Two Memorable Hotels in the Finger Lakes

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Amazingly, despite all the upheavals in 2020, new hotels continued to open, while developments at some established properties proceeded, albeit at a more leisurely pace than might have been expected in a usual year. In late summer, I read of the impending debut of The Lake House on Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of New York and immediately decided to escape from my unwonted hermitlike existence. Besides, I reasoned, a trip would enable me to stay at another property nearby, the Aurora Inn, that had long been on my list of promising places to visit.

In late summer, I read of the im­pending debut of The Lake House on Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of New York and immediately decided to escape from my unwonted hermitlike existence.

A five-hour drive northwest of New York City, close to the southern shore of Lake Ontario, the 11 Finger Lakes are narrow, parallel, north-south slashes through a green and rolling landscape. The largest of them (by area), Seneca Lake, is 38 miles long, while its neighbor to the east, Cayuga Lake, is 40 miles long, but only an average of 1.7 miles wide. The area rose to prominence and economic prosperity with the opening of the nearby Erie Canal in 1825, which joined the Great Lakes at Buffalo to the Hudson River at Albany. Today, the Finger Lakes region is a center of tourism, as well as a major wine-producing region with more than 100 wineries and vineyards. (Because they reach depths of more than 600 feet, the lakes create a local microclimate, and the grapes are protected from spring frost during growing season and early frost before the harvest.) Visitors come to enjoy boating and fishing — Seneca Lake is the self-described “Lake Trout Capital of the World” — as well as attractions such as the famous Corning Museum of Glass and the I.M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca.

Aurora Inn

With a population of fewer than 1,000, the village of Aurora on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake is a pretty and peaceful place. Its Main Street is lined by elm and ginkgo trees, and stretches of well-tended lawn extend down a gentle slope to the water’s edge. Back in the 19th century, however, at the height of the boom created by the Erie Canal, Aurora was a place of rather more consequence. Newly prosperous business people built sizable wooden mansions overlooking the lake. One of them was constructed for the then eye-watering sum of $50,000 by Colonel E.B. Morgan, entrepreneur and co-founder of The New York Times. In 1833, Morgan also built the Aurora Inn, a handsome, classically proportioned brick structure. His local business associates included William Fargo and Henry Wells, the two founders of American Express, as well as Wells Fargo & Co. And it was Wells who in 1868 established Wells College, a liberal arts institution for women, whose campus (now coeducational) dominates the village of Aurora to this day.

Over time, Wells College came to own much of the property in the village, and in 2000, its board endorsed a master plan for its future that included the closure of the Aurora Inn and the search for a private developer to restore it. Pleasant Rowland, an alumna and the founder of the prodigiously successful American Girl dolls company, stepped forward to resuscitate the inn, plus several other landmark structures, including the E.B. Morgan House. Nowadays, Rowland herself owns all the renovated properties. Five of them form the so-called Inns of Aurora, for which the original 10-room Aurora Inn functions as a kind of clubhouse, with its bar and farm-to-table restaurant providing a focal point for the entire portfolio.

Lounge at Aurora Inn, Aurora, New York - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Premier Suite (No. 7) at Aurora Inn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Premier Suite (No. 7) at Aurora Inn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Soaking tub of our Premier Suite (No. 7) at Aurora Inn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
1833 Kitchen & Bar at Aurora Inn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Hudson Valley duck breast with Brussels sprouts, Cajun cornbread and New York cider jus at Aurora Inn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Caramel apple galette, with almond cream, spiced oat streusel and vanilla ice cream at Aurora Inn - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Lounge at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Rose Tavern at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

On arrival, my first impressions were of order and prosperity: Aurora’s long, straight Main Street is well-paved, well-swept and lined by buildings of unexpected grandeur; next to the inn I glimpsed an attractive Village Market, while across the road, housed within another 19th-century brick structure, was the property’s inviting casual restaurant, Fargo Bar & Grill. Inside, I found a reception area and an adjacent lounge decorated in a traditional style, with burgundy-colored walls, dark wood furniture, Oriental rugs and oil portraits. Gas log fires flickered, and the atmosphere felt warm, comfortable and relaxed. The young woman at the front desk was charm personified, conveying the impression that nothing in the world could possibly be more important than her two arriving guests. Complimentary glasses of Pinot Noir appeared. First impressions can sometimes count for more than they should, but on this occasion they were entirely accurate. I liked the Aurora Inn from the second I stepped through the front door, and two days later my initial good opinion had been significantly reinforced.

The young woman at the front desk was charm personified, conveying the impression that nothing in the world could possibly be more important than her two arriving guests.

We were escorted to our Premier Suite (No. 7) at the top of the building. An elevator took us to the third floor, from where we had to climb a steep private staircase. This gave the room a great sense of privacy but made it unsuitable for anyone who is less than fully mobile. (Rooms No. 4 and No. 10 have king-size beds and lake-view balconies; the hotel’s other suite, No. 8, is also accessed via a private staircase.) Our living room came with a sofa and an armchair, a pleasing amount of space for suitcases, a sizable closet and a separate small wet bar. Up two or three steps, we found a spacious bedroom with oatmeal-colored carpeting, floral chintz drapes and a large writing desk set in front of a window with an unimpeded view of the lake. The modern bath came as a surprise: It was much bigger than one might expect in a historic building, and although it provided only a single sink, it was equipped with a glass-enclosed shower, an oval soaking tub positioned beneath a skylight and a heated floor. Overall, the suite felt like a peaceful private apartment.

As it was already late in the day, we headed downstairs for an early dinner. The inn’s main restaurant, 1833 Kitchen & Bar, is formal and traditional in style, with dark wood tables and chairs, gas log fires, gilt-framed paintings, a magnificent wooden floor and doors that open onto a large terrace overlooking lawns and the lake. As our trip was in fall, service was exclusively indoors, but it was not difficult to imagine how pleasant it would be to enjoy a leisurely meal outside on a warm summer evening.


As is almost universally the case during the pandemic, only half of the dining room’s tables were in use. And the dinner menu was an abbreviated version of the one offered during more-normal times. However, in this instance, the quality of the experience was essentially unimpaired. The atmosphere was still convivial, the waitstaff were friendly and enthusiastic, and chef Eric Lamphere’s locally sourced food was delicious. My Boston seafood chowder was crammed with haddock, shrimp and scallops, while the Hudson Valley duck breast with with Brussels sprouts, Cajun cornbread and New York cider jus was notably succulent. The occasion also provided a first opportunity to sample one of the local wines. Although whites predominate in the Finger Lakes, the area is also known for elegant, full-bodied reds made with Cabernet Franc grapes, which thrive in the local conditions. Our server proposed a Ryan William Cabernet Franc 2015 and it proved a revelation.

The Aurora Inn was restored in 2003, followed by the E.B. Morgan House, the Rowland House and Wallcourt Hall (restored in 2005, 2014 and 2016, respectively). The latest mansion to debut, in 2019, was the Zabriskie House, which was built in 1904 as the home of Robert Zabriskie, grandson of E.B. Morgan. Nowadays, it comprises 11 guest rooms, a double parlor and a wood-paneled dining room. Alas, due to the pandemic, the property was open only to its paying guests, so we were unable to see inside.

Other projects continue at the Inns of Aurora, notably an entirely new 15,000-square-foot spa complex (scheduled to open in spring 2021), with 10 treatment rooms, four outdoor hydrotherapy spa pools, saunas and steam rooms, and a tranquility lounge affording views across Cayuga Lake. (The current spa is on the top floor of the Activities Center, housed within a 1906 converted schoolhouse, within steps of the Aurora Inn.) In summer, guests inevitably spend most of their time out on the water, but the season is short, so the new spa is likely to be a game-changer, instantly making the property a year-round retreat.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Aurora Inn    96Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The elegant historic building; the glorious lakeshore setting; our extremely peaceful and comfortable suite; the exceptionally friendly and hospitable staff; the memorably delicious crab eggs Benedict at breakfast.

Dislike

The water pressure in our shower was only adequate; the steep narrow staircase to our suite guaranteed privacy but made life difficult with luggage.

Good to Know

The accommodations with a lake view are Nos. 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10. Children under the age of 14 are not permitted at the property.


Rates: Room (No. 10), $610; Premier Suite (No. 7), $650.
Address: 391 Main Street, Aurora
Telephone: (315) 364-8888

View Aurora Inn Listing

The Lake House on Canandaigua


The drive from Aurora to the small city of Canandaigua takes approximately an hour, as the road is obliged to loop around the northern shores of Cayuga and Seneca lakes. Canandaigua Lake is 15 miles long, 1.5 miles wide and at the westernmost edge of the Finger Lakes.

The all-white bedroom featured a contemporary carved four-poster bed designed by Brooklyn-based artist Fitzhugh Karol, who is responsible for custom furniture and abstract sculptures throughout the resort.

The Lake House on Canandaigua belongs to the Sands family, owners of the Fortune 500 company Constellation Brands (formerly the Canandaigua Wine Company), which acquired an existing hotel on the site in 2018 and demolished it to make way for their new venture. (The Sands family’s interests also include Brooklyn Home Company, which has overseen the development.) The approach to the resort was through a large parking lot, and initially I wondered if I might have made a serious mistake. Fortunately, I need not have worried. Stepping through the front door, we entered a bright, spacious, galleried lobby, with an extraordinary reception desk made from a stack of huge willow logs, stylish modern furniture, a stunning hardwood floor and a glimpse of the lake through tall windows and French doors. (Apparently, there are plans to begin a floatplane service from New York City, which is currently a five-and-a-half-hour drive away; landing on the lake would certainly be a more aesthetically pleasing way to arrive at the property.) Having been checked in with effusive hospitality and a minimum of fuss, we accepted complimentary glasses of Prosecco and went on a brief tour, admiring along the way sculpted leather chairs and a massive central table — constructed from what appeared to be a single slab of oak — all of which I would ideally have liked to take home with me.

The lobby at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Library at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bedroom of our Premium Lake King Suite at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Suite sitting area of our Premium Lake King Suite at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Bath of our Premium Lake King Suite at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
Balcony of our Premium Lake King Suite at The Lake House on Canandaigua - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

Our second-floor Premium Lake King Suite came with a cozy living room, appointed with a huge white sofa, a gas log fire and a 55-inch wall-mounted television. A door opened onto a wide balcony with Adirondack chairs and a panoramic view of the lake. I instantly decided that it was the sort of place where I would be happy to sit and dream for hours. The all-white bedroom featured a contemporary carved four-poster bed designed by Brooklyn-based artist Fitzhugh Karol, who is responsible for custom furniture and abstract sculptures throughout the resort. And the adjacent bath provided two pedestal sinks, a freestanding soaking tub and an exemplary walk-in shower. Overall, our suite struck me as imaginative, stylish, well-appointed and supremely comfortable. (It is worth noting that only around 60 percent of the resort’s 125 accommodations have lake views, so those should be specifically requested.)

At the time of our visit, some areas of the new resort were incomplete, and the casual lakeside Sand Bar restaurant had already closed for the season. However, the Rose Tavern, serving New American cuisine, was fully functional and surprisingly busy. At its far end, a wall of windows looked out onto a marina and the lake, while on either side were a long bar with a pale wood counter and an open kitchen. The navy-and-white décor gave the space a nautical feel. During our two-night stay, the food was consistently imaginative, well-prepared, attractively presented and served with enthusiasm. I particularly enjoyed an appetizer of wild fluke crudo with sesame, Fresno pepper and Asian pear, and a main of pappardelle with broccoli pesto and poached duck egg.


At the end of our visit, my only regret was that we had not had the opportunity to experience the Lake House in summer and to work our way through the lengthy menu of water-based activities. But the fact that our trip was in fall at least gives us a welcome excuse to return.

- Hotel at a Glance -

The Lake House on Canandaigua    95Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The extremely stylish contemporary design in both the accommodations and public areas; the serene lake view from our suite; the uniformly charming staff; the delicious food in the Rose Tavern.

Dislike

The approach to the main entrance across a parking lot is initially disheartening.

Good to Know

Not all rooms have a lake view, so be sure to request one.


Rates: Lake King Room, $360; Premium Lake King Suite, $400.
Address: 770 South Main Street, Canandaigua
Telephone: (585) 394-7800

View The Lake House on Canandaigua Listing

Read more about our editor’s trip to the Finger Lakes

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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