Saratoga Springs (Financial Times: How To Spend It 8/01)

 In an American spa town built on gambling, any whiff of sleaze is quickly dispersed by old world charm. Gordon Sander takes a dip.

Jenny Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill was keen on the place. Lillian Russell, the It girl of the American Victorian era, used to strut her stuff here. And so have some of America’s greatest thoroughbreds. We’re referring to the grande dame of American resorts, Saratoga Springs, New York, or simply Saratoga to its partisans.

Looking for the perfect, luxurious addendum to a late spring or summer trip to New York or Washington, DC? Then consider spending a few langourous days here.

Saratoga’s spa town fame began in 1771 when Sir William Johnson discovered the curative qualities of its tingling waters. The American sportswriter Red Smith got it about right. “From New York,” he advised visitors to Saratoga, “drive north about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years”.

To be sure, on a mid-summer afternoon here, when this imaginatively restored, modern day spa city simultaneously plays host to some of the finest horses in America, as well as the New York City Ballet, Broadway, the city’s archetypal main street, is a veritable whirlwind of activity. And yet, if you get up early and sit on one of the old wicker chairs on the porch (or piazza as they are called hereabouts) of one of Broadway’s fine, restored hotels and gaze out with half-closed eyes, you might just make out Lillian Russell pedaling by on her gold-plated, diamond-encrusted bicycle, a gift from her high-rolling admirer, Saratoga stalwart “Diamond” Jim Brady.

Back in the days of Lillian Russell and her gaudy ilk, you probably would have opted to stay at the elegant — and elephantine — 800-room Grand Union, or the equally stupendous United States Hotel, where 50-piece orchestras used to greet the posh guests as they alighted from their carriages.

You can relive those gilded days at the renovated Adelphi Hotel. Built in 1877, this sumptuous time capsule of a hotel has the only great piazza to survive on Broadway from the Victorian era.

Inside, the handsomely restored Adelphi boasts an expansive, plant-filled lobby as well as the enchanting Adelphi Café, a leafy, mural-covered alcove that serves special coffees and mixed drinks. There’s also a delightful, old-fashioned pool, where you can lie back and sip your créme de menthe. Still, the Adelphi’s most outstanding feature are its 39 individually decorated and adorned rooms, which include Victorian country rooms, Adirondack Arts and Crafts rooms, French provincial rooms, English Country rooms, and more.

Downstairs, off the lobby, is Maestro’s, a casually elegant eatery lined with cartoons and drawings of some of the celebrities who have entertained or been entertained at Saratoga. Try the succulent rack of lamb with mashed sweet potatoes.

Another hotel that is an environment unto itself is the 200-year-old Gideon Putnam Hotel, a lavish, neo-Georgian style resort located in Saratoga Springs State Park. It’s a short trot away from the Saratoga Springs Arts Center, which from June to September is an arts festival unto itself, with stints by Freihofer’s Jazz Festival, the new york city Ballet, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Or you may prefer the Saratoga Arms, a lavish, 16-room concierge hotel just up Broadway, not far from the Adelphi. Take a moment to admire the display of period artefacts in the foyer before sitting down to a full American breakfast of French toast, bacon, fruit, and the best coffee this side of the Hudson River. The company is good, too. One day one of my breakfast companions was the retired chairman of the art department of local Skidmore College, the excellent liberal arts college which gives this Great American Place (as American Heritage Magazine once dubbed it) an added touch of fun and gravitas. He recommended that I visit the college’s cutting-edge art gallery, the Tang Art gallery and Teaching Museum. An excellent tip, as it turned out.

The first place you’ll want to check out is the justly celebrated race track. As diehards can attest, there is no place quite like the Saratoga backstretch on an August morning as the mist is rising and the fillies are ambling back to their stable after their workouts as you watch with a muffin and a glass of Moet & Chandon.

Saratoga Racetrack, the oldest American thoroughbred racing track in continuous existence, was founded in 1863 by an enterprising, if somewhat disreputable, local gambler by the name of Jim Morrissey, along with a number of more reputable racing aficionados, including lawyer Leonard W. Jerome, who was Winston Churchill’s grandfather.

Rebuilt in 1902, when it was extended an eighth of a mile and the grandstands were enhanced with resplendent, late Victorian roofs, the track remains one of the most beautiful in the country. Whether or not the horses are up when you come, a visit is a must.

So is at least one long stroll along Broadway. Begin your perambulations with a sortie to the lovely Congress Park. This showcase park offers a glimpse of the springs that originally made the city famous, including Congress Spring, which was discovered in 1792 and formed the heart of the original village. It is housed in its own Greek Revival Pavilion, as are three other springs, each bearing their own effervescent qualities.

After you’ve sampled the waters, visit the rose-lined pool of Spit and Spat, the mirthful, mirror-image statues which are forever blowing water at each other. Then head for the old Canfield casino, now the site of the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs. During Saratoga’s great gambling days more money crossed the tables here than at Monte Carlo. Every June, the casino takes on something of its old self when it hosts the dazzling Whitney ball, thrown by the indefatigable Marylou Whitney.

Thus invigorated, leave the park, cross Broadway, and saunter past the Adelphi to the gleaming, colonnaded entrance of the formidable Adirondack Trust company, erected in 1916. Step inside and find yourself propelled back to the 1920′s, as men in suspenders and starched faces gravely go about their business in hushed tones beneath the high, church-like ceiling. But don’t take pictures, or else one of them will remind you, in earnest tones, “This is a bank!”

The more relaxed folds over at the US Post OFfice on the next corner are only too happy to have you snap their mural, a 1930′s masterpiece by American realist Guy Péne du Bois depicting saratoga as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have envisioned it, with horses and Jay Gatsby-types lolling around.

Keep on walking up Broadway and lose yourself in the cornucopia of architectural styles on display here, including some really fine examples of French Renaissance, Second Empire, Queen Anne Colonial Revial, and Italian Villa, to name but a few. You’ll understand why Henry James once called broadway, as well as the adjoinging Union Avenue, among the most beautiful avenues in America.

Reward yourself with lunch at the Olde Bryan Inn, established in 1773, where George Washington once dined; honour his memory by chomping down on a grilled steak sandwich served over toasted garlic bread with French fries. Or amble back down roadway, sashay into Lillian’s Restaurant and order the baked stuffed shrimp and sirloin.

After lunch buy an old book about the history of New York State, or another antiquarian tome at the extraordinary Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, whose 50,000-odd volumes are housed in the vault of a former bank. Check out the fine array of blown glass on offer at Symmetry Gallery, a few doors down. Or splurge on a vintage instrument at Saratoga Guitar.

And you should have at least one dinner at the excellent 43 Phila, a sophisticated nouvelle American bistro which prides itself on being the area’s finest eaterie. Try, if you dare, the formidable 16-ounce grilled Delmonico steak.

Save your last day for a visit to the city’s two fascinating specialized museums. First saunter over to the National Museum of Dance. The only museum in the US devoted to professional dance, it is located in an extraordinary 1918 Arts and Crafts building. Inside you can commune with the sprits of Martha Graham, George Balanchine and other American dance greats. Then skip over to the no less absorbing National Museum of Racing and Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, and have a chat with man O’War, Seabiscuit, or some of the other illustrious steeds re-incarnated here.

Top off your tour with an authentic spa treatment at the beautifully renovated Lincoln Baths at the entrance to Saratoga Spa State Park. “In this favoured spot spring waters of life that heal the maladies of man and cheer his heart,” reads the carved inscription on the arcade to the immaculate, Depression-era hall. Still true, you’ll agree, as you lie on your back, feeling duly healed and cheered after you long, luxurious weekend here. Still true.