Saratoga Springs is firstly a horsey town and secondly a spa town. It is the home to the first thoroughbred race track in the country, built in 1863. The town capitalized on its wealth of mineral springs (21) during the Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt had a spa complex, including four huge bath houses, built where people could come for various “cures.”When I was there this September with some friends, I was able to channel the spirit of Seabiscuit, dip my toes in the bubbly spa water, marvel at the mansions…and yes, eat fantastic food.
FOOD & WINE FEST
After my flight landed in Albany,N.Y., I drove 30 minutes north to Saratoga Springs. Luckily, I was able to catch the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival Boozy Brunch …a wrap up of the Saratoga Food and Wine Fest. Held in Saratoga Spa State Park at the Reflecting Pool, it was orchestrated by Colin Cowie (think events for underachievers such as Oprah and Jerry Seinfeld). Menu created by celebrity chef Todd English…lively music by DJ On the Move and lots of old school 1980s hits like Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley. My era! There were Ferraris and a Bat car to gaze on, great food and an endless supply of rose and specialty cocktails. There were even scents you could spray on to match the cocktails. My fave was the Bloody Mary – spicy!. Between the dancing, I took a break to get some chicken and waffles. Cowie, ahead of me in the buffet line, noted, “Got to eat something to soak up all the alcohol.”
My accommodation was the newly renovated Adelphi Hotel on Broadway, the town’s main drag. Now 140 years old, the hotel underwent a 5-year renovation, was gutted to the studs (not what the owners had planned!) and opened again last year. Connie Slocum, the hotel’s director of events, kindly took me on a tour of the property and told me it had previously been a fussy Victorian-style place with resplendent garden. The new look involves taking old details and making it pop with new touches. For instance, behind the check-in desk was a mosaic made of 100-year-old crystal dishes. Stunning Victorian-era furniture was reupholstered in leather and the wooden frames sprayed silver, with touches of lush brocade added here and there. Pier mirrors lined the hallways, in their original state. The ceilings had been hand painted in soft blues and greys, finished with a sponge of distressed silver. Throughout the hotel,the soaring 12 foot ceilings gave the property an airy feel. Originally the hotel had 100 guest rooms. That shrunk to 64 guestrooms with the previous owner, but the new renovation cut the number to 32. My bathroom was the size of a small bedroom, complete with heated towel racks, Toto Washlets (look them up, oh my!), and special makeup removal washcloths. Particularly wonderful was the huge marble shower with raindrop showerhead. Saratoga Springs water is chock full of minerals and feels a bit slippery on the skin – like soap that won’t rinse off. I loved the 4 oz. Raintree (lavender) amenities, gorgeous egg-style tub, double sink, and the floor of black and white basket-weave tiles. Evening turndown treats? House-made Madelines and Saratoga water.
NORTH BROADWAY Local historian Hollis Palmer met us on North Broadway, a street abounding in mansions with colourful backstories. Hollis told me he leads around eight bus tour group tours a year and relishes the role. Dressed in bowler and black tux he and his partner Sandy Graff, in a long Victorian dress, looked right at home in front of the historic homes. “In the summer season before the Civil War, Saratoga Springs was the place to be for socialites. After the Civil War, two huge hotels were built. One was the largest hotel in the world with 1.5-mile-long hallways, on 5.5 acres. Plus it had a water park. Back in those days Saratoga Springs was the summer social capital of the country. They came for the waters, stayed for the parties,” Palmer explained. He noted that in 1886 things came to a standstill when the Temperance movement took hold. Booze was forbidden and the state stopped all gambling. Only in 1978 was gambling allowed again. Some of the original home owners on this street (many of whom had stills in their backyards?) The inventor of Arrow shirts, the Drexels (of university fame), and Arrow’s competitor, Van Heusen.
DAIRY BARN DINNER
Dinner was at Longfellow’s, a little outside town near Saratoga Lake. Comprising two old dairy barns, it was full of nooks and crannies, had an indoor pond plus waterfall. I had steak blue cheese salad, filet mignon nuggets wrapped in bacon, on a bed of chopped greens, with a big slab of blue cheese in the middle. This place specializes in comfort food. My friend’s eggplant parmesan was big enough for two people.
SODA POP AND CHIPS
Many things were invented in Saratoga Springs. Soda Pop was introduced by Dr. Clark 1814. Capturing the carbonated water coming out of some of the springs, he almost single-handedly bled the springs dry and was eventually stopped by local government.
Regarding my favourite savory snack, here’s the story I found on the back of a bag of Original Saratoga Chips. “At Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs in 1853 a patron ordered friend potatoes with his meal. When served, he complained they were too thick and soggy. The cook, George Crum, was upset about the criticism so sliced a new batch of potatoes very thin, fried them in boiling oil until crispy then lightly salted them. What was intended as a slight turned into a hit and became known as the Original Saratoga Chips for more than 160 years. – since 1853, America’s First Kettle Chip.”
MUSEUM OF HORSE RACING – NATIONAL HALL OF FAME
After gazing at some sleek thoroughbreds with twitchy ears out for their morning exercise on the Saratoga Race Course, we headed to the Horse Racing Museum and National Hall of Fame. Karen Wheaton, the facility’s education curator, explained, “The horses are frisky today. When it is windy their hearing is affected. They are prey creatures and have 340-degree sight around their bodies and very acute hearing.” The 45-minute tour took us past many portraits and plaques including one dedicated to Julie Krone, the first woman jockey in Hall of Fame. “It is still an anomaly to have a female jockey,” Wheaton explained. I also learned a little bit about the gear. Saddles are feather-light and look like shoe horns. Jockeys, according to New York State law must wear a safety vest and helmet. The coloured silks, or jacket they wear represents the owners of the horse. Surprising fact, jockeys don’t exercise the horse, that job goes to the “exercise trainer.” Sometimes a race is the first time a jockey will even get on a horse.” If they don’t click with the horse trainer, a jockey can be changed,” Wheaton told me. How do you get to be a jockey? “There’s a school in Kentucky. Plus, they work on the apprentice system and a jockey may start out as an exercise trainer. If they are small enough they have a chance. Horses can run as fast as 42mph, especially if you are light. Jockeys weigh in at 108-110 lbs. For steeple chase the weight limit is 120 lbs,” Wheaton said. Before Jim Crowe, the first jockeys were African Americans and often children. One famous black jockey was Isaac Murphy, considered one of the greatest riders in America, winning three Kentucky Derbys. I learned that John Morrissey, an Irishman and bareknuckle boxer was the founder of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga. He wanted to attract society not only for the waters, but to stay and spend money, so he had the racetrack built in 1863. It is still home to a society-filled 40-day racing season every summer.
THE SPRINGS There are 21 public mineral springs in town, and 14 can be found in the 2,400-acre Saratoga Spa State Park. Locals bring gallon jugs to the fountains, often under decorative gazebos, and fill up. Geologically, the springs occur because a fault line runs through the town. The most popular, good tasting spring is called State Seal, near the bath houses in the park. Tasting the sweet, clear, cold water, I could see why this pavilion got lineups. The water at some other springs I tried was quite pungent. Good if you feel the need to load up on sulphur. Driving down the park’s majestic Avenue of the Pines, we headed to the Hall of Springs which was built as a drinking hall, but the water’s mineral content corroded the pipes. Now it is an elegant event space. Next to it was the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, SPAC www.SPAC.org. The New York City Ballet Company have been in residency here every summer since 1966. That’s why the town is filled with ballet slipper statues. The SPAC amphitheatre has 5,200 seats and combined with open air seating on the lawn there is a 20,000 capacity for the season’s program of dance and music. Also in the park is an 18-hole golf course, two swimming pools, (one is family, the other Victorian Pool where ballet dancers hang out). There are 10 event buildings on campus including Home Made Theatre with 500 seats. Of the four original bath houses, Washington Bath is now the Dance Museum, Lincoln Bath is offices, Roosevelt Bath 2 is set to become and wellness centre and Roosevelt Bath 1 still operates as a bath house. One journalist said getting in the tub here was like bathing in warm champagne. Built in 1934 and part of the FDR Works Project the facility has 42 baths. After checking in and waiting in the tranquility rest area an attendant calls my name and escorted me to my personal bath room – literally! As well as tub, each has a water closet. The tiles and tub are original,” she noted as she handed me a towel and showed me how to use the plastic foot stool as a stabilizer once in the bath. The tub was four inches below floor level and the salt content of the water made it very buoyant. She laid a towel at one end of the tub so I could lean my head back, with feet on the jammed in stool. Ah. Bobbing like a cork, then stability and relaxation. The water colour was rather off-putting, like watery brownish tomato soup due to iron content but soon my skin was covered in tiny bubbles. Leaning back, I almost fell asleep. In no time the 45 minutes was up and my skin was baby soft.
GIDEON PUTNAM Lunch was in Putnam’s, a casual dining room in the Gideon Putnam Hotel, the only hotel in the park. I had the healthy Buddha bowl with sweet potatoes, avocado, romaine, carrots, chickpeas and pomodoro peppers. Juicy burgers. But the best thing was the complimentary house-made potato chips and onion dip. Yum! If case you wondered, Gideon Putnam was an original settler in 1763, though of as the founding father of Saratoga Springs.
After lunch Mark Davis, a hotel sales manager, took us on a tour. The place was sold out, so no peeking in any of the 124 rooms (22 are suites). We were told the six rooms with verandas used to be for TB patients who got wheeled out to enjoy the fresh air. “This hotel was built at the emergence of the vacation nation in the 1930s. It was OK to travel for health. Back then the doctor would tell you to take the waters and give you a prescription,” explained Davis. The lobby was lovely, with four working fireplaces. The original interior designer? None other than Dorothy Draper. Although it is a gorgeous location, it might be a bit quiet for some, so a shuttle bus is available to take you downtown and to the race track.
SARATOGA ARMS I love creative restoration of old buildings, so I visited Amy Smith whose parents opened the Saratoga Arms in 1998. “Built in 1870 it had 16 rooms originally. We expanded in 2004 and now have 31,” she explained. They serve a complimentary full breakfast and evening drinks are available on porch. Each room is unique, Amy’s mother and her interior designer friend come up with creative ways to show off unique furnishings. “Every year four-to-five rooms are refreshed or totally redone – carpet, drapes, furniture.” For those who like variety, they can opt for the “Sleeping around Package” and stay in a different room each night. Children over age 12 welcome, but sorry, no pets.
HATTIE’SThis is one of Saratoga’s historic landmarks. Opened in 1938, the location has been serving Southern and Louisiana cuisine ever since. Hattie’s goal was to serve the backstretch folks (African Americans) who maintained the Saratoga Springs race track and stables. In a covered courtyard, I noticed locals bellied up to the bar (open spring and summer). The main dining room, I was told, is open all year. The fried chicken was to die for. Hattie’s current owners have kept her secret recipe, beating Bobby Flay in the Throwdown. Fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese ball, lump crab cake, meatloaf, and catfish were also on the menu. The epitome of comfort food is served on tables covered with gingham table clothes. The decorations? Painted hens and Mardi Gras beads.
Very full and very satisfied, I headed back to the Adelphi. Not far away, but worlds apart, in lovely Saratoga Springs.
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