SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Hold your horses. There is more to do in Saratoga Springs than visit its famous racetrack.
During a recent visit to the historic upstate New York town, the track actually went dark on a busy July Saturday just as horse season was getting underway because of the heat. As a Floridian, I found it adorable that people were complaining that 83 was hot, but I'll grant that by midday the heat index was going to be more than 110 on the track. It was a good call.
That's when bettors, I hope, discovered the cultural lineup that Saratoga has had in place since the '60s, one that rivals much bigger cities. And it also made it a day to explore a town full of stately Victorian homes and more than a dozen natural springs that have cold, carbonated water of various alkalinity bubbling from spouts around parks and scenic walkways. In addition, there are spas, art displays and inviting restaurants and coffee shops. And it's located just south of the Adirondack wilderness, so there's outdoorsy fun to be had.
Saratoga Springs is easily accessible from the Tampa Bay area, with reasonably priced nonstop flights available from Tampa or Clearwater to Albany, just a 20-minute drive to Saratoga.
The sophisticated populace of Saratoga Springs backed a plan in the mid-1960s to build the Saratoga Performing Arts Center so it could become the summer home of the New York City Ballet and also the Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition, there's a summer-long lineup that runs just past Labor Day, with concerts, art shows, Shakespeare in the park, a jazz festival and an array of historic hotels with highly rated restaurants.
On the day the horse track went dark, the New York City Ballet took to the performing arts center stage to perform George Balanchine's Apollo, showing thoroughbreds of another stripe.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has concerts at SPAC through August, as does the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. There's also a Saratoga Wine and Food Festival on Oct. 4-5, a farm-to-table event featuring the bounty of the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks. The New York City Ballet's five-day run has passed, but the ballet will be back.
The outdoor amphitheater is located on the grounds of the Saratoga Spa State Park, a sprawling green space of hiking trails, tennis courts, golf courses, swimming pools and museums. It takes its name from the natural mineral springs that dot the walking paths. Bring a water bottle and you'll find cold water of different mineral flavors. Or soak in it at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa, where spagoers since 1935 have sunk into porcelain tubs full of the tea-colored mineral water, letting the effervescent bubbles tingle and bring a sensation of warmth and relaxation.
George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Edgar Allan Poe were fans of the restorative qualities of naturally carbonated springs, said to cure stomach ailments and ease the pain of arthritis. The water is pushed through shale and limestone, absorbing minerals to become the bubbling, salty (and sometimes funky smelling) water.
You can pick up a tasting tour brochure for the springs from the Heritage Area Visitor Center, 297 Broadway, and sample the four springs in Congress Park, including Hathorn Spring No. 1, which has a gazebo around it. Visitors can taste the highly carbonated water whose alkaline-saline flavor was noted for high mineral content, a historic marker says, and "renowned as a digestive curative."
Congress Park also has a carousel from 1910 that is the last working carousel of 28 horses carved by Marcus Charles Illions, considered one of the greatest carousel carvers in the world. It's just $1 a ride.
Downtown feels upscale and pedestrian-friendly, like a Dickens railroad village come to life with leafy streets lined with Victorian architecture and independently owned shops and restaurants. I counted three hat shops in one short walk, there to get ladies ready for race day.
The Saratoga Race Course, the country's oldest thoroughbred racecourse, opened in August 1863. The town soon gained a reputation as a hot spot for gambling and speakeasies, becoming a Gilded Age party town in the summers.
There are still nightlife gems, such as the low-ceilinged room called Caffe Lena, where a young Bob Dylan played almost 60 years ago. It recently underwent a $2 million upgrade funded by the community and folk artists such as Arlo Guthrie because, as Smithsonian Folkways declared, the spot is legendary, like Carnegie Hall for singer-songwriters. It's the nation's oldest continuously operating coffeehouse and it's just steps away from Hattie's Restaurant, another legend that dates back to the 1930s, when its famous fried chicken was served to gamblers until the wee hours.
Historic hotels include the Gideon Putnam in Saratoga Spa State Park, the grand Adelphi Hotel in downtown Saratoga, a recently updated Gilded Age hotel with loads of Victorian charm, and the Saratoga Arms, an 1870 rooming house that was transformed 20 years ago into a 16-room luxury inn. The new boutique hotel, the 54-suite Pavilion Grand Hotel, is named after the historic hotel that once stood on its downtown site, and the locally owned gourmet seafood restaurant Fish @ 30 Lake takes residence on its first floor.
Saratoga was the top tourist destination of the 1870s, the Disney World of its time that attracted the likes of the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, the Roosevelts and libertines like Diamond Jim Brady and actor Lillian Russell. After the turn of the century, it was a home away from home for a roster of artists, writers and composers, including Aaron Copland, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote and David Foster Wallace.
Little wonder that Walt Disney World has a spread called Saratoga Springs Resort, with a theme and design inspired by the city. It has beauty that shouldn't be overlooked, even if you have a hot tip on a horse.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at email@example.com. Follow @SharonKWn.
Where to stay
This historic hotel in Saratoga Spa State Park is within walking distance of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Roosevelt Baths and Spa. Rooms from $185. 24 Gideon Putnam Road. Toll-free 1-866-890-1171.
The antique-filled brick mansion with a wraparound porch is steps away from the downtown shopping district. Rooms from $239. 497 Broadway. (518) 584-1775.
The recently updated Gilded Age hotel with loads of Victorian charm is on the city's main drag. Rooms from $185. 365 Broadway. (518) 678-6000.
Pavilion Grand Hotel
This boutique hotel has huge rooms — more like upscale apartments than a hotel. Rooms from $182. 30 Lake Ave. (518) 583-2727.
Where to eat
The Southern and Creole spot is justifiably famous for its crispy fried chicken, which it has been serving to gamblers since 1938. 45 Phila St. (518) 584-4790.
With sunny, brick-walled decor, it's a great place to choose a lunch from a variety of crepes, plus hand-cut french fries and poutine. 21 Phila St. (518) 581-0560.
At this gorgeous spot in the grand Adelphi Hotel, chef David Burke (of Iron Chef fame) offers an eclectic selection of breakfast, brunch and dinner options. 365 Broadway. (518) 678-6000.
Fish at 30 Lake
The locally owned gourmet seafood and steak restaurant is inside the posh Pavilion Grand Hotel. 30 Lake Ave. (518) 539-3474.
Where to play
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
The semi-outdoor venue in Saratoga Spa State Park has an expansive lawn where you can have picnics during shows. The New York City Ballet has a five-day summer residency in July, and it also has summer programs by Opera Saratoga and the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as Live Nation acts such as the Dave Matthews Band. There are also a number of free and family-friendly shows in the park, such as the Saratoga Shakespeare Company and Poetry in the Pines.
Check out the downtown Broadway historic district to find eclectic boutiques, bookstores and shops. Buy a fancy hat for the racetrack.
Take in the landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York's Central Park, where it's just $1 to ride the historic carousel. Bring a water bottle to sample the mineral water spewing from four fountains around the park. 1 E Congress St.
Roosevelt Baths and Spa
One of Franklin Roosevelt's projects when he was New York's governor, the bath complex that bears his name was finished under the New Deal. Its modern incarnation at the Gideon Putnam hotel offers mineral baths and a full-service salon. Soaking in the tea-colored fizzy water is what gave the town its name and fame. Mineral baths start at $35. 39 Roosevelt Drive.
Saratoga Race Course
One of the most popular ways to see the historic racetrack is by getting the breakfast buffet ($18.50 per person) served at the Porch at the clubhouse. You can watch the thoroughbreds prepare for races and they have free tram tours of the stables running every 15 minutes from 7:30 to 9 a.m. The racetrack is at 267 Union Ave.
Catch a show in the intimate room where legendary folk artists and singer-songwriters have played since 1960 at the nation's oldest continuously run coffeehouse. 47 Phila St. (518) 583-0022.