by Sandra Hutchinson
During the last week of May, I headed out to New York State’s Finger Lakes region with one of my oldest friends. Destination: the charming village of Aurora, on the east side of Cayuga Lake. After we arrived, we were joined by another friend of mine. We spent several laughter-filled days visiting wineries, shopping at the newly opened outlet store at the headquarters of MacKenzie-Childs, and staying at a beautiful property owned by the Inns of Aurora.
One our way to Aurora, we stopped in Skaneateles, a small town on the north point of the easternmost of the Finger Lakes by the same name. I had an appointment to drop two oil paintings off with the expert folks at the art conservation lab called Westlake Conservators, for evaluation and treatment. We also decided to have lunch in the village at the popular Doug’s Fish Fry, where we opted for a fish sandwich and lobster rolls, all fresh and tasty despite not being near the ocean.
It was then on to Aurora, the small village on the east side of Cayuga Lake, home to Wells College. The name Pleasant Rowland will undoubtedly be familiar if you attended Wells College. Ms. Rowland, who graduated from Wells College in 1962, created the historically-themed American Girls doll line and sold it to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million. She also bought the quirky MacKenzie-Childs home goods and design firm out of hard times, revived and eventually sold it to investors. Its headquarters remains in Aurora, though much of its manufacturing is now done elsewhere.
Ms. Rowland, who lives now in Wisconsin, has used her wealth for many philanthropic purposes, including forming a foundation in Aurora in partnership with and to benefit her alma mater. The foundation has purchased and restored a number of historic buildings in Aurora. Several, plus the classic brick Aurora Inn, built in 1833, are now boutique hotels, operating as the Inns of Aurora, either on Cayuga Lake’s shore or directly across the road from it.
Twenty years ago, when Ms. Rowland began buying up properties and talking about her vision of restoring Aurora and supporting the college, there was heated debate. Many residents feared what the influx of capital and projects might mean. The debate continues. Some find the village too “cutesy.” Others love it.
We had a great stay at the Inns of Aurora’s Zabriskie House. Built in 1904, the large, impressive home has 11 guest rooms. It’s the most recently restored of the inn properties. It opened for guests in late 2019. The interior decor is strikingly modern, with a bright color palette, mostly blues and greens with white trim, and contemporary art throughout. A huge front porch is loaded with seating.
The onsite innkeeper at each property is highly attentive to guests’ needs. Ours clued us into sights and destinations we would not have found on our own.The inns serve a selection of local wines and cheeses in the afternoon. Each inn has a fire pit, which is lit late into the evening. They provide the makings of s’mores. It’s all about relaxing and chilling.
MacKenzie-Childs, founded in 1983 by Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs, fell into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000. Ms. Rowland bought and turned the company around, then resold it to an investment group. Its ceramics are still hand painted by artisans in Aurora. Many other home furnishing and decor items are now manufactured in Asia.
On May 1 MacKenzie-Childs reopened its renovated store, billed as an “outlet,” on its property. It sells items either discontinued or from the prior year’s catalogue. A Victorian farmhouse on the property is completely furnished with MacKenzie-Childs decor. It can only be visited by advance reservation on certain days. Check the website mackenzie-childs.com.
The Inns of Aurora opened a new spa the first week of June, about a mile outside the village. We regretted being too early to visit, but if it is run with the same attention to detail and care the lodging properties are, I am certain it will be a worthy destination.
Wells College was founded by Henry Wells (1805-1878), who founded two of America’s major continuing companies — American Express and Wells Fargo.He started Wells College as a woman’s school in 1868. In 2004 it went coed. It has about 400 students. Also hailing from Aurora was E.B. Morgan, one of the first shareholders of the New York Times. His lakeside stone mansion is now one of the boutique hotels.
On to the Finger Lakes wineries
Of course, one of the major draws of the Finger Lakes is the wineries. We visited four — Long Point and Treleaven , on the east side of Cayuga, and Lamoreaux Landing and Chateau LaFayette Reneau, on the east side of Seneca. There are almost too many wineries to count. We chose visits based on what was open the days we were there, and recommendations by friends. Not all wineries choose to be listed in brochures so ask questions and do some research.
The Finger Lakes are especially known for their Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, but some wineries produce highly rated Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs.A highlight for me was revisiting Lamoreaux Landing. We were there in 1993, and it was a nice surprise to see, still framed on the wall, the article my husband published in The Chronicle excited about a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir he found there. A few weeks later The New York Times wine critic touted it too.I liked the winery’s Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc and brought bottles home.
Some other attractions
Aurora is a great base for exploring the wineries and central Finger Lakes.A few other places to note: At our innkeeper’s urging, we went to Sauder’s Market, east of Seneca Falls. He’d likened it to an “Amish Wegmans.” Actually founded and run by Mennonites, it has a large meat counter, a vast variety of homestyle baked goods (cinnamon roll loaf coated in icing, anyone?), baking products, and store-branded jams, preserves and pickled and spiced foods. It was definitely worth the detour to get there.
Seneca Falls, of course, was the site in 1848 of the first women’s rights convention and is home to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. The museum was not open when we were able to visit. There is also the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, but it was closed then due to the pandemic.