Ithaca is famous for its gorges and waterfalls, including Ithaca Falls, a favorite for local anglers. Photographs by Sarah Jaquay

Skaneateles’s Mirbeau Inn & Spa has spectacularly landscaped grounds evocative of Monet’s Giverny.

College towns have always appealed to me. They have the friendliness of a Mayberry, but can offer outsized entertainment and cultural opportunities because of their student populations. I’d heard how beautiful Cornell’s campus is and also about Ithaca’s natural beauty. After all, the town’s tagline is: Ithaca is Gorges. The region around the southern end of Lake Cayuga boasts abundant gorges and stunning waterfalls, some of which are just minutes from the town’s “other” campus, Ithaca College.
So last fall I was delighted to have the opportunity to explore Lake Cayuga and its eastern neighbor, Lake Skaneateles, using Ithaca as my base.
After a somewhat harrowing drive through downpours, we arrived at the majestic Hotel Ithaca in downtown Ithaca just in time for dinner. We were delighted by the hotel’s interior. The exterior sports a ’70s vibe, but extensive renovations in 2016 have given the lobby and common areas a clean, sleek modern look that manages simultaneously to be warm and inviting. And our suite in the recently built North Tower was lovely. The hardwood floors, fireplace and covered patio made it an ideal place to wait out the rain before heading to one of Ithaca’s iconic institutions, the Moosewood Restaurant.
It’s hard to quantify what Moosewood has done to popularize vegetarian cuisine. When it opened in 1973, making vegetarian meals meant putting a different kind of sauce on tofu. But that doesn’t begin to describe the depth and variety of Moosewood’s menu and cookbooks. As a newlywed, I received a two-volume set of the Moosewood Collective’s vegetarian cookbooks. (The Collective is a group of 19 people who own and operate the restaurant and write cookbooks.) I was puzzled as I’m not a vegetarian, but over the years those cookbooks have become some of the most dog-eared in our collection. We ordered Moosewood’s white bean, rosemary and roasted garlic spread on pita bread before indulging in their mushroom marsala and butternut carbonara followed by a divine fudge brownie. They bake everything on-premise and use no genetically modified products. Moosewood also sources from local farmers as much as possible. Every Ithaca visitor who likes good food (some of which tastes just like chicken:) should pay a visit to Moosewood.
Fortunately, we spent the next day hiking off our brownies and checking out waterfalls that were overflowing due to the heavy rains the previous day. Perhaps the most spectacular in terms of volume was right in town, Ithaca Falls. Our next adventure was perhaps the most satisfying. We had the pleasure of taking a sunset cruise with Discover Cayuga Lake Boat Tours. After lots of cloudy weather, the sky cleared just as we departed the dock. This multi-level boat cruises around Cayuga Lake and provides narration about the Finger Lakes’ delicate eco-system. The organization that owns the boat truly believes in its environmental mission to educate everyone about what affects the Finger Lakes. We happened to be aboard for the last cruise of the season when Discover Cayuga celebrates its interns. It made us hopeful listening to what these earnest young people gained from their experiences working on the Lake all summer and how it affected their career aspirations. Every last one of them will be an ecologist at heart, no matter what their future endeavors.
We had one day left in the region and I wanted to check out Skaneateles Lake and its namesake village. Skaneateles (pronounced “Skinny-Atlas”) is one of the eastern-most Finger Lakes and boasts a popular summer resort community at its northern end. When we pulled into the village and saw all the quaint Victorians, it reminded us of a flatter version of Chagrin Falls on a gorgeous lake. After a enjoying a Yankee pot roast dinner at the venerable Sherwood Inn, we drove up the road to check into the local version of Giverny, the fabulously-landscaped Mirbeau Inn & Spa.
The heavens dried up for our six-hour trip home via Interstate 90. I know we’ll return to Ithaca because it’s a great combination of natural beauty, culinary excellence and, once the virus subsides, college cultural entertainment.
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