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The Finger Lakes are a pretty destination for history and wine

A day's drive away, New York's Finger Lakes region offers splendid scenery and countless vineyards.

This undated image provided by Finger Lakes Tourism shows a view of boats on Keuka Lake in Red Jacket Park in Penn Yan, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region. The area is known for wineries and scenic countryside around 11 long, narrow lakes in central New York, about 250 miles northwest of New York City. Fall is a popular time of year to visit thanks to the harvest season and autumn foliage.
This undated image provided by Finger Lakes Tourism shows a view of boats on Keuka Lake in Red Jacket Park in Penn Yan, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region. The area is known for wineries and scenic countryside around 11 long, narrow lakes in central New York, about 250 miles northwest of New York City. Fall is a popular time of year to visit thanks to the harvest season and autumn foliage.Read moreFinger Lakes Tourism

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Even considering that a travel writer's career is unconventional, this was an unusual day at the office. Standing in front of a large illuminated screen filled with cartoon and movie characters, and using just the motion of my arms against the screen, I was trying to get Darth Vader to do battle with Yoda.

Darth, menacing as ever, seemed willing enough. Yoda was less inclined to give it a go. Finally, waving my arms like a stranded motorist, I succeeded in luring Yoda out of his safe space. The battle was on.

I was at the Strong National Museum of Play, and no child there was playing any harder than I was. Over several hours, I tested my Ms. Pac-Man skills in the video arcade before moving on to the life-size chessboard, the library with its collection of Nancy Drew mysteries, the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, and the Toy Hall of Fame, which includes that favorite of all children — the cardboard box.

I might even have hopped aboard the 1918 carousel — if every horse hadn't been occupied by pint-size riders more to their steeds' scale.

Rochester is "the Gateway to the Finger Lakes," a region in Upstate New York covering 9,000 square miles and 14 counties, making it approximately the size of Vermont or New Hampshire.

Known primarily for its 11 pristine lakes and its reputation for fine wines, it has much more to tempt visitors — historical and literary sites, Native American culture, farm-to-fork dining, and scenery so spectacular only superlatives will do.

In the 19th century, western New York was a hotbed of activism. The industrial revolution had spurred the educated classes to take on causes ranging from slavery, with abolitionist Frederick Douglass leading the charge, to women's suffrage, whose high priestess was Susan B. Anthony. Her mantra, "Men, their rights and nothing more; Women, their rights and nothing less."

Situated in one of America's most intact preservation neighborhoods, Anthony's former home is now a museum. This National Historic Landmark was where she spent most of her politically active years, welcoming other like-minded individuals, such as Douglass and fellow suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The front parlor was where Anthony was arrested in 1872 after she incurred the ire of officials by casting a vote.

When the arresting officer tried to treat her according to her sex and station, she angrily demanded to be handcuffed and hauled in like any other "criminal."

If Anthony was a strong, determined woman, the same could be said of the tribal matriarchs of the Seneca Indians. Though women could not be chiefs, they dominated every other aspect of tribal life.

Learn their story at the Seneca Art and Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. The 500-acre site covers two hilltops, and in the 17th century was the home of a thriving culture with 4,500 people living in 150 longhouses.

In 1687, a French expedition, hoping to gain control of the region's lucrative fur trade, burned Ganondagan, known as the Town of Peace, to the ground. Today, in addition to the center, there are three trails, a representative garden (featuring the Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash), and a full-size replica of a bark longhouse open to the public.

Better known for chronicling history than making it, Mark Twain was an indelible part of the American experience, and the Finger Lakes Region — specifically Elmira — played a role in his story. For 20 years, he created some of his most memorable characters (including Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn) in a small octagonal study at Quarry Farm, the home of his sister-in-law.

Quarry Farm is now open only to Twain scholars, but fans of his work need not despair. In 1953, the author's niece Ida, a professor of English at Elmira College, had the study moved to the campus. Twain lovers are welcome to visit before heading to his nearby gravesite, listed as one of the 10 most-visited graves in the world.

The 11 lakes offer spectacular scenery, but the region is also known for its rolling hills, deep valleys, gorges, and waterfalls, and during the time I was there, its tapestry of fall colors, making the vista appear to be a red, orange, and yellow jigsaw puzzle.

Because it was formed by a glacier, the Ithaca area alone has 150 waterfalls and gorges, two of which are especially scenic. The Fall Creek Suspension Bridge is on the campus of Cornell University above Fall Creek Gorge, part of a hanging valley where the creek passes through the glacial trough of Cayuga Lake. The single-span bridge provides a great overlook, and after taking in your fill of nature's handiwork, you can head over to the Johnson Museum for man-made art.

Whatever you do, don't miss Taughannock Falls State Park. Its namesake falls are the tallest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rockies and three times taller than Niagara. They splash down the side of a rugged gorge that, when clothed in its fall best, provides a riot of colors.

One of the real jewels of the Finger Lakes region is Letchworth State Park, often referred to as "the Grand Canyon of the East." Though that may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that with its concentration of gorges and waterfalls, it is one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern United States.

As luck would have it, on the day I stood at the Humphrey's Corners overlook, mist and fog had shrouded the Genessee River Gorge, allowing only a peek at its silhouette. By squinting, I could just make out the silvery loop of water bisecting the gorges.

Fortunately, by the time I reached Glen Iris Inn, the weather had improved enough for me to get a real sense of the park's grandeur, most notably the cascading waterfalls just below the inn's front lawn.

For more than a century-and-a-half, the Finger Lakes have been a wine lover's paradise, particularly if you are a fan of Riesling. With more than 100 wineries to choose from, it would be advisable to do a little research before setting out (remember, you are covering an area the size of a New England state).

I visited three wineries in the picturesque town of Hammondsport overlooking Lake Keuka: Bully Hill Vineyards, Keuka Lake Vineyards & Winery, and the granddaddy of them all, Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars.

Recognized by Wine and Spirits Magazine as one of the "Top 100 Wineries in the World," it has been winning awards since 1962, when  Frank revolutionized viticulture in Upstate New York.

If you are an oenophile, book a tasting in the winery's 1886 Reserve Room. Available June through October (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday by reservation only, and a bargain at $35), it is an introduction to some of the region's most elegant and complex wines.

Another wine experience not to be missed is a visit to the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua. Through partnerships with area farmers, artisans, winemakers, brewers, and distillers, it promotes the agricultural bounty of New York State.

The center offers three  visitor experiences: demonstrations by various purveyors (the night I visited, the demo was on pairing wine with Halloween candy), cooking classes, and wine dinners in the restaurant.

There was a legend among the Native Americans of the Finger Lakes region that the Great Spirit placed his hand on the land to bless it and left behind a divine handprint. Gazing at this beautiful landscape, and seeing the long, slender fingers of water, the legend doesn't seem that hard to believe.

Where to stay

  1. Ellwanger Estate, Rochester. A family estate turned bed-and-breakfast.

  2. 1837 Cobblestone Cottage, Canandaigua. At the north end of Canandaigua Lake, it was formerly a farmhouse and has an attic room that was once part of the Underground Railroad.

  3. Pleasant Valley Inn, Hammondsport. The name is no misnomer. The inn and its popular restaurant are as pleasant as they sound.

  4. Argos Inn, Ithaca. A restored historic mansion with 10 guest rooms and a bar known for classic cocktails.