Before New Jerseyans are forced to deal with our never-ending winter, we are blessed with fall, a season so packed with colors and activities that I refuse to go on any long-distance trips during September or October – to me, fall weekends are precious, and needed for pumpkin picking, apple picking, haunted hay rides and cider donuts.
However, for the last two years, my family and I have been taking a trip designed for fall – a long weekend getaway to Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. For a few days, we check out fall foliage, visit wineries throughout the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, stay in a rustic cabin and sail down the lake.
This year, however, Seneca Secrets, our usual hangout, was all booked up and we figured we would mix it up and head to Lake George, which has always seemed to be a favorite destination of New Jerseyans.
As serious weather warnings sent New Jerseyans flocking to their nearest grocery store to stock up on batteries, water and canned goods during the weekend of Oct. 3, I was on a four-hour drive to Seneca Lake to stay in the one place you don’t want to be during a storm — a cabin.
Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, theoretically is a very pleasant place to be as fall sets in on the Northeast. Surrounded by gentle autumn breezes, the passing waves of the lake water and the changing colors of the leaves, Seneca Lake is an ideal place for fall-lovers to kick off the festive season.
Since my camping trip to Seneca Lake was booked months in advance and the weather looked unfortunate yet not tragic, we embarked, with some hesitation, on our planned getaway.
However, staying in Burdett in a Seneca Secrets cabin, a collection of three rustic yet updated cabins on the east side of the lake for $150 a night, in 40-degree weather with only a wood stove to keep warm, wasn’t the way I envisioned waiting out the storm, which, granted, hit New York a lot less hard than it did New Jersey.
Turns out, though, it wasn’t so bad after all, as Seneca Lake’s attractions need a lot more than a few drops of rain and chilly weather to shut down.
Obviously, the most practical activity to do on the worst day of weather was to cruise some of the area’s 32 wineries, which make up the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Each winery is a three-minute drive or less from the next alongside various roads running parallel to Seneca Lake and generally charge $5 to taste about six wines of your choice.
Although the weather didn’t lend itself well to hanging out on many of the wineries’ lush grounds or exploring their vineyards, it did work for relaxing in the tasting rooms, which reflect the personality of the winery. Plus, knowledgeable winery employees enthusiastically share stories and facts about their house-made wines and sometimes host tours of the production facilities.
Most wouldn’t think of a farmer’s market being the go-to place for a rainy day, but luckily, the Windmill Farm and Craft Market, about 25 minutes from Burdett through a relaxing country drive, primarily houses its vendors indoors within four buildings.
Vendors include those that sell baked goods, produce, antiques, home goods, clothing, jewelry and food items to 8,000 to 10,000 people every week, and have been doing so for the past 28 years.
Rain or shine, everyone needs to eat, and a full day of wine tasting and shopping will make any tourist crave a hearty meal. Restaurants and wineries in Seneca Lake love their local goods, and the Stonecat Café, an acclaimed organic regional restaurant nested in Hector, is no exception.
Open for lunch, brunch and dinner for the past 17 years, the Stonecat Café regularly hosts live music within its homey restaurant, including a jazz band during their weekly Sunday jazz brunches. As the season changes, the menu does as well, making for a truly unique autumn meal at its tables. Before you leave, make sure you check out their herb, flower and vegetable garden in the backyard, which remains bright and buzzing no matter the weather.
Although Watkins Glen State Park, the third-place pick in the USA TODAY Readers’ Choice Poll for Best State Park in the U.S., is best enjoyed in pleasant weather, there was no way that I was missing the 19 waterfalls of the park descended from the 200-foot cliffs along the two-mile gorge trail.
Through the trail, visitors can wander over and under waterfalls and through the cool spray of the Cavern Cascade. In the autumn, the surrounding forest is in full effect, presenting an enviable and colorful backdrop to the flowing waterfalls.
Right around the corner from Watkins Glen State Park is downtown Watkins Glen, which contains a few charming streets of turn-of-the-century homes as well as little shops such as O’Shaughnessy Antiques, a quirky vintage shop with antiques, estate jewelry, vintage designer clothing, vintage books, home furnishings and other odd finds from Louise O’Shaughnessy.
Other shops on the strip include the Fingerlakes Fiber Yarn Store, O Susannah Quilts and Gift, Watkins Glen Sporting Goods, Putty Jug, an antiques dealer, Coins Bought, a coin dealer, Country Haven Treasures, a furniture store, and Village Variety Shop, a used book store.
Seneca Lake, a haven for all things autumn with its changing fall foliage, quiet drives, independently owned wineries and shops and quaint cabins overlooking the lake, is a place best enjoyed in the pleasantry of sunshine. However, a little rain didn’t get in my way of getting my first taste of the season in the Finger Lakes — and since you won’t have a storm blocking your trip, nothing should get in the way of your visit to this haven of fall.
SENECA LAKE ATTRACTIONS
Stay at Seneca Secrets, a collection of three rustic, yet updated cabins located on the east side of the lake in Burdett for $150 a night, which include two rooms, two full-size beds, one bathroom, a kitchen and living room. Visit senecasecrets.com or call 908-922-8518.
Taste wines on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which include 32 wineries that are generally located about three minutes from the next. Prices vary per tasting, but usually, wineries charge about $5 to sample six wines of your choice. Visitsenecalakewine.com or call 877-536-2717.
Shop at the Windmill Farm and Craft Market, which has over 200 vendors selling baked goods, produce, antiques, home goods, clothing, jewelry and food items. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Saturday until Dec. 12. Visitthewindmill.com or call 315-536-3032.
Hike through Watkins Glen State Park, which features 19 waterfalls descended from 200-foot cliffs along a two-mile gorge trail. Vehicle entrance fee is $8 and park is open year-round. Visit nysparks.com/parks/142 or call 607-535-4511.
Wander through downtown Watkins Glen, which contains a few charming streets of turn-of-the-century homes as well as little shops. Visit watkinsglenchamber.com or call 800-607-4552.
I actually feel like October is my real birthday month, when I can pumpkin pick, apple pick, watch horror movies, drink fall beers and get fake-scared on haunted hay rides all month long (My actual birthday is in February). I like October so much that I usually refuse to travel during those 31 days, being that for the only four weeks out of the year, I actually prefer to stay in my kingdom of fall foliage in the forests of northwestern New Jersey. This rule has led me to book three trips cross-country from November to December. Whoops.
Anyway, following a mishap at the travel agent where my family left holding no confirmations being that we couldn’t agree on a single getaway, a travel savior came into focus.
Rich, my dad’s lawyer friend, who he does plumbing for.
Rich has a daughter, Amy, who runs some rustic cabins up in Seneca Lake, New York, which is the deepest of the Finger Lakes. I’ve never been to the Finger Lakes, barely ever been to upstate New York (too pretentious) but I figure it’s gotta be pretty nice in the fall, I mean this is a lake, so I agree to leave my short-lived hometown paradise for a precious weekend.
Turns out, Seneca Lake a fall empire.
Although this was unknown during our four-hour drive north starting at 9:00 pm, it being so dark out that we couldn’t find our cabin which we were 20 feet away from, it was immediately obvious when we woke up and stepped out the door. All around, we were surrounded by fall foliage, autumn-themed wines and beers, cool outdoor activities and farmer’s markets. If you’re looking for a weekend getaway (because you don’t live in the middle of nowhere, obviously) here’s the reasons why you should head to Seneca Lake, New York.
1. The Seneca Lake Wine Trailbecause honestly, who doesn’t love being toted to 32 wineries, all within a three-minute drive of the next? The Wine Trail, which can trace its winemaking history back to 1866, is composed of wineries lining the east and west sides of Seneca Lake, full of beautiful fall foliage in a serene environment. Most wine tastings, in which you can taste five to seven local wines while overlooking Seneca Lake, cost $3 to $7 (generally) making for a pretty cheap yet blurry afternoon out. With the variety of personality that each vineyard exhibits, you can’t really get bored (or sober).
2. The Windmill Farm & Craft Marketis the first craft market in upstate New York, with the numbers to prove it – they receive an average of 9,000 visitors a week. With about 200 shops, they sell all kinds of cool stuff like leather goods, homemade pastries, jewelry, knitwear, toys and games and a million other things, mostly being sold by the Amish. Even though the market itself lies about 30 minutes away from from the other main attractions of Seneca Lake, it is worth the scenic and relaxing drive up the New York countryside.
3. Watkins Glen State Parkmay cost $8 to get in, but it is also, and rightly so, the most famous of the New York state parks due to the 19 waterfalls cascading down 200-foot cliffs within two miles. Hikers can travel the trail, equipped with their walking shoes, to capture this truly spellbinding winding walk. You can’t miss the spray of Cavern Cascade or the various pools, especially in this season made for the outdoors.
4. Finger Lakes National Forest, because what’s the outdoors without a hearty hike? Check out this park, which features 30 miles of interconnecting trails that will take you to pastures, forests, ravines and gorges. This is especially a great spot if you’re equipped with a horse, mountain bike or binoculars (for some quality wildlife watching).
5. Boating on Seneca Lakeis an obvious must-do when you’re staying on, umm, Seneca Lake. If you’re not lucky enough to have a nearby friend with a boat like we did (sorry), then don’t miss the opportunity to travel on an uncrowded body of water by booking a trip on one of the excursions. Try out Schooner Excursions, which go for $29 to $49 depending on the time of day of the cruise.
“You think I wanted to be married and saddled with you two brats at 25?” my dad says as we sit on a dock in Burdett, New York, at the site of Seneca Lake of the Finger Lakes. “I thought I would be hanging on the back of a boxcar headed to Sante Fe.”
The water is rolling on, its tiny waves cruising alongside white sailboats through the lake. Seneca Lake is calm, like it, too, has passed through its wildest moments.
Right now, imagining my chubby father with a smile stretched across his face in his dad jorts and holey socks holding on to a train car seems pretty funny. After he toted us to from our chosen winery of the moment to a craft store (any man’s nightmare), planning on sleeping on the couch tonight as my sister and I claim the two bedrooms in our rented rustic cabin, I know that what he says was once true.
Back in his heyday, my dad was… a lot like how I am now. He was always looking for a way to get out and cause some mayhem with his dopey friends, could generally be found hanging out at dirty bars, was never really sure who’s couch he would end up sleeping on that night and was always on his way to somewhere else. He spent hours running through forests, chasing deer and catching turtles. He says he was making $5 an hour and had a girlfriend that cost him $6 an hour.
The idea of such change, from a wild, young pseudo-adult to a responsible parent of two, scares me inconsolably. To think that my dreams of adventures of faraway places and the many memories to come with my equally instantly-gratificated friends could fall to an ordinary existence toting brats around is petrifying. I know the fear is exclaimed across my paling and silent face.
“You don’t see it now,” he says, reaching down to touch down a scurrying fish, “but you’re not always going to want that.” I say nothing. He’s right, I don’t see it now. I see the clearness of the lake and the freedom that I have stretched before me in a life with no ties to anything at all. “You’re not going to want this forever. You’re not going to want to hang out with yourfriends and go to bars. You’re going to want to go to your kids’ parent-teacher conferences and go away for the weekend with your husband.”
At one time, for a very short time, that was my dad’s life, too. He and my mother were married for ten years, which I have varying memories of us going to zoos and kid-friendly restaurants and parks. The other varying memories consist of my mom throwing hair-dryers at him and her asking me if I would mind switching schools midyear as we moved, for the first time of six, following my parents’ divorce.
Nowadays, not a lot of semblance of my father as a saddled married father of two remains. We frequently take bets on when his newest girlfriend will be kicked to the curb, I sometimes get his drunken voicemails when I wake up for work on Thursday morning, and my dad is always headed to a concert or upscale restaurant with his cigar-smoking friends.
However, the semblance of his daditude that does remain is, I guess, vehemently instilled in dads everywhere. Here we are for four days, holed up in a cabin he found via some other rich white dude. He drives us anywhere we want to go and isn’t the least bit offended when my bratty sister complains about the WiFi or lack of soda. Most of all, even though it sure as hell isn’t Sante Fe and we got here via 2001 Ford Ranger rather than box car, my dad couldn’t be happier to be hanging out on the dock of a Seneca Lake cabin with his hat over his face, chatting with his daughter.