Image: Gorgeous gorge
Ann Levin  /  AP
Visitors are dwarfed by a waterfall as they make their way along a trail through a spectacular gorge in Watkins Glen State Park, at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. The Finger Lakes region of west-central New York is known for its dramatic waterfalls and gorges.
updated 9/6/2007 1:18:08 PM ET 2007-09-06T17:18:08

I saw them almost as soon as I walked into the Ithaca Farmers Market: Baskets of apples with odd shapes, strange hues and exotic names like Zabergau Reinette, Red Northern Spy and Calville Blanc d'Hiver.

Containers on a shelf offered slices, some from well-known varieties like Jonagold and McIntosh, others the rarer kinds increasingly popular among connoisseurs turned off by the vapid taste of mass-produced fruit.

These spectacular-tasting apples, many of them heirloom varieties, were grown on a local farm by Cornell horticulture professor Ian Merwin and his wife, Jackie. Nearby another Cornell scientist and his wife sold their bumper crop of squash and pumpkins in brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow.

No more proof was needed of the relationship between Cornell and local farmers in the lush, rolling farmland of the Finger Lakes district in west-central New York.

The Cornell brainiacs also lend a nerdy charm to this college town at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. In two visits to the area last fall, my husband and I returned to Ithaca again and again for the terrific used bookstores, unusual crafts and vibrant ethnic restaurants. Events this fall include Apple Harvest Fest, Sept. 27-30, and Ithaca's annual used book sales, Oct. 6-8, 13-15 and 20-23, with a quarter-million books for sale.

Ithaca also serves as a good jumping-off point to explore the countryside around the Finger Lakes, so named for the 11 long, slender bodies of water that divide the region from north to south, making any east-west journey a time-consuming operation.

The landscape was formed 2 million years ago, when a series of glacial advances and retreats scooped out north-south river valleys to form the deep basins that became the lakes. That left the east-west streams nowhere to go but down, down, down, creating dramatic gorges and waterfalls and inspiring the popular "Ithaca is Gorges" T-shirt.

One of the best ways to explore the region is by bike. We brought ours along after reading the excellent "Backroad Bicycling in the Finger Lakes Region" by Mark Roth and Sally Walters, which is crammed with useful information and entertaining history.

I won't soon forget the acrid, eye-stinging smell of freshly fertilized fields as we pedaled past neat dairy farms on the east side of Cayuga Lake. Or the first glimpse from a high ridge of its vast and serene blue waters, glimmering in the late autumn sunlight.

Whether biking or driving, you won't want to miss the scores of wineries clustered largely along the shores of the three largest lakes: Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga. Even if you're not a drinker, you'll be amazed by the sheer beauty of the vineyards, some planted on slopes pitched precipitously toward the water.

One evening around sunset, as we drove along the western shore of Cayuga after a brief rain shower, we saw the biggest, brightest rainbow we've ever seen arcing over the eastern side of the lake. Drivers pulled over to take pictures. Another evening, at dusk, driving along Seneca Lake, we passed the ghostly outline of a horse and buggy driven by one of the region's Mennonite farmers.

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The Finger Lakes region also offers quaint villages and towns full of colonial-era and 19th century American history.

If you've ever fantasized about owning a sprawling, old house with gables or turrets, take a drive on Route 20 along the northern edge of the lakes, through towns like Skaneateles, Auburn and Seneca Falls, where the women's suffrage movement was born.

Virtually forgotten by the rest of the country, and a bit down at the heels, many of these towns or their heritage-minded residents have preserved handsome specimens of 19th century architecture, from the classical lines of Federal and Greek Revival styles to ornate Victorian confections. The imposing mansions are a reminder of the region's wealth and importance during the heyday of the Erie Canal, when the farmland south of Lake Ontario was some of the most productive in the nation.

In Auburn, you can tour of the home of William H. Seward, secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, the man blamed, but ultimately vindicated, for the "folly" of buying Alaska from Russia. And you can see the bloody remnants of Seward's bed sheets from the night of April 14, 1865, when an associate of John Wilkes Booth burst into his Washington home and tried, but failed, to assassinate him as part of a larger plot to bring down the Union government.

Moving from history to ornithology, we were equally enthralled by the world-famous bird lab at Cornell, which operates an excellent visitor center. The low-slung building is worth seeing for the architecture alone. Constructed of cedar siding and rough, locally quarried stone, it's designed to blend into the marshes and ponds of the surrounding Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. Visitors can borrow binoculars and meander along four miles of trails that wind over streams and past marshy stands of cattails. Or you can go into a sound lab and listen to hundreds of wild animal calls, then record your own voice attempting to imitate them.

The gift shop is crammed with bird-themed products, including singing clocks.

Enthusiasm at the lab for bird-watching was so infectious we signed up to become members. That entitled us to a discount when we decided to buy better binoculars. Plus, they threw in a stuffed yellow-bellied sapsucker, which makes its distinctive drumming sound when you press its belly.

The ultimate nerdfest was the annual Rutabaga Curl where costumed contestants hurl the yellowish-orange root vegetable down planks at a target. The competition is preceded by the arrival of a flaming rutabaga torch from "Mount Cruciferous," held aloft by the Rutabaga Goddess who leads a "parade of athletes" past cheering crowds. Amid the faux-Olympian silliness, I spied a woman selling handmade rag rugs and snatched up one in bright colors for my bathroom.

The next day, we stuck our yellow-bellied sapsucker on our dashboard and began the five-hour drive back to New York City. Since we had only managed to see four of the Finger Lakes, we returned home with the knowledge that there were seven more to visit.

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