Saratoga Springs, a city enhanced by health, wealth and racing, was first and foremost a place blessed with nourishing mineral springs, to be enjoyed in any season. These magical waters were undiscovered until 1771 when a British general attributed the cure of his leg wound to High Rock Spring. Post-revolution, this site became a refuge for luminaries ranging from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton.
When steamboats began plying the Hudson, a gambling casino on Saratoga Lake drew a different crowd to the town. Today, Saratoga Springs is a mecca of sports and culture, ranked in the top 10 of places to live in New York. Thoroughbreds thunder down the stretch of the Saratoga Race Course, while the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra both make the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) their summer home. Popular performing artists play to sold-out audiences, which also enjoy such annual events as the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival and the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival.
The Wine & Food Festival happily coincided with my Saratoga Springs visit this past October. The festival is SPAC’s largest fundraiser, benefiting its educational program that has under President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol, grown from serving 5,000 students to more than 49,000 in a mere four years. I was delighted to learn more about this worthy organization and, of course, to attend the weekend’s most happy place — its 19th annual Saratoga Wine & Food Festival.
This year the festival highlighted two main events — a new farm-to-table harvest dinner and a “grand tasting” the next day. Using locally sourced ingredients and the finest wines curated locally and globally, this proved to be a tantalizing feast for the senses — all presented in a beautiful setting overlooking the opulent Saratoga Spa State Park reflecting pool.
What a treat it was to be a guest at Saratoga Arms, a beautifully restored Second Empire hotel. In the 1950s the 1870 property was run as a rooming house. In 1997, it was purchased by Kathleen and Noel Smith, who were involved in the day-to-day planning and oversight of the extensive renovation that reopened in 1999 as a luxury inn. A delightful feature here is the wide wraparound Saratoga porch that welcomed and invited me to relax and people-watch on the town’s main street, Broadway.
Naturally I could not visit Saratoga Springs — this haven of history and hydrotherapy — without partaking in an iconic mineral bath, so it was off to the Roosevelt Baths and Spa. Established in 1935, the resort owes its life to President Franklin Roosevelt’s visionary act of preserving the area’s famed springs. I had a private soak in some naturally effervescent waters while being attended to by a professional staff.
Transformed, revitalized and refreshed, I was ready for a fun evening at the historic Caffè Lena. As the longest running venue of its kind — the Library of Congress has called it “an American treasure” — it has been recognized by the Grammy Foundation for its important contributions to the development of American music. That said, Caffè Lena is proud to stay true to Lena, its founder, whose vision was of simplicity, kindness to strangers and art above profit. The place has a warm, intimate feel — a sweet end to a day filled with fine weather, warm water and some happy folk music.
During my Saratoga stay, I brunched at an appealing restaurant housed in The Adelphi Hotel, which opened its doors in 1877 to well-heeled vacationers seeking the lap of luxury among the natural spas and springs that made Saratoga a resort. Prominent politicians met with movers and shakers of the day at The Adelphi bar as the hotel was once considered the hub of the town’s society. Through a $28 million makeover, this paragon of 19th-century hospitality has recently been reborn and welcomed me to dine in its pretty sun-splashed conservatory restaurant, The Blue Hen.
During the holiday season, Saratoga Springs’ main thoroughfares are lined with iconic seasonal fairy lights and decorations. Broadway has a massive wreath at Adirondack Trust Co. and there are gorgeous window displays at G. Willikers. Beekman Street, cozy and quaint all year long, is transformed into its own little happy world. Kids will love seeing the Saratoga Springs Fire Station lit up in a variety of hues as well as the illuminated wonderland that is North Broadway’s historic district of lovely Victorian homes.
No matter the season, pure pleasure can be found simply strolling along Broadway lined with a mile or so of some of America’s most beautiful 19th-century asymmetrical mansions, all in mint condition. Some are brightly colored, some turreted, others with widow’s walks and bay windows of stained glass. With Gothic Revival, Queen Anne and Italianate elements, Saratoga Springs is not unlike a Hollywood street set for “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Only here authenticity rules — and that’s just the way we like it.