There's a Cheese Trail in New York's Finger Lakes, and It's Glorious

Spend three days tasting the region's best cheddars, jacks, and blues, and don't skip the wine and beer, either.

Photo: Regan Stephens

The Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York may be best known for its vineyards and wineries — with roots that go as far back as the early 19th century — most producing some version of Reisling, and many with a stunning backdrop of one of its eleven namesake lakes. But while the wine trails are worth the trip, as are the more recent additions of craft breweries (the Finger Lakes Beer Trail has more than 100 microbreweries and brewpubs), the region's cheese, which has been produced here for decades, is a star in its own right.

Officially called the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance, this collection of family-run dairy farms features iconic red barns, rolling fields where happy dairy cows snack on grass, and amazingly fresh cheddars, jacks, blues, chèvres, and more. And with proper plotting, they can be tackled on a trail.

While you probably can't hit all 12 in a few days, you can explore some, while getting a taste of this bucolic region, including its famed wine and beer.

Here are my suggestions for spending three dairy-filled days exploring the cheese travel highlights of the Finger Lakes region.

Day 1

The charming, small town of Corning, New York makes a perfect home base, with a quaint main street populated by family-run restaurants and antique shops, and, no big deal, the world's largest glass museum.

Kick off your cheese-fueled adventure at Lively Run Goat Dairy, and meet the herd of goats producing some of the milk for its stellar lineup of cheeses, like the award-winning Cayuga Blue. Even if you miss the goat yoga classes on Saturday and Sunday morning at this family-friendly farm, you can still visit with the happy goats, and taste the farm's goat and cow cheeses, paired with other local products like honey and preserves.

The next stop, about 20 minutes southwest toward Seneca Lake, is the Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards winery and tasting room. The land has been in the family for more than 160 years, with the winery dating back to 1985. Don't let the busloads of wine-tasting tourists or the tiki bar churning out wine slushies discourage you; serious winemaker Michael Reidy is producing top-notch wines. Try the robust, velvety Cabernet Franc and the crisp and fruity Grüner Veltliner.

Just a few minutes down the road, perched on the side of the hill overlooking beautiful Seneca Lake, find Two Goats Brewing. Order one of the IPAs (the New England is a favorite) and snag a picnic table outside. If you're hungry for lunch, order the roast beef sandwich, made with tender, slow-cooked beef from Schrader Farms, just 20 miles away. (Honestly, order this even if you're not hungry.)

About a 15-minute drive due south, find the village of Watkins Glen, with a lush state park, waterfront and sightseeing cruises, and, maybe most importantly, two ice cream parlors that deserve your attention. Family-run Great Escape has been making ice cream since 1982, and offers homemade ice cream, gelato, and sorbet, plus some vegan flavors, and Colonial Pottery and Creamery, attached to an inn, makes small-batch ice cream on site. Order a traditional or vegan flavor on one of the homemade waffle cones.

Drive another 10 minutes to reach Sunset View Creamery, part of the century-old Hoffman's Dairy farm that's producing handcrafted cheeses from their own herd of Holsteins on site. Carmella, a cheesemaker who's part of the family's fourth generation, can give you a map of the farm for a self-guided tour of the cheesemaking facility (while the farm's resident dogs, Ebony and Holly, gleefully follow). Meet the dairy cows (including, on my visit, calves that were born just weeks ago), and return to the shop for a tasting of flavored cheese curds, fresh mozzarella, or Heritage cheese (a blend of Swiss and Parmesan), among others. While you're there, pick up other local products from nearby farms and makers, including maple syrup, ground coffee, and meat.

Return to Corning, about 30 minutes away, for dinner and, yes, more ice cream. Try Atlas Pizzeria for brick-oven pies like the house specialty, piled with pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, prosciutto, veggies, and cheeses. Finish the day across the street at Dippity Do Dahs. The ice cream is crafted on site with milk from Upstate Farms, a co-op of family-run farms, and uses local ingredients for flavors like the seasonal Maple Walnut and Wine Sorbet. Whatever flavor you order, make sure to ask for a homemade waffle cone, which you can smell being pressed from a block away.

Day 2

Regan Stephens

Drive north again, this time to the western shore of Seneca Lake, to fourth-generation dairy farm Shtayburne Farm Creamery, where you'll find plenty of samples of flavored cheddars, jacks, and curds in the shop. Try the tomato basil curds, the jalapeño or blueberry jack, or something more traditional but equally delicious. Afterward, head west to Ravines Wine Cellars, where the knowledgeable staff will welcome you to a tasting room that's reminiscent of a Tuscan villa. Find one of the wrought iron tables in the back, smack in between rows of lush green vineyards and the picturesque Keuka Lake, and order a cheese and charcuterie plate with locally produced meats and cheeses and a warm, fresh-baked baguette, paired with a lineup of stellar dry Rieslings and other varietals, from bubbles to reds. Or opt for the wine and chocolate tasting, where the wine, complemented by artisanal milks and darks, takes on new identities.

For a proper lunch, drive to the northern tip of Keuka Lake to find Seneca Farms. The retro spot with the red-and-white striped awning has outdoor seating, plus a fried chicken plate that you'll remember fondly 'til the end of time, paired with corn fritters, mac and cheese, and salads made from old family recipes. Save room for ice cream — either the rich frozen custard in myriad homemade flavors (get the peach if they have it) or hard ice cream, made in-house using a 16% butterfat base with homemade chocolates and candy mix-ins.

Regan Stephens

After a 20-minute drive south down the western shore of Keuka Lake, you'll find Steuben Brewing. Head brewer and Finger Lakes native Chad Zimar makes excellent IPAs and lagers, and his brown ale just won best in New York State at TAP New York craft beer festival. The five-year-old brewery supports local farmers and doesn't allow tour buses in an effort to keep the vibe family-friendly, which it manages with live music, a stack of board games, free-flowing popcorn, and plenty of outdoor picnic seating with a prime view of the lake. It will be hard to leave this idyllic setting, but a 15-minute drive will take you to the southern tip of Keuka Lake, where you'll find the delightful little Depot Park. There's kayaking in the harbor, a small pier for fishing, and a roped-off area for swimmers. If you have time, walk around the town of Hammondsport — home to quaint shops, festivals, and only about 700 residents.

For dinner, make a reservation at the chef-owned Pleasant Valley Inn, located just outside of downtown. A charming, four-room bed and breakfast, the historic inn is also home to an excellent restaurant that utilizes the region's best produce, meats, and cheeses. The chef makes homemade pasta (try the seasonal crab in spicy red sauce or flavorful corn pasta with a little kick of garlic), locally sourced pork, and lots of farm-grown vegetables. Don't miss the board of local cheeses (the Lively Run blue is often featured) and the salmon appetizer, smoked in-house using wood from a nearby vineyard.

Day 3

Continue your journey at Hemlock Ridge Farm (it's a good idea to call or text Jessie, one of the owners, first. Her number is listed on the website). The certified organic farm offers a selection of cheddars (hot pepper, sharp, or garlic), plus chicken, beef, and pork, tons of veggies, pure maple syrup, and bouquets of fresh blooms. For an early lunch, stop into Crooked Lake Ice Cream, back in downtown Hammondsport. Though the ice cream isn't local (it comes from a small-batch maker in Maine), it's delicious, and the charming little restaurant serves salads and sandwiches for lunch, and breakfast, like the sausage gravy and biscuits, all day.

A 30-minute drive west, find Stewart's Family Farm. At their farm stand, each member of the Stewart family produces a different, ardently made product. There's goat cheese (sold in containers of soft chèvre, some flavored with dill or garlic), fresh, sourdough baked goods, shelves of maple syrup, skeins of colorful lamb's wool, and maple frozen custard, also made with goat's milk. Alongside the items produced by the family, you'll find local goods like handcrafted jewelry and pottery, and a selection of jack cheeses from nearby Heaven Scent Farm.

Return to Corning for dinner, this time at Cugini Cafe. The Italian market and café is owned by Marco Hickey, who also owns the larger cheese manufacturer and retailer, Golden Age Cheese. Hickey's family has been making cheese for over three decades, and the café sells hand-pulled mozzarella, plus a selection of other Golden Age cheeses, including the naturally smoked cheddar and provolone. Try one of the Italian heroes, or wind down your cheese expedition on a high note with the Super Cheesy Melt Panini, pressed with the hand-stretched mozz, plus cheddar and provolone. Afterward, head to Liquid Shoes Brewing, a few doors down on Market Street, and finish strong with one of brothers David and Eric Shoemaker's fresh-brewed ales while you plot your return. There are plenty more cheesy destinations you have yet to explore here.

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