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Charm on the Finger Lakes: Fall is a great time to visit Skaneateles

You know the reaction a Buffalonian gets when he confesses he’s never seen Niagara Falls? Longtime Finger Lakes residents might get the same look for never having strolled the streets of Skaneateles, an upscale central New York spot renowned for its natural beauty, eclectic shops and impressive 1800s architecture.

Living only an hour from this Onondaga County village atop Skaneateles Lake, my appetite for exploring it was whet years ago when I would pass through and notice people out and about, no matter the season. Last spring, I finally made Skaneateles my destination, gathered some “must-do” advice from Facebookers, and invited my friend Lynn along for the ride.

Like most lake communities, this one teems with summer activities, such as sailing and polo matches. But autumn here is equally breathtaking — and there’s plenty to do, starting with the Oct. 3-5 Fall Festival, complete with scarecrow stuffing, carriage rides and glass-blown pumpkins. And from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, costumed Victorian actors and musicians take to the streets each weekend for the annual Dickens Christmas weekends. So, make sure to put Skaneateles (widely pronounced as “Skinny-atlas,” though variations abound) on your bucket list.

To enjoy its specialty shops, galleries and small museums — plus hiking trails, abundant restaurants, and historic ties to the Revolutionary War and Underground Railroad — you’ll want to take a weekend or longer getting to know it.

The village’s downtown (Route 20/Genesee Street) sits along the lake, providing spectacular views of fall foliage from public parks that flank its retail blocks. Be sure to relax on one of the many benches, sprawl out on the grass, or stroll along the pier that extends far into the lake. Above all: Don’t forget your camera.

Browse or buy

skinny2When it comes to retail therapy, Skaneateles could boost any shopaholic’s morale. It’s home to dozens of locally owned shops, including some that are tucked along the back streets and easy to miss unless you go exploring. Intermingled with the likes of CVS and Tops are several niche stores, such as Creekside Books and Coffee, Lucky Goat Soap Shop and Infused (hot sauces, rubs, seasonings, etc.). Closer to the main street, on Jordan, are Hobby House Toys, the Irish Store and F. Oliver’s specialty oils and vinegars.

Among our favorite stops were the Imagine handcraft gallery and Gallery 54, featuring watercolors, fabric art, stained glass, wood, handbags, pottery, jewelry and more. Ceramic artist Terry Aske-Cole and photographer Tom Dwyer at Gallery 54 said fall is a great time to visit, because it’s peaceful even though there’s plenty going on. Dwyer also made mention of the community’s moneyed reputation but says it’s not snobbish.

1st National Gifts is an old bank with a mini history display and free travel materials in the “vault.” The store prides itself on whimsical items, including jewelry, cards, glassware, Judaica and more. Clerk Betsy Conroy says people from all over the world stop in, including the rich and famous.

“Everybody comes through. But it’s Skaneateles, so we ignore them. That’s what they like,” she said. When nudged to name drop, she mentions “all of the Baldwins,” since the actors’ mother lives in nearby Camillus; and many musicians and comedians, “because Whoopi Goldberg really likes Mirbeau.”

Speaking of Mirbeau, it’d be hard to mention Skaneateles and not get a recommendation for this spa and inn just west of downtown. If pampering appeals, plan to schedule a massage or other luxury treatment.

For foodies…

Food and drink made up the bulk of my friends’ recommendations, and Lynn and I quickly discovered why. There are almost too many choices. We started with a visit to the Patisserie bakery behind the Sherwood Inn, where we bought coffee, an orange-cranberry scone (mmm…) and a cinnamon roll (only so-so). So many people had recommended the bread that I asked the clerk what was most popular. Without missing a beat, she turned to a wheeled, multi-shelved rack and said “the stretch bread.” We each bought a wonderfully soft, baguette-shaped loaf to share with our husbands later. Then we took seats at the wrought-iron tables that line the brick walkway outside. Even limited people-watching made it clear this place has the locals’ stamp of approval. Visitors who can’t get enough of fresh baked goods, though, will also want to check out the bakeries on Jordan Street and behind Rosalie’s Cucina, near Mirbeau.

When lunchtime rolled around, the hard work of picking a restaurant began. Among the recommendations were Doug’s Fish Fry, Gilda’s (tapas), Rosalie’s, Johnny Angel’s, The Sherwood Inn and Joe’s Pasta Garage. Eventually, we settled on the Bluewater Grill (next to Clift Park), where we’d been urged to try the pear martinis. How’s that for relaxing? It also provided a couple of firsts for Lynn, who’d never had a martini or sushi, so I shared my Avocado Maki Roll.

For those who want the quintessential Skaneateles experience, a stop at Doug’s Fish Fry on Jordan Street is mandatory. Tom Dwyer told me the line — “which moves fast” — is out the door and around the corner on Friday nights. (When Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton first summered on the lake, the owner made headlines by vowing not to serve the president because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.)

For dinner, we decided to go more upscale and enjoyed polenta, braciole and Insalata Caprese at Rosalie’s. The orange-and-earth-tone Tuscan décor, delicious food, friendly staff and strolling musician made this a memorable choice. A word to the wise: make a reservation. We arrived at 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday and were told they couldn’t seat us until 8:45 — unless we wanted to eat at the bar, “which is filling up fast.” Unlike Doug’s, Rosalie’s has hosted the Clintons (Bill’s endorsement tops the restaurant’s online menu) – and hundreds of others who’ve signed the walls. When that tradition began, patrons made a $25 charitable donation for the privilege; with limited space available now, the price is up to $100, and the money continues to be donated to charities.

Where to stay…

skinny3The Sherwood Inn on Genesee Street is known for rooms appointed with antiques, a lively bar and welcoming atmosphere.

Skaneateles Suites offers an array of options, including a boutique hotel and private bungalows.

Packwood House at 14 W. Genesee Street is the more modern sister property to the Sherwood Inn. Some rooms offer great lake views.

While you’re there…

Other ways to pass a few hours:

Drive up into the neighborhoods behind downtown to see the array of architectural styles and lush landscaping.
Visit the lake’s only winery, Anyela’s Vineyards, 2433 West Lake Road, about five miles from the village proper. Fall is the perfect time of year to relax on one of its many decks and enjoy the lake view.

Seven miles farther, take a left at Appletree Point Road, and you’ll find the Bahar Nature Center and a trail to Carpenter Falls. But go prepared (we weren’t) with hiking boots; otherwise, you may find yourself slogging through mud on your way to the falls — a beautiful walk set amid an autumn landscape of oranges and golds.

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