Incredible Ithaca!

March 8, 2006 10:39 am
Ithaca_Falls

After a hiatus of several years from the pages of Ottawa Life Magazine as a backpacking international travel writer, I have returned with my wife Annie, this time as parents embarking on our family’s first vacation to ‘gorges’ Ithaca, New York. Located in the central Finger Lakes Region, Ithaca is a pleasant five-hour drive from the National Capital region.

To test the rumoured excellence of New York State’s road signage, we left Ottawa in the general direction of Ithaca, but did not plot our course on a map. Crossing through Johnstown and Ogdensberg, we followed Interstate 51 to Syracuse. From there, we motored to Ithaca along the scenic southwest routes 11 and 13. The signage is indeed excellent. Effortlessly, we arrived to a warm reception from the hospitable proprietors of the Spruce Row Campsite & RV Resort (www.sprucerow.com).

With over 200 tent and trailer sites, Spruce Row offers an abundance of private camping and fully equipped cabins. The resort offers an assortment of paddleboats, playgrounds and hayrides, as well as a miniature golf course and tapered swimming pool. Parents who want to engage in activities with their children have plenty to do. We awoke the next morning, with camp-heads and a hankering for a big American breakfast. We were also keen to explore our surroundings.

Bisecting lush fields and dense woodlands, the winding country roads led us to the Falls Tavern Restaurant in nearby Trumansburg, where heaping breakfasts, fresh juice and plenty of hot coffee are served. We were greeted by the warm buzz of lively conversation and three old-timers sitting alongside a table facing the door. You couldn’t help but smile as they gave our family a watchful appraisal and offered friendly nods. We had an opportunity to chat with one of these sage patrons, after eating a stick-to-your-ribs meal. A fellow by the name of Koskinen spoke with a quiet pride of the community he had “no desire to leave” and described a rich history of ingenuity, diversity and reinvestment.

A busy day at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.

Indeed, Ithaca has enjoyed an abundance of novelty, growth and sophistication. In the first halt of the 19th century, the area had its own railway line (since converted for use as a hiking trail.) Cornell University was established in 1865 as a co-educational institution. We are told that many of the students fall in love “with the Finger Lakes area and decide to settle there. The 1920s saw a booming silent cinema industry spearheaded by the acclaimed Wharton Studios, where the classic Perils of Pauline serials were made. By the end of the 1990s, Ithaca had established its reputation for superb tourism. Today, this wonderful region boasts an abundance of attractions that promote sustainability, dynamic ingenuity and a strong communal network.

Perhaps the most famous acheivement in innovation was the perfection of coffee by Ithaca’s own Gimme! Coffee (www.gimmecoffee.com), established in 2000. I had the good fortune to experience Gimme! Coffee early on in our visit to Ithaca and noticed that many locations around town were serving this fine brew.

We next visited the Sciencentre (www.sciencenter.org).The facility has an abundance of interactive exhibits that promote Science. The monumental Sagan Planet Walk is a scale-model of the solar system stretching over one kilometre to the downtown Commons. Each planet station was designed by local artist Erin Caruth and commemorates the famous astronomer and Ithaca resident Carl Sagan. The Sciencentre is one of eight institutions to visit on the educational Discovery Trail (www.discoverytrail.net).

Following our tour of the solar system, we boldly explored the historic Downtown Ithaca Commons (www.downtownithaca.com), a pedestrian marketplace with an international flair reflecting the diversity of the local population. At a Tliai restaurant, a polite proprietor entertained my clumsy attempts to order a chicken and cashew dish in the Thai tongue. (One could say I was tongue-Thaied!) turns out the server was Laotian.

Shopping alternatives include the Dewitt Mall, Centre Ithaca or Wegmans. While downtown, we spotted the Ithaca version of a police cruiser, a bright yellow VW Beetle. (It may or may not have had a happy-face painted on it!). I took this vehicle as symbolic of the community’s laid-back and progressive manner, while Annie thought it spoke of good taste.

Area restaurants use local produce whenever possible. The 80-year-old Ithaca Bakery (www.ithacabakery.com) should be included on any vacationer’s itinerary. The mouth-watering aroma of fresh baking coupled with the immeasurable deli offerings will tantalize and satisfy the various cravings of a hungry family. Glenwood Pines Restaurant (www.glenwoodpines.com) features a six-ounce Pinesburger served on French bread from the Ithaca Bakery. The Moosewood Restaurant (www.moosewoodrestaurant.com), home of the famous cookbook, is known for its vegetarian creativity. We regularly stopped at Purity Ice Cream for bountiful scoops made with fresh local milk.

A spectacular view of the falls.

The next morning, we planned an early trip to Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a cooperative of local vendors displaying a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, preserves, arts, crafts and prepared meals. All products made or grown come from within a 50-km radius. We were delighted by stall after stall of tantalizing curios and edibles. Departing from the pier at the Farmer’s Market, Tiohero Tours (www.tioherotours.com) offers a one-hour narrated tour of Cayuga Lake and provides information about the local geology and history, told through the entertaining yarns of the captain and crew. The tour company also raises awareness of water-quality issues affecting the lake and uses bio-diesel fuel and biodegradable paint on their craft.

The region’s three sprawling State Parks beckon with their network of inviting hiking trails. Guided hikes are offered as well. With our Farmer’s Market picnic in hand. we planned to visit the 66-metre Taughannock  Falls that majestically cut through the soaring shale cliffs of a post-glacial gorge. We portaged our children up the accessible path to the base of the park. A popular tourism slogan, Ithaca is Gorges, lives up to its promise, while the locals love to tell you that these falls are higher than Niagara.

Robert Treman State Park is a tranquil forest sanctuary: 14 km of well-groomed hiking trails wander along the rugged gorge of Enheld Glen and Lucifer Falls. Following our vigorous hike, we took a refreshing swim in Cayuga Lake, loaded up at Wegmans, and retired to cottage life at beautifully situated Williams Ridge Cottages (315-364-8485).

Following the next lazy morning, we decided to shake a leg up at the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance (www.grassrootsfest.org). This annual event showcases traditional and contemporary roots music and is loads of fun for the whole family. Just don’t forget your tie-died shirt and dancing sandals! Just Joking! You can buy it all there! I went from squeamish bureaucrat to bluegrass-billy in no time.

Originally organized as a concert to benefit the local AIDS association, the GrassRoots Festival has grown into a nationally recognized event and is one of New York’s few self-sustaining not-for-profit arts organizations. Today, the festival continues to raise money for the fight against AIDS and other worthy causes, while providing an excellent profile of local and invited artistic talent.

My family’s weeklong vacation wound down, with Annie and I realizing that plenty of other attractions remain for our return visit. As we drove out of town, listening to Blue Rodeo’s Finger Lakes, we noticed a bumper sticker that read:

“Ithaca: 10 square miles surrounded by reality.” This summer, when you and your family need an escape from reality, consider a rejuvenating visit to Ithaca, NY. You’ll be glad you made the trek.

For a complete list of vacation ideas, contact the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau (904 East Shore Drive, Ithaca, NY 14850; tel.: 1-800-284-8422; www.visitithaca.com). The friendly and knowledgeable staff will provide an exciting range of options to suit any traveller’s interests and needs.

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