New York: The Finger Lakes

New York: The Finger Lakes

Hot, so hot. Gusting winds keep leaning the bike over, but provide no relief. It's open country. The pavement just keeps rolling over hills and across valleys and I catch myself starting to nod off. I have to find a place to stop that's out of the sun and get something cold to drink. Ironically, these gently rolling hills on this expansive plateau were formed by ice, a mile-high wall of ice grinding southeast across the landscape a mere instant ago in geological time. Nowadays, there's never a glacier around when I need one.

Alternating from a divided four-lane to a regular two-lane highway, Route 20 stretches across the state from Albany to Buffalo. It shouldn't be confused with the New York Thruway, which runs just north of it, because Route 20 is one of those classic highways built for cruising. It also connects the towns and cities that lie on the northern end of the Finger Lakes  -  Skaneateles, Auburn, Seneca Falls, Geneva, and Canandaigua  -  and provides access to the roads along the lakeshores and the land between. Technically, there are about a dozen finger lakes in central New York, but when most people talk about The Finger Lakes they're referring to only a handful: Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, and either Keuka or Canandaigua.

The village of Skaneateles ("Long Lake" in Iroquois) is on the northern end of the lake with the same name. After hours of riding in the hot sun, I regard this village as one does an oasis. Arriving, I park my Beemer in the shade provided by a row of shops and just sit on a Thayer Park (one of two public parks on the downtown lakefront) bench and enjoy the cool breeze coming off the lake. To further delay my departure, I shopped and bought a pair of earrings in the shape of tree frogs for my wife. Downtown Skaneateles turns out to be one of the best shopping areas in the Finger Lakes  -  Okay, most of the shops are strictly for the tourist trade, but those I explored offer quality merchandise. Because of its location in relation to my tour, I rode through Skaneateles several times, always stopping and taking a short break before continuing on my way.

The Seneca Wine Trail

In the Finger Lakes, as in the Adige region of Italy, vineyards alternate with apple orchards. Upper New York was famous for breweries before 1919. The rich soil produced the barley and hops, and the canal and railroad systems provided easy transport of the finished beers. Breweries quickly returned after Prohibition, but not the thousands of acres of vineyards. Unlike the relatively quick returns expected of beer, wineries are a long-term investment: it takes five years before the first harvest from the vines and another year or two before the wine is ready for bottling. Only after the state passed the Farm Winery Act in 1976 were commercial wineries reestablished. Today, they are the driving force behind the region's tourism and actively promoted by the Seneca Lake Winery Association (Cayuga has their own).

Eight minutes south of Geneva on Route 14, Fox Run is one of the northernmost wineries on the Seneca Wine Trail. I'd made a lunch appointment there with owner Scott Osborn to learn more the wines of the region. While walking through the vineyard and showing me the progress of this year's crop, Scott explained how the microclimate in the Finger Lakes region makes viniculture possible. Seneca Lake doesn't freeze in the winter and slightly warms the immediate area during the coldest months of the year. Known as "lake effect," the warm (relative to the air temperature) water modifies the air temperature and, combined with the slopes  -  for soil drainage and frost resistance  -  makes vineyards feasible.

After tasting a couple of remarkable Rieslings and an exquisite Merlot, I was ready to head over to Keuka Lake. Taste-testing wine is quite different from sampling vintages in that you don't actually consume any; however, the '99 Reserve Pinot Noir was so fine I actually took a sip, and when Scott offered a bottle of my choice, I chose to carry that one away. Every winery I visited or passed this trip had at least one motorcycle parked in its drive.

Keuka differs from the other Finger Lakes in that it's shaped like the letter Y. I travel down the western side, heading south on Route 54A with the intent of discovering a turnoff or boat landing where I can cool off with a quick swim. However, public access to Keuka (as with most of the other lakes) is scarce and the extremely steep and narrow strip of land between the water is densely packed with a continuous line of private camps and residences. But in Hammondsport, I do find a small town beach, and although the water is murky and infested with Eurasian milfoil, it's a blessed relief from the oppressive heat.

The Curtiss Museum, located on Route 54S in Hammondsport, shouldn't be missed. Other than the early Curtiss motorcycles, including the famous V8 he rode to the land speed record in 1907 and the 1,326cc Curtiss Triple of 1909, there are other classics manufactured during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Glenn Curtiss's list of firsts fills an entire page with small print. One of the most prolific inventors in the 1900s, he also is the acknowledged father of naval aviation. I could easily have spent a day in this splendid museum.

Taking my first right turn north of the town beach (Hammondsport-Wayne Road), I climb the scarp of the lake and reap the reward of beautiful overlooks before turning east and heading the short distance back to Seneca Lake. It turns out that the best touring roads in the region lie between the lakes, not along their shores.

Watkins Glen

I spent the night in luxurious digs, the Inn At Glenora. A chilled, complimentary

bottle of wine and an oversized Jacuzzi helped relieve the road fatigue. The air-conditioned hallway leads to Veraisons restaurant, where I was served the best meal I've eaten in an American restaurant in the past two years  -  cream of peach soup followed by Sun-dried Tomato Pesto Fusilli Provençale and a glass of dry Chardonnay. Established in 1977, Glenora Wine Cellars was one of the first of the new wineries on Seneca Lake and they promote themselves as offering the best wine, food, and lodging in the region. While there's always going to be debates over who is producing the best wine, no one refutes Glenora's claim to the finest dining and lodging.

The sunrise is dramatic. Against the purple horizon of the lake's eastern scarp the sun climbs as a tangerine-colored disk in the already humid sky. Sitting on my private balcony in a sturdy Adirondack chair and gazing across the vineyard and Seneca Lake, I watch the beginning of the new day. Finishing my coffee, I mount up and head the eight miles into town.

Watkins Glen State Park is located in the village of the same name. Over hundreds of millions of years, as in many places in this region, water coursing from the higher plateaus through Devonian limestone has cut a narrow gorge filled with waterfalls, potholes, and sculpted rock. Wanting to experience it alone, I arrive early while the orange sunlight still penetrates the deep cleft. Passing through the tunnel, I step out of time into another more remote place. Carefully walking up the narrow stone stairways cut into the rock, I shield my cameras from the water dripping high above. Near the falls, rainbows cross the chasm, leaping from deep shadows. The dewed ferns and fuchsia blossoms of boysenberry seem lit from within, suffused in the strange morning light, which imparts the sensation of having strolled into a Luminist painting. As I leave, other tourists are just arriving  -  my timing was impeccable.

Best known for its famous international speedway and road course that lies to the southwest of town, Watkins Glen turns out to be the perfect base for my exploration of the Finger Lakes region. Conveniently close to the cities of Corning, Elmira, and Ithaca, and central to the Seneca Wine Trail, this small village is a great place in which to sit back and watch the bikes roll through. I like it so much I decide to remain a second night, although this time I'll camp out in the state park  -  a much humbler, but thoroughly enjoyable, night's accommodation.

Once a simple barrel-top diner, Chef's Diner on Route 14 just south of Watkins Glen has expanded over the years. But it's still an establishment where waitresses address the regulars as "Honey" and short-order cooks know how to work that grill. Although the Bison burgers were tempting, I opted for the chicken jambalaya just to watch its preparation on the grill.