Capital Region Living’s resident jet-setter takes you on a wintery, wonder-y road trip west.
Story and Photography By Alexandra Baackes
Latham native Alexandra Baackes is a world-renowned travel influencer, who has a loyal following on both her travel blog, Alex In Wanderland (alexinwanderland.com), and her Instagram, @alexinwanderland, which boasts nearly 80K followers. She’s now offering Capital Region Living readers top destinations within driving distance of her old stomping grounds. Note: Before traveling to the region or booking entertainment there, be sure to check the latest COVID-19 rules, regulations and restrictions.
It’s been quite a year. Very few of even the most hardened local wanderlusters ventured outside of the Capital Region this past summer, with nearby states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont proving popular pandemic pitstops for those who did. But now that we’re getting deeper into the winter months (and spiking COVID cases), it’s worth looking within the State of New York again for road-trip-able destinations. So, let me take the wheel and steer you three hours west of Albany to the idyllic Finger Lakes region.
First things first: The Finger Lakes is best known as a wine region, so if you’re the teetotaling type, it might not be your cup of tea. (That said, there is plenty to do that doesn’t involve cabs and pinots—and hey, everyone will be forever grateful for your DD-ing skills.) Nowhere is the unpretentious nature of the lakes’ many wineries and vineyards more apparent than at the ironically named Pompous Ass Winery on Seneca Lake, where mulled wine cider kits are now available alongside the winery’s Kiss My Ass series of wines (if you’re wondering, all that “ass” refers to a donkey). The winery is open 10am–6pm daily, and the property even boasts a bookable vacation rental. In nearby Burdett, Mandy’s Magical Mulled Wine kit is the specialty of Atwater Estate Vineyards’ tasting room manager, who calls it a spin on Glühwein, a type of German mulled wine. Keep the European-inspired tour rolling with a visit to Swedish Hill Winery on Cayuga Lake, and don’t leave without glugging some Glögg, a traditional Scandinavian wine made with a specially imported extract from Sweden that contains spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and ginger. If you’re thinking about making it a Finger Lakes Christmas, the holidays are sure to be in full swing at Point of Bluff Vineyards, which has reimagined its onsite concert pavilion as a Winter Wine Garden for the entire month of December. Guests will be able to take part in wreath-making workshops, holiday cookie and gingerbread house decorating activities, and an ugly sweater contest. All events at the winery will include tastings, live music and an artisan market—the perfect place to check items off your holiday shopping list.
Of course, once you’ve drank all the drink that can be drunk, you’ll want to have a comfortable place to land. While there are certainly a number of decently priced Airbnb options throughout the region, if you’re the type who needs a bit more luxury for your lap, try the Belhurst Castle and Winery, a hotel that doubles as a stone castle, dating from the 1880s and is perched on the northwestern shore of Seneca Lake. The region is dotted with big-box hotel chains, bed-and-breakfasts, private inns and sprawling winery/estates, so there’s no lack of accommodations.
All that wining will no doubt get your stomach growling, so get a dinner reservation at The Park Inn in Hammondsport, which has a menu full of fresh, seasonal dishes. If you’re not tasting-ed out, try pairing your dinner with a wine flight of varietals from across the region. And don’t miss the hot skillet cookie (you won’t want to leave this one for Santa). If you’re still having trouble finding a permanent place to stay, you can’t ask for a shorter commute to bed than the five tastefully restored inn suites upstairs. (Just make sure to book one ahead of time.)
Now, onto the final stop on our adventure. The city of Corning is to glass as the greater Finger Lakes region is to wine. Take an ornament-blowing workshop at Hands-On Glass and follow that up with a trip to the world-class Corning Museum of Glass, the largest of its kind on the planet. Experiences at Hands-On are private to your group, and you’re welcome to bring your own food and drink along—so no need to hide that spiked eggnog in your flask. And tickets to the museum, which must be purchased online in advance, are valid for two consecutive days, because it will take you that long to get through it all. Trust me.
OK, so maybe 2020 isn’t the year to spend Christmas in Paris—or even Florida, for that matter—but there’s no reason you can’t get reacquainted with Upstate New York. One caveat, though: prepare to be hooked. The Finger Lakes is an annual draw for in-the-know travelers, across all seasons. So, you might just find yourself planning (and booking!) a follow-up trip in the new year.