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In the Finger Lakes, a Holiday Respite

The Inns of Aurora makes for a historic time away

It was a cold December morning when my husband and I did what felt like was the unthinkable: we said goodbye to our kids, then recently turned 2 and 4, and drove away from them for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Actually, we had only left our kids once in their entire lives, for a single night, to see my cousin married in Westchester over Labor Day Weekend. Then, seven months later, we all locked down together as a family. 

Now, on this cheerful, cold, and dark December morning, we were headed to the Finger Lakes, a six-hour drive from our home on the East End. Before lunch, we had made it to Aurora, a village on the shores of the 66-square-mile Cayuga Lake that was founded in 1789. The National Historic District known as Aurora is under one square mile large and is home to Wells College, a petite liberal arts school that was originally founded as a women’s college in the late 1800s by Wells Fargo co-founder Henry Wells. 

Also in Aurora: The Inns of Aurora, a five-inn property that offers guests the opportunity to choose their surroundings. The inns were built between the 1800s and early 1900s and include the Aurora Inn, E.B. Morgan House, Rowland House, Wallcourt Hall, and Zabriskie House, and come equipped with an innkeeper and a bespoke feel. At the Zabriskie House, where we stayed for two nights, a working fireplace made it hard to pry ourselves from the confines of our four-poster bed and crisp linens. 

But we managed to make it downstairs, where a fine holiday spirit had worked its way through the rest of the inn. Original artwork from Wayne Thiebaud and Chuck Close just happened to be one of the benefits of a stay at Zabriskie, and a cozy series of game tables and an enchanting fireplace in the salon made the sojourn worth it. The inn, which was once the home of Robert Zabriskie, was built in 1904 and was restored in 2019. Like each piece of the Inns of Aurora, Zabriskie has its own feel (calming blue tones dominate here, while at the stately E.B. Morgan House, which sits across the street abutting the lake and was built in 1858, more formal accents like wallpaper, marble mantlepieces, and deep wood paneling prevail). 

The Inns of Aurora was a 16-year-long project, initiated by Pleasant Rowland, an educator, journalist, and philanthropist who attended Wells College — and who may be best known for her creation of the American Girl line of dolls. She began restoring the buildings that are now the inns in 2003 and finished with the Zabriskie House in 2019. In 2021, however, the inns received its finishing touch, the 15,000-square-foot Spa at the Inns of Aurora. 

My husband and I spent an ice-cold December day in the warming, glass-framed spa, winter light pouring in. We were greeted by staff, yes, but also by an original Alberto Giacometti sculpture as we entered. Like the rest of the property, the spa is adorned with world-class art, a nod to Pleasant Rowland’s devotion to the arts. 

In the late afternoon, we headed out for a drive, toward one of my favorite wineries, Red Newt Cellars, in nearby Hector, New York. The slate-rich soils of the Finger Lakes are, as in Germany, well-suited for cold weather-loving Riesling. We warmed up by the winery’s stove and sipped through a flight of dry, off-dry, and sweet white wines, accompanied by a cheese platter, taking a few bottles back with us to enjoy later. It would have been easy to spend an entire day — if not a week — exploring the wineries of the region, many of which are open to visitors without an appointment (we did make one online, however, just prior to visiting). 

We were back in time for what I have come to think of, in my mind, as the “rosy-fingered sunset.” In Homer’s Odyssey, there is that term, over and over again, conflated with the word Aurora (it is dawn he speaks of, of course, and not the end of day). But as the day drew to a close, on the early side, the sky exploded into pink and orange. You could see it best from the fire pits and small stone patios of the Rowland House, E.B. Morgan House, and Aurora Inn, which faced the stunning slate-gray waters of the lake, a lake so large that it looked more ocean than anything else. 

Twinkling lights had come on in town. It felt like being inside of a snow globe, although the white stuff had not yet appeared for the season. We stumbled into a romantic dinner — just two grown-ups, having dinner without the kids — at 1833 Kitchen & Bar, Aurora’s historic dining venue. Once named Aurora House, the restaurant occupies the main floor of the Aurora Inn, which was built in 1833 by Colonel E.B. Morgan, a co-founder of The New York Times

Inside, roaring fires and red bow-bedecked Christmas trees greeted us, a cozy dining room framed by history. I ordered a robust cut of meat, a glass of local wine, of course, and by the time the ripe darkness of eight o’clock had set in, we were ready to repair to our cozy fire at Zabriskie. 

It is easy to forget, living in New York, about its ruthless expanse, about the sheer weight of the state. It is so big, so vast, so much from end to end. The Finger Lakes could not be more different than the East End, especially at the holidays, a pared down version of everything. It is minimal in its intention, only what we need, only what we desire: a simple and perfectly executed meal; a delicious and local glass of wine; a fireplace in a bedroom; a magenta sunset over a cool gray lake. And yet, here it is, awaiting our next visit, awaiting yours, even in winter, a snow globe, motion unsettled. Just shake it.