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Gorges and gorgeous, Finger Lakes city has it all

The bumper stickers say it all.

"Ithaca is Gorges."

This city on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake is indeed full of gorges and is also quite gorgeous.

From the lakeshore to the surrounding hillsides of Cornell University and Ithaca College, Ithaca is spectacular. The educational institutions bring an international flavor and sophistication to the city that is really a small town at heart. It is also a most family friendly city.

Ithaca is regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the Finger Lakes.

Downtown Ithaca abounds with seasonal festivals, concerts and indoor and outdoor performances. The Commons, a pedestrian mall, is the centerpiece of downtown. The mall has an international flair with more than 100 specialty shops, including several shops filled with imaginative and well-made toys from around the world.

Center Ithaca on the Commons features two levels of shops that surround a sky-lit atrium cafe. The city is known for fine dining with restaurants that offer a range of tastes to please every palate. It has more restaurants per capita than New York City. Nationally renowned Moosewood Restaurant featuring a vegetarian menu and Simeon's on the Commons are two popular downtown eateries.

The Sagan Planet Walk, named in memory of Ithaca resident and astronomer Carl Sagan, begins at the Commons. The true-to-scale solar system model is one of the only walkable "Planet Walks" in the world. Starting with the sun, the at the Commons tour visits all nine planets along a 3/4 -mile route to the Sciencenter museum.

At the Sciencenter, visitors can walk into a giant camera, splash around a water flume and pet a snake. It is a hands-on museum and outdoor playground with more than 200 interactive exhibits and a science store. Families can experiment with finger painting and optical illusions in the Discovery Space. Children under age 4 can explore the Curiosity Corner.

Kids of all ages can learn about the world around them by tinkering with deceptively simple gadgets. But be careful -- what appears to be a seesaw may be a device that teaches a physics lesson. "Watergates" is a unique flume exhibit where visitors can control how fast and where water flows and how to channel its strength. "Counting on you" lets you measure your strength, height and pulse and compare them to other visitors.

The Museum of the Earth at the Paleontological Research Institute is another special Ithaca museum. Unique specimens include massive skeletons of the Hyde Park Mastodon and Right Whale No. 2030.

Experience what life was like in three ancient worlds of New York State. Bring home a fossil. Touch and feel history by working with fossils at the Discovery stations. Witness passages of time through audio-visual theater presentations. Dinosaur fans will be able to immerse themselves in the dinosaurs that walked and lived in New York.

The view alone makes a visit to the I.M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on the campus of Cornell University a must-see. Sweeping views of Cayuga Lake, the campus and Ithaca are offered from expansive third-floor windows.

The museum houses an impressive collection that spans 40 centuries and five continents with particular strengths in Asian and contemporary art. There's even a Buffalo connection -- two Tree of Life windows from the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Darwin Martin House. One is on loan and the other is owned by the museum.

Ithaca also provides many ways to enjoy the colors of autumn. Stroll the 1.3-mile walk along Cascadilla Creek Gorge in the heart of downtown or visit Taughannock Falls State Park or Buttermilk Falls Park.

Taughannock is located just eight miles north of the city. The falls at Taughannock are 215 feet high -- the highest vertical waterfall in the eastern United States (higher even than Niagara Falls). There are two falls' lookout points: one from below at the end of the Gorge Trail; the other from above at the Falls Overlook on Taughannock Park Road. You can reach the base by walking along a gentle 3/4 -mile trail. Pick up a Gorge Trail brochure in the park office and follow the numbered markers that correspond to those described in the brochure.

Stand at the beginning of the trail. Had you been at this spot two million years ago, you would have been under hundreds of feet of stone. Twenty thousand years ago, you would have been under half a mile of ice. And 10,000 years ago, you would have been standing on the shore of Cayuga Lake right next to the falls. Now the falls are almost a mile away.

Stop at marker No. 2 to see evidence of the waterfall's power. The constant pouring of water has gradually eaten away at the rock supporting it.

The trail goes through a rugged canyon and quiet woods, along a peaceful stream to the falls. The walk is flat and easy -- it's hard to ask for more from a walk than what the Gorge Trail offers.

If you have ever dreamed of jumping into an old-time swimming hole, Buttermilk Falls State Park, just two miles south of Ithaca, is the place for you.

These are falls that refresh rather overwhelm. A natural pool forms at the base of the falls and the spring-fed pool is cool and relaxing. Buttermilk Creek has poured down the steep side of the valley since the Ice Age, forming the long cascade from which the park takes its name. Thousands of years of erosion in the native shale and sandstone have left waterfalls, high cliffs, sculptured pools and Pinnacle Rock.

Between 1912 and 1920, the movie industry flourished in Ithaca. The gorges were backdrops for many films and some segments of "Perils of Pauline" were filmed in Buttermilk Glen.

Cool trails take hikers uphill and alongside Buttermilk Creek that drops more than 500 feet in a series of cascades and rapids. In all, there are ten waterfalls and two glens.

For wine lovers, the Cayuga Wine Trail is clearly marked with signs. The wineries are open for tours and tastings. Wineries serve grape juice to children and non-drinkers. There's even a winery in Ithaca -- Six Mile Creek Vineyard. It is situated on historic ground containing a pre-Civil War cemetery and stagecoach stop. The vineyard produces wine that underscores its status as the only winery in Ithaca. Featured wines include Ithaca White and Ithaca Red.

> Mapping it out

For more information:

Ithaca, (800) 284-8422, www.visitithaca.com.

Buttermilk Falls State Park, Route 13S; (607) 273-5761, www.nysparks.state.ny.us. Camping is available. There are four miles of trails in the park.

Taughannock Falls State Park, Route 89, Trumansburg; (607) 387-6739, www.nysparks.state.ny.us. Camping is available as well as a summer concert series. There are five miles of trails in the park.

Sciencenter, 601 First St.; (607) 272-0600, www.sciencenter.org. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission $6 for adults; $5 for seniors and $4 for kids 3-17.

Museum of the Earth, 1259 Trumansburg Road (Route 96); (607) 273-6623, www.museumoftheearth.org. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday. Admission: $8 adults; $5 seniors/students; and $3 ages 3-17.

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, University Ave., Cornell Campus; (607) 255-6464 or www.museum.cornell.edu. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; free admission.

Six Mile Creek Vineyard, 1551 Slaterville Road (Route 79); (607) 272-9463, sixmilecreek.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

William Henry Miller Inn; (877) 25-MILLER; www.MillerInn.com. A hearty breakfast and evening dessert are included in rates that range from $115 to $195.

> Directions

(from downtown Buffalo)

Take the Thruway East to Exit 41;

Take Route 318E to Route 89S along the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail on the west side of Cayuga Lake into Ithaca.

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