My Saratoga

Batcheller Mansion: A Fine Example of Victorian Architecture

Batcheller Mansion: A Victorian Gem

“You can either go to the Carousel or the Adelphi,” my mother said.  “But we’re not doing both.”  

It was amazing how even at the age of blankety-blank my mom could still make me feel like a child.  It’s a good thing we were such buddies, such devoted travel companions that she could get away with a remark like that and still leave me feeling totally unscathed.  This was our afternoon out in Saratoga Springs, a beloved town for all upstate New Yorkers, but perhaps even more so for me since I had lived here at one point in my life.  (It also happens to rate as one of the top destinations in New York state along with New York City and Niagara Falls.)

The truth is that I didn’t arrive in Telluride directly from Paris.  Toga-town captured my interest in between and I will always reserve a soft place for it in my heart.  It is a grand destination, distinguished largely by its hometown America charm and pristine and abundant examples of Victorian architecture.  Visitors have been flocking to Saratoga Springs for more than a century and a half, first for its mineral waters, later for its gaming.  Tourism has always been a big industry here, particularly in the summer when the town opens up the Saratoga Racetrack, the oldest thoroughbred race course in the country, along with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, or SPAC, summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Mom and I needed to go on one of our outings for it had been a while since we had experienced the kind of female bonding that best occurs over doing lunch, shopping or going for some kind of beautification together.  I was back east in the Adirondacks visiting my parents, so nearby Saratoga Springs, a town sometimes referred to as the gateway to the Adirondacks, seemed like the most logical choice.  Plus my mother and I wanted to go see Alan, my mother’s hair dresser of nearly forty years who works out of Saratoga part-time.  I planned our afternoon around our beauty appointments and except for lunch, I thought I’d leave the rest to chance.  Dad was to come along, too, a welcome addition to my well established dynamic with my mother, so I imagined there might be some kind of an attraction he would vie for as well.

 

Pastries from Mrs. London's

Pastries from Mrs. London’s

We made a direct beeline to Mrs. London’s, a lovely tea salon/bake shop that would easily rival Paris’s finest Right Bank pâtisseries.  I wanted to have a belated birthday celebration for my mom and I knew that Mrs. London’s was as much a favorite for her as for me.  The three of us sat primly at little marble tables, sipping iced tea and munching on delectable sandwiches.  We took turns hovering in front of the glass display cases, eyeing each and every pastry and cake in an attempt to make our selection for dessert.  We settled on the idea of sharing one luscious lemon meringue tarte amongst the three of us.  But at the same time, we ordered a pain au chocolat, a kouign amann (a buttery specialty from Brittany) and a rich, dark brownie to go.  

Edible Art

Edible Art

We also selected a Fire Bread, the creation for which Michael London, owner of Mrs. London’s with his wife, Wendy, is perhaps most famous.  This is a dense, crusty bread similar to France’s renowned pain Poîlane, which to me is best in the morning, toasted and smothered with butter and honey.

At Alan’s, I was fully debriefed on the current dining scene in Saratoga, one that can change as fast as the odds on a horse race.  (Fortunately only a couple of my favorites were scratched!)  Alan is a trusted source since not only is he a hairdresser, but he’s also a foodie.  Dad sat reading the sports pages throughout our discussions and blow dries.

Mom and I left nicely primped and decidedly eager to go somewhere to show it off.  Dad bestowed us with much appreciated compliments and told us that he didn’t care where we went next.  We contemplated shopping since Saratoga is known for its many quaint shops but none of us needed anything.  It was at that point that I envisioned a ride on the old-fashioned, wooden carousel in historic Congress Park (perhaps proceeded by a stroll through its beautifully manicured grounds), followed by a drink at the Adelphi, Saratoga’s landmark hotel.  

Riding the Carousel in My Dreams

Riding the Carousel in My Dreams

I had done pretty much all there is to do in Saratoga when I lived here except take a ride on the carousel.  (Although I had read a lot about its impending arrival, this revered treasure—which is now enclosed in glass—hadn’t been transplanted here until after I left town.)  My romantic notion of twirling on the carousel alongside my aging parents withered when confronted with the choice my mother presented to me.  I have a huge weakness for fine hotels and the Adelphi ranks among the most distinctive I know, so going there would, of course, be my first choice.  Be sure to visit Congress Park, however, when you’re in Saratoga since every acre of it has been laid out with great purpose and design.  The Saratoga Springs History Museum, housed in the famed Canfield Casino (which you can sometimes tour), sits right in the center of this handsome tract of land.

The three of us padded into the hotel and I was delighted to see that not much had changed since I last spent time here many years ago.  Actually I don’t think the hotel has undergone many significant restorations within the past one hundred years.  And to me, this worn and tired look only adds to its charm.  We wandered through the Victorian-era lobby, decorated with velvet settees and rich wallpaper and paused just long enough in the bar area to admire the room’s painted murals and fine spread of fruit, cheese and desserts including blackberry pie and carrot cake.  Already I felt like this was one of the last bastions of civility left in Saratoga, an elegant retreat that furnished the necessary accompaniments to both a glass of wine and a cup of tea.  

Lobby of The Adelphi

Lobby of the Adelphi

I was leading my parents toward the courtyard patio, a marvelous oasis populated with large and lush exotic plants and forest green Adirondack chairs.  I could remember seeing long, lithe ballet dancers draped over these chairs after an evening’s performance, but ballet season (July) had ended and most of the crowd seemed to consist of the horsey set that takes over in August.  We had passed a couple of garden rooms on our way out here, each one more prettily decorated than the next.  In the end, we settled for the open-air Courtyard Café where we could sit surrounded by dark green latticework trellises, gaze out onto the patio and listen to the trickle of their garden fountains.  

High Drama at the Adelphi Bar

High Drama at the Adelphi Bar

We sipped fresh fruit daiquiris and chatted about “our old days” in Saratoga.  We all had enjoyed doing a day at the races from time to time, especially if it meant dressing up and languishing over a long lunch at the clubhouse.  My dad talked about a poached salmon plate that he found particularly memorable.  All of us went more for the show and the fun of it than for the gambling.  With its two-storied grandstand, its cascading flower boxes, its supremely maintained grounds and racetracks, complete with a little lake in the center upon which floats a canoe bearing the colors of the stable that won the famous Travers race the year before, one was easily taken with the beauty of this historic landmark.  And then, of course, the magnificent thoroughbred horses, the jockeys dressed in brightly-colored silks and the crowd sporting everything from shorts and T-shirts to flouncy dresses and hats, provided a whole other source of entertainment.  

Reminiscing about this was bitter sweet.  I was quite sure my dad would never return to the races since clearly he felt more comfortable in less hectic surroundings these days.   (Even Mrs. London’s was a tad too noisy for him.)  We had talked about going to have breakfast at the track, one of my all-time favorite things to do in Saratoga where you can watch the horses train early in the morning and also take a stable tour and learn about the history behind this American institution.  (Founded in 1864, the Saratoga Racetrack perpetuates a long tradition of horse culture in the region through the actual races, the horse sales and the horse farms situated throughout the outlying area.)  In the end, Dad and I decided to postpone our date for breakfast at the track until next year.

Saratoga Summer Elegance

Saratoga Summer Elegance

We glanced over at the table next to us and admired a small group of fashionable people that had clearly just come from the track.  We could hear them bemoaning their losses and celebrating their victories over Martinis and large pots of Darjeeling.  Indeed it was the time of day when teatime and cocktail hour blurred into one.  I sensed that my parents were feeling somewhat wistful about missing out on this great Saratoga tradition of attending the races, world-famous meets held here but six weeks every summer.  I reminded them, however, that delighting in a fine hotel could be considered an even older tradition in Saratoga, especially since virtually all of them—some of the grandest in America—had long ago been torn down.  Thank goodness the Adelphi remained and amidst its tattered coverings, one could easily gain a whiff of Old Saratoga.  

Saratoga Springs is about a 45-minute drive north of Albany International airport.

Saratoga Racetrack, www.nyra.com/saratoga

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, www.racingmuseum.org

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, www.spac.org

Mrs. London’s, 464 Broadway, 518-581-1834, www.mrslondons.com

Alan at Limelight Salon of Saratoga, 24 Hamilton Street, 518-580-1007

Saratoga Springs History Museum, Congress Park, 518-584-6920, www.saratogahistory.org

Adelphi Hotel, 365 Broadway, 518-587-4688, www.adelphihotel.com

More of My Favorite Restaurants and Cafés in Saratoga

Caffe Lena, 47 Phila Street, 518-583-0022, www.caffelena.org; folk music and more.

Chez Sophie, 534 Broadway, 518-583-3538, www.chezsophie.com; fine cuisine in a sophisticated setting.

Chiante Il Ristorante, 18 Division Street, 518-580-0025, www.chiantiristorante.com; wonderful Italian restaurant with a happening bar.

Circus Café, 392 Broadway, 518-583-1106, www.circuscafe.com; casual dining served up in a Big Top setting—a must for kids.

Country Corner Café, 25 Church Street, 518-583-7889, www.saratoga.org/countrycornercafé; great place for breakfast if you can find a seat!

Four Seasons Natural Foods, 33 Phila Street, 518-584-4670; www.fourseasonsnaturalfoods.com; a favorite for healthy food and products both to enjoy here or to go.  I would often eat here with Mana, my yoga instructor, whom I ran into recently at their outdoor seating. Enquire about her here if you want to experience one of the best yoga classes ever!

Lime, 7 Caroline Street, 518-584-4315, www.limesaratoga.com; fun Caribbean food.

Sperry’s, 30 1/2 Caroline Street, 518-584-9618, www.sperrysofsaratoga.com; a Saratoga classic.

My Old Shopping Haunts

De Jonghe Jewelers, 470 Broadway, 518-587-6422, www.dejonghejewelry.com; original designs of the finest quality.

Lyrical Ballad, 7 Phila Street, 518-584-8779, lballad@nycap.rr.com; seller of rare and extraordinary books and prints.

Menges & Curtis Apothecary, 472 Broadway, 518-584-2046, www.mengesandcurtis.com; quality beauty products and gift ideas in an Old World setting.

Putnam Street Market Place, 433 Broadway, 518-587-3663; www.putnammarket.com; fine comestibles and wine, including delightful dishes to go.

Saratoga Shoe Depot, 365 Broadway, 518-584-1142, www.saratogashoedepot.com; shoes, accessories and clothing for all as well as a plethora of gifts—all at discounted prices.

Saratoga Trunk, 493 Broadway, 518-584-3543; www.saratogatrunk.com; high-end women’s fashions and accessories including hats!

The Art District on Beekman Street

The Art District on Beekman Street

Worth Checking Out

The Art District on Beekman Street emerged within recent years as a happening place to shop and dine.  I especially like it since it’s not at all touristy.  (Broadway, the main street of Saratoga, does become a little too much of a scene for me during the thick of the summer season.)  This is an historic neighborhood, originally primarily Italian, where Al Capone and Lucille Ball once hung out (although perhaps not at the same time!)  There are some nice art galleries here to explore.  My mom and I dined to mixed reviews at Gotchya’s (www.gotchyas.com) on a separate occasion. You might fare better at The Beekman Street Bistro (www.thebeekmanstreetbistro.com), although I don’t have any firsthand reports. For more on the Art District of Beekman Street, go to www.saratogatourism.com/vcstuff/beekman.

Saratoga Countryside

Saratoga Countryside

For the Outdoors You

I became more in touch with sports and how regular physical activity can benefit you so much both physically and mentally when I lived in Saratoga.  (Remember I was coming off of living eleven years in Paris where for me exercise consisted of a stroll in the park or a walk in the countryside.)  This is where I launched myself into cycling and discovered that some of the best road riding in the country lies less than a mile out of town.  Think of all of those horse farms and rolling hills!  I also loved to ride out at the Saratoga Battlefied, a beautiful parcel of countryside steeped in history.  Closer to town, it’s fun to hike, picnic or just poke around at the Saratoga Spa State Park, a National Historic Landmark, which is indisputably quite picturesque.  In the winter, I would sometimes cross country ski in this park and then swing over to Mrs. London’s for a hot chocolate and a croissant.

Blue Sky Bicycles, 71 Church Street, 518-583-0600, www.blueskybicycles.com; shop here to outfit yourself for your cycling, rent a bike or obtain information on the great rides in the area.

Saratoga National Historical Park (The Saratoga Battlefield), 518-664-9821, ext. 224, www.nps.gov/sara

Saratoga Spa State Park, 19 Roosevelt Drive, 518-584-2535, www.saratogaspastatepark.org

Book Picks

Any of the Jacobs Burns Mysteries by Matt Witten; he was a fellow author when I lived in Saratoga and all of his stories are set in the Spa town.

“Saratoga:  Saga of an Impious Era,” by George Waller

“Saratoga Springs:  An Architechtural History, 1790-1990,” by James Kettlewell; I was friendly with James when I lived in Saratoga.  He was the most distinguished Art History professor associated with Skidmore College, which is also located in Saratoga.

“Saratoga Trunk,” by Edna Ferber and Stuart M. Rosen; my absolute favorite which is a terrific movie as well!

 
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