On a map of New York, 11 skinny blue streaks snake across the middle of the state. These curious parallel formations are the Finger Lakes, carved by glaciers receding at the end of the last ice age and named for their obvious resemblance to the slender, crooked digits of a human hand. The lakes are deep cobalt, glossy-surfaced, and as narrow as rivers. The vast Finger Lakes region beyond them is a pastoral patchwork of storybook waterfront villages, grand Victorian homes, dairy farms, forests, and wineries amid sloped vineyards. But the lakes run through it all.
The principal "fingers" are the five major lakes that stripe the region. These unique bodies of water, which range in length from 3 to 40 miles and are as narrow as 1/3 of a mile across, are framed by a gentle rise of vineyard-covered banks and rolling hills. The region is one of mesmerizing beauty, like a dream marriage of Scotland and Napa Valley. The lakes have created unique conditions and microclimates that are ideal for grape growing, and this is one of the most notable winemaking regions in the country; an ever-growing roster of nearly 100 wineries dot the banks of the lakes. In contrast to the massive operations of decades past, several are boutique and family-owned wineries that have made great strides in challenging the accepted supremacy of West Coast winemakers. Organized wine trails -- comprising the wineries along Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua lakes -- make it easy to visit Finger Lakes wineries and taste their wines. In addition, chef-driven restaurants are fast taking root to take advantage of the local wines and farm-fresh products.
Quite remarkably, though, the Finger Lakes region remains unknown to many Americans -- and even many New Yorkers. Anchored by medium-size upstate cities on either side -- Syracuse and Rochester -- the Finger Lakes are largely about outdoor recreation and small-town life. Yet the area packs a few surprises, such as the astounding Corning Museum of Glass, in the town made famous by CorningWare; the progressive charms of Ithaca, a quintessential college town; the summer haunts of Mark Twain; the legacy of the Underground Railroad that carried slaves to freedom; and the origins of the women's suffrage and civil rights movements, American aviation, and the modern Mormon Church.
In warm months, the Finger Lakes region comes alive with boaters, cyclists, and wine tourists. Though the area is most often thought of as a summer destination, the ideal time to visit extends from spring to late fall. It can be gorgeous even in winter -- which is actually milder than most parts of upstate New York -- but perhaps most stunning in autumn, when the brilliant blue lake waters are framed by an earthy palette of reds and yellows and sun-kissed, golden vineyards.