I spent most of my visiting touring wineries and eating in restaurants situated along the eastern shore of the lake, from Watkins Glen north about 20 miles to Lodi. The road along here, Hwy. 414, is one of the most scenic in the area - it's narrow two-lane road set high above the water, flanked by vineyards, and passing through a handful of tranquil, quaint villages. The other thing I like about touring along Hwy. 414 is that it's easy to cut east several miles to reach the longest of the Finger Lakes, Cayuaga Lake (here's the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail), which has several nice wineries and is home to the decidedly progressive and unabashedly brainy college town of Ithaca.
My last day, I drove up the western shore of Seneca Lake. The road along here, Hwy. 14, is less visually dramatic and carries more traffic, but it does pass by a number of the region's most prominent wineries. And at the town of Dresden, you can turn west, and an easy 10-minute drive leads through the town of Penn Yan and around the shore of the area's other major lake of winemaking repute, Keuka Lake (check out the Keuka Lake Wine Trail.
The hotel opened in 2008 along an enviable plot with expansive view along the shore of Seneca Lake. With airy, spacious rooms done in a variety of layouts outfitted with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, high-quality linens, hard-wood floors, and armchairs, the hotel reminded me of the smartly done Indigo Hotel brand. It's an entirely independent hotel, but it's owned by the Hart Hotels group, which does in fact operate an Indigo Hotel (in Buffalo) as well as several other hotels in the Northeast. One thing I really appreciated here is that free, fresh-brewed Seattle's Best Coffee is provided by the elevator on each floor in the morning - it's far superior to typical in-room coffee, and it's a good stop-gap if you need caffeine before venturing down to breakfast.
The Harbor Hotel is a popular wedding venue and figures to be a popular setting as same-sex couples continue venturing to the Finger Lakes to plans weddings - there are several event spaces on the ground floor. There's also a terrific full-service restaurant, the Blue Pointe Grille, which specializes in steaks and seafood grills. It's also home to a very good bar, in the morning, the restaurant serves tasty breakfast fare (not included in rates, but very reasonable). As is the case at virtually every serious restaurant in the area, the wine list features a wide variety of Finger Lakes pours and bottles. Also, on display is an impressive collection of very early Finger Lakes wines, some dating back to the very beginnings of the area's wine-producing history.
There's also a very nice gym with gorgeous lake views on the second floor - I used this every morning, glad for the chance to shed a few hundred of the thousands of calories I ingested on this trip.
Of course, Atwater is also a great winery for a visit. They do produce some of the crowd-pleasing "Seneca Sweets", but the winery's prestige comes with an eclectic range of well-crafted dry reds and whites, including first-rate Rieslings, a lively "Riewurz" (Riesling, Gewurtztraminer blend), and a commendable Pinot Gris among the latter. Of reds, I was surprised by the hearty, slightly spicy, as this is a grape that doesn't usually grow as well in cooler climates like New York. Also worth checking out are the Pinot Noir, Meritage (the classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot), and the unusual American-French hybrid varietal Marechal Foch, which is slowly gaining credence in New York (as it is in Oregon and Washington). Be sure to take a break while you're tasting to step out on the deck and admire Atwater's stunning lake vistas.
We spent time during our visit with vineyard owner John Wagner, who with his sister Laura took over operations when their father (and winery founder) Bill passed away in 2010. John taught us a lot about both the winery's own history (it's been around for more than 30 years, making it one of the Finger Lakes pioneers) and the region's. A theme that comes up all around the Finger Lakes is especially well-pronounced here: Wagner, like many wineries in the area, has earned a loyal following with an eclectic mix of locals and visitors by producing both light, sweet, and affordable wines (Cayuga White, Geneva Red, Niagara, and so on) as well as a number of outstanding, award-winning "vinifera" varietals, which earn more respect from critics, sommeliers, and serious fans. These wines with European pedigrees include Riesling (both dry and semi-dry), Gewurtztraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc (one of the most popular reds in the region, of Bordeaux descent), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
Wagner also excels with another wine type that's highly regarded in the Finger Lakes: dessert-oriented ice wines - my favorite among these is the Vidal Blanc, an aromatic, well-structured wine that's perfect served with apple crisp, vanilla ice cream, or creme brulee.
The Wagner winery occupies a distinctive octagonal building with expansive lake views. It's open for wine and beer tastings (there's a large retail shop), as well as tours. It's well worth stopping by hear to gain a better understanding of the region's winemaking history.
It's just a few minutes' drive or 10-minute walk south to reach the center of the city's lively and easily strolled Gaffer Historic District, which makes up the heart of downtown Corning and comprises several blocks of mostly independent cafes, bars, galleries, and shops. Here I visited the city's other acclaimed attraction, the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, which is set inside an ornate 1893 Romanesque Revival building that formerly housed the city's town hall. Collections and exhibits here touch on the rich history of art in the American West, including many works by former upstate New Yorker Frederic Remington, as well as Charles Russell, Frank Tenney Johnson, N.C. Wyeth, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt (a beautiful oil of California's Mt. Whitney), Nicolai Fechin, and George Catlin.
I grabbed a quick and excellent dinner along the Gaffer District's main drag, Market Street, at casual Atlas Brick Oven Pizza (try a pint of the crisp, hoppy IPA from Southern Tier Brewing Co., in Lakewood, NY). Other notables along in the neighborhood include Three Birds Restaurant, the Cellar Tapas and Wine Bar, Soul Full Cup Coffeehouse, and Donna's for brunch and breakfast.
Downtown Corning is also home to an excellent, gay-owned B&B, the Hillcrest Manor, whose five rooms occupy a dramatic 1890s mansion.