It doesn’t matter how many years it’s been since you waited for a school bus or crossed a campus—fall will forever remain the season of “back to school.” (Sounds like a great trip theme, muses this travel writer!) New York State is home to so many storied academic institutions, a number of which are concentrated right here in the Capital Region. Yet tucked away in tiny Tompkins County—another one of the 62 counties in New York that I’ve set out to visit this year—is the prestigious Ivy League’s Cornell University.
While I loved attending the Pratt Institute, a small fine arts school in Brooklyn, as I drove south through the Finger Lakes, it wasn’t hard to imagine why so many high school seniors have their sights set on spending their precious college years in idyllic Ithaca. Perched on the south edge of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca really is “gorges,” as its unofficial slogan suggests, with a number of, yes, gorges, state parks, waterfalls and natural pools dotting the map.
So what is the best way to enjoy the early autumn glow of Tompkins County? I’m going to suggest glamping, which has taken New York State by storm in recent years, with luxurious tent sites popping up everywhere. Firelight Camps (firelightcamps.com), which sits on the La Tourelle Hotel & Spa’s (latourelle.com) grounds and opened in 2014, was one of the first. I couldn’t resist. Stepping into the lobby, a luxurious tent with carpeted floors and a bocce court out back, it was easy to see why the concept has caught on the way it has. My own tent, which I was soon escorted to, featured a spacious back deck, an elegant writing desk (perfect for penning dispatches, longhand, for Capital Region Living!), and a plush bed with fine sheets and a mountain of pillows—no blow-up air mattresses here.
Also absent? TVs, Wi-Fi passwords, lights and electrical outlets. Firelight Camps is all about unplugging and engaging with the place and the people—or pups—you’re with. Yes, dogs are welcome.
My days were bookended with local pride, starting with breakfast, which featured New York–sourced organic artisanal treats from nearby farms and makers in the lobby tent. A happy hour each evening showcased Finger Lakes wines, with homemade s’mores kits available for purchase by the firepits.
In between, my days in Ithaca were spent wine tasting along the Cayuga Wine Trail (cayugawinetrail.com), hiking those famous gorges and driving through Downtown Ithaca and the iconic Cornell campus. The area is also known for its top spas—which hire talent directly from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.
Firelight Camps backs right onto the charmingly named Buttermilk Falls State Park (parks.ny.gov/parks/buttermilkfalls), and a path literally around the back of my tent led me right down into the heart of the park. After scampering around Lake Treman and along Buttermilk Creek, I started the pun-intended gorgeous half-mile Gorge Trail, and after admiring the falls from below returned back up via the three-quarter-mile Rim Trail. While I could have continued all the way back up to the campgrounds on my own steam, I took advantage of La Tourelle’s shuttle service and hitched a ride back to Firelight instead.
A nice perk of the glamping experience at Firelight is that you’re able to use the facilities at La Tourelle’s August Moon Spa (augustmoonspa.com) free of charge throughout your stay there. Spa offerings include a Maple Walnut Sugar body scrub, which uses real local maple sugar and syrup combined with walnut oil for sensitive-skinned clients. Or if you have dry, mature skin, you could go for the wine-trail-approved Riesling & Sea Salt scrub, which uses locally sourced Riesling wine flour mixed with grape seed oil for a truly antioxidant-packed, full-body experience. All spa treatments take place on heated tables, of course.
While Ithaca has plenty of fine dining options, I was more in the mood for the wide selection of affordable and laid-back college town eateries, like the can’t-miss Viva Taqueria (vivataqueria.com), which has a sprawling menu of Mexican food classics; and Collegetown Bagels (collegetownbagels.com), which besides its doughy breakfast fare is simply heaven for fans of sandwiches, wraps and salads.
I’m no stranger to glamping—on previous trips, I’ve bedded down at the Tomorrowland festival in Belgium and on a coastal resort in Peru—but it’s always a thrill to enjoy it at home in the great Empire State. Follow my lead, and you’ll be a happy camper, too! Even though it was a little sad to leave, driving along the beautiful backroads back to Albany, I caught myself daydreaming about a follow-up trip.