New York State, Finger Lakes region: Ithaca, Rochester, Syracuse and beyond

There's more to New York than New York. Beyond the city's five boroughs lies an entire state to which that most electrifying of monikers – New York! – applies as equally as it does in the Big Apple itself. Stretching upwards and outwards from Manhattan and its easterly sidekick, Long Island, New York State encompasses 11 distinct tourist regions. And though each one brims with exceptional stories, they're often lost beneath the din and clamour, the glitz and glamour, of that beloved doyenne, New York City.

The most compelling of these stories can be found in the Finger Lakes region in the centre of the state, south of Lake Ontario. It's a swath of land slashed with 11 narrow, finger-shaped waterbodies, a green carpet striped with blue. According to legend, the Great Spirit laid his hands in blessing upon the land; his fingers created deep impressions into which water seeped, thus creating the Finger Lakes (an 11th lake adjoins the spirit's handprint).

In truth, of course, it was glaciers that surged across this land, carving out the lakes and leaving behind shale valleys – now shimmering with water – and arable pastures; it was this rich soil that attracted Native Americans to the region, and which today underpins its thriving wine industry.

Interspersed among the lakes are compact cities and towns and villages utterly at odds with the state's convulsing heart, New York City. The dichotomy is felt most acutely in the landscape – the rolling pastures, the ragged gorges, the tranquil woodlands – and the wholesome industries flourishing around these parts; it's a place that produces the sort of commodities one wouldn't immediately associate with New York: apples and yoghurt, maple syrup and – most recently – craft beer.

New York State's craft beverage industry is one of the fasting growing in the country. Such is the burgeoning interest in this pastime, state government funds have been earmarked for the promotion of craft beverages and agritourism, and legislation signed to assist the expansion of this industry. And, while best known for its cool climate wines, the Finger Lakes region is leading this craft brewing charge, with breweries, microbreweries and cideries proliferating across the region.

This revival of such artisanal techniques, coupled with a widespread farm-to-table food ethos and a celebration of the region's enthralling history, is good news for those who venture beyond the city limits: they will be rewarded with engaging experiences – and an entirely different perspective of New York.

ITHACA

The landscape surrounding Ithaca is a contradiction of jagged gorges, sloping winelands and the endless stretch of Cayuga Lake, upon whose southern shores the city sits. In summer, the lake bristles with sailboats and swimmers, kayakers and speedboats; paddlers can dock at the Ithaca Farmers' Market on the lake's waterfront and purchase supplies for a picnic. In winter, the landscape transforms into a wonderland of icy lakes, snow-blanketed hillsides and waterfalls frozen in time.

But in all weathers, this university town offers up an abundance of artistic, cultural and foodie attractions. One of the most fascinating is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, a fabulous concrete structure designed to prevent museum fatigue and boasting sweeping views of the lake. The highlight of the museum's 35,000-plus collection is Cosmos, an LED installation made by artist Leo Villareal in homage to the late Cornell astronomy professor, Carl Sagan. The work is best viewed from the zero-gravity bench placed below it; the lights reflect sunshine, clouds and birds by day, and evoke constellations by night. See visitithaca.com

SYRACUSE

There's a revival happening in this city, set close to the southern point of Onondaga Lake. Once home to vibrant salt mining and manufacturing industries, Syracuse suffered economic downturn – and a consequent exodus of corporations and residents – in the 1970s; but Syracuse University's esteemed medical programs, a strengthening economy and a flourishing arts, culture and food scene have lured people back.

Advertisement

This is a place with an old soul, for the city is built quite literally on historical foundations: wooden pipes still run beneath some of its streets, and preserved 19th century buildings have been adapted for modern use. Syracuse served as a crucial waystation on the Underground Railroad, which helped move slaves to freedom in Canada; it was also an essential stop on the Erie Canal – a hand-built engineering feat linking New York City to the Great Lakes and beyond – so helping to build economic networks across the state in the 19th century. The Erie Canal Museum is housed in the original Syracuse Weighlock Building, the only remaining boat weigh station in the country; here visitors can climb aboard a replica canal boat and check out the crew quarters, cargo hold and passenger areas.

The region's natural environment is worth exploring too: a hike along the cliffs at Clark Reservation State Park – a 10-minute drive from downtown Syracuse – reveals a glacial plunge basin lake embraced by wetlands, woodlands and meadow. Keep your eyes peeled for kingfishers, woodpeckers and cedar waxwings, and fish for pickerel, bullheads and sunfish. See visitsyracuse.com

ROCHESTER

Set to the north of the Finger Lakes near the shores of Lake Ontario, Rochester owes much of its good fortune to the father of popular photography, George Eastman. In the late 19th century, Eastman invented the Kodak camera and motion picture film, transforming his hometown into the image capital of the world.

Today, the man and his goodwill are memorialised across town: at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film (the world's oldest photography museum), located on his historic estate and containing a collection of more than 450,000 photographs and 28,000 films; at Rochester University's renowned Eastman School of Music, where the famous – and soon-to-be famous – study; at the university's dentistry and medicine schools, also endowed by the philanthropist; at the Memorial Art Gallery, where students of the Eastman School of Music can sometimes be seen playing jazz.

Though impacted economically by the arrival of digital photography, Rochester has experienced a renaissance in recent years, rediscovering its talent for innovation and so becoming the largest hub in the country for the photonics industry. The consequent change can be measured in the mushrooming craft breweries and distilleries, the restaurants capitalising on their proximity to farm-fresh produce and the wineries of the Finger Lakes region, and the artists producing exciting new works in old city buildings. See visitrochester.com

CORNING

Some of the most quotidian objects were created in this small, glass-industry city (light bulbs, first blown by hand here for Thomas Edison's incandescent lamps in the 19th century, Pyrex – and Corning Ware, of course) and some of the most sophisticated, too (fused silica glass used in NASA's space shuttle windows, medical lasers). Today there's still plenty of glass blowing (and glass-gazing) going on, in the Hot Shop at the fabulous Corning Museum of Glass, where artists demonstrate their mesmerising craft. Visitors can in turn create their own works of glass art before exploring the museum's collection of 35 centuries' worth of glass objects, exhibitions celebrating glass innovations (optical fibres for TV, gorilla glass for smartphones), its contemporary art gallery and a library whose mission it is to acquire everything every published on the subject of glass.

You could spend days in the museum, but the city itself is a delight, too: a main street crammed with galleries, antique shops, bars, cafes and innovative eateries such as Hand + Foot, where dishes such as Too Confused Noodle (shrimp, calamari, cockle, lobster gravy, Hong Kong Noodle and pickled celery root) both challenge and impress the tastebuds. See corningfingerlakes.com

FIVE OTHER EXPERIENCES IN FINGER LAKES, NEW YORK

AURORA

The historic village of Aurora is home to the cherished American ceramics, enamelware, furniture and accessories design company, MacKenzie-Childs. Brace yourself for an explosion of colour at its studio, shop and restored Victorian farmhouse, all set on a farm overlooking Cayuga Lake. Check into one of The Inns of Aurora, a series of historic houses beautifully restored by entrepreneur and one-time owner of MacKenzie-Childs, Pleasant Rowlands. See tourcayuga.com

TAUGHANNOCK FALLS

Set on the western rim of Cayuga Lake and towering a full three storeys higher than the Niagara Falls, Taughannock Falls surge through an ancient bed of shale, sandstone and limestone before plummeting into a pool 65 metres below. Hike the gorge trails, spot snow geese, turkey vultures, osprey and chickadees and, in summer, watch silent movies beneath the stars (a tribute to the silent movie studios that once operated in Ithaca). See nysparks.com/parks

DINOSAUR BAR-B-QUE

There's always a queue at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse, but your patience will be rewarded, and your appetite sated, with its delicious American roadhouse fare: shrimp cooked in beer, fried green tomatoes, barbecued pork ribs – with mac and cheese on the side, of course. Voted the country's best barbecue by Good Morning America, it started out as a mobile concession selling food to bikers before settling down permanently in Syracuse, and expanding into other cities and states. See dinosaurbarbque.com

LETCHWORTH STATE PARK

It's hard to believe this place had been deforested by loggers when American businessman William Letchworth crossed the Genesee River by train in the 1800s. He bought land here, thwarting further logging and the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Today, Letchworth is one of the country's best-loved state parks and has been dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the East": cottonwoods and sycamores hug the shoreline and oak and maples trees flourish further up the slopes; the river carves its way through a gorge before tumbling majestically down three major waterfalls. The story of the native Seneca people – and Irish-American girl Mary Jemison, whom they adopted – is told at the Mary Jemison Memorial. See parks.ny.gov/parks

ITHACA BEER COMPANY

As a Cornell University student, Ithaca Beer Company founder Dan Mitchell realised the city was missing a craft brewery. So instead of moving to New York City after graduation like so many of his contemporaries, he stayed put and opened one himself. The Taproom adjacent to the brewery serves up comfort food with a sophisticated twist (cheddar ale soup, pimento burgers); almost everything on the plate is a local product. But the main attraction is beer: select from a comprehensive list of creatively named ales, beers and ciders – or sample a variety with a beer flight.

Catherine Marshall was a guest of I Love New York.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-york

fingerlakestravelny.com; iloveny.com

FLY

Qantas flies to New York City from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane six times per week. Return economy flights start at $1543. See qantas.com

TOUR

New York State's 11 tourism regions can be reached by bus, car, train or plane from New York City. The five-day, self-drive Wine Water Wonders itinerary starts in New York City and takes in the Finger Lakes region (including Corning and Rochester) and Niagara Falls. See winewaterwonders.com

STAY

The region offers every conceivable accommodation style, from boutique inns to houseboats and glamping. See iloveny.com/places-to-stay

Comments