During the world-class thoroughbred racing session in Saratoga, which runs from late July to Labor Day, the city bustles with an electric giddiness.
Some local residents leave town and rent out their houses for the six-week period, earning enough to cover their mortgage for the rest of the year. Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts are fully booked. People who live near the track flag cars into their yards, youngsters sell water for $1 a bottle on street corners, slightly older kids and veteran touts hawk tip sheets. At night, revelers pack into bars and restaurants and overflow onto the main street, Broadway, where people-watching rivals racing as a sport.
The city of Saratoga has a permanent population of just over 26,000; about 100,000 people visit the area during racing season.
On and near Broadway, people who place dollar bets brush shoulders with millionaire horse owners and high-rollers. Art galleries and stores, offering everything from trinkets and souvenirs to antiques, stay open into the night.
On Labor Day, the final horses cross the finish line at Saratoga's racing meet. Then trainers pack up their horses and gear and head for the next racetrack, with jockeys and backstretch workers following. The bettors disperse, some back home, some to the next high-stakes playground.
As the crowds abandon Saratoga, the locals breathe a sigh of relief and emerge from their traffic-hampered exile. Now is the time for them to enjoy the fruits of Saratoga's appeal, from the fine dining and shopping to the renowned golf courses, the historic walks and cultural opportunities.
Because we live so close, it's easy to drive to Saratoga for a weekend or even an overnight trip and experience this small city with big ambitions in the off-season.
Broadway is the main arterial running through the city, and if you take exit 13N off the Adirondack Northway and enter the city from the south (Route 9), you will pass the verdant Saratoga Spa State Park. This park is the site of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), which hosts the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra in the summer and occasional events in the off season. Check out its offerings at spac.org.
In the park is the luxurious Gideon Putnam Hotel, which operates the Roosevelt Baths and Spa. Here customers can enjoy baths and other hydrotherapy treatments using the naturally effervescent, mineral-rich water for which the city is named.
The Saratoga Automobile Museum and the National Museum of Dance are also located in the park, as is the top-rated Saratoga Spa Golf Course. It offers both a championship course and a par-3 course, driving range and putting green. Prices for even the championship course are reasonable -- $30 for a weekday round, $37 on a weekend after Sept. 5 -- and the tree-lined, historic environment is gorgeous.
As you enter downtown on Broadway, watch for the visitor's center on the left, located in a historic trolley station, opposite Congress Park. The center provides maps, historical information, self-guided walking tours and a brochure listing all the public mineral water springs from which you can sip or fill a jug. Several of those springs are located in Congress Park, which also contains the Canfield Casino, Italian Gardens with a reflecting pool, a working carousel (hours vary in the off-season), a Civil War monument and other sculpture.
Past the park you will spot a few monolithic clothing stores and residences that overwhelm the streetscape. but don't despair. Beyond them lies an authentic, bustling downtown, with a few historic buildings accenting storefronts housing a wide variety of restaurants, pubs, cafes, ice cream shops, galleries and stores selling clothing, jewelry, housewares, crafts, imported goods and specialty items. With the closure of Borders, the only remaining bookstore in Saratoga is the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, steps off Broadway on Phila Street, which is worth a visit.
On our most recent trip, we had a delicious dinner at Maestro's at the Van Dam, an American bistro that recently moved into elegant rooms in the Civil War-era Rip Van Dam Hotel (saratogamaestros.com). After dinner, a bowl of homemade dark chocolate was presented -- a delicious touch!
Our local friends also highly recommend Ravenous, on Phila Street, for crepes (ravenouscrepes.com); Compton's Diner on Broadway, a Saratoga favorite, for homey diner food at reasonable prices, including breakfast all day; and Duo Modern Japanese Cuisine at 175 S. Broadway (duo-japanese.com), for a fusion menu with Japanese, French and Italian influences. We've also had good meals at Sushi Thai Garden at 44-46 Phila, which offers an extensive fresh sushi selection, including picturesque wooden boats containing sushi selections.
Saratoga also provides plenty to do for racing fans after the thoroughbred track closes for the year. Live harness races are run at Saratoga Casino and Raceway daily from March through mid-December, and the casino offers slots and electronic table games. The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (racingmuseum.org) is open daily; admission is $7 for adults.
>Off the main drag
Two iconic spots sit next to each other on Phila Street, a narrow street that runs west off Broadway just past Congress Park. Hattie's Chicken Shack (hattiesrestaurant.com) in modest quarters at 45 Phila continues to use Miss Hattie's traditional recipes for delicious, juicy fried chicken and light, flaky biscuits. Other mouthwatering highlights are catfish, red beans and rice, jambalaya and a gumbo of the day. From October through April, the restaurant serves a rich mac and cheese and chicken and dumplings.
Next to Hattie's, Caffe Lena, America's oldest continually operating folk coffeehouse, is rich in musical tradition, having hosted Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco, Emmylou Harris and many more. After founder Lena Spencer, a downtown icon, died in 1989, Caffe Lena was converted to a nonprofit institution.
Light meals, desserts, coffee, tea and other non-alcoholic drinks are sold. Every Thursday is open mic night for music, spoken word, comedy and poetry, and the first Wednesday of every month is open mic poetry night. Both start at 7:30, with performer sign-ups at 7 p.m.
Caffe Lena is closed on some Sundays, but almost every night offers a musical performance, and Fridays and Saturday nights offer several. A calendar at www.caffelena.org has details; tickets are also sold at the web site. (Caffe Lena, up a flight of stairs on the second floor, is not easily accessible to the disabled.)
The Irish Times Pub and Restaurant (irishtimessaratoga) at 14 Phila is a good spot to hoist a glass of Guinness or dig into some shepherd's pie while listening to weekend live music. For more music and Irish fun, check out The Parting Glass, (40-42 Lake Ave., walking distance from Broadway), which offers music on weekends and a comfortable atmosphere, including pub grub, daily. Check out its schedule at partingglasspub.com.
September offers two rare highlights, conveniently scheduled on the same weekend.
The gardens at Yaddo, the artists' retreat founded in 1926, are the only area of this famed retreat open to the public; to ensure the privacy and concentration of the sometimes famous and always creative minds who reside there every summer, the rest of the estate is strictly off limits. On Sept. 17 and 18, for the first time since 2003 and only the fifth time in the history of the retreat, people will be able to take ticketed guided tours of the historic Yaddo Mansion and other areas of the estate, walking in the footsteps of such luminaries as Aaron Copland, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Cunningham, John Cheever, Alice Walker, Mario Puzo and Susan Orlean.
From 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, an exclusive "Deluxe Tour," including a cocktail reception, will be held for 50 guests; cost is $200. On Sept. 18, two-hour tours, which cost $50 per person, will be offered at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 4 p.m. To reserve tickets, go to www.yaddo.org.
A second major event that weekend is the 234th anniversary of the Battles of Saratoga, which took place on the Saratoga National Historical Park, about 15 miles southeast at Stillwater.
Free programs on Saturday and Sept. 18 include encampments of authentic re-enactors who portray American soldiers of 1777, who battled British Gen. John Burgoyne's forces on Sept. 19 of that year and routed the British on Oct. 7. Visitors will see soldiers as they prepare to fight and families setting up tents and cooking at campfires.
Camps are open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 18. Special theatrical performances of "the Marquis de Lafayette" will be performed at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sept. 18. All events are free. The park's visitors center tells the story of the battlefield's history; guided tours can be arranged for $80 for up to 10 people.
For more information on the Saratoga National Historical Park, go to www.nps.gov/sara/ index.htm. To schedule a guided tour, call (518) 664-9821 ext. 224 or e-mail: SARA_info@ nps.gov.
If you go:
Saratoga is 45 minutes north of Albany.The simplest way to get there from Buffalo is to take the New York State Thruway to exit 24 in Albany, then head north on I-87, the Adirondack Northway, to Exit 13N. However, travelers with a good map or GPS can shave 45 minutes off the trip by leaving the Thruway at exit 27 in Amsterdam and following Routes 67, then 50, through Ballston Spa, to Saratoga.