Cayuga Lake Is a Great Girlfriends’ Getaway

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We knew we had booked the right girlfriends’ getaway as soon as we pulled into the driveway of Rowland House in Aurora, New York. At 10,000 square feet and with 10 rooms, the Queen Anne-style home felt both impressive and friendly. Cayuga Lake glistened in the background, and 120-year-old ginkgo trees crowned the lawn, their leaves the color of spun gold in the fall.

Rowland House in Aurora, New York, was established by Pleasant Rowland, who also created American Girl dolls and books. Photo courtesy of Inns of Aurora.

My friend, Barbara, and I felt we had dropped into a charmed storybook setting. Aurora, with a year-round population of fewer than 300, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On strolls through the village, we admired the grand 19th-century houses. Later on, we learned the remarkable story of the village’s picture-book prettiness.

We chose the Finger Lakes for our water, wineries, woods and walking vacation, basing ourselves on Cayuga Lake’s shores. One of the five Inns of Aurora, Rowland House satisfied our desire for a small property with big hotel services. A sister inn housed a restaurant, and a spa beckoned within a five-minute drive. Vineyards, hiking trails and waterfalls laced the region. Although we hadn’t booked early enough to get a massage, we walked by the spa’s cattail-ringed pond and along soybean fields edged with white, yellow and purple wildflowers, part of Aurora’s expansive landscape.

Another draw was Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes at more than 38 miles. We learned about Aurora’s storied residents on a wind-in-our-hair boat ride with Capt. Matt Bianconi, whose family has lived here for generations. Local entrepreneurs Edwin Barber Morgan and his brother, Henry, grew wealthy shipping agricultural and other products through Cayuga Lake to the nearby Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. From the 363-mile waterway stretching from Buffalo to New York, boats reached the Great Lakes and cruised down the Hudson River to New York City. Trade boomed.

In 1832, the Morgans met and became friends with Henry Wells, who later moved to Aurora. He became Cayuga Lake Railroad president and commissioned the lake’s first passenger steamboats. To lodge merchants, E.B. Morgan opened Aurora House, which later became the Aurora Inn, in 1833. Aurora Inn and Morgan’s grand 1858 Italianate-style mansion are two of the Inns of Aurora’s properties. Morgan was also an original investor in the New York Times.

Wells founded American Express and co-founded Wells Fargo to enable merchants to transport gold and cash safely between California and the East Coast. He also established Wells Seminary in 1868, renamed Wells College in 1870, with E.B. Morgan and other benefactors to educate women. The graduating class still rides stagecoaches through town to celebrate.

As a student at Wells, Pleasant Rowland fell in love with Aurora. She created the American Girl books and dolls series, later selling it to Mattel for $700 million. Starting in 2001, she invested more than $150 million in the village, burying power lines, opening inns and a market and lavishing the same attention to detail that propelled the success of American Girl to the village’s regeneration.

Driving past rolling fields and hillside wineries to restaurants and attractions was a gift to the eye. On the outdoor deck at Elderberry Pond Restaurant, a local gem serving its organically grown fruits and vegetables, we dined on excellent duck and crab cakes while listening to the breeze rustle the leaves of the maple trees. In fall, they turn a splendid burnt orange.

More than 100 wineries take root in the Finger Lakes. Of the 14 dotting Cayuga Lake, we toured two up the road in Union Springs. At Quarry Ridge’s hillside setting, we savored a dry rose and lake views from the winery’s covered porch. Next door, Heart & Hands Wine Co. has a small indoor tasting room and a table in a garden where we sampled rich pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay while learning about the wines and the lake’s microclimate that keeps the vineyards alive in winter.

Drawn by the chance to see the tallest free-falling waterfall in the Northeast, we hiked the gorge trail in Taughannock Falls State Park in Ulysses, about 50 miles from Aurora. As promised, the waterfall tumbled 215 feet down a vertical rock face. However, the recent drought reduced the cascade to a disappointing, hard-to-see trickle. Nonetheless, we liked walking between the 400-foot-high cliffs.

Each afternoon we came back to sit lakefront on Adirondack chairs, enjoying complimentary wine and cheese, and taking in the water views. Since the vast majority of the shoreline is privately owned, the lake feels pristine. Instead of crowds and numerous vessels, we heard only the occasional boat. We treasured the soothing lake views and the quiet.

Some rooms at Rowland House in Aurora, New York, overlook Cayuga Lake. Photo courtesy of Inns of Aurora.


Rowland House is part of the five Inns of Aurora:

Tour Cayuga in the Finger Lakes:

Bianconi Tours, Cayuga Lake Boat Cruises:

Elderberry Pond Restaurant: 315-252-6025 (Their website is currently under construction. Meanwhile, they have a Facebook page.)

Quarry Ridge Winery:

Heart & Hands Wine:

Taughannock Falls State Park: