In the morning, my wife Fyllis and I walked along a path right in the town of Ithaca which skirts waterfalls that tumble through the bottom of a deep gorge. Then we strolled in a lovely botanical garden set in an expansive natural environment.
Lunch consisted of fresh farm-to-table produce accompanied by cider for which the destination is famous, and dinner featured similar fare augmented by equally well-known wine.
This introduction to Ithaca, New York included some attractions for which that small city is famous, but it only scratched the surface. Many people equate Ithaca (population about 32,000) with Cornell University, Ithaca College and nearby Tompkins Cortland Community College. Those learning institutions augment but don’t define, what the town has to offer visitors.
Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, New York
Its “Ithaca is Gorges” motto encapsulates both the proliferation of narrow ravines that bisect steep rock walls, many of which are home to cascading waterfalls and the beauty of the surroundings. It also refers to rolling farm fields, grapes growing in vineyards that dot the area and Cayuga Lake, the longest (38-plus miles) of the 11 narrow Finger Lakes that were gouged out during the Ice Age by glaciers as they moved south from present-day Canada.
Cayuga Lake is named after the indigenous Cayuga people, who were there when the Europeans arrived and still reside in the region. Early in the 19th century, settlers began to build houses and mills that were powered by waterfalls. At one time, dozens of factories manufactured flour, paper, agricultural equipment and other goods.
Much local history comes alive at The History Center, a state-of-the-art museum that includes interactive displays, collections of Native American artifacts, and other exhibits.
Canyons and Cascading Water in Ithaca, New York
But it’s outdoors where the appeals of Ithaca are most evident. The area in and around town claims more than150 waterfalls, and the viewing begins right in Ithaca itself. Aptly named Ithaca Falls is located within the city limits. Nearby Buttermilk Falls takes its name from the foaming water created as it descends in a series of rapids.
With a vertical plummet of 215 feet, Taughannock Falls is 33 feet higher than Niagara. It’s the tallest single-drop fall east of the Rocky Mountains.
While waterfall watching is a favorite activity in the area, an almost alphabet-long list of other things to do also vies for attention. An Art Trail leads to the studios of dozens of resident artists, and a Murals Map outlines a tour to view wall paintings and installations throughout the city. Hiking, biking and other trails crisscross the surrounding woods.
The Discovery Trail links an enticing group of attractions that range from the magnificent Cornell Botanic Gardens and Cayuga Nature Center to the Johnson Museum of Art and a 226-acre ornithology sanctuary, where over 230 species of birds have been recorded.
Fishermen cast their lines into stream waters and troll for landlocked salmon and trout in Cayuga Lake. Others explore the lake in tour boats while some view it from hot air balloons sailing above.
A drive through the bucolic countryside that surrounds Ithaca provides an introduction to other things to see, do and enjoy. Some are off main roads and, in their way, off-beat. One such sojourn led us to the tiny town of Trumansburg.
Ithaca’s Mill Town, Trumansburg
When it was incorporated in 1872 – happy 150th birthday, Trumansburg – the community was called Tremaine’s Village, a tribute to Abner Tremaine who founded it. He was granted the land for his service in the American Revolutionary War.
After developing as a mill town and commercial agricultural center, Trumansburg settled into its present-day role as a bedroom community for Ithaca and retreat for those who prefer life in the slow lane.
Pavement markers recall pages from the past. For example, Trumansburg Optical stands where a tavern operated in 1810, and the Wok Chinese Restaurant occupies the building that housed a fire-fighting company in the late 1800s.
While the Farmers Market in Ithaca is operated by a cooperative of about 150 vendors, the weekly Trumansburg version makes up in small-town charm what it lacks in size. While we were there, a local band consisting of three gray-haired gentlemen provided entertainment, people purchased just-picked fruits and vegetables, and the Autumn Harvest Farm stand offered “Free beef bones” along with its selection of meats. Another vendor hawked fresh mushrooms and mushroom tincture, and two young women wove yarn and knitted warm winter clothing.
The food treats available in this tranquil setting hint of the focus on field-to-plate pleasures that greet visitors to the Ithaca area. Throw in magnificent samples of Mother Nature’s handiwork and a lengthy list of activities and attractions, and it becomes clear that the “Ithaca is Gorges” slogan is as true as it is catchy.
If You Go
The Hotel Ithaca is a gathering place for Cornell alumni and visiting guests as well as those coming to town for other reasons, and its ambiance provides links to the surroundings. Walls are covered with photos that focus upon the wondrous waterfalls that people associate with the destination. The hotel is close to the popular Ithaca Commons, a wide pedestrian mall that is lined by places to eat and drink, unique shops and inviting galleries, and public art.
The Moosewood Restaurant has been a bright star in the farm-to-table trend which celebrates the variety that vegetables can provide to the hungry diner. Other dining alternatives include vineyards, breweries and cideries that offer food from nearby farms to enjoy with their libations.
For more information log onto The City of Ithaca online.