When I first moved to upstate New York 25 years ago, I picked a small, rural town, mainly because it was affordable to a new homeowner. Once I’d saved up more cash, I reasoned, I’d move to a swankier place — over the border into the Berkshires, perhaps. But over the decades, I’ve found that my location couldn’t be more ideal. I can get to many of my favorite places within a few hours of mostly scenic driving. One of these is the Finger Lakes region, a fantastic destination any time of year, especially when I stay at the Inns of Aurora.
Located nearly midway between the eleven lakes, the Inns of Aurora provide the perfect springboard for a Finger Lakes getaway. I spent 2 days at the Inns in February, and although my stay was compensated, I plan to come back as soon as I can. It’s that good.
Exploring Seneca Falls And Auburn
I left home early in the morning and arrived a few hours later at the first of my stops: Seneca Falls, to visit the National Women’s Hall of Fame and Wesleyan Chapel, where the inaugural women’s rights convention was held in 1848.
Then it was on to Auburn and the Howland Stone Store Museum, the former shop of abolitionist Slocum Howland. I especially enjoyed the upstairs “cabinet of curiosities,” featuring items gathered around the world by Slocum’s daughter, Emily Howland, and niece, Isabel Howland, both of whom were abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. Opendore, Isabel’s home and now a museum, lies several doors down.
Pro Tip: Aurora is about a 3-hour drive from Albany International Airport, an hour from Syracuse Hancock International Airport, and 30 minutes from Ithaca Tompkins International Airport. You’ll need to rent a car to enjoy all the sights.
Touring The Inns Of Aurora
A few miles away, down a rural route that snakes through wide swaths of old farmland, I turned onto Main Street in Aurora. The village is compact and picturesque, and feels something like the set of a Gilded Age movie. Back in the pre-Industrial Era, it was a popular stop on Cayuga Lake, the longest of the Finger Lakes, which is connected to the Erie Canal.
The central part of the village contains 50 structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eleven of them make up the Inns of Aurora, a 20-year project of Pleasant Rowland, an alumna of the village’s Wells College and founder of the American Girl doll empire. Her $150 million investment in the resort has been the driving force behind the revival of the town.
The Inns of Aurora feature five individual boutique hotels with shared amenities and guest experiences. Weekend manager Dale Whittaker gave me a tour, starting with the Aurora Inn, a handsome brick Federal-style mansion built in 1833. Highlights included the painted panels of 1800s Aurora in the lower-floor dining room, and the picturesque ruin of a steam-powered gristmill in the backyard.
Rowland House is a waterfront “cottage” built in 1903 and decorated in a nautical theme, mostly navy and white with pops of juicy red. It also has a private boathouse topped with a covered patio, plus a charming Grecian temple garden folly. The rooms here have a breezy, coastal feel. Until, that is, you get to the Whimsy Deluxe room at the top. A local artist was commissioned to hand-paint the walls in a checkered pattern — a signature of MacKenzie-Childs, housewares designer and a favorite of Pleasant Rowland. The effect is like tumbling down the rabbit hole and into a Wonderland tea party.
Although all five inns are beautiful and decorated with Rowland’s uniquely quirky, pattern-on-pattern sensibility, these two were my favorites. Like all the hotels, they feature globally sourced furniture and decorative objects, antiques, and original art — by the likes of David Hockney, Helen Frankenthaler, and Chuck Close. Despite their pedigree, they still feel homey, comfortable. “Pleasant wants people to live in the spaces, not feel like they’re in a hotel,” Whittaker told me.
I dropped off my bags at my Premier Lake View Queen room at the Aurora Inn, where light flooded through the two long windows overlooking the lake. From the old world–style botanical wallpaper to the vintage furniture, gas fireplace, and sleek modern bathroom, this is exactly the kind of room I wish I could stay in every time I travel.
Unique Guest Experiences
I changed into outdoor clothes for the first of my guest experiences. The Inns of Aurora offer a wide range, some year round — such as yoga, archery lessons, cooking classes, and evening s’mores around an outdoor firepit. Others are seasonal, such as summer kayaking, paddle boarding, and private guided fishing trips. I chose a sunset hike along the resort’s new system of trails.
Matt and Mike, two amiable outdoorsmen, were my guides. We ambled through the trees along the gently sloping, 3.5-mile trail system, chatting about the local wildlife, from deer and red foxes to the snow geese whose spring migration along the Atlantic Flyway is a spectacle of its own.
As the sun began to fade, we paused at a firepit along the top of the trail for hot cocoa and s’mores. The first streaks of pink and apricot were beginning to rake their fingers across the sky. While the cloud cover partially obscured the spectacular sunsets the lake is known for, it was still enchanting. I sank into my camp chair, breathing in the fresh air and the warm scents of hot chocolate and woodsmoke.
After a shower — much needed, to rid me of Eau du Campfire, and made delightfully fragrant by bath amenities by sustainable brand William Roam — I donned fresh clothes and went downstairs to the 1833 Kitchen & Bar. At 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, only a couple of tables were occupied. I sipped a cocktail made with gin, brut, blood orange, and Peychaud’s Bitters, and looked over the dinner menu, eventually settling on several appetizers as my dinner.
The Boston Seafood Chowder, with haddock, shrimp, and scallops, was savory and creamy, with just the right balance of tender fish, celery, potatoes, and onion. By contrast, the golden beet salad, snuggled atop a bed of arugula, was tangy with brandied cherries, smoked blue cheese, and walnuts.
The burrata — served with toasted crostini, olive tapenade, and tomatoes — was the simplest on paper. But what it lacked in flash it more than made up for in flavor. The tomatoes, roasted and marinated in balsamic vinegar, were so good that I later went up to my room and gloated over the phone to my husband, who hadn’t wanted to take time out of work to join me. It’s called tough love, friends.
Back in my room, I switched on the gas fireplace and reclined against the linen-clad Frette pillows. As I watched the moon rise outside my window, I fell into a tranquil, dreamless sleep.
Exploring The History Of The Finger Lakes, And A New Spa
In the morning, I was ready for an early start. Breakfast at the hotel restaurant is served late — 9 a.m. — so I contented myself with the mini spread set out at the end of my floor: homemade granola bars, yogurt, and an orange.
Then I headed out to explore more historic sites, including Seward House, the former home of abolitionists William Henry Seward, secretary of state under Lincoln, and Frances Seward. I also stopped for a tour at the Harriet Tubman Home and the AME Zion Church, which offers worship space to the same congregation Tubman belonged to. Later, I stood at her gravesite in Fort Hill Cemetery, gazing at the flowers and other gifts left around her headstone, and marveled at how little of her incredible history I’d learned in school.
Later in the day, I returned to Aurora. I stopped at the Village Market, the Inn’s petite grocery and shop, to pick up gifts: jars of cherry preserves, bittersweet hot fudge sauce, and salted bourbon caramel, and a small crate of flavored sea salts.
Then I was off to the spa. Located on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake, this white-winged, black-roofed complex has the look of a high-end farm. The 15,000-square-foot wellness center offers massage and bodywork, energy work, skin treatments, and more.
I’d booked a facial and arrived about 40 minutes early to take advantage of the brand-new facilities, including hydrotherapy circuits and dry and steam saunas. Only one problem: I didn’t think to bring a swimsuit. With a sigh, I changed into a fluffy robe and ventured upstairs to an airy room earmarked for silent contemplation. I made myself a cup of chamomile tea and sat on a swing bed, watching through the wall of windows as falcons swooped over the fields in search of an evening snack.
Dinner And Sweet Treats
The facial was relaxing, and I left the spa with a mood to match my glowing skin. A few miles up the lake, in Union Springs, I stopped for dinner at Salt of the Earth. At a table in the back corner, I chatted with an exceptionally friendly twenty-something server and enjoyed a farm-to-table dinner: a simple salad with flavorful local greens, and pan-seared scallops served over shredded carrots and rice. And, of course, a glass of Finger Lakes rosé.
For dessert, I ordered salted caramel ice cream from local maker Little Cow. When the plate landed in front of me, I thought there was no way I’d finish such a generous portion. But once I tucked into to the velvety frozen treat, with its crunchy praline layer and drizzle of brown-sugar caramel on top, I couldn’t stop. Would I need to implement a weeklong austerity plan when I got home? Yep. But it was worth it.
Back in my room, where the soft light of the fireplace danced along the ceiling, I thought about everything I’d seen and experienced. From the stunning landscape to the rich history of the region and the food and wine, there was a lot love about the Finger Lakes. The Inns of Aurora had proved to be the ideal home base from which to explore it all, a peaceful retreat close to the action but still far enough removed to feel like a secret sanctuary.