This we can probably agree on. The ideal Valentine’s Day weekend with your significant other should start with a first-class flight, rose petals in the tub, or a welcome cocktail, if not all of the above when one of you is really prepared (I’m assuming my husband is reading this). This year ours started in an I-can’t-see-anything, stop-the-car-now blizzard while running close to empty.
If you live in the Mid-Atlantic, your first travel instinct for the long President’s Day/Valentine’s Day weekend (the dead middle of February up north) is more than likely south. Some place where it doesn’t get any colder than fifty degrees at night. Like Charleston. Or Key West.
This year we decided to head north. To New York’s Finger Lakes. On the tail end of a nor-easter. With an average wind chill during the day of negative 35. Just so we’re clear on what this means: any exposed skin will start to experience second-degree hypothermia in eleven minutes unprotected outside. Thankfully my husband isn’t a stranger to the cold (he’s sailed to Antarctica), and our first date fifteen years ago was spent ice climbing in the Adirondacks in January so we know that where there’s snow plows and rock salt there’s usually wine and fires at the end of the day.
Inns of Aurora can be hard to find (literally in a blinding snow squall) but we quickly discovered that this is exactly why a dozen people just like us decided to drive four hours on icy, windy roads to get here. Aurora, NY is the small-town, anti-Manhattan antidote to everything in modern life that ensures we are always reachable and connected. “We’re all suffering from a constant social media hangover”, a NYC Google engineer told us who was unplugging for the weekend with his girl friend, an advertising executive. “We wanted to spend a weekend getting back to what’s authentic and getting as far away from technology as possible.”
Amen to that.
There are two typical reactions to Inns of Aurora when guests arrive. Blown away or really blown away. (Eternally grateful is the third when you come inside to a glass of local Pinot Noir by the fire after an hour outside in 35 below). Few places you’ll ever stay have something for everyone and Inns of Aurora is one of those rare exceptions.
Aurora, New York is an adorable village full of historic architecture with about fifty structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a population of roughly eight hundred people. Aurora is nestled on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake in the heart of the Finger Lakes Wine Country. The village anchor is Wells College, originally an all women’s college and founded by Henry Wells who also founded Wells Fargo and American Express.
Like many small towns, Aurora has had its share of ups and downs economically through the past century. Currently, the village is experiencing a rebirth that is due to former Wells College alumna, Pleasant Rowland. Pleasant’s love of her Alma Mater town motivated her to recently buy several buildings from Wells College to restore and make part of Inns of Aurora.
Inns of Aurora currently offers three amazingly different historic properties (with more properties undergoing re-development) each with their own design aesthetic and character. We stayed at E.B. Morgan house, an 1858 Italianate design built originally by Henry Wells’ good friend and financial backer Colonel Edwin Barber (“E.B.”) Morgan, who was also the founder of The New York Times. The other two properties are the Aurora Inn, which is a Federal-style property built in 1833 and the newest addition to The Inns of Aurora family is Rowland House, a Queen Anne mansion built in 1903.
True to tradition, every inn has their own ‘innkeeper’, who are equal parts historians and stewards of each property. Lynda was our innkeeper for the weekend and her love and knowledge of E.B. Morgan House and Aurora in general ran deep. When we finally arrived, Peter quickly threw our luggage in our room and rushed back outside with his camera gear to photograph the sunset over semi-frozen Cayuga Lake. I on the other hand enjoyed a glass of local pinot and got to know Lynda by the warmth of the fire. I watched my crazy husband posthole through the snow around the back of the property for about forty-five minutes before he came back inside, severely wind burnt and partially frozen, but when you have great natural light you cannot let it go to waste, right?! It makes the wine taste even better as well.
E.B. Morgan House is stunning on the inside. Not only have the original architectural details been preserved and highlighted throughout, but the interior design is a striking mix of bold wall colors, modern art, and traditional furniture. Everywhere you looked the subtle accents were executed perfectly. On the exterior, you could see the individual chisel marks where each stone of the façade had been shaped by the hands of a master mason—but that was something to be appreciated in the warmer months when you could actually spend more than eleven minutes outside!
Our first night we ate at the Fargo Bar and Grill. We opted to walk since warming up our car to drive two blocks made even less sense than walking through a sideways snowstorm. It is amazing however how two blocks can feel like an eternity when it’s 35 below. I also made the rookie mistake of trying to walk on top of an existing four feet snowdrift and fell through the middle—which creates a bit of a dilemma when you’re 5’ 3”.
Fargo offers an elevated casual dinner menu and is a local gathering spot, which was just what we were in the mood for after a long day of travel. The “Grilled Cheese Gone Wild” is a dairy-addict’s dream—cheddar and provolone with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, baby spinach with a jalapeno aioli on a sage garlic baguette. Peter went with the local favorite, the “Pulled Pork Sandwich” and since he didn’t say a word until it was gone I think that it is safe to say he was well fed. I was smart enough to stay out of the snowdrifts on the walk home.
The next day we toured other Inns of Aurora properties and looked at several more buildings under renovation slated to open in the upcoming months. The grandeur of the future properties was eye-popping, as was the scope of work undertaken by Pleasant Rowland and her team to restore them. Pleasant is intimately involved with every step of the process—from conceptual design to the décor to the final pieces of art that get hung on the walls—everything has her imprint. Pleasant has a remarkable modern art collection and many of her personal pieces are focal points throughout the inns and were the driving force for other decisions like the shape of the furniture and the color of the rugs. It’s the type of interior design that works perfectly because you don’t know why everything works until someone points it out to you.
Our day ended at the Aurora Inn Dining Room with a few people from the Inns of Aurora marketing team. I have a personal tradition of enjoying a house cocktail everywhere I go, and on this night the bartender’s special was the Rye Smash, which was made with local Mckenzie Rye, apple cabernet simple syrup, and lime juice. The menu had so many good offerings that I ordered three appetizers for dinner including the dreamy house made “Ricotta Gnocchi” with winter greens, squash with mushrooms and the delicious “Roasted Cauliflower” with house made raisins and cheddar. Peter stuck with hearty winter fare (I think his face was still frozen from the day before) including the “Braised Shortrib” with Cajun gravy, and andouille sausage with sassafras. You know you’ve discovered some place special when you’ve covered all your bases by the end of the day—fine food, art, wine, fires, and whiskey all with a touch of history.
There’s one more thing my husband and I now agree on. We will be back to Inns of Aurora this summer when it’s 75 degrees. By that point we’ll need to unplug again.