that isn’t the only reason to visit by a long shot.
Why should you travel to the Finger Lakes?
New York City is great, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love spending time there. But as I discovered during a recent visit to the Finger Lakes region, getting out and exploring the wider New York state is an absolute must for any traveller and the Finger Lakes gives you more than enough excuses to do just that!
The great outdoors.
The Finger Lakes is perfect for outdoor adventures at every level. Just a short drive from Corning, the Tanglewood Nature Centre and Museum provides the whole family an opportunity to get back to nature away from the bug city with over 10 miles of trails that provide homes and habitats for over 40 native and exotic wildlife species that are being semi rehabilitated or cared for in the cases of those animals that have been so injured or mistreated by people they can never return to the wild.
The mission of the center is to educate people on conservation and preservation whilst taking care of the natural landscape so that everyone, including the animals that lie there, can enjoy the region. Just make sure that when you go, you spend some time volunteering and giving back so that others can enjoy the trails and the museum like you did.
There are so many options for those who want a more sedate level of adventure travel, or who want to bring the family along, then there are mountain adventure parks full of adventure in a controlled environment, plenty of lakes and waterways have options to rent a kayak or a paddleboard for a relaxing day on the water or you can go exploring in over 15 acres of ancient Paleozoic ocean floor now covered with forested gorges and crevices at the Panama Rocks Scenic Park, (and maybe boost your testosterone with a bit of manly axe throwing!)
But for those who really want to get the adrenaline flowing there are options here for you too if you fancy spending some time soaring over the state in a motorless glider or even jumping out of a plane for a bit of skydiving!
The adventure activity options in the Finger Lakes are endless, and I really want to go back and try out everything I didn’t get to do the first time round!
The water ways and waterfalls.
You can’t head to a region called the Finger Lakes and not spend at least a little time on, in or near the water!
The Finger Lakes are known – and named for – the eleven stretches of long, thin glacier formed lakes that spread through the state. These lakes, according to Native American legend, were left there as a handprint of the Great Spirit as he blessed the land, a heritage that lives on in each of the lakes names, Skaneateles, Otisco, Cayuga, Keuka, Seneca, Hemlock, Conesus, Honeoye, Canadice, Canandaigua and Owasko, but it is a blessing that not only provides the people with a heritage and a way of life, as many people make a living off the unique envioronment the lakes provide, but a natural beauty that is hard to beat.
There are tons of stunning national parks surrounding these lakes that showcase some of the most spectacular waterfalls, rivers and waterways that can easily rival anywhere else in the world. Watkins Glen state park just south of Seneca lake is home to one of the tallest and most jaw dropping waterfalls thanks to the 400 foot gorge that cuts through the park, and travellers can explore these passges easily on foot thanks to the extensive hiking routes collectively known as the Finger Lakes Trails.
And if hiking isn’t your thing, you can easily spend some time enjoying an array of watersports, fishing or boating on the water itself.
The lake life.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that with so many likes, rivers and waterways in the state being on the water has become an important part of many towns identities. Living the lake life in the finger lakes is intoxicating, and it is extremely tempting to spend a lot longer here than you originally planned.
Bemus Point, a small but infinitely charming town on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, showcases this perfectly. It has taken the idea of lake life and run with it to the extent that it is a vital part of the towns identity.
A small boat museum explores the town’s heritage of being on the water and explains why it is such a big part of Bemus Point’s identity with a large portion of the residents owning or using boats in some way, floating festivals on the lake and a common weekend pastime of taking a boat out on the lake to swim and relax; but it is wandering around the town itself, with its quaint, hipster stores, seaside feel and seafood restaurants on wooden docks overlooking the water that really draws you into a sedate way of life that makes you never want to leave!
The natural beauty.
Unless I haven’t driven this point home enough yet, with so many waterfalls and lakes, Finger Lakes is an extremely picturesque county, and that is before you even see the forests, gorges, beaches (yes, beaches, I’ll get to that!) and sunsets! The natural beauty of the Finger Lakes is one of the best reasons to come here, and is also one of the biggest surprises for anyone who only thinks of New York as Manhattan.
Finger Lakes wineries.
This may come as a huge surprise to a lot of people who will automatically think of France, Italy, South Africa or even New Zealand when asked about wine producing regions, but the Finger Lakes is the top wine producing region in the US and ranks among the best in the world.
The climate of central New York State, alongside the lakes, rivers, tributaries and waterways that feed through the state make a microclimate that is perfect for wineries to flourish and create a wide range of unique varieties of award winning wine.
I am probably misusing this term slightly and I apologise if I am, but I am referring to the undeniably unique cultural pockets of small town America that the Finger Lakes encapsulates perfectly. That unshakeable patriotism that is proudly displayed on the American flag on every other building, the architecture, the food and the eternal optimism. There is something truly intoxicating about American culture.
There are a string of small, sleepy towns throughout the Finger Lakes that each have their own unique and special personality and feel, and each one was a genuine joy to explore. The small boutique shops, the lakeside lifestyle, the amazing family owned restaurants and the pride in each individual place really was a heartwarming and welcoming experience. Despite the relative closeness of the many smaller towns and regions in New York state (the American’s have a very different definition of what is ‘close’ to myself as an Englishman,) I really loved just how different each place felt, how individually proud each separate town was of its own as well as its collective New York state identity.
Every single place I ate out at in the Finger Lakes and the wider New York state was absolute foodie heaven! (I won’t mention Buffalo’s recent foodie renaissance and the Buffalo wings and beef on heck coma I fell into!) And I am really not just laying on the superlatives for effect, I really did have a foodgasm at every meal! (Sorry for the imagery!)
Even the simplest food was just perfection, basic but honest American fare like burgers and chilly cheese dogs could be found in food trucks in Corning, or there was the option to go upscale and have a foodie experience on board a meal cruise on Seneca lake, or even get down and dirty and see where your food comes from in a dirt to plate experience.
Man V Food really has nothing on me, I could have spent my entire time eating in the Finger Lakes and been more than satisfied. No matter where you go or what level of food you want, you will find something great in this region.
And you would be remiss with so many great food options to miss out on the regions growing craft beer scene too. This industry is moving far beyond a few hipster enclaves and the Finger Lakes really is becoming a craft beer mecca, with unique flavours of Pumpkin and Blueberry beer from the Ellicottville Brewing Company among others becoming staple favourites from the region.
How to get to the Finger Lakes.
There are three airports within reasonable driving distance to the Finger Lakes region. The Elmira Corning Regional Airport is less than fifteen or twenty minutes from the picturesque town of Corning. About an hour away are the airports of Ithaca Tompkins and Greater Rochester International.
There are numerous buses leaving from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC to various destinations in the Finger Lakes, and of course there is always the option to drive; both options should take around 4 to 5 hours.
In case you can’t tell I had an absolute blast in the Finger Lakes. It really is a hidden gem of New York. I did more than I ever thought I could and I loved exploring the smaller towns and regions of New York State.
Exploring the USA in greater detail is one of my many bucketlist items as a traveller for the coming years, as I believe there is so much to see, do and learn in what is considered by many travellers to be a traditionally a very culturally familiar destination, and believe me the Finger Lakes is one of the best starts to fulfilling that ambition that I could have asked for!
So I urge all of you to visit NYC by all means, it is a great city, but get out there and explore more of the Empire State while you are at it as well! The Finger Lakes region truly is stunning, and has a ton of charming, unique towns to explore. So slow down and take some time to delve into the rich culture, outdoor experiences and hospitality of the Finger Lakes region. You won’t regret it.
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
This article was written in partnership with Finger Lakes Wine Country and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.