07/20/2012 07:04 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

The New York Finger Lakes: Mother Nature's Handprint (PHOTOS)

Millions of years back, glaciers covered northern New York State. Ten thousand years ago, they receded leaving behind crevices filled with water and forming 11 long and narrow Finger Lakes. Five of the lakes are large, feigning Mother Nature's handprint. Today this beautiful region -- dotted with historic cities, vast farmland, vineyards, dramatic gorges and waterways -- is a fun place to visit for all kinds of reasons.

Rochester, a progressive city and the Western Gateway to the Finger Lakes
Rochester's history is rich in innovation, culture and epochs of social progressiveness. A boomtown in 1825, due to the Erie Canal, it was incorporated in 1837. George Eastman, the ingenious founder of Kodak (1879), became a patriarch leaving endowments to the arts and education that benefit the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Eastman School of Music. In Rochester, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony sought liberty. And now, with 18 colleges and universities flourishing within the metro area, a youthful, laissez-faire feel infuses the vibrant city of 210,000.

Things to do: The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film displays the magic of photography. National Museum of Play, with its exhibits of games and toys, lets kids smile and play everyday. Weekends, 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the shopping and people-watching at Rochester Public Market (started in 1905) attracts 40,000 people. In 1825, mules dragged boats and barges up the Erie Canal. These days anyone can ride a tour boat or rent a houseboat to navigate the 363-mile-long waterway with 57 precision locks.

Eat your heart out: The "in" crowd prefers 2 Vine in the hip downtown East Avenue section of Rochester where the crab cake with cucumber salad reigns. Say hello to the phalanx of biker dudes when you head into Dinosaur Bar-B-Que restaurant for mouth-watering ribs that taste even better with red beans and rice, cornbread and coleslaw. Wegmans, an oversized indoor marketplace/mall, features a potpourri of delicious, fresh-cooked foods (Asian, Mexican, Indian, etc.) that you buy by the pound. Wegmans makes Whole Foods look like a Piggly Wiggly.

Events: In June, the annual Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival showcases artists like Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding at 10 different venues that are adjacent to tempting food concession stands like Abbott's Frozen Custard (the insanely rich chocolate almond ice cream is sinful).

Canandaigua: the lake, the region, the view
Canandaigua Lake is the westernmost of the larger Finger Lakes. The metro area of Canandaigua (population 20,565) sits at the top of the 15.5-mile-long, 1.5-mile-wide lake that is surrounded by a verdant, densely forested region that looks like Bavaria. If Hansel and Gretel were in a witness protection program, they'd hide out here. The city and town of Naples is on the southern banks.

Things to do: Grab a picnic box with a chicken salad sandwich, strawberry shortcake and fresh lemonade from the organic restaurant Roots Café in Naples and have lunch at the scenic overlook on County Road 12. If you're feeling lucky, take your chances at video poker or bet on thoroughbreds at Finger Lakes Casino & Racetrack. Ravenwood Golf Club welcomes golfers of all levels. Play a friendly game of scramble where everyone hits, and wherever the best ball lands is where the group hits from next. (It's good for everybody's ego.)

Eating: For unique, au courant dining, head to Upstairs Bistro at the New York Wine & Culinary Center where the menu changes with the whim of the chef and the availability of seasonal, local produce. The grilled pork chop entrée with cornbread casserole must be followed by the white chocolate brownie with ice cream.

A place to stay: The five-room, one-suite Morgan Samuels Inn, set on 46 pastoral acres, has classy, intimate, Victorian-styled interiors, five-to-eight course dinners and lavish breakfasts (order the herb scrambled eggs with fruit and berry toast). If you play with their lovable Weimaraner puppy, you'll want to stay an extra day.

The road to Watkins Glen is routed through heaven and around Seneca Lake
Drive east of Canandaigua, to Seneca Lake the deepest and second longest Finger Lake, and you'll hit Geneva. Head south on Route 14 and you'll cruise along the western banks to Watkins Glen. There are farmland and jaw-dropping lake views on the left of the road. On the right side vineyards flourish. Stop the car and take a picture of a landscape that is as visually stunning as that of the South of France or Sonoma County.

Watkins Glen: This quaint town is famed for its 3.4-mile Watkins Glen International raceway which hosts NASCAR, other auto races, concerts with headliners like Phish and the hugely popular Finger Lakes Wine Festival, which features 600 wines by 80 wineries. You can drive your own car around the track or take a thrill ride and get heart palpitations in a bullet-fast pace car.

Watkins Glen State Park is centered around a magnificent gorge with 19 waterfalls and hiking walkways. Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro serves the best area wines: sip on the 2010 Sawmill Creek Riesling or the 2008 Curry Creek Pinot Grigio.

Resting your head: Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel brings a classy aura of Portland, Maine to town with its gray and white New England-styled archetecture, harbor-front location and attentive service.

Eating: The Seneca Harbor Station Restaurant operates in a building that was once an 1876 railroad station. Their rich and creamy clam chowder warms the body, but oh those baby back ribs -- the meat falls off the bones.

Cayuga Lake, the ultimate farm experience and Ithaca.
The college town of Ithaca sits at the basin of Cayuga Lake, the longest glacier New York Lake. Before you hit city center take a side trip to the Silver Queen Farm in rural, idyllic Trumansburg. Customers harvest their own blueberries, corn and asparagus here. The monthly, Saturday night Farm & Fork banquets in the huge cross-gable barn feature local baked goods (Wide Awake Bakery), milk products (Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese), vegetables, fruit and meat that become menu items like strawberry and lettuce salad, spring lamb soup and raspberry rhubarb swirl fresh ice cream. It's an authentic, agrarian experience that you'll remember fondly.

Ithaca: Cornell University and Ithaca College reside in the ultimate college town, which has the air of Berkeley, California. Tour around the 745-acre Cornell Campus, which sits on a peak with Cayuga Lake views, gorges and botanical gardens. If you're looking for a tennis game, bring your racquets to Cornell's Reis Tennis Center and ask for Brian. The waters of Fall Creek pour over 150-foot high Ithaca Falls to form a trout stream popular with fly fishermen. Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park is three stories taller than Niagara.

Eating well: The Asian Fusion cuisine at Mia is a nice reason to head over to the Commons, a two-block pedestrian mall lined with stores, cafes and restaurants. The barbeque pork buns with pickled daikon is a signature dish. Locals suggest Moosewood for its natural food, Saigon Kitchen for Vietnamese food, Mercato Bar & Grill for Italian and Madeline's for meat and poultry.

Looks like home: Lynnette Scofield, the friendly proprietress of William Henry Miller Inn gives her guests free breakfast, beverages and evening dessert. Set in a red brick building from 1880, the inn is a stone's throw away from Cornell.

You can see the bottom of Skaneateles, the most beautiful Finger Lake
It's worth driving by the town of Auburn, which crowns Owasco Lake, on your way to Skaneateles, the cleanest, clearest and most gorgeous of the big lakes. The town of Skaneateles feels like a transplanted New England village. Stores, inns and restaurants line Genesee Street, which runs along the lakefront. Like Martha's Vineyard or The Hamptons, this place is very tony.

Things to do: Lunch at the venerable Sherwood Inn and try the Baked Scrod Christopher. The Mid-Lakes Navigation Sightseeing Cruise gives tourists the best views of the lake where stately mansions with boathouses the size of regular homes surround the perimeter.

The most chic Finger Lakes inn: The lush, 34-room, Mirbeau Inn & Spa sits on 12 acres of forested grounds. Six, pale yellow French chateau-style buildings are cloistered around goldfish-filled ponds and heavenly gardens. At the spa, asks for the 100 minute D'vine Vinotherapy Pinot Noir Body Polish and Massage. For dinner at The Dining Room at Mirbeau, the duck confit spring rolls (with slow-roasted Hudson Valley duck) are a great way to start. The Thai curry lobster is perfect for dinner. Or ask for a tasting menu and let the chef impress you with dishes like strawberries with custard.

Upper New York State is packed with culture, history, urban vibes, sublime country experiences and geographical wonders. Start your journey in Rochester, end it in the Skaneateles/Syracuse vicinity and you will have traveled the width of Mother Nature's handprint, the Finger Lakes.

Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at