Within an imaginary triangle of Upstate New York between Syracuse, Rochester and Elmira-Corning, there are 11 long, narrow lakes lying roughly parallel to each other. According to Iroquois legend, God looked upon this land with special favor and reached down to bless it, leaving the imprint of his hands.
From the sky, the Finger Lakes do indeed look like handprints, but of course, geologists tell a different story. As the last ice age ended, receding glaciers gouged enormous and deep holes, leaving not only lakes, but also magnificent gorges and over a thousand waterfalls.
Still, the scenery plays only a part of this region's riches. The 100 or so vineyards in the area make this New York's largest wine-producing region.
Love culture? There are more than 135 museums and 80 art galleries here. Enjoy exploring vibrant college towns? The area is home to a dozen scholarly institutions, including Cornell University and Ithaca College (both in Ithaca), Wells College (in Aurora), and Hobart and William Smith Colleges (in Geneva).
With more than 650 miles of shoreline, the Finger Lakes are a natural recreation magnet and affordable destination option for family vacations. Check out these Top 12 reasons to bring the kids.
1. You'll need at least half a day to fully explore Rochester's National Museum of Play at the Strong (tel. 585/263-2700; www.museumofplay.org), a mega wonderland devoted solely to games, toys, and just having fun. Along with its many collections -- including the National Toy Hall of Fame -- this museum is fabulously interactive, with 150,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits for families to explore. Don't miss the American Comic Book Heroes exhibit, where kids can practice a coveted superpower (gamma rays! super memory! flight!) to battle evil. Tip: Before you go, consult the event calendar for special programming. Admission: $12/adult, $10/child 2-15, free for kids under 2
2. Towering 400 feet above the gorge floor, the namesake of Taughannock Falls State Park (tel. 607/387-6739) in Trumansburg is twice as tall as Niagara Falls and one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. You can park at the overlook on Taughannock Falls Road, but viewing the falls is more fun and memorable from below. Park in the lot off Route 89, and hike the flat, ¾-mile-long Gorge Trail that skirts along the creek and leads up to the base of the falls. Don't forget your camera. The park also boasts many miles of hiking trails, plus a sheltered, lifeguarded public beach on Cayuga Lake that has a playground, barbecue facilities, and lots of room for kids to run and roam. Entry fee: $7/vehicle
3. Active families -- especially those with adrenaline-loving teens and 'tweens -- will definitely want to head to Cortland for the brand-new Adventure Center at Greek Peak Mountain Resort (tel. 800/955-2754; http://theoutdooradventurecenter.com). Highlights include a mountain coaster, four zip-lines, two ropes challenge courses, and the Virtusphere -- a 10-foot hollow sphere you enter to experience a virtual reality adventure. In addition, there are miles of mountain biking trails, a year-round tubing center, and a Euro bungee. Stay at the resort's Hope Lake Lodge and you'll get admission for four to its indoor water park, complete with tube slides (one is three stories tall), an interactive play structure, a splash pad, and a lazy river. Adventure Center day pass: $59/person
4. For kids of all ages who love astronomy, a trip to the Sciencenter(tel. 607/272-0600; www.sciencenter.org) in Ithaca guarantees you will never look at a starry sky the same way again. Start with a round of Galaxy Golf, an outdoor mini golf course that challenges players with a different principle of science or math at each hole. Then check out the interactive computer games at the Mars and Stars exhibition, which features beautiful images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Above all else, be sure to visit the Sagan Planet Walk, named for former Cornell astronomy professor Carl Sagan. This outdoor walking-scale model of the solar system extends ¾ mile and features more than 250 hands-on exhibits. Admission $7/adult, $5/child 3-17, free for kids under 3.
5. You scream, I scream, we all scream for Purity Ice Cream (tel. 607/272-1545; www.purityicecream.com), a retro institution at the corner of Route 13 that's been serving up scoops of luscious ice cream and frozen yogurt in Ithaca since 1936. Every scrumptious flavor is homemade (Madigan Mint! Bulldog Crunch!), and the milkshakes and root beer floats have earned legions of devoted fans.
6. Some museums are all about show and tell, but the really great ones know that kids learn best by doing. The Corning Museum of Glass (tel. 800/732-6845; www.cmog.org) dazzles with galleries of glassworks and live demos of glassmaking. But the wow factor here is that kids and parents can sign up for workshops to learn artisanal crafts such as glassblowing, fusing, glassforming and sandblasting -- and leave with one-of-a-kind souvenirs they made themselves. Tip: Sign up in advance for the workshops; tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission: $14/adult, free for kids 19 and under; workshops $10-$28/person
7. The Hawaiian sport of stand-up paddleboarding is sweeping the nation, and this is an ideal place to try it. Skaneateles-based Finger Lakes Paddleboard (tel. 315/237-7000; http://fingerlakespaddleboard.com) will deliver a board anywhere in the Finger Lakes; delivery is for free for Cayuga Lake, Owasco Lake, and Skaneateles Lake. Rentals include board, paddle, life vest, and instruction. Fees: $25/hour, $60 for three hours, $80/day
8. For the perfect Finger Lakes souvenir, head to The Windmill Farm & Craft Market (tel. 315/536-3032; www.thewindmill.com), an outlet in Penn Yan for nearly 200 local producers and craftsmen, from painters and woodworkers to jewelry makers and basket weavers. Beyond shopping, there are horse-and-buggy rides, live entertainment, and an outdoor café in the middle of a mini pine forest.
9. Ask a local where to head for affordable dining with kids, and you'll likely be steered to the wildly popular Doug's Fish Fry (tel. 315/685-3288; www.dougsfishfry.com) in Skaneateles. The secret to Doug's success with seafood? Keeping the menu simple and doing everything really well. Come for delectable fish, shrimp, lobster, oysters, scallops, steamers, and a chowder that rivals New England's best. And for the non-seafoodie in your family, chicken tenders are also on the menu. Dinner $5-$10/person
10. Fossils and dinosaurs and mastodons, oh my! Befitting a region created during the ice age, the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca (tel. 607/273-6623;www.museumoftheearth.org) takes you back to when it all began. Kids can touch and feel history through hands-on exploration of fossils at the discovery stations, and get their photo taken with the skeleton of the Hyde Park Mastodon, one of the most complete mastodons ever discovered. Admission: $8/adult, $3/child 4-17; free for kids 3 and under
11. The highlight of visiting this region is getting out on the water. Hop aboard a cruise on the Mid-Lakes Navigation Company's (tel. 315/685-8500; www.midlakesnav.com) Judge Ben Wiles flagship, whose upper deck allows you to walk around and appreciate the beauty of Skaneateles Lake. There are nine day cruise options, from a 50-minute sightseeing cruise to a three-hour barbecue dinner cruise. Tip: Grab some take-out from Doug's Fish Fry and enjoy a picnic on the boat. 50-minute cruise: $12/adult, $8/child; three-hour barbecue cruise: $47/adult, $38/child
12. Finding an affordable place to stay with kids in the Finger Lakes is never a problem. The Upstate New York Hotel Marketing Association (www.hotelsupstateny.com) includes family-friendly Holiday Inn (tel. 800/HOLIDAY) properties in Ithaca, Auburn, Elmira, Rochester, and Seneca Falls/Waterloo, as well as Holiday Inn Express properties in Horseheads and Rochester. There's an awful lot for parents to love about these hotels, including free kids' meals, swimming pools, fitness centers and free Wi-Fi.
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Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Family Travel Forum.