As autumn approaches, thoughts turn to heading back to school.
In this lovely corner of the Finger Lakes, you don't even have to pay Ivy League tuition to do it. At Cornell University, tourists of any age can enjoy a catalog of activities, many with no admission price and most very family-friendly.
Cornell's 745 acres occupy a prime spot on East Hill overlooking Cayuga Lake and the town of Ithaca. It's a great place for a scenic stroll and was once envisioned as a "grand terrace" by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
But that is just the beginning.
Olmsted's grand design was dropped, but the ivy-covered buildings and wide walkways still offer a panorama. A particularly sweeping view can be seen from the fifth-floor Asian galleries of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, at the corner of University and Central avenues.
The 10-story building was designed by I.M. Pei. Completed in 1973, its six above-ground floors have a "hole" in the middle to allow an unobstructed lake view. It was built on the site where Ezra Cornell is said to have stood when he announced his intention to found the university in 1865.
Some favorites among the museum's 34,000 works: Frank Lloyd Wright's 1904 stained glass windows from the Darwin Martin House, Pablo Picasso's sculpture of his mistress Fernande Olivier, Andy Warhol's "Most Wanted: 1964," Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pink Hills 1937," Alberto Giacometti's "Walking Man II," Jean Dubuffet's "Smiling Face 1948," Robert Rauschenberg's "Migration 1959" and a glorious array of African, Asian and pre-Columbian works. The staff also is developing an iPod Touch tour and an iPhone app for cell phone tours (www.museum.cornell.edu, (607) 255-6464).
The Johnson is a member of Ithaca's Discovery Trail, a 10-year-old partnership of eight educational sites (www.discoverytrail.com). Cornell Plantations is another stop offering free admission from sunrise to sunset. The botanical garden encompasses 14 specialty gardens, a 150-acre arboretum and more than 40 natural areas spread out over 4,300 acres, both on and off the campus.
"There are more than 500 plants in the Robison York State Herb Garden," said docent Mary Blake as she led a tour of theme areas, including ornamental, culinary, fragrant, bee, tea, medicinal, Native American and plants in literature. Each plant is labeled with its common and scientific name, and its use. "The ones I don't know the name of, I call Species Nocluesem," Blake joked.
Follow signs on the east side of campus to find the Plantations. Free maps are available at the Garden Gift Shop for self-guided walks, or sign up for guided tours at noon every Saturday during the summer at the parking lot of the F.R. Newman Arboretum. A $6 donation is suggested (www.plantations.cornell.edu, (607) 255-2400).
>View of the heavens
Near the Plantations is another free view -- of the universe -- at Fuertes Observatory. From 9 p.m. to midnight Fridays, young astronomers can see the craters of the moon and the rings of Saturn with help from the Cornell Astronomical Society. The observatory's 12-inch refracting telescope has a neat mechanical tracking mechanism that is operated by weights like a grandfather's clock. Call (607) 255-3557 to make sure there is a public viewing scheduled. There are some steps to climb to get up into the domed viewing area.
Speaking of steps, if you are up to it, climb the 161 steps to the top of Cornell's most visible landmark, McGraw Tower. Located in the center of campus, the tower's 21 bells are played by student chimemasters three times each day. At midday, the alma mater rings out, but if you are at the top of the tower, be sure to bring earplugs. For a virtual tour from the belfry, click on www.cornell.edu/tours/tidbit_template7265.html.
Another nature sanctuary is the 220-acre Cornell Lab of Ornithology at 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, about five miles northeast of town just off Route 13 at Brown Road exit. Filled with bird songs and sightings, the four miles of peaceful woodland trails have an air of zen-like tranquility.
That same joyful serenity is felt in the lab's observatory, which overlooks a bird-feeding garden and a 10-acre pond. Telescopes and binoculars reveal a pair of great blue herons nesting high in a dead tree in the middle of the pond. During our visit, the chicks are almost ready to fledge. Shifting our focus to the left, we see a second heron nest. It is a nature movie come to life, and there is no admission ticket to witness this thrilling tableau.
The free lab offers a beautiful gallery of bird art, interactive exhibits and the Bartels Theater, which screens computer-activated movies about birds and wildlife in high-definition video and surround sound (www.birds.cornell.edu, (800) 843-BIRD ).
The lab's amazing online resources include www.ebird.org for bird sightings, www.nestwatch.org, www.AllAboutBirds.org, www.birdsleuth.net and www.MacaulayLibrary.org, the world's largest archive of animal sounds.
From the Ornithology Lab, take Route 13 south to the Sciencenter at 601 First St. (www.sciencenter.org, (607) 272-0600). The two-story museum is a hands-on place with more than 200 changing and permanent exhibits, a Curiosity Corner for children age 4 and under, a marine touch tank with live tidal pool animals and an animal room with geckos, snakes and frogs.
On the second floor is "It's a Nano World," which explores the biological wonders of things too small to see with the naked eye. Outside is a tactile science park with a giant parabolic Whisper Dish, a large lever chair lift, an "Echo Tube," a real ground-fed geyser, a rubber ducky slide and a fun Bubbleology lab. Admission is $7; $5 for children (3 to 17) and $6 for seniors.
Galaxy Miniature Golf challenges players with a different principle of science or math at each of the 18 holes. The price for putting is $4 per person.
Noted Cornell astronomer, the late Carl Sagan, was on the center's advisory board and his engaging philosophy helped shaped the center's goals. He is honored with the Sagan Planet Walk, a scale model of the solar system that starts with the sun on The Commons and ends with Pluto at the Sciencenter. Bill Nye, "The Science Guy" and a Cornell grad, is the voice on a free, self-guided audio tour of the solar stroll.
>The Farmers Market
Across the street is the Ithaca Farmers Market. Packed with up to 150 growers and craftspeople, the market is a wooden pavilion modeled after a 13th century cathedral bursting with fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, colorful flowers and clothing, ethnic cafes, winemakers and bakers, woodworkers and jewelry makers, paintings, photographs and pottery.
Shoppers can sit at waterfront picnic tables and listen to live entertainers. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. The vendors move to Dewitt Park on the corner of Buffalo and Cayuga streets from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday and 3 to 7 p.m. Thursday.
From the market, continue down Route 13 to Cliff Street. Turn right at the intersection with Route 96 and head north about 2 miles to the Museum of the Earth at 1259 Trumansburg Road.
The 1,800-square-foot natural history facility, part of the Paleontological Research Institution, takes visitors on a 4.5 billion-year journey back in time. The trip begins at a 500-foot mural, "Rock of Ages, Sands of Time," painted by Barbara Page on a series of ceramic tiles, each representing 1 million years. The span depicts fossils from the dawn of microscopic life to the present. A 40-minute audio tour, costing $2, offers detailed descriptions.
PRI's world-class collection contains 2 million specimens. The steel and glass museum was literally built around the 44-foot skeleton of endangered Right Whale No. 2030, which floats on cables above the main concourse. The 11,000-year-old Hyde Park Mastodon was found by a family digging a pond. PRI is involved in a new mastodon excavation in North Java.
Visitors can sort through bins of Devonian shale to find smaller fossils in the Fossil Lab and can handle real dinosaur bones, teeth and claws in the Dino Lab. Moviemakers consulted with museum artists when designing dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park." Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. (It's closed Tuesdays in winter.) Admission is free to museum members and children under 3, $3 for ages 4 to 17, $5 for seniors and students with ID and $8 for adults (www.museumoftheearth.org, (607) 273-6623).
Check out www.discoverytrail.com for more information about other attractions, upcoming events, an interactive Google map and a new iPhone app.
If you go:
*The Statler Hotel, a three-star facility in the center of campus, is run by students of Cornell's School of Hotel Administration (www.statlerhotel.-cornell.edu, 800-541-2501).
*Homewood Suites by Hilton at 36 Cinema Drive is off Route 13 near the Lab of Ornithology and the airport. Room rates include a full breakfast, plus receptions Monday through Thursday evenings (www.ithaca.homewoodsuites.com, (607) 266-0000).
*The William Henry Miller Inn, a charming nine-room bed-and-breakfast, is located at 303 N. Aurora St., down the hill from the campus and just around the corner from The Commons. Rooms include a full breakfast and evening dessert. The "House with a History" was designed in 1878 by Miller, Cornell's first architecture student (www.MillerInn.com, (877) 256-4553).
There are more than 50 restaurants within walking distance of campus, but here are a few fun places to eat:
*The Cornell Dairy Bar's ice cream, yogurt and pudding are made from milk and cream from the Cornell Dairy Farm, which is part of the university's agriculture school. Due to renovation of Stocking Hall, the Dairy Bar has moved to a temporary scooping station in Kennedy Hall. Flavors rotate seasonally, so ask if they are making Sticky Bunz, cinnamon-flavored ice cream with a caramel swirl and roasted pecans.
*The Ivy Room, a pizza, sushi and sandwich place, looks like the dining hall in a Harry Potter movie. Located beneath the stone archways of Willard Straight Hall, the paneled walls of the eating area are covered with seals and crests of the Ivy League.
*Sunday Brunch at the Statler Hotel is prepared by culinary students under the supervision of professional chefs. The all-you-can-eat repast offers a tantalizing feast of salads, seafoods, meats and fresh-baked pastries.
*And if meat is not your treat, stop for a vegetarian meal at Moosewood Restaurant at 215 N. Cayuga St. (www.moosewoodrestaurant.com, 907-273-9610). The internationally famous restaurant has published 12 cookbooks and serves seafood as well as veggie victuals, with an excellent Finger Lakes wine list.