story and photos by James P. Hughes
A combination of state highways, with a county road or two thrown in for good measure, will get you there. If the route is a bit challenging, you’ll find the village of Fair Haven to be a destination well worth the trip, and one that certainly lives up to its name. Tucked in the northwest corner of Cayuga County, Fair Haven is (and always has been) a very scenic and a lively place.
Changed yet Unchanged
Fair Haven’s location along the pleasant shores of Lake Ontario and Little Sodus Bay has long offered first-rate fishing, swimming and boating – a popular setting for leisure moments. Dating back to the 19th century, a number of hostelries and stores welcomed travelers. A spur of the Lehigh Valley Railroad hauled Pennsylvania coal to Fair Haven, where it was then loaded on freighters for a Lake Ontario crossing to Canada. Two lighthouses guarded the Ontario shoreline. Winter brought the harvesting of ice for shipment to New York City and points south.
Since those early days, Fair Haven has remained a comfortable and engaging spot, gradually evolving over decades from lake port to resort community. The village’s year-round population which stood at about 700 in 1879, is still less than 1,000 today. That number grows significantly in the summertime as cottage owners arrive and visitors pour in for fishing, swimming, boating or just to relax – those ever-present Fair Haven staples from the past. Business thrives along Main Street, activities abound, and billowing white sails dot the Lake Ontario horizon.
Artists and Artisans
Artists have always taken advantage of Fair Haven’s natural setting – its rustic rolling hills, Lake Ontario sunsets, and peaceful bay. In recent times, an “art colony” atmosphere has emerged in the community. More than a decade has passed since an impromptu group of local artists and artisans of every stripe met informally to display and sell their wares. “Response to this one-time event exceeded all expectations,” says Pat Cooper, one of its organizers. “Since then, interest has spiked as more and more artists and craftsmen have been drawn to the area.” With growing energy and enthusiasm, village shops, galleries, and events have increased, making the village a focal point of the arts in the region.
South Shore Artisans calls itself “A Place Where Art Happens.” In addition to classes and events, this co-op of artists sells and displays a mix of both fine art and folk art. Doc Gallery presents diverse wares, workshops, and instruction in the arts from painting and woodworking to jewelry and ceramics. Fine art photography and a variety of services are available at onePhoto Photography. Owner Kyle Meddaugh actively promotes his hometown in many ways, especially through his lens. “With our ever-changing seasonal landscape, there’s never a shortage of opportunity.”
In 2012, the Fair Haven Arts Center was founded as a not-for-profit community association. Its goal has been to encourage community “involvement and education” in painting, photography, music, writing, and more. Special events at the center are varied and continue year-round. June 23 to July 1, the FHAC turns an eye toward “Fair Haven Retrospective,” a comprehensive exhibit of the area’s human history told through the arts. Photographs, history-based paintings, anecdotal stories, and recorded interviews with lifelong residents will highlight this first-ever village event.
A Walk Down Main Street and Beyond
Art galleries and shops aren’t the only attractions scattered along Main Street and its neighboring lanes. Eateries include O’Connor’s Pub & Grill, the Little Sodus Inn, and waterside dining at the Pleasant Beach Hotel – a spot that has hosted lodgers and diners for more than a century. Wander into the Front Porch for colorful gifts or Screwy Louie’s Sport Shop for outdoor needs and boating supplies.
Visitors and locals alike regularly cross paths at the Hardware Café and General Store – a favorite gathering spot in the heart of Fair Haven. Constructed in 1874 as a hardware store, the landmark building retains its charm with original windows, ceilings, wooden floors, counters, and shelving. Enjoy a bite from the café menu, then take time to wander and shop for goods and gifts. As those age-old wooden floors creak under your feet, you’ll find many products with a local flavor: antiques, honey, soaps, bulk coffee, and more. Mixed in are books by local authors and crafts by local artisans.
Fair Haven’s Central Park and its gazebo are brightly decorated for the Christmas season; Saturday night concerts and outdoor movie nights fill the park during the warm weather months to bring the community together. Nearby on Main Street, people line up for ample ice cream treats at Big Bo’s, which can be a busy place.
Cookies? Cider? Cabernet? Camping? Celebrations?
The Fly By Night Cookie Company and The Sterling Cidery are two “must stops” in Fair Haven. Now into its fourth decade, the landmark Fly By Night offers over 65 hand-baked varieties of cookies and pastries. Satisfy your sweet tooth on the porch or take home a bagful or two. In addition to owner Bonnie Bridson’s offbeat cookie names, the building’s eye-catching carved features, miniature museum and side yard “Booknook” all add to its quirky appeal. The Sterling Cidery, a recent addition to the Fair Haven landscape, offers a wide range of hand-crafted, aged hard ciders cleverly created from 100-percent regional apples. Stop by for a pint or sample a tasting flight. Take home a growler of a unique cider like Northstar, Scrumpy, or Peach Hopped.
Another relative newcomer to the area, the Colloca Estate Winery, and its aptly named Lake Effect Vineyard occupies 100 plus acres of sloping hillside at the edge of Little Sodus Bay. The owner’s fine wines and hospitality reflect the legacy of a family that can trace its generational roots back to the hills of Sicily. Accessible by boat or roadway, the winery hosts tastings, live music, and a Sunday champagne brunch. Weekend Trattoria Dinners feature chef’s creations from fresh and seasonably available products along with an endless antipasto bar.
Whether planning a day trip or enjoying a few days of camping, Fair Haven Beach State Park is a favorite getaway in the northern Finger Lakes region. State brochures describe it as “one of the finest public lakefronts in upstate New York, with towering shoreline bluffs, 1,500 feet of beautiful sandy beaches, and adjoining hilly woodlands.” One visitor called the park “everything you can ask for on a beautiful summer day – a real jewel!” Another lauded “the immaculate beach, a gorgeous Lake Ontario sunset, and 18 holes of golf to boot.” For a more tranquil time along the lake and bayside, visit West Barrier Bar, an undeveloped community park scattered with colorful stone and a favorite spot for picnics and driftwood collectors. Between West Barrier Bar and the state park’s grounds, the entirety of the village’s lakefront footage is public property.
Fair Haven is the focus for celebrations, festivals, and parades too numerous to list – it seems there’s always something going on: Pirate Fest, Witches Parade Day, Arts & Crafts Festival, Leaf Peeper’s Trail, and more. Visit the Chamber of Commerce site to pick out a special event or drop by the village on a serendipitous journey and just wander about…no doubt it will be a trip you’ll repeat.