Situated in an easy-going agricultural region ripe with possibilities for culinary-minded groups, Canandaigua, New York offers small-town tidiness and historical charm.

The Finger Lakes region of western New York State abounds with cozy towns, vineyards, orchards, vegetable farms and dairies. With 100+ wineries, it’s the largest of New York’s grape-growing regions and a paradise for foodies who chow down on the agricultural bounty. Sampling and sipping your way through the countryside is a popular pastime.

If you could plop a group down anywhere in the region, I would recommend the town of Canandaigua. The Inn on the Lake, a 134-room resort hotel on the north end of Canandaigua Lake, made the perfect base camp for our group as we explored the northwestern Finger Lakes region. The waterfront property is just next door to the New York Wine & Culinary Center and an easy walk into downtown Canandaigua, both group-friendly spots.

During a cooking class in the fancy, hands-on kitchen at the New York Wine & Culinary Center, we rolled up our sleeves and made chicken fajitas. Working side by side with chefs at the three islands of gas stoves, each of us sautéed chicken strips and vegetables in a $120 aluminum pan and then tasted our scrumptious creation. The center has dozens of other classes, from Pizza-Making Workshop to Cooking with Wine.

New York Wine and Culinary Center

New York Wine & Culinary Center (Finger Lakes Visitors Connection Photos)

A showcase for New York State agricultural products, the stone-and-timber building has a 50-seat, four-tier educational theater with culinary demonstrations shown on two large-screen TVs. Some in our group learned the secrets of making scones and sampled the goods afterwards.

The New York Wine & Culinary Center also has two private dining rooms, a tasting room for New York wine, beer and spirits, and Upstairs Bistro, a public restaurant with an outdoor deck overlooking the lake. The bistro’s menu focuses on seasonal, local ingredients and gives suggested wine and beer pairings for each main dish. From a quick glance at the menu, items that caught my eye included the barbecue meatloaf and hazelnut-crusted, coffee-brined pork tenderloin. So did the lamb shepherd’s pie layered with creamed spinach and sweet potato parmesan mash. The center’s gift shops sells wine and cheese accessories, plus New York State food items like mustards, cheeses, pumpkin seed oil and chocolate cabernet sauvignon wine sauce.

Downtown Canandaigua, a 15-minute walk from the lake, impresses first-time visitors with its unusually wide Main Street and sidewalks. Just north of the thriving commercial part of the street are stately homes fronted by columned porches and crowned with cupolas. Built in the 1800s by affluent merchants and town leaders, most of the homes are still single-family, though a few have been converted to lawyer and other offices; several houses are B&B’s, including the 1840 Inn on the Main and Red Door Inn (1801). Beautiful stone churches also lend a sense of dignity to North Main Street, as does the Ontario County Courthouse, famous as the site of the case in which the women’s suffragette Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for voting.

Canandaigua Lady

Canandaigua Lady offers sightseeing, lunch and dinner cruises.

Another landmark on North Main is Granger Homestead & Carriage Museum. The 1816 Federal-style mansion was the home of Gideon Granger, who served as postmaster general of the United States under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from 1800-1813. Home to four generations of Grangers, the grand yellow house with green shutters boasts hand-carved woodwork, four-poster beds, antique writing desks and rare musical instruments including an 1822 piano forte and late 19th century Steinway baby grand piano. In back of the home, the Carriage Museum displays nearly 100 horse-drawn vehicles and early farming equipment. Carriage rides through Canandaigua’s historic neighborhoods can be arranged.

Granger Homestead & Carriage Museum

Granger Homestead & Carriage Museum, Canandaigua

Groups will have fun shopping downtown, whether it’s used books at The Paperback Place or baseball cards and Indian head pennies at Smitty’s Coins & Currency. Find freshly made fudge and chocolates at Sweet Expressions. There are fashion boutiques, antiques shops and art galleries, not to mention tempting restaurants. This downtown seems to be a thriving—I saw hardly any vacant storefronts.

Always on the lookout for good German restaurants, I found an outstanding one on Main Street. At the cheery, beery Rheinblick German Restaurant, run by Germany natives Gary and Gudrun Klemens, my sauerbraten with spaetzle and red cabbage were perfect, as was the sachertorte, the moist, sinfully rich chocolate cake layered with apricot preserves; some of our group members enjoyed the rouladen, a rolled round steak stuffed with bacon, pickles and Dusseldorfer mustard.

Other fine downtown eateries include Simply Crepes Cafe and Il Posto Bistro & Wine Bar. The only chain restaurant I saw on Main Street was Pizza Hut.

On the lake, the Canandaigua Lady paddlewheeler offers lunch, dinner and sightseeing cruises.

For a taste of the Gilded Age, head to Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park, another Canandaigua treasure. Guests can tour the 1887 red stone mansion with its wrap-around porch and Victorian furnishings, which include an 1874 Steinway piano, a moosehead above the fireplace and a bearskin draped over the balcony of the Great Hall. Groups can arrange a tea in the parlor.

Sonnenberg Rose Garden

Sonnenberg Rose Garden

The 40-room, Queen Anne-style mansion was the summer home of Frederick Thompson, co-founder of what is now Citibank, and Mary Clark Thompson, daughter of New York Gov. Myron Clark of Canandaigua. The couple’s philanthropy benefited local churches, a museum, a library and the hospital.

In addition to mansion tours, groups at Sonnenberg can take a tram tour through the formal gardens inspired by Mary Clark’s world travels. Note the antique greenhouse, more than 100 years old. A lunch or wine-tasting can be arranged at the on-site Finger Lakes Wine Center, housed in the estate’s rustic Bay House. Featuring wines from more than 40 partner wineries, the center is a stop on the 41-mile-long Canandaigua Wine Trail.

Groups will be glad they chose Canandaigua for their base of operations in the Finger Lakes region. After all, Canandaigua is a Seneca word meaning “The Chosen Spot.”

For tourist information on Canandaigua and area, contact the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection, 877-386-4669;

By Randy Mink