SWELL(ING) SARATOGA: A SIGN OF SPRING

POSTED: 25 May 2017 | BY: KATHLEEN WILLCOX

The hardy souls who ski, shovel, sled, huddle and hike through the grey winter in Saratoga Springs almost ooze exuberance when the early-blooming azaleas and nodding trilliums start to spring forth like little miracles.

There’s a vaguely pagan, certainly Scandinavian (in an “enjoy life” kind-of-way) and absolutely hedonistic spirit in the air in Saratoga Springs once the winter snows recede and the weather gets warm enough to rationalize flip flops. The city’s many parks become host to impromptu jamborees, screams of raucous laughter echo down Broadway, dogs get walked a dozen times a day and happy hours are extended to accommodate the revelry.

With a population of fewer than 30,000 and a decidedly rural-chic vibe (the city map is dotted with lakes, parks and open spaces) but the amenities of a metropolitan region (six major museums, an opera company and the summer home of the New York City Ballet), Saratoga Springs, also known as Spa City, has been a popular destination for visitors for more than 200 years.

The town’s motto -- health, history, horses – perfectly summarizes why it(s) swell(s) in the Springs.

HEALTH (AND INDULGENCE)

Part of the charm of Saratoga Springs is its simultaneous, unabashedly enthusiastic embrace of health and indulgence.

There are 21 public mineral springs in Saratoga, which some still believe have healing powers and everyone believes are natural wonders worth preserving, visiting and celebrating. The result of a geological fault-line that permits water trapped in shale layers to surface, the mineral waters have been bottled, sipped and bathed in for their health-giving properties for millennia, a practice early colonists picked up from the Mohawk and Iroquois tribes. (Even George Washington wanted in on the game, attempting unsuccessfully to nab land with springs in 1783).

As 19th century New York City doctors touted the restorative waters of Saratoga for cures for everything from diabetes to malaria to the “weakness of women,” the leading lights of the Gilded Age – the ones with universities and museums named after them -- began to sojourn up there.

The springs are available for sampling at various locations throughout the city, and most are naturally carbonated, though their purported health benefits vary (current spring water advocates claim certain springs alleviate skin conditions and various gastrointestinal disorders). Each spring has its own very distinct set of minerals, tastes and in some cases, scents.

These days, the most popular place to “take the water” is in the mineral spa on the grounds of the Saratoga Spa State Park.

The Roosevelt Baths, named for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a special interest in the springs as a treatment for his polio, offer soaks for a modest fee. The mineral water contains 16 substances, including bicarbonate, chloride, sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium and while some still flock for hydrotherapy to relieve their arthritis and other joint and bone ailments, most come for the simple pleasure of taking a blissful bath. The spa also offers massage and other body treatments.

After a relaxing soak, the park beckons. Spa State Park is listed as a National Historic Landmark is distinguished by its classical architecture, brimming with open fields of wild flowers, walking trails, large swaths of forest for off-trail wandering. In addition, the park is home to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Spa Little Theater, the National Museum of Dance, the Saratoga Automobile Museum, the Peerless Pool Complex and the Historic Victoria Pool.

Historic Victoria Pool. Photograph from Instagram provided by @corey.moorey

Ten of Saratoga’s 21 springs are also located within the park, and locals who still swear by the springs’ restorative properties can be seen filling up giant drinking containers at their “favorite” springs for home consumption.

Some of the springs spout into the air (like the dramatic Geyser Island Spouter right off Geyser Loop Road where the water appears to be spewing from a giant’s pursed lips) and others pour forth from whimsical manmade fixtures. Some must be pumped. Hayes Spring features a carbon-dioxide exhaust valve long rumored to give interested consumers a free, organic buzz if they’re brave enough to suck it directly from the pipe. Naysayers argue it provides little more than germs and a headache.

Geyser Island Spouter. Photo Credit: Saratoga.com

Feel sufficiently detoxed? Retox time!

Saratoga is home to some of the best food and drink around. There are plenty of spa-friendly emporiums, including the Saratoga Juice Bar (382 Broadway), home of nourishing cold-pressed juices and wellness shots (i.e. the Wheatgrass Tropic, made to boost immunity, ease digestion and improve cellular functioning) and the vegetarian mainstay, The Four Seasons Café (33 Phila Street) with its surprisingly addictive buffet of rotating specials (i.e. Carrot Sunflower Burgers, Spaghetti Squash with Pesto, Jasmine Rice Pilaf, etc.)

But discipline and self-control have a tendency to crumble like a perfectly buttered biscuit when faced the likes of the legendary Hattie’s (45 Phila Street), dishing out classic, award-winning Southern fried chicken since 1938 (come for the Famous Fried Chicken, stay for the Classic Gumbo, Hush Puppies and Fried Catfish.)

Hattie's Restaurant. Photo Credit: Hattie's Restaurant

Dining al fresco is de rigueur in Saratoga when the weather gets balmy (the hardy citizens of the North start running around in flip flops and short shorts as soon as the snow begins to recede, so visitors should plan accordingly), and Lake Local (550 Union Avenue), right on a patch of beach on Lake Saratoga is a perpetual mob scene in the Spring and Summer ameliorated only by the copious seating, relaxed vibe, gorgeous views and fish tacos. Kraverie (78 Beekman Street) is a secret weapon, located in the relatively uncluttered Historic Arts District, featuring an adorable pocket court garden for dining and a delicious menu of Korean BBQ mash-ups (the Seoul Cheesecake is a must as is the Kimchidilla).

Adirondack Cruise & Charter Company offers public and private tours of Saratoga Lake. Photo Credit: Adirondack Cruise & Charter Company

Thirsty? Grab a Death Wish Coffee  (the world’s strongest coffee) at Saratoga Coffee Traders (447 Broadway), and get ready to party because Saratoga has a half-dozen local farm-to-bottle breweries and wineries creating world class New York tipples.

Beer is big in Saratoga, and locals like supporting their hometown brewers. Druthers (381 Broadway) is as sought-after for its cholesterol-defying feats of culinary wizadry (Carne Asada Fries with lime-braised short rib, guacamole and cheese, the Ugly Burger with bacon, beer cheese and a fried egg) as it is for its award-winning seasonal brews (the unfiltered Against the Grain Hefeweizen, the well-balanced Fist of Karma Brown). Olde Saratoga (131 Excelsior) has a tasting room in its brewing facility that has become a popular gathering center for its laid-back atmosphere and welcoming, tongue-in-cheek spirit (they hold self-consciously ridiculous events like Girl Scout Cookie-beer pairing nights). While it doesn’t serve food, but no one bats an eye if you bring it in, and their servings are generous and almost mind-bendingly wallet friendly ($5 for generous six generous samples of their rotating selection of seasonal beers like full-bodied Saratoga Pilsner or rich, roasty Imperial Stout). The Saratoga Winery (462 Route 29) has live music, comedy events, locally made wine (Hillybilly Mountain Mash, anyone? Anyone?) paired with fantastic New York cheeses.

Druthers Brewing Company. Photo Credit: Druthers Brewing Company

In the mood for something as refined as it is delicious, a meal that walks the line between health and indulgence? 15 Church Restaurant (15 Church Street), housed in a restored historic building in the center of town, serves an elegant menu of American classics (Bluefin Tuna Tartare with Hackleback caviar and crème fraiche, Prime Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola Butter) inside or outside on the patio.

HISTORY (AND CULTURE)

It is almost impossible to overestimate the significance of the region’s role in turning the tide of the Revolutionary War. Though dubbed the Battle of Saratoga (September 19th and October 7th, 1777), it technically took place 15 miles southeast of the town’s center in Stillwater. The Battle marked the climax of the region’s campaign and gave Americans a decisive, tide-changing victory over the British in the Revolutionary War.

Downtown Saratoga Springs. Photograph from Instagram provided by @darienleigh

Today, six Army National Guard Units are derived from units that fought in the Battle of Saratoga. (Only 30 units in the army have lineages dating back that far). History buffs can check out the scene of the battle and learn more about the history at the Saratoga National Historical Park, which also happens to have fabulous walking trails and frequent family-friendly events.

The culture that the robber barons of yore brought from New York City and Europe and planted in Saratoga Springs is still gloriously in bloom today. Yaddo, a 400-acre artists community that has hosted artists who collectively have won 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 61 National Book Awards, a Nobel Prize, 27 MacArthur Fellowships and countless other accolades, was founded by financier Spencer Trask and his wife, writer Katrina Trask in 1881. The gardens – which are open to the public – are modeled after classical Italian gardens. Statues and sculptures can be seen throughout the grounds as well.

Yaddo. Photo Credit: Wes Haynes for Yaddo

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (108 Avenue of the Pines) is located on the grounds of Saratoga Spa State Park, and has become a regional treasure. Founded in 1966 by determined members of the community (Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s support was key), SPAC presents performances year-round. In the summer months, SPAC hosts the New York City Ballet and The Philadelphia Orchestra at its amphitheatre. Over the years, SPAC has hosted almost every significant contemporary performer as well, including legendary shows from The Doors, Britney Spears, Dave Matthews, the Grateful Dead, Jackson Brown and, yes, The Biebs.

Brad Paisley on stage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Photography from Instagram provided by @luckymikee

Museums and centers dedicated to highly specific cultural obsessions abound in Saratoga. There’s the Automobile Museum (110 Avenue of the Pines), the Children’s Museum (69 Caroline Street), the National Museum of Dance (99 South Broadway), the National Museum of Racing (191 Union Avenue), the Frances Tang Teaching Museum (815 North Broadway) and the New York State Military Museum (61 Lake Avenue).

Skidmore, one of the most lauded liberal arts colleges in the country, also calls Saratoga home. The campus hosts frequent cultural events (fabulous musical performance, thoughtful speaking engagements) that are open to the public.

HORSES (AND KIDS)

The Saratoga Race Track has been a focal point of thoroughbred racing since 1863. By the mid-1800s, Saratoga was the summer home to many wealthy Americans and was quickly become as attractive as a hotbed of gambling and vice as it was for health and healing. On August 3, 1865, the gambler, casino owner and ex-boxing champ John Morrissey put together the first meet at an old dirt track on Union Ave.

More than 5,000 people (today, its more than 1 million) flocked to the races to wager and carouse. Morrissey noted the opportunity and recruited some wealthy friends (John Hunter, Leonard Jerome and William Travers), forming the Saratoga Racing Association and eventually creating what is now the fourth-oldest raceway in America.

The 40-day racing season doesn’t commence until July 21 and culminates in the August 26th Travers Race, or Midsummer Derby, which brings the best three-year-old horses to compete for a $1.25 million purse.

But even before (and after) the heat of the racing season, horse culture pervades Saratoga.

American Pharoah gets acquainted with the Saratoga track. Photo Credit: Susie Raisher/Coglianese Photos (as seen on Bloodhorse.com)

For a taste of the races (and the Gilded Age), head over to Congress Park (2-98 East Congress Street). Created in 1822 by Dr. John Clarke, the park has more than 45 species of trees, three natural mineral springs, sculptures and war memorials. It also features the Canfield Casino – also built by John Morrissey in 1870. Anti-gambling sentiment shuttered it in 1907, and now it serves as the Saratoga Springs History Museum, and is frequently rented for lavish social and fundraising events.

Arguably the biggest draw in the park is the flawlessly rendered Carousel. Carved by the world-renowned Marcus Charles Illions in 1910, the Carousel has 28 wooden ponies with hand-carved heads and real horsehair tails, and is the only two-row carousel made by him that is still in working order.

Congress Park Carousel. Photo Credit: Audra Herman, New York Makers Marketplace Director

Saratoga celebrates every season with aplomb, but Spring is the best time to enjoy the fullness of its merry bloom before the glorious madness of racing season descends.

--

If visiting, we suggest booking a room at the stunning Inn At Five Points (102 Lincoln Avenue), a farm to table bed and breakfast. 

Photo Credit: The Inn At Five Points

or

Track-side favorite, Brentwood Hotel (15 Gridley Street).

Photo Credit: Brentwood Hotel

> Brentwood Hotel Fun Fact: Our New York Maker David Cummings of Adirondack Kitchen designed and built the beds for Brentwood! Click the link to shop his handcrafted cutting and serving boards.