In the morning, my wife, Fyllis, and I walked along a path in the middle of town that skirts a series of waterfalls that tumble through the bottom of a deep gorge. That was followed by a stroll in a lovely botanical garden set in an expansive natural environment.

Our lunch consisted of fresh, farm-to-table produce accompanied by cider, for which the destination is famous, and dinner featured similar fare enhanced by equally well-known wine.

This introduction to Ithaca, New York, included some of the attractions for which that small city is famous, but it only scratched the surface.

Many people equate Ithaca (population about 32,000) with Cornell University, Ithaca College, and nearby Tompkins Cortland Community College. Those learning institutions augment, but do not define, what the town has to offer visitors.

Its “Ithaca is Gorges” motto encapsulates both the proliferation of narrow ravines that bisect steep rock walls — many of which are home to cascading waterfalls — and the beauty of the surroundings.

The phrase includes a backdrop of rolling farm fields, grapes growing in vineyards that dot the area, and Cayuga Lake, the longest (38-plus miles) of the 11 narrow Finger Lakes that were gouged out during the Ice Age by glaciers as they moved southward from present-day Canada.

Cayuga Lake is named after the indigenous Cayuga people, who were there when the Europeans arrived and continue to reside in the region.

Early in the 19th century, settlers began to build houses and then mills powered by waterfalls. At one time, dozens of factories manufactured flour, paper, agricultural equipment, and other goods.

Much of the local history comes alive at The History Center, a state-of-the-art museum that includes interactive displays, collections of Native American and other artifacts, oral histories, and other exhibits.

But it’s outdoors where the appeals of Ithaca become most evident. For starters, the area in and around the town claims more than 150 waterfalls and glacier-carved landscapes, and the viewing begins right in the town itself.

Aptly named Ithaca Falls, located within the city limits, is the last in a series of cataracts. Nearby Buttermilk Falls takes its name from the foaming water created as it descends in a series of drops and rapids.

With a vertical plummet of 215 feet, Taughannock Falls is 33 feet higher than Niagara Falls. It’s the tallest single-drop fall east of the Rocky Mountains.

While waterfall watching is a favorite activity in and around Ithaca, an almost alphabet-long list of other things to do also vies for attention. Hiking, biking, and other trails crisscross the woods. An Art Trail leads to the studios of dozens of resident artists, and a Murals Map outlines a self-guided tour to view wall paintings and installations throughout the city.

The Discovery Trail links an enticing and eclectic group of attractions that range from the magnificent Cornell Botanic Gardens and Cayuga Nature Center to the Johnson Museum of Art and a 226-acre ornithology sanctuary, where more than 230 species of birds have been recorded.

Fishermen cast their lines into stream waters and troll for landlocked salmon and trout in Cayuga Lake. Others explore the lake in tour boats, while some view it from hot air balloons sailing above. 

A drive through the bucolic countryside that surrounds Ithaca provides an introduction to other things to see, do, and enjoy that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some are off the main roads and, in their way, off-beat.

About 50 adorable four-legged creatures live at the Cabin View Alpaca Farm. In addition to simply watching those endearing animals graze and gambol about, human guests may interact with the residents by feeding or leading them on a walk.

Smaller but equally cute four-legged residents wait inspection and interaction at the Lively Run Goat Dairy. Its menu of to-dos includes giving adult goats corn and, in spring, bottle-feeding baby animals, along with cheese tastings and even goat yoga.

Bees rather than bleating goats are the main attraction at the quaintly named Honeybee Embassy in nearby Trumansburg. In addition to selling honey, teas, candles, and other goodies, it conducts tastings that can challenge the imagination along with your palate.

And while the farmers market in Ithaca is operated by a cooperative of about 150 vendors, the weekly Trumansburg version makes up in small-town charm what it may lack in size.

The food treats available in this tranquil setting hint of the focus on field-to-plate pleasures that greet visitors to the Ithaca area. Throw in magnificent samples of Mother Nature’s handiwork and a lengthy list of activities and attractions, and it becomes clear that the “Ithaca is Gorges” slogan is as true as it is catchy.


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