By Jason Feulner
Even for the seasoned Finger Lakes visitor, getting around is no easy feat. The long narrow lakes and steep hills make for spectacular scenery, but they require logistical planning to get from point A to point B (which may, as we all know, be only a few miles apart as the crow flies, yet require an hour or so of driving). Rural and inviting, we tend to forget that the region is huge by any measure. Secret spots and great experiences await discovery, no less for the veteran traveler than the newest visitor.
And who doesn’t mind a good ride?
A guided driving tour sells itself to the neophyte, but even for someone who has been to the Finger Lakes, an informed guide can add value. Laura Winter Falk, co-owner and founder of Experience! The Finger Lakes, recalls a trip out west with her husband that inspired them to get into the guided tour business. After receiving a personal guidebook and informed tips during their excursion, Laura recalls that both immediately seized upon the idea of replicating the same service back home in Ithaca. “We realized that there was a huge gap in our emerging tourist region for concierge service.”
Laura (who is the author of recent release The Culinary History of the Finger Lakes: From the Three Sister to Riesling) and her husband Alan have built a business dedicated to an immersive winery experience. “We have formed partnerships with many of the top wineries,” Laura emphasizes. Experienced tasters can find out even more about winemaking in the Finger Lakes as Laura and her team can arrange meetings with winery staff as well as cellar tours and barrel tastings. Requests for specific wineries or experiences are welcome.
In addition, Experience! The Finger Lakes offers themed tours. While these opportunities are limited to specific dates on the calendar, returning visitors can plan to attend farm-to-table events featuring local farms and chefs, a Murder Mystery Wine Tour, and even winemaker-led wine blending at sponsoring wineries.
Quality Wine Tours, an outfit that started in the mid-1990s as a simple livery service, has also expanded its offerings as the Finger Lakes wine industry has grown over the years. Jim Havalack, owner and founder, realized that visitors increasingly wanted more information about the region. “They wanted information not just on the wine but about how deep the lakes are, the history of the area, everything,” Jim says. He prides himself on hiring drivers who revel in this sort of familiarity and knowledge – many of whom have remained with the company for a long time.
Sometimes guided tours can take on a super-personal touch. “We’ve had a lot of marriage proposals,” Jim mentions. “We had four last year alone, and it keeps coming up.” Jim says his drivers know the perfect spots around the region to pop the special question.
Jim has also noticed a greater interest in the emerging beer trail around the Finger Lakes. “People are requesting more and more beer-only tours,” he says. “I think in the next five-to-10 years, you’re going to see the beer trail rival the wine trails in a lot of ways.”
While not as popular as their wine guide requests, Laura Winter Falk has also seen an uptick in beer tourism. “Also, cider is becoming much bigger,” she says. “Beer and cider together are becoming an entirely different component to the region.”
She adds that they have designed a tour to take advantage of the different alcohols now available in the Finger Lakes, approaching spirits, wine and beer in a certain order to enhance enjoyment.
Perhaps the best reason to sign up for a guided tour? “Having a designated driver is always important,” stresses Jim Havalack. “It’s easier to enjoy the day when everyone is safe.”