Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge Entrance Sign

Vacations can take elaborate planning, designed to fit everything in or to meet the needs of friends or family. Sometimes, whether you’re a local or just in Ithaca for a long weekend, it can be more relaxing to set off on a whim with no rigid timetable or schedule in mind. That was the case on a recent Sunday, when my partner Jim and I decided to go for a drive up the west side of Cayuga Lake and meander back to Ithaca slowly, stopping as things caught our fancy along the way.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR) was our initial destination. During this quarantine year we had found a new appreciation for birds, spending hours watching the cardinals, blue jays and woodpeckers at the feeder over the winter. (If birds are not your thing, you might choose instead to check out the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls.)

We set out early like good birders should, stopping by the Ithaca Bakery for large coffees and big, gooey pastries to eat in the car as we zipped up Route 89. The sun was out for the moment, making the lake water off to our right sparkle as it flirted in and out of view.  Beautiful in all seasons, the drive seemed particularly stunning all decked out in the fresh greens and bright blues of early June.

Though we had driven by MNWR many times on the way to somewhere else, we’d never stopped to explore. I hadn’t even been aware that there was a Welcome Center on Route 20, just two miles from the intersection with Route 89. There we found trails to hike or bike, informative signage and observation towers, picnic areas and (score!) bathroom facilities. A large arch marked the beginning of Wildlife Drive, a three mile road through the middle of the wetlands offering the best up-close and personal view of blue herons, great egrets, snow geese and mergansers. We even caught a glimpse of two bald eagles high in a tree across one of the ponds. By late morning we were ready to head back down the lake toward Ithaca, keeping our eyes open for interesting stops and eventually lunch along the way.  

Route 89 is dotted with wineries, cideries and breweries all vying for attention, yet one relatively humble sign caught my eye. “Mushroom Spirits Distillery,” it read. “Tasting room now open.” It was a little early for shots, but I had to check this out!

Jim and I took a seat at the bar and considered the choices available for tasting. The $4 fee allowed us to sample any 3 mushroom-infused vodkas, ranging from Pleurotus (described as “light and airy,” best for those who want to “dip their toe into the world of mushroom spirits”) to the most intense Shiitake (“you will taste the mushroom”). The flavors ranged from subtle to rich and smoky. I was glad to hear that plans are in the works to offer mushroom-tinted cocktails like Moscow Mules and Bloody Marys and to open an outdoor seating area in the near future. Local tip: You can also find Blue Oyster Cultivation at the Ithaca Farmers Market.

The Finger Lakes Cider House, overlooking Cayuga Lake in Interlaken, is a favorite of mine not only for cider tasting but also for a delicious lunch. I love their locally-sourced salads, sandwiches and charcuterie boards (try the cast iron cornbread with jalapeno butter). Featuring their own Kite & String ciders, as well as a guest cidery which rotates monthly, you can get tastings or flights to sample several varieties.  For vinegar lovers (or those avoiding alcohol), there are also shrub flights in flavors such as blueberry lavender, strawberry peppercorn and peach ginger. (Take a bottle home—they make great mocktails or mixers).  Unfortunately, it looked to be busy on this sunny Sunday so we kept driving.

Finger Lake Cider House Salad & Cider Flight

We stopped in at Americana Vineyards, but discovered that their Crystal Lake Cafe is not open at this time. They are offering homemade soups and chicken spiedies, but Jim and I left with a couple of bottles of wine and a promise to return for some live music and lawn games later this summer. Still hungry, we continued up E. Covert Road to Route 96 toward Trumansburg.

Guy standing in winery
Americana owner Joe Gober welcomes visitors with a smile. UPDATE: The cafe is now open on Saturdays and Sundays!

Stumbling upon Beers and Brats at Autumn View just as it started to downpour, we gladly accepted a seat in their dining room. It felt odd to be eating inside a restaurant, but we are fully vaccinated and had a private alcove all to ourselves. We eagerly considered the menu and extensive list of craft beers before making our selections. The waitress kindly let us taste a few, before we settled on a chocolate stout (Jim) and a root beer porter (me).

Food at Glenwood Pines

Over a cheddar brat with sauerkraut and OMG beans (they lived up to their name), we discussed our options for the afternoon. If we wanted to continue our impromptu food and beverage tour, we could book a tasting at Bet the Farm Winery on Krums Corners Road. We could visit the Cayuga Nature Center and check out their 6-story treehouse and outdoor animal exhibits. If we had thought to bring our bikes, we could have taken a ride on the 8-mile Black Diamond Trail which runs from Taughannock to Cass Park in Ithaca. 

Jim and I opted to walk off the heavy lunch with a stroll to the falls at Taughannock State Park. If you haven’t seen the dramatic 215’ waterfall surrounded by towering rock walls, this is a must. For Jim and I, it is a sight that never gets old. The park has three trails to choose from—the flat and easy Gorge Trail (.75 mi.) and the more challenging North and South Rim Trails (1.5 and 1.125 mi.) 

Local tip:  If you want to see the falls without the hike, go to the Taughannock Falls Overlook Visitors Center. The overlook provides a stunning view of the falls as well as a souvenir shop and tourist information.

After our walk, we headed across the road to spread a blanket on the lawn by the lake. Jim dozed and I read my book, enjoying the sunshine and the sounds of children playing on the nearby playground. Lake swimming wasn’t open for the season yet, but will be soon. This was a perfect spot to relax and rest up for our evening activities.

The one item on our Sunday itinerary that we had scheduled in advance was a Club Cayuga Sunset Cruise on the MV Teal. Tickets for this two-hour boat cruise featuring a DJ onboard have to be purchased in advance, so I was glad that we planned ahead! The boat was scheduled to leave at 7:30 from its home port at the Allan H. Treman Marina.

Since Covid restrictions limited the amount of food and drink allowed onboard, I knew we would need to figure out dinner beforehand. Luckily Glenwood Pines, a longtime local favorite restaurant, was on the way to the marina. A quick check online told me that I could order takeout to pick up before their 6:00 p.m. Sunday closing time, leaving us plenty of time for a leisurely picnic supper before we set sail!

Local tip: Glenwood Pines is famous for the Pinesburger (their Fish Fry is good too). Both are delicious, but messy—be sure to get plenty of napkins. Also order water, both to stay hydrated and because you will need the cups (see below)!

After spending all day looking out at the lake, it was such fun to actually be on the water. The lively music and friendly staff added to the party mood (as did the bottle of Americana Riesling that we brought on board!). The sunset added the perfect touch to end our perfect Sunday outing.

Guest contributor
Cathy Shipos grew up in the Ithaca area and never left! She loves introducing newcomers to some of her favorite places and sharing little-known tips and tidbits along the way. For more local insights, check out her 'Food for Thought' column in Tompkins Weekly.