The sun sparkles off of Cayuga Lake as Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, ploughed farmland, and lush vineyards roll past on the 65 kilometre drive down the west side of the lake towards Ithaca. In the land of “if you don’t like the weather wait five minutes” the sunshine is most welcome and showcases the region’s natural beauty.
At the southern shore of the Finger Lakes’ longest and deepest lake, Ithaca nestles between three hills that protectively surround the city of 30,000 residents and another 30,000 college and university students. Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins County Community College bring in world renowned scientists, mathematicians, and artists producing one of the deepest brain trusts in New York outside of New York City. Carl Sagan was a professor at Cornell and director of its Laboratory for Planetary Studies. Rod Serling taught at the School of Communications at Ithaca College. So many come to Ithaca drawn in by the spectacular geographical features that were caused by a glacier more than a mile high at the end of the Ice Age. It carved out the more than 100 waterfalls and gorges leaving a 10 mile radius perfectly set up for the outdoor enthusiast. Surrounded by shale and sandstone walls, hike the Cascadilla Gorge trail that runs past eight waterfalls and drops 400 feet from the Cornell campus to downtown Ithaca. Safely swim beneath the waterfalls at Buttermilk or Robert H. Treman State Parks, just two of four state parks in the 10 mile radius. Walk back to Taughannock Falls which at 66 metres is the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies. You can also take in Taughannock from above the falls at the park’s overlook, an ideal spot for photographs.
Each of Ithaca’s three hills has something to offer visitors. While mostly residential, West Hill is home to the world class Museum of the Earth at the Paleontological Research Institute. The museum was established in 2003 as the public arm of the Paleontological Research Institute (“PRI”) which houses two to three million specimens of natural history. PRI is one of the 10 largest such institutions in the United States and publishes the oldest paleontological journal in the Western Hemisphere. Its museum presents a mix of general natural history exhibits such as a Right Whale skeleton and displays specific to the Finger Lakes region with some of the largest collections of invertebrate fossils in the States. The Museum of the Earth also partners with the Cayuga Nature Centre. The centre maintains a lodge for year-round nature programs, hiking trails well-suited for birding and tracking animals, and a six story tree house that makes for a gorgeous lookout over the west side of the lake. After an afternoon of education, head back down West Hill to partake in some rich and creamy Purity ice cream. The local creamery has been churning out fun flavours such as Madigan Mint (mint flavoured chocolate ice cream with Oreo™ cookie chunks), Finger Lakes Tourist (chocolate ice cream with white chocolate chunks and hazelnut pieces), and Sleepers Awake! (coffee ice cream with fudge swirls and chocolate chunks) since 1936. It is often said that the ice cream sundae first originated in Ithaca.
Ithaca College sits atop of South Hill, its two 14 story residences visible from anywhere in Ithaca. The Towers display the last two digits of the year during the holiday break between fall and spring semesters, changing over at midnight on New Year’s. Well-known for its strong arts programs, check the calendar for a theatre or music production if visiting during the school year. Mozart’s The Magic Flute kicks off the 2012 season in late February. Finally, have a look to see what’s on at the new Athletics and Events Centre. The 130,000 square foot field house is large enough to support the college’s athletic community as well as the city of Ithaca’s events including asking His Holiness the Dalai Lama back to speak during the 2012-2013 school year.
As Ithaca’s largest employer, Cornell University dominates East Hill. Educational excellence exudes from the ivy covered stone buildings at the top of Libe Slope. Featured prominently are the Ivy League school’s clock tower and I.M. Pei designed art museum. The Johnson Art Museum, affectionately dubbed “the Sewing Machine” for its appearance, has been collecting Asian and Pacific art since the 1950s. The collection ranges from ancient to recent pieces, from Japan to Turkey. It also exhibits permanent collections of African, native North and Central American, and European art. Special exhibitions ranging from the abstract to portrait photography to German expressionism can be seen regularly. Tear yourself away from the art for a brief moment to look out the museum’s windows. No matter what side of the building you’re on, the view is stunning. Take in the campus from the east side of the building or the lake and downtown from the south side. Look back north up the gorge to the new addition to the architecture school which hangs seemingly precariously over the street below. Sensory overload may overtake you. Seek serenity as you roll back down the hill towards downtown Ithaca at an unassuming red house with prayer flags strung between two eaves. There sits Namgyal Monastery, the North American seat for the Dalai Lama. Monks in scarlet and saffron coloured robes teach classes in Tibetan Buddhism to Western students. Visitors are invited to attend special events throughout the year often coinciding with Buddhist holidays.
With so much to do on each of the hills, it would be easy to overlook downtown Ithaca. The State Theatre first opened in 1928 as a vaudeville palace, evolving over seven decades as theatre evolved. After falling into disrepair, the theatre is being renovated to its former glory. Theatre-goers can see headliners such as They Might Be Giants or Gordon Lightfoot to the Ithaca Ballet’s The Nutcracker to The Second City’s Laugh Out Loud Tour. Before a show, sit down for a meal at Moosewood Restaurant of the famed vegetarian cookbook series or grab an Americano at Gimme Coffee, Ithaca’s only coffee and espresso bean roastery. While empty storefronts are indicative of the state of the economy in central New York, do not be afraid to stroll along the Ithaca Commons, a two block pedestrian mall of local gems. The one outlier is Ten Thousand Villages which remains true to the Ithaca spirit and sells fair trade gifts. You can find funky jewellery and glass pieces at 15 Steps or more traditional jewellery at Mansour’s. Now You’re Cooking stocks anything and everything you could need for your kitchen. Second hand books line the shelves at the two story Autumn Leaves bookstore. Local artists and craftspeople sell their work at Handwork, a cooperative selling an ever changing selection of woodwork, photographs, pottery, glass, and jewellery.
Ithaca is an easy weekend drive from Toronto although with so much to see and do, give yourself an extra day or two to discover its beauty for yourself.