A bed for the night and a tipple of country ale were about all that wayfarers could expect for their money when a stagecoach entrepreneur named Isaac Sherwood built an inn at Skaneateles, in west-central New York a few miles west of Syracuse.
That was in 1807. Today's traveler finds considerably more. While the lovely, wine-rich Finger Lakes region -- the East's answer to California's Napa Valley -- still provides a glimpse of sturdy, rustic America, antiquated hostelries like Sherwood's now go well beyond the basics.
They appeal with every amenity of comfort and cuisine. Add to this the scenic splendors of rolling vineyards and long shimmering lakes, and you have the stuff of dream vacations.
The four inns described here are special places. Blending luxury with tradition, they lie within 30 miles of one another south of Lake Ontario in unspoiled settings on the shores of four of the 11 Finger Lakes: Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga and Seneca.
Though each inn has its own distinctive personality, collectively they share a rural charm coupled with attentive, unobtrusive service. Their locations at the rough center of three major highways -- the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90), Route 17 and Interstate 81 -- puts them within easy reach of Buffalo.
And close by, attractions abound. The quiet or stimulating pleasures of the surrounding region include wine tours and tastings, fall foliage viewing, historical and art museums, swimming, boating, fishing and woodland hiking.
All the inns welcome non-resident diners. Reservations are suggested. For details about Finger Lakes sightseeing, dining and accommodations, contact the Finger Lakes Association, 309 Lake St., Penn Yan, N.Y. 14527; (800) 548-4386 or (315) 536-7488.
Taughannock Farms Inn
This quintessential country-house retreat began life 126 years ago as a lakeside vacation home; and it has remained a home -- albeit a lavish Victorian one -- ever since. Under the three-year stewardship of owner-innkeepers Susan and Tom Sheridan it has enhanced a reputation as one of the great showplaces of Western New York.
The cross-gabled inn is half-hidden on the forested west ridge of Cayuga Lake, at 40 miles the longest of the Finger Lakes. Five exemplary guest rooms -- all with private bath but without telephone or television -- carry a period theme of antique oak and walnut. Adjacent to the main house, three cottages provide accommodations for families or small groups.
The heart of the establishment is the enclosed but light-drenched dining porch, commanding splendid views of the lake. The menu created by longtime chef Dan Wright appeals in the main to conservative palates. Prime rib, roast turkey and rack of lamb are the top sellers. The wine card includes a full shopping list of Bordeaux, chiantis and California merlots. Finger Lakes rieslings and chardonnays top the list of whites.
Bordering the inn, guests can ramble through the woods to Taughannock Falls, a cascade plummeting sheer from shale cliffs. Visitors can also explore nearby Ithaca, with its standout collection of Asian and 19th-century European painting and sculpture at Cornell University's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. The museum is open year-round, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free.
The Taughannock Farms Inns is open mid-April to mid-December (from Nov. 1 through Thanksgiving the dining room remains open Thursday through Sunday only). The dinner bill comes to about $60 to $80 for two, with wine. Lunch is not served. The price of a double room ranges from $100 to $140, including continental breakfast. The cottage annexes cost $215 to $350. Midweek daily rates drop by 10 percent April, November and December.
The inn is located at the south edge of Taughannock Falls State Park nine miles north of Ithaca on Route 89. Address: 2030 Gorge Road, Trumansburg, N.Y. 14886; (888) 387-7711; Fax (607) 387-7721.
As an example of solid comfort combined with a pedigreed past, the Sherwood is the genuine article. Built as a coaching way station on the upstate New York mail-and-passenger run, this rambling, blue-shingle hostelry stands at the northern tip of Skaneateles Lake in the village of the same name.
Hospitable attention to detail is the Sherwood's hallmark. Enter the spacious lobby, with its brick fireplace and cosseting Stickley furniture, and you're likely to be met by owner Bill Eberhardt or manager-innkeeper Jeffrey Wedemeyer.
The 14 guest rooms and six suites -- all with private bath, radio, telephone and television -- are a cozy clutter of antiques and floral prints. The main dining room, facing the lake, entices with gleaming crystal, starched white napery and spindle-back chairs.
Chef Chris Kuhn's dinner menu is American to the core, highlighted by grilled salmon in mustard sauce, horseradish-crusted filet mignon, roast pheasant and hunters' venison stew.
A lighter menu is featured in the inn's pine-paneled tavern. The wine list is extensive and includes -- but is not limited to -- European-style Finger Lakes vintages.
Leaving the inn, guests can stroll down village streets edged by magnificent Federal and Greek Revival houses and admire the view of distant hills surrounding the lake. There's also golf at three local courses. The Sherwood's restored wooden Chris-Craft motor launch, seating six, is available for cruises on Skaneateles Lake. The cost is $60 an hour for boat and captain.
The Sherwood is open all year. The double-room rate ranges from $85 to $160 (before tax), including continental breakfast. The off-season rate -- Oct. 12 to May 1 -- drops to $75 to $135. Dinner for two comes to about $60, with wine; half that amount for lunch.
Skaneateles is on Route 20 some 18 miles west of Syracuse and Interstate 81. The inn's address is 26 West Genesee St., Skaneateles, N.Y. 13152; telephone, (800) 3-SHERWOOD; Fax, (315) 685-8983.
Inn at Belhurst Castle
Imagine a turreted castle high above a pristine lake. Inside, all is burnished splendor. A spigot in a marble niche dispenses chilled local wine.
Set in a spacious park sloping to the west shore of Seneca Lake, the Inn at Belhurst Castle is a Gothic whimsy in stone and wood. Once a private mansion, later a speakeasy and gambling casino, this century-old pile continues to exude an aura of mystery and romance.
The Belhurst is worth a special trip. Duane and Kevin Reeder, owner-innkeepers since 1992, have kept intact a farrago of Victorian styles. In nine guest rooms and two suites guests will find velveteen sofas and deep leather wing chairs. The six dining areas include a music room, porch and solarium.
Under veteran chef Casey Belile, the menu delivers a sensible selection of steaks, roasts, pastas and seafood. The extensive wine list is liberally sprinkled with top-of-the-line Bordeaux and Burgundies as well as California and Finger Lakes whites and reds.
If you have a taste for historic architecture, be sure to head north about a mile on Route 14 South to Geneva. Building styles in this handsome 19th-century college town range from early 1800s Federal through Classical Revival to the ornate Italianate of the century's end. And about 20 miles south of the inn on Route 14, Glenora Wine Cellars and Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards welcome visitors with tours and tastings.
The Belhurst is open all year. Doubles cost $130 to $220. Rates for the suites are $240 to $315. Rooms located on the grounds behind the inn cost $105 to $165. Prices drop by about 50 percent November through April. All rates include continental breakfast, and all accommodations have a private bath. Most have telephone, radio and television. Expect to pay about $70 for dinner for two, with wine; for lunch, about $25. The inn is signposted just off Route 14 South, eight miles south of the New York Thruway's Exit 42. Address: PO Box 609, Geneva, N.Y. 14456; (315) 781-0201 (Fax, same).
One of the lures of this twin-gabled, red-clapboard charmer is its seclusion. Just seven miles west of Skaneateles, on the outskirts of an old mill town called Auburn, the century-and-a-half-old Springside looks out over a wide lawn and spring-fed pond overhung with weeping willows. Through a scattering of pines peer vistas of Owasco Lake, with its fringe of meadows and woods.
The Springside's key attraction is sumptuous dining, but with few surprises. Steve Pilipczak, chef or sous chef for the past 20 years, stresses such down-the-middle American favorites as Long Island duckling, lobster Newburg and a tangy cheese souffle.
"Nothing comes from a can," says owner-innkeeper Sean Lattimore, an Auburn native. "We make all our gravies and sauces from real stock."
The inn's dining room is an atmospheric match for the bill of fare: glowing log fire, massive oak beams bracing a high-peaked ceiling. Drinks are served in an adjoining snuggery decorated with oil paintings of winter scenes by a local artist.
The usual lakeside activities can be found a few minutes' walk away, while an eight-minute drive to downtown Auburn offers a fascinating survey of early New York social history. The 19th-century mansion of William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state and the man who bought Alaska from the Russians for two cents an acre, is now a museum.
Seward House is open all year except January. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 1 to Oct. 15). Admission is $3.25.
The Springside is open year-round. Five of the eight Victorian guest rooms have private baths; none of the rooms has a telephone or television. Rates: $50 to $70 double (no off-season rates), including continental breakfast. For two people figure on about $40 for dinner with wine. The Sunday buffet brunch is $22 for two.
The inn is on Route 38 South just below the Owasco Lake traffic circle, four miles south of Auburn. Address: PO Box 327, 41-43 West Lake Rd., Auburn, N.Y. 13021; (315) 252-7247; Fax, (315) 252-8096.