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Finding Serenity in New York’s Finger Lakes

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At the Lake House in Canandaigua, saunas are designed in the shape of barrels. (Diana Ballon photo for

When I first read about a serenity director at a new spa at the Inns of Aurora in the Finger Lakes, I was intrigued. How do you orchestrate a sense of calm and well-being?

Apparently, in a place of beauty and mystery, with lakeside properties and a pastoral setting, stunning spas, delicious food and wine, and a daily calendar of relaxing and fun activities, finding serenity isn’t so difficult. To discover the apex of the Finger Lakes’ new wellness offerings, I decided to visit two properties, both within a few hours’ drive southeast of Toronto.

According to Indigenous legend, the Finger Lakes area in west and central New York state is so special that the creator blessed it with a handprint. With the advances and retreats of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age, thick frozen sheets gouged the region into U-shaped valleys that eventually became the 11 slender finger-shaped lakes that exist today. Combine these lakes with deep gorges and waterfalls, rolling hills, windy roads and vineyards, and you have an ideal setting for a wellness retreat.

Exploring the Inns of Aurora

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The Inns of Aurora feature contemporary wellness experiences in upstate New York. The properties are about a three-hour drive from Toronto. (Diana Ballon photo for

Our first stop was the Inns of Aurora on 350 acres of farmland overlooking Cayuga Lake. Serenity isn’t difficult to find at its 21,000-square-foot spa where every window faces out onto nature. As creative director Alex Schloop explains, efforts to “frame nature” were intentional: A virtual model was built before the spa was created to ensure that the surrounding countryside was visible at all angles, so guests can gaze out on a pond, on the lake or on adjacent farm fields, the way they would in an agricultural setting. “We wanted to feature the landscape so that the spa experience feels different from season to season, following our wellness philosophy guided by Ayurveda,” explains Schloop.

This farm-inspired wellness retreat has hydrotherapy circuits, saunas and steam rooms, and 10 treatment rooms; a café where you can graze on everything from energy bites, to chia pudding and grain bowls throughout the day (for no charge); and a beautiful spaciousness to easily find solitude for quiet contemplation.

Inspired by Ayurvedic principles, the goal of the spa is to offer each guest an individualized wellness experience, accessible not solely through their extensive menu of treatments, but also through a holistic approach to health that includes nutritious food, attentive service, and a natural setting.

But the spa is not the only place to unwind. The storybook village of Aurora where the resort resides has everything you could possibly need on site. There are five inns, two on-site restaurants (the more casual Fargo Bar & Grill and more formal 1833 Kitchen & Bar); as well as Aurora Cooks!, where you get a cooking demonstration and can enjoy wine and a meal at the same time. You can take out canoes, kayaks and bikes at your leisure, walk their 3.5-mile nature trail; or take a cruise on the lake. A calendar of activities includes, depending on the day, everything from complimentary yoga to archery, essential oil blending, tea blending, and wine tours.

Each inn is a seven- to 11-bedroom historic mansion built in the 19th century and beautifully restored to their original grandeur under the stewardship of the Inns’ founder, Pleasant T. Rowland, who also happens to be the creator of American Girl. As well as having all the creature comforts, each has its own distinct personality. While the Aurora Inn is the most hotel-like property, with early American antiques, heavy gold-framed paintings and rugs from the far east, the others have more of a contemporary feel and operate like luxurious homes. You will find a basket of yoga mats near the front door, and a chess board and other games in the parlour. Several of the dining rooms also have three sets of china, just in case you want to have a catered meal for a special occasion.

For nourishment, there is coffee, homemade breakfast bars, yogurt and fruit that you can help yourself to in the morning; complimentary wine and cheese in the early evening; and s’mores on the firepit outside at night (with fleece blankets in case you get chilly). The resident innkeeper is there to make sure everything comes off without a glitch.

Spectacular Lake Property in Upstate New York

Serenity in the Finger Lakes can also be found at the Lake House on Canandaigua just an hour’s drive from Aurora in the north shore of Canandaigua Lake. Located not far from the highway, it is easily accessible, but also tucked away. A gorgeous 124-room property, it is one of the only places for a luxury stay and high-end dining on the lake.

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The Library at the Lake House of Canandaigua features attractive decor and relaxed atmosphere. (Diana Ballon photo for

Designed by the prestigious Brooklyn Home Company, the hotel’s airy interiors are done in white with pale wood and large glass windows, imbibing it with a feeling of light and spacious. This lightness is offset by cozy dark blue library on the main floor, which is a perfect meeting spot for a cocktail, or a coffee and pastry with a friend. Interesting design touches include the front desk hand carved from a willow tree, and the twisted wood bedposts in all their guest rooms.

Step outside and you can take a dip in the crystal blue heated pool and enjoy the hot tub that front the lake, surrounded by beautiful gardens, thanks to the property’s director of horticulture. Or indulge in an hour-long barrel sauna ritual, one of the signature offerings at the Willowbrook Spa. The ritual involves a meditative schvitz overlooking the lake, with spritzes of eucalyptus and rosemary, a chilled towel around the neck, and a pink rose honey mask on the chest and face as you gaze through the circular glass window onto the water — with a cold shower outside the door for a welcome endorphin high.

Other allures of the Lake House are undoubtedly its calendar of wellness offerings. These include yoga, meditation and stretch classes, the popular whiskey and wood-burning class (combining whiskey tastings and wood-burning art); and an afternoon tea and apothecary class, where you can learn the art of aromatherapy oil blending.

And last but not least, don’t miss the cuisine. The more casual lakeside Sand Bar is a perfect spot for a glass of wine, a cocktail or beer overlooking the water, and accompanied by oysters and other fish, seafood or simply a cheeseburger. And the elevated, rustic seasonal menu at Rose Tavern features locally sourced ingredients and wines from the Finger Lakes. On the night I visited, a chalkboard in the open kitchen listed a creamery, orchards, and more than a dozen farms that provided meats for the menu. With executive chef Steve Eakins, executive baker John Bard, and executive pastry chef Mariah Posadni at the helm, I enjoyed a specially curated multi-course meal with wine pairings that began with housemade focaccia and burrata, followed by a light asparagus salad with shaved snap peas; tuna crudo with verju, capers and pistachio; tempura-battered cod on a bed of wilted greens; seared scallops with garlic scape foam and pea pistou; and an exquisite pecan crème brulée with carrot cake and salted pecans, as well as a lemon poppy tart with honey meringue. Like our trip, it was spectacular from start to finish.


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The barrel sauna provides a unique view of the Finger Lakes region of New York state. (Diana Ballon photo for

Travel Tips: If visiting Canandaigua, plan a stop at the village of Naples, about a half-hour away. Have lunch at Roots Café, do a wine tasting at the Inspire Moore Winery next door, and go for a hike at Grimes Glen Park. If in Aurora, plan a day trip to Ithaca, about 45 minutes away, to visit some of its beautiful waterfalls, tour Cornell University, and have dinner at the famous Moosewood Restaurant.