Ithaca, New York

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Gorgeous gorges, winning wineries, and a flood of free intellectual offerings make Cornell's hometown a picture-perfect and inexpensive holiday destination

Sooner or later, everyone coming to central New York sees cars with bumper stickers that read: "Ithaca is Gorges." Nature is the highlight of this budget-friendly, bucolic college town, whose vineyards and rolling hills resemble those of northern California. But beyond its natural wonders, this student-filled home of renowned Cornell University is full of cultural vibrancy and excitement. And no, I'm not partial just because I attended college here. An Ithaca view An hour by car from Syracuse, New York, Ithaca occupies the southern tip of 40-mile-long Cayuga Lake-one of New York's celebrated Finger Lakes, shaped by the imprint of the Great Spirit's digits, according to Native American lore. It's hard to break free of the beauty that surrounds you. This is prime waterfall country, and 150 of these natural wonders grace the area.

The man-made attractions and the turbulent life of a great university are centered on a high-altitude campus crowning the hill east of Ithaca's modest downtown. Your first stop should be Day Hall, home to the Information and Referral Center (corner of East Ave. and Tower Rd., 607/254-4636, info.cornell.edu), which supplies vital free maps and lists of events. Student-led tours of the spacious 745-acre grounds depart daily at 1 p.m. (and more frequently in spring and summer) from the Day Hall lobby. While you're there, pick up a free Cornell Chronicle for its calendar of mostly gratis shows and seminars (also presented on the Web at news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/Chronicle.html) or access CUinfo (cuinfo.cornell.edu). Still another good event-filled publication distributed hereabouts is the Cornell Daily Sun.

From Day Hall, a short stroll leads to the stone clock tower and the Arts Quad-the heart of Cornell. In my undergraduate years, as it is today, the Quad was an outdoor living room, a grassy spot for Frisbees and Hacky Sacks. Watch for bulletin-board notices of various a cappella performances-the all-male Hangovers are a standout.

The Quad is a curious mishmash of architectural styles-from neoclassical to modern-and multiple libraries: the Carl A. Kroch Library, built completely underground (home to a signed copy of the Gettysburg Address and various outstanding, free, temporary exhibits); the Romanesque-style Uris Library topped by McGraw Tower-you can climb the 161 steps to view chimesmasters playing three times daily (schedule: 607/255-5350); and the A.D. White Library (within the Uris Library) with its wingback chairs and filigreed catwalks. The promenade behind Uris provides panoramic views of the valley below and is a highly romantic spot for watching the sunset.

Across University Avenue from the Johnson Museum (see below), descend the steps and follow the forest trail. The roar of water announces the Suspension Bridge, which sways at a heartstopping elevation of 138 feet and leads to the mostly residential North Campus. If you're lucky enough to be there on a starry Friday night, you'll find that the Fuertes Observatory is open and active between nine and midnight (607/255-3557; free). I once saw Saturn through its powerful microscope, which befits an astronomy department where the late, great Carl Sagan taught.

Lectures, screenings, concerts The campus itself is a dynamic scene of free, open lectures ("Politeness in the Iliad"), free exhibits ("Images of Brazilian Workers"), and nominally priced ($2 to $6) screenings of art films and documentaries at Cornell Cinema. Dozens of these weekly opportunities, open to students, visitors, and residents of Ithaca alike, are listed in the Chronicle. There are countless exhibits in associated museums, like the free-of-charge, I.M. Pei-designed Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, which is located at the corner of Central and University Avenues, just west of the Arts Quad and down Libe Slope (607/255-6464). Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the museum boasts an extensive collection of Asian antiquities, while also offering stunning panoramas of the Ithaca area from its fifth-floor windows.

As for the performing arts, we penny-pinching undergrads enjoyed concerts as colorful as those presented by the Indonesian Gamelan orchestra at little or no cost, thanks to the Department of Music's concert program. Another option is nearby Ithaca College's James J. Whalen Center for Music. We paid less than $10 for important plays and musicals at I.C.'s Dillingham Center for the Performing Arts, and Cornell's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. You can enjoy the same opportunities at the same low prices.

Off-Campus Cornellians without cars reach downtown in about 45 minutes via the leisurely Cascadilla Gorge Trail (pick it up next to the Schwartz Center), which meanders alongside a chain of cascades. The very center of the city is a pedestrian mall known as the Commons. On weekends, it seems like everyone is there, window-shopping or pausing at boutiques, restaurants, and galleries.

The Sagan Planet Walk, both a scale model of the solar system and a memorial to the astronomer, begins at the Commons and ends at the Sciencenter (601 First St., 607/272-0600, sciencenter.org; $3.50 children 3 to 12, $4 seniors, $4.50 adults), where you can also study leafcutter ants or a man-size combination lock. North of town, the Paleontological Research Institution (1259 Trumansburg Rd., 607/273-6623; free), housed in a former orphanage, features one of the largest fossil collections in the nation.

Within eight miles of downtown, the topography of three state parks taught me more about the movements of Ice Age glaciers than any geology class could. Take Route 89 to Taughannock Falls (607/387-6739), whose vertical drop of 215 feet surpasses that of Niagara's (only about 170 feet). Cascades froth into a basin at Buttermilk Falls (Route 13 south, 607/273-5761). And don't miss Robert H. Treman State Park (607/273-3440), on Route 327. Although Lower Treman's swimming hole is a warm-weather draw, Upper Treman possesses more grandeur, as footpaths wind across stone bridges and between towering chasms. During the spring thaw, the trails beside the falls are the perfect vantage point for observing the surging waters. (Park admission is $5 to $6 per vehicle.)

Finally, Ithaca serves as a base for exploring the Cayuga Wine Trail (cayugawinetrail.com), whose 13 vineyards offer tastings and tours for nominal prices. One winery, Six Mile Creek Vineyard (1551 Slaterville Rd., 607/272-9463), is within the city limits.

Pillows and provisions Low-cost lodgings for visitors are abundant within a short drive from the campus. At the foot of CU's West Campus, the no-frills Hillside Inn (518 Stewart Ave., 607/273-6864) offers doubles from $55, while at the Embassy Inn (1083 Dryden Rd., 607/272-3721), queens are $55 and up, and a room with two double beds starts at $59. The Elmshade Guest House (402 S. Albany St., 607/273-1707) is three blocks from the Commons and has doubles with shared bath for $60, with private bath for $70. For units with kitchen facilities, the Grayhaven Motel (657 Elmira Rd., 607/272-6434, grayhavenmotel.com) near Buttermilk Falls charges $38 to $110 per unit from December through March, and $65 to $150 April through November.

Cheap eats? They're mainly at the ethnic restaurants of "Collegetown" along College Avenue, Eddy Street, and Dryden Road at the south side of the campus. For a special treat, try the Terrace Restaurant of the Statler Hotel off Campus Road, part of Cornell's renowned School of Hotel Administration. On weeknights, students do the cooking and serving, and entrees are as little as $4.25 to $6.75; reserve at 607/254-2500.

Getting there and getting around

Helpful Web sites:visitithaca.com, cornell.edu, cayugalake.com, and ithacatimes.com.

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