There’s no denying that New York’s Finger Lakes are special. Carved by retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, these long, skinny, very deep impressions surrounded by soft, rolling hills have been cherished for millennia. The original inhabitants, the Iroquois, believed that the great creator so loved the area that he left his handprint on the land.
The geography makes the region perfect for at least two things: fall weather, and wine making. Combining the two is a joy, and there’s no better place to base your trip than the historic Inns at Aurora. The plural is not a typo. There are two inns perched at the tip of Cayuga Lake: the Aurora Inn and the E.B. Morgan House. Their pedigree dates back to the mid-1800s, but they have been inns for less than 10 years. In that short time, they have earned numerous awards, including the AAA Four-Diamond Award and listings on the National Register of Historic Places and on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of the world’s 25 Most Romantic Hotels.
And you can thank your 10-year-old daughter for it.
The properties’ revival is due in large part to the creator of the American Girl empire, Pleasant T. Rowland. She partnered with her alma mater, nearby Wells College, which has owned the properties for decades. The Aurora Inn was too expensive to maintain and had been boarded up for years. The Morgan House was used as, among other things, a dorm for students studying French. (Some locals still call it the French House.) They began renovating the buildings in 2001, and Rowland was an active participant.
“With Pleasant, it was not just her money. She loves historic restoration and is every bit as talented and qualified in that as in her other businesses,” says Sue Edinger, general manager. “She was very active and involved with everything, from overall concepts and ideas to choosing the furniture, paint colors, and wallpapers.”
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One of two buildings that comprise the Inns at Aurora, E.B. Morgan House offers lakeside views and bedrooms with period furnishings
Originally named Aurora House, the Aurora Inn was built in 1833 by Colonel Edwin Barber Morgan, a native of Aurora and an original investor in the New York Times. The red brick, Federal-style structure retains the glamour you’d expect from such a house: original fireplaces, antiques, Oriental rugs, exquisite fabrics, rich woods, porches, balconies, and a gallery-worthy collection of local art. But it’s also been modernized for today’s travelers, with whirlpool baths, flat-screen TVs, high-speed Internet, and an environmentally friendly geothermal heating and cooling system.
There are 10 guest rooms and a gorgeous waterfront dining room offering stunning views of the lake and mountains. Executive Chef Greg Rhoad’s American cuisine features local produce — much of it organic — and a superb list of the Finger Lakes’ many award-winning wines. Dine outdoors, weather permitting. “Very few places outside of private clubs offer lakeside dining,” Edinger says. “And I guarantee that none have the beautiful sunsets that we have.”
Just north of the Aurora Inn is the Morgan House, former home of the famous colonel. He was a peer and business partner with local boldface names of the time like Ezra Cornell (yes, that Cornell) and Henry Wells (who worked with a guy named Fargo and cofounded American Express). As such wealth would suggest, the Italianate-style home was constructed for $50,000, which was a ton of money back in 1858.
It was donated to Wells College in 1961, serving most recently as a guest residence before it was restored. It now has seven exquisite guest rooms and — like its sister inn — period décor, local art, jaw-dropping lake views, and all the modern comforts of home.
As relaxing as the inns are, however, “people don’t want to come and sit anymore, they want to experience the area,” says Edinger. Along with the boating, hiking, and other outdoor activities the region offers, the inns have travel packages that literally help guests get their hands dirty. One lets you work at a local winery and make your own wine. Another sends you to the inns’ produce supplier to perform seasonal duties and learn about organic farming. “You don’t just get a demonstration — you actually do it,” she says.
Whatever you do, it will be hard to keep your eyes on your task. “The number one draw here in fall is the color,” Edinger says. “It’s just incredible.”
The picturesque village of Aurora is itself a treasure. In fact, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wander the streets, visit the specialty and antiques shops — and don’t miss the Morgan Opera House just a few steps away from the inn. Located on the second floor of the Aurora Free Library, this restored Victorian-era theater offers a variety of concerts, plays, and other cultural events.