I leapt gracelessly from a rickety board into a swimming hole as dark as ink and emerged at the surface with one distinct thought: I don't ever remember the water being this cold.
A sign introducing hikers to the natural pool at Robert H. Treman State Park said the pool temperature was 66 degrees on this late August morning, but what that feels like upon first splash is much different than how it reads on a chalk board. My legs straightened into logs. I couldn't feel my hands, not really anyway. I wondered for a second whether my stiffened shoulders could propel me enough to prevent my sinking 25 feet into this abyss, located just a few miles outside of downtown Ithaca. Thankfully, the park was well staffed with lifeguards.
My 8-year-old son, enamored of the large waterfall feeding the pool, was unfazed by the chilly surprise. He couldn't jump enough times off of that board. Ithaca worked its magic on him, just as it had done to me so many years ago as a college student and then full-time resident.
It's been nearly 20 years since I lived and worked in Ithaca and enjoyed its summer bounty on a regular basis. So when an overnight family trip was overdue, we choose this off-beat destination as a respite from the overload of commercialism that accompanies so many travel options.
That's not to say we were loading up the tent. Many families prefer to camp in leafy Treman and in Buttermilk Falls State Park, another stretch of glorious gorges and otherworldly scenery within a few miles of Ithaca's laid-back downtown, known as The Commons. The reasonably-priced cabins in both parks are often booked solid throughout the summer.
Planning last minute in this case coincided nicely with our preference for hot showers and a comfortable mattress. We booked a mid-week room at La Tourelle, a modest French country style inn just a few miles south of Ithaca College that shares its 70 acres with an old barn, a couple of ponds and a dozen or so free-range chickens. There's also a spa, a pricey steakhouse and a new area of the property called Firelight Camps that features king mattresses and hardwood floors inside platform tents that can be heated: in our case, something definitely worth considering in the future.
To get here takes less than three hours via the Thruway and a scenic drive alongside Cayuga Lake through Finger Lakes wine country. We began the first day with lunch at an old favorite, Aladdin's, a Mediterranean eatery in the Collegetown section of Ithaca that abuts Cornell University and still serves the best chicken soup this side of my grandma Lucy's. We then traipsed around Ithaca's second city, the Cornell campus, where the hills are so steep that students get a daily workout just by walking to classes. Vacationers could spend days in Ithaca enjoying the campus alone: It has an impressive art gallery, a Robert Trent Jones designed golf course, a tree-lined lake, walking trails that descend into the gorges and 35 acres of botanic gardens.
Ithaca has its version of Transit Road -- Route 13, aka Meadow Street, a heavily-trafficked strip that includes several local gems (Joe's Restaurant, Purity Ice Cream and Tamarind Thai Restaurant, to name a few) sprinkled among mostly chain restaurants, pharmacies and big-box stores. Heading south, development ends almost suddenly, giving way to an oasis of anti-commercialism, Buttermilk Falls State Park, where we headed after our Cornell adventures.
The hike up from the natural swimming hole along stone stairs quickened our pulses. This was no leisurely walk in the park. But the payoff was tremendous: waterfalls, gurgling brooks, strange rock formations that looked like something the ancient Mayans constructed. The boy was impressed. He didn't even so much as mention Minecraft or Ninjago during the journey. It was as if I-pads and hi-def never existed.
We stayed unplugged the next day, too. It included a quick trip to Ithaca College, where crews of workers prepped the campus for fall semester arrivals; breakfast at State Street Diner, which still has flip-down seats in its booths; and a walk around The Commons, a pedestrian-only plaza of homegrown shops and eateries.
Later, at Treman Park, air temperatures that climbed into the high 80s quickly warmed us after our brisk swims. We then hiked two miles mostly uphill along the rim of the gorge and two miles back. Forewarning: It seems more like five miles each way. We got the order of things backwards: the hamstring-pulling hike should have been first, followed by the cryotherapy plunge.
We headed home exhausted, but in need of a glimpse of one more waterfall, the mighty Taughannock Falls. With a 215-foot drop, it's the tallest waterfall in the U.S. east of the Rockies, and, yes, that includes Niagara Falls. Fortunately, it's located just 15 miles north of Ithaca, along Route 89 in the Town of Ulysses, on the way back to Buffalo. The park includes a convenient vantage point area where we pulled the car over and soaked in the majesty – this time without having to hoof it a few miles uphill.
We had the view to ourselves for a few minutes. The waterfall hadn't changed since I was first mesmerized by it as a college student more than 25 years ago. Ithaca hadn't really changed all that much, either. It's just that what had been a great home for me was now a great get-away from home for me and my family.