AURORA, N.Y. —The sun is setting over the silvery waters of Lake Cayuga in upstate New York, and from the rocking chair on my private balcony at the Aurora Inn, I sip a glass of wine from the vineyard I visited just a few hours ago. Geese gathering at the lakeside honk every now and then, breaking the quiet. Life, I think, is very, very good.
Aurora is not a small town. It is oh-so-much tinier than that. It's a village, really, or a sleepy hamlet, surrounded by acre upon acre of rolling hills of rich farmland. The population is shy of 900 residents (at last count) and gets a boost each school year from the 550 or so students who attend its liberal arts school, Wells College (established in 1868 by Henry Wells, of Wells Fargo and American Express fame). Aurora is one of those places that you could completely miss if you drove through its center with your head bent over the radio looking for the local station.
And yet, and yet. After just one late-October day exploring its charms, I am head-over-L.L. Bean shoes captivated by this place, already wondering when I can come back again. For those of us who spend so much of our time in cities and suburbs, Aurora at first glance seems terribly devoid of attractions and entertainment. But a place like this, as Robert Frost might say, asks a little of us here. It does ask us to stop writing those endless to-do lists, to forget about killer apps and who's about to get kicked off Dancing With the Stars, and instead contemplate nature and its beauty. One thing this Finger Lake has in spades is beauty.
If you should be lucky enough to have upstate New York in your spring-to-fall vacation plans, consider a weekend in Aurora. Here's how I spent my day.
The Finger Lakes Wine Country includes more than 100 vineyards and wineries, most of them on the two largest lakes of the region, Seneca and Cayuga. Seneca has more than Cayuga, and the western shore of the 40-mile-long (and 3 1/2-mile-wide) Lake Cayuga has more vineyards than the east.
I decide to explore this slower east side of the lake, traveling from Ithaca, where I was visiting my son at school, to Aurora and stopping at three spots: Six Mile Creek Vineyard in Ithaca, King Ferry Winery in King Ferry and Long Point Winery in Aurora. Without stops, the trip would take about 40 minutes.
These are not fancy vineyards like you'll find in Sonoma and Napa Valley. They are small places, farms really, owned by families that are often in the tasting room doing the pouring. Most places charge $2 for six samples.
On the day I visit, no one is in a rush and I find myself in fun conversations with the pourers, who seem genuinely interested in discovering which of their wines will most appeal to my palate. I learn that white wines are generally better than reds in this part of the country, but that one plot of land might have completely different soil than the plot next door, so you really need to know what each vineyard does well.
At Six Mile Creek, I love the chardonnay. At King Ferry, I taste the first riesling that I've ever liked, so surprised by its lack of cloying sweetness that I send a bottle home to Texas so my husband can try it, too. I also like their cabernet franc, a red grape that does well in that region. (I send a bottle of that home, too.) At Long Point, dry reds are the thing. The syrah is a spicy, robust treat. This is what comes with me to the inn.
The people of upstate New York are hearty folk and these vineyards are open year-round. Despite the snow that blankets this region each long winter, there's an annual Holiday Shopping Spree Thanksgiving week and the first week of December and Mardi Gras events in February.
I think perhaps I'd prefer to come back in spring for the Wine and Herb Festival. I make a mental note to think about returning some year in late April or early May.
If you love whimsical, one-of-kind home decor, then you probably are familiar with the MacKenzie-Childs company, makers of pottery, furniture, lighting, rugs and more. The headquarters is on a 65-acre former farm just a mile north of "downtown" Aurora and may very well be the most enchanting workplace in America. Artisans daily produce one-of-kind handmade ceramicware that will end up first in upscale retail stores, such as Neiman Marcus and Harrods, and then in the homes of those who go gaga over its whimsy and charm
The company has had a bit of a rocky recent history. Founded in 1983 by Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs, it was $15.3 million in debt by 2001, according to local newspaper accounts. Pleasant T. Rowland (the entrepreneur who created the American Girl Dolls empire) bought MacKenzie-Childs that year, ousting the titular heads but keeping the name and the brand in tact. She revamped and revitalized the business. In the spring of 2008, she sold the company, this time to a private equity firm. (More about Rowland in a moment.)
While the workshop is not open to the public, the grounds, including a Victorian farmhouse and a duck pond, are. And what a wonderful place they are to visit.
The farmhouse has been completely restored and is decked out in MacKenzie-Childs furniture and home decor. The pieces all have a kind of Alice in Wonderland quality. They feature bright colors and a hodgepodge of patterns that work together to creative a delightful, whimsical whole. There are oversize platters, chairs with fish on the ladder backs, tables with turtles peeking out at the base and ceramic goose tables.
The company's creative director, Rebecca Proctor, describes MacKenzie-Childs products as "things that make a real statement — they're happy and colorful."
They are, indeed. And no trip to Lake Cayuga would be complete without a tour of this magical place — and, of course, its gift shop, sure to make any shopaholic happy.
It's impossible to talk about Aurora today without also talking again about Pleasant Rowland, a 1962 graduate of Wells College. After returning to the school for her 25th reunion, she embarked on a partnership with her alma mater to restore several of the crying-out-for-a-facelift buildings (many owned by the college) that made up the center of the town.
The Aurora Foundation, a partnership between the college and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation, took on several major projects. It redid the historic Aurora Inn, which had closed. It redid the historic E.B. Morgan House (now a year-round seven-room guest house). It revamped the Village Market and Fargo Bar & Grill. Rowland bought the local sandwich shop, Dorie's, and redid that, too. Basically, in those years that she was getting MacKenzie-Childs back on track, Rowland also sunk a lot of money into pretty much every lodging and dining establishment in the village. When she was done, she turned all the property and management back over to the college in hopes that they would become new sources for revenue.
In a speech she gave in Aurora in May 2003 as she completed her work, she called it her "gift of restoration" and talked about how she "came here seeking an education of the mind. I left with an education of the heart." She described her initial attraction to the place: "Something in my soul craved its quiet beauty, the golden dappled shade of the ancient elms that arched over Main Street, the somnolent air of warm afternoons as shadows fell across broad lawns."
Six years after she left this place restored and revitalized, I have come to it for the first time and am one of the many happy recipients of her gift. Aurora is tiny but charming. I wander through the Village Market, enjoying the smell of simmering soups. I visit Jane Morgan's Little House, browsing through Vineyard Vines belts and Vera Bradley bags. I have dinner across the street from the inn at the Fargo Bar & Grill, where I have a fresh Greek salad.
Then it's back to the inn with its roaring fires and creature comforts.
For me, "historic inn" usually translates into "don't expect to sleep well." Walls are thin, beds are saggy and often there are problems with the heating system. What these old places lack in amenities, they usually make up for in oddities. In one such place in Salem, our shower was in what must have once been a small closet and the rest of the bathroom was across the room behind another small door.
But not so at the Aurora Inn, which may be the most comfortable hotel room I have ever slept in. When I return to my meticulously decorated room with its luxury linens and antiques, I find someone has flipped the switch to start the gas fireplace, turned down the bed, turned down the lights and left me chocolate.
There are only 10 rooms in the inn, including two suites. I love the combination of traditional (wood shutters and brass keys for the doors) and modern (flat-screen TVs, wireless Internet and rainforest showerheads in the marble bathroom). While gazing periodically at the moonlight over the lake, I read the inn's guest book, which lets me know that had I been there in season, I could have enjoyed swimming in the lake or kayaking and canoeing in the inn's boats. If I had wanted, I could have borrowed a bike to ride around town and perhaps explore the state park just down the road.
I think to myself, "There is too much to do and not enough time." Guests of the inn can also borrow croquet or bocce games for the broad back lawn. They can work out in the Wells College Fitness Center for a $5 fee. They can play golf on the college's course, designed in part by Robert Trent Jones.
I am up too early for the hot breakfast served in the dining room the next morning at 7, but when my wakeup call comes at 6:15, the young woman asks when I'd like my muffin basket delivered. "As soon as possible," I say, and 15 minutes later she rings me to tell me that the hot tea and muffins are just outside my door.
How reluctant I am to leave this little slice of upstate heaven.
On my drive back to the airport and the daily strife of life, my four perfect muffins are a delicious, physical reminder of Aurora's brief but bracing tonic for my soul.
IF YOU GO
391 Main St., Aurora
Open for single-room reservations May through the end of October.
CAYUGA WINE TRAIL
3260 New York 90, Aurora
The grounds, garden and shop are open daily 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Tours of the restored 15-room farmhouse, which features MacKenzie-Childs decor and interior design, are given daily (tours of the workshop are not available to the public).