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Living in Buffalo-Niagara, we are spoiled by the grand beauty of the Niagara Gorge in our backyard, but we were reminded on a recent trip to the Finger Lakes region that other areas of New York State can be equally "gorgeous" and full of wonderful surprises.

For years we had heard of a fabled swimming hole at the base of a waterfall, which sounded like just the ticket for a couple of adventurous boys and their curious parents. If ever there was a summer for such a search, this was it.

And in less than three hours, we found it in Robert H. Treman State Park, just outside Ithaca and near the southern end of Cayuga Lake. It proved to be everything we had hoped for, and more.

Entering via the Upper Park entrance off Route 327, we visited the Old Mill, a restored water-powered gristmill dating back to 1839, before embarking on a breathtaking hike into the gorge on a stone step path. (Sneakers and water bottles are an absolute must.) The path leads past the dramatic 115-foot Lucifer Falls on Enfield Creek.

The gorge was carved thousands of years ago at the same time the glaciers receded and created the 11 Finger Lakes.

At the bottom of the gorge, called the Enfield Glen, with nearly two miles of hiking ahead of us, we split up. Two of us had a rocky, steep climb alongside the creek back up to the parking lot to retrieve the car; the other two headed on to the end of the trail.

(You cannot drive through the park. You either hoof it along one of three 2- to 3-mile trails, or visit via one park entrance, and then take Route 327 to reach the other park entrance. You pay only one $7 vehicle admission fee.)

Reunited in the Lower Park entrance parking lot, we grabbed our swimsuits and headed to the bath house and swimming hole at the base of a waterfall.

Bathed in a good sweat and exhilarated by our gorge hike, the chilly 68-degree water beckoned us and we were ready to take the plunge.

The water depths are clearly marked (ranging from ankle-deep on a stony bottom to more than 12 feet) and the area is closely monitored by lifeguards. After a quick dive (or jump) in, swimmers can cool off on the slippery ledge along the base of the waterfall.

While the park is open year-round, swimming is seasonal (usually Memorial Day through Labor Day), and only permitted in the area monitored by lifeguards. It's best to call ahead to ensure availability. You might also want to bring a beach blanket and/or folding chairs. Shady picnic areas are provided nearby.

The park also offers 14 cabins, and tent, trailer and RV camping. Learn more by calling the park office at(607) 273-3440 or visitingwww.nysparks.com.

> Buttermilk Falls

The park admission receipt is good for entry in any other state park facility that same day, so we set out to Buttermilk Falls State Park, a few miles away on Route 13.

Buttermilk Falls also offers swimming, but the hot, dry weather had rendered the falls to just a trickle. The swimming area is much smaller and you are not permitted to go near the falls (even when it's cascading).

Our third state park was Taughannock Falls State Park on Route 89 in Trumansburg, eight miles north of Ithaca. This park boasts a spectacular 215-foot waterfall -- one of the highest falls in the eastern United States. Rocky cliffs tower almost 400 feet above the gorge, and gorge and rim trails provide fantastic vistas.

The park borders the deep blue waters of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the 11 Finger Lakes, and has campsites and cabins overlooking the lake. For information, call (607) 387-6739.

There are 29 parks and recreation areas in the Finger Lakes State Parks Region. Within an easy drive are: Allan H. Treman State Marine Park on Route 89, within walking distance of Ithaca and one of the largest inland marinas in the state; Cayuga Lake State Park on Lower Lake Road in Seneca Falls; and Watkins Glen State Park, on Route 14, the most famous of the state parks in the Finger Lakes, with 19 spellbinding waterfalls near the base of neighboring Seneca Lake.

> On the side

In the middle of our day trekking around state parks, we took a drive into the city of Ithaca, home to Ithaca College and Cornell University, sitting imperiously on the top of a hill overlooking the city. A visit to Cornell's Ivy League campus (dating to 1865) is a must (although public parking was nowhere in sight). And the stone archways of the stately buildings frame breathtaking views of the city and lake.

There are plenty of interesting places to explore, including healthy (the famous Moosewood Restaurant) and ethnic eateries and quirky shopping opportunities (like the Ithaca Commons). Buffalo Street Books, at 215 N. Cayuga St., is the city's community-owned, cooperative bookstore, with a wide variety of books and magazines and a place for author readings, musical and theater events and community gatherings.

The Ithaca Discovery Trail offers something for everyone, including: the Cayuga Nature Center, featuring a six-story treehouse, located on 120 acres with five miles of scenic hiking trails; Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Sapsucker Woods, a 220-acre sanctuary; Cornell Plantations, the arboretum, botanical garden and natural areas of Cornell University; the History Center in Tompkins County; and the Johnson Museum of Art, housed in an I.M. Pei-designed building.

The Trail also includes the Museum of the Earth at the Paleontological Research Institution, with skeletons of the Hyde Park Mastodon and Right Whale; the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum for all ages, featuring the Sagan Planet Walk; and the Tompkins County Public Library, to better target your local research. For more information, contact: www.VisitIthaca.com, www.IthacaEvents.com or www.FingerLakes.org.

> We all scream ...

We had the good fortune to stumble upon the Cayuga Lake Creamery, on Route 89 in Interlaken on the way home -- a wonderful find.

This family-owned and operated business specializes in ice cream made right on the premises. We sampled "Sea Salt Caramel" and "Red Raspberry," and creamy soft-serve custard, but you can sometimes find more adventurous flavors like "Nut Brown Ale" (flavored with Ithaca Brewery's Nut Brown Ale) or Chilifest Chocolate (chocolate ice cream with chili powder). They also make a variety of wine-flavored ice creams and sorbets, using the goods from local wineries. Fantastic!

The shop also serves soy-based, and fat free/no sugar added ice cream (and often gluten-free, as well). For more information, visit info@cayugalakecreamery.com.

> If you go:

We followed AAA recommendations and took the New York State Thruway east to Exit 42 for Geneva/Lyons and Route 14 South to Route 96 South to Route 327 to Enfield Falls Road, which led us right into Robert Treman State Park. It's a fast, smooth, well-marked route traveling right through the heart of several small communities like Waterloo, Romulus and Ovid, as well as plenty of farmland. But we opted to return home along the scenic Cayuga Lake Trail, following Route 89 north along the western shore of Cayuga Lake back to the Thruway.