The Green Apple: adventures in eco-friendly New York State

New York’s not all skyscrapers and shopping. Sarah Bareham discovers a greener, more local side to the Big Apple’s state

The plate in front of me would not have looked out of place in one of New York City’s finest eateries. But I’m not in Manhattan; I’m in the cavernous barrel room of Apple Country Spirits, a new and eco-friendly distillery tucked away on a fourth-generation fruit farm in Williamson, four miles south of the shores of Lake Ontario. It’s the third in their inaugural series of seasonal dinners, celebrating hyper-local produce, and former New York City chef Stephan Bogardus, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, has produced a fall harvest feast. And not only is the food sensational, the food miles are so small they’re pretty much walking distance.

I’m here because I’m on an alternative tour of New York. The state may be known for the shopping and skyscrapers of its biggest city, but I wanted to find out about its other, greener, more local spaces, still undiscovered by the tourist crowds. We planned to spend a week travelling along New York State’s waterways, starting with the Eerie Canalway Trail – a 365-mile corridor stretching from Buffalo to Albany, that connects the state’s responsible tourism dots. The canal, once one of the most important industrial developments in US history, is rising again to its former glory. And the water, which originally breathed life into the region’s towns and communities, is once again taking centre stage as a haven for walkers, cyclists and canoeists. I couldn’t wait to take a look.

“The state may be known for the shopping and skyscrapers of its biggest city, but I wanted to find out about its other, greener, more local spaces, still undiscovered by the tourist crowds.”

We began in Fairport, cycling through the historic main street and picture postcard village that spans the breadth of the canal. The easy pace gave us the chance to appreciate the peace of the canal, nodding greetings at families riding the other way as flashes of red, orange and yellow leaves passed us by and, just a few miles south, the calm sunlit waters of the Finger Lakes stretched out before us, waiting to explored.

The Native Americans believe the Finger Lakes are the handprint of the Great Spirit who, reaching down to touch the earth, transformed it into sacred land. The lakes themselves, draping down from the Eerie Canal as it flows east towards Syracuse, bear names rooted in the Iroquois, or Six Nations, cultures. Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua , Keuka, Owasco: beguiling and mysterious, they offer an invitation to visitors to delve deeper into the indigenous stories of the area.

And well they should. At Ganondagan Cultural Center, in Victor, a small town just an hour’s cycle south of the canal, Peter Jemison, a Seneca, and his wife Jeanette, a Mohawk, are dedicating their lives to the preservation and restoration of their culture. We’re invited into breakfast at their farmhouse and, over corn pancakes and coffee, Jeanette tells us the story of her mother. Sent to a missionary boarding school as a girl with promises of a better, more prosperous life, she, like a generation of Iroquois people, was taught to be ashamed of her roots and reject her culture and language. It’s a sobering story of prejudice and oppression, and one that was sadly played out across the country. But things are starting to change: new generations are now beginning to reclaim their heritage and, thanks to initiatives such as Ganondagan, we too can now share in that deep history and tradition.

The next day we branched south to the shores of Canandaigua Lake. Its Seneca name means “the chosen one,” and well chosen it is. Past the bright reflection of the fall trees the lake stretches out to a hazy horizon and the welcome sight of the New York Wine & Culinary Center, with its view across the mirror-flat water. The Center showcases the best in New York State wine, craft beer, food and agriculture and its Upstairs Bistro is an exquisite stop-off for sophisticated cyclists.

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Wine has been a part of the Finger Lakes identity since the late 1800s. With agriculture the primary industry in the state it is hardly surprising that world-class conditions have led to an explosion of new wineries appearing, but while the area is beginning to become more renowned, the majority of wine here is still only available locally. Tasting it feels like a rare treat: from the height of the Iroquois nations to present day, the water and the land are still the driving force behind life in this region.

Back in the barrel room at Apple Country Spirits it’s clear that the real New York doesn’t have much to do with skyscrapers and shopping. The pace of life branching off the Erie Canal may be slower, but the potential for responsible tourism, rooted in the environment, is ahead of the game. Not only does Apple Country Spirits power all their operations through solar panels, but they also recycle all their leftover pummace into fertiliser for their burgeoning orchard. It’s just one example of the deep respect for the landscape and local environment played out across this part of the state. And much like the leaves fast-changing into their full fall display, I’m blown away.

Sarah Bareham was a guest of the New York State Division of Tourism. For more information on responsible tourism in New York State, including ideas on where to go, activities and places to stay visit the travel guide at or

Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.