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Ithaca's Downtown Attractions

by Cyndy Ainsworth

Ithaca's Downtown Attractions
When you are ready to leave the campus, head for downtown Ithaca. Like many small towns, Ithaca has converted several blocks of the main shopping district into a pedestrian mall in an attempt to compete with the shopping malls on the town's outskirts. Shops range from the old-fashioned to the trendy, and several cafes and restaurants offer outdoor tables where you can relax and watch the world go by.

We're big fans of farmers markets' and always try to visit local markets when we're traveling, so we were pleased to find that Ithaca has a thriving farmers' market right on the shore of Cayuga Lake. Every Saturday from April to December you can enjoy live music while you shop for produce and flowers fresh from the farm, T-shirts, crafts, and baked goods. After you have cruised the market, you can wander down to the shore of the lake and enjoy the view.

One of the best parts of our visit to Ithaca was that we had an opportunity to learn a little about the forces of nature that created the Finger Lakes. The lakes were created about ten thousand years ago when huge glaciers that had moved into the central New York area from Canada began to melt. As the glaciers melted, the valleys that had been carved out by the glaciers as they moved south began to fill with water, creating the various lakes now known collectively as the Finger Lakes. Over time the streams that flowed down the sides of the steep valley walls eroded beautiful rugged gorges back into the hillsides. Today the streams tumble through the gorges in a series of cascades and waterfalls that are a constant source of pleasure to the eye and the ear.

Two of the most easily accessible gorges in the Ithaca area border the Cornell campus. Those looking for a moderately strenuous walk can follow the path up Cascadilla Creek Gorge from downtown to the southwest corner of the campus. The entrance to the path is at the intersection of University Avenue and East Court Street. A shorter walk along Fall Creek from the intersection of Lake and East Falls Streets will take you to the base of Ithaca Falls, one of the largest of the local waterfalls.

You can also enjoy beautiful gorges at Buttermilk Falls State Park, Robert H. Treman State Park, and Taughannock Falls State Park, all within just a few minutes drive from Ithaca. All three parks offer scenic hiking trails, pleasant picnic grounds, and swimming opportunities. After a few hours climbing up and down the steps beside Buttermilk Creek on a hot, muggy afternoon, the cold water in the natural swimming pool at the bottom of Buttermilk Creek felt especially refreshing. Swimming at Treman is also in a natural pool carved out by the stream, while at Taughannock there's a beach for swimming in Cayuga Lake.

Hiking through the gorges is sure to build up an appetite, and Ithaca offers something for everyone, from inexpensive pizza places to upscale restaurants. We particularly enjoyed the yummy muffins, bagels, and pastry at Ithaca Bakery for breakfast; at lunchtime you can get sandwiches, salads and a variety of other deli items to eat on the premises or packed for a picnic lunch. Another good choice for picnic supplies is Wegman's, a full-service grocery store just south of town. In addition to a broad variety of produce, meats, cheese, seafood, and store-baked bread and pastry, Wegman's has one of the biggest selections of takeout foods and prepared salads I've ever seen, and everything we tried was fresh and tasty. Ludgate Farms, out near Sapsucker Woods, is another good source for take-out food. In addition to selling produce, cheese, bread, pastries, and a few specialty foods, Ludgate Farms makes its own jams and fruit syrups. We took home a jar of strawberry-rhubarb jam and were sorry we hadn't bought more.

We did not have a chance to try Moosewood, probably the country's best known vegetarian restaurant thanks to the Moosewood cookbook series, but it certainly looked appealing. Andy's Third St. Cafe, Manos Diner and the Cafe DeWitt all seemed to draw good crowds, and the Graystone Inn, Dano's on Cayuga, and Tre Stelle trattoria were recommended by friends. You can also take a dinner cruise on Cayuga Lake on the M/V Manhattan, though I've always been suspicious of any restaurant that moves.

Ithaca can get quite warm and humid in the summer, but for me that just means a good excuse for ice cream. On the Cornell campus you can visit the Cornell Dairy Bar for delicious cones, sundaes and milkshakes made from Cornell's own rich ice cream. Down in Ithaca proper Purity Ice Cream, an old fashioned ice cream parlor, has been serving ice cream to satisfied cone lickers for over 50 years. In addition to forty flavors of ice cream and the standard selection of sundaes, floats and milkshakes, Purity's menu includes two items that we'd never seen before: a Hurricane, which is a milkshake with chopped up candy bars mixed in, and a Boston, which is a thick milkshake with a sundae on top. Lest you think these items are just for show, we watched someone order a Boston and eat every bite.

We had one day of solid rain on our visit, but fortunately that was the day that we had planned to drive to Corning, about 40 miles away, to visit the Corning Glass Center. The heart of the center is the Museum of Glass, which has exhibits illustrating the development of glass from its creation 4000 years ago up through the present. I was struck by the artistry of some of the early glassmakers, who managed to create exquisite objects using fairly primitive tools.

With over 26,000 items on display, the museum can be overwhelming, so we took a break in the middle and visited the Hall of Science and Industry, with exhibits on industrial uses of glass and hands-on demonstrations of the properties of glass.We also enjoyed the Steuben Factory, where you can watch skilled craftspeople as they turn gobs of molten glass into pieces of art.

After our tour of the glass center, we took a walk along Corning's Historic Market Street, which is lined with shops and galleries. Here you can watch local glass artists at work in their studios or stop for a snack at the Ice Cream Works, voted best breakfast, best lunch, best ice cream, and best dessert in a local newspaper survey.

On our way to Ithaca we spent one night at the historic Sherwood Inn in the town of Skaneateles. This charming village, located at the northern end of Skaneateles Lake, is filled with lovely turn-of-the-century homes, and the historic downtown district contains quaint shops housed in restored buildings that date back as far as 1835. We enjoyed wandering along the shore of the lake at Shotwell Park, with its moving memorial to those men from Skaneateles who died in World Wars I and II. All through August Skaneateles hosts the Skaneateles Festival, with chamber music under the stars.

Built as a stagecoach stop in 1807, the Sherwood Inn combines historic ambiance with a reasonable dose of modern comfort. The tavern is a convivial place for a light meal or a drink, and we enjoyed breakfast on a screened porch overlooking the lake.

Our week in Ithaca was just long enough to remind us how nice the area is but not nearly as long as we would have liked. With so many charming lakes and villages in the area, we could easily have spent a month and not run out of things to do. Maybe next time we'll rent a cottage and settle in for a spell, and we definitely won't wait another twenty years before we return.

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