Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
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Saratoga Springs Travel Guide
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The Waters of Saratoga Springs
Saratoga Springs, N.Y. WE came for the waters because, after all, that’s what made the town famous.
Discovering, and then splashing in, mineral baths had been a favorite sport of our family during years spent living in Europe. So we came to Saratoga Springs, not three hours away from New York City, with the distinct purpose of investigating the ways we could sample the waters.
We ended up splashing, soaking and sipping — but we also absorbed the intriguingly melancholy air of a health-giving resort for the masses that had been rendered obsolete.
A minor setback came when we learned that the only operating mineral spa on the grounds of Saratoga Spa State Park, home of a once-mighty baths complex dating back to the New Deal era, did not accept children under 16, thus leaving out half the clan.
So we made our first approach at the park’s Victoria Pool, reachable through entrances off of Route 50 and Route 9 just on the edge of town. The park itself, with a main drive lined by towering pines, is a complex of graceful, low-slung brick architecture, sweeps of manicured lawns, woods with walking trails and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The Victoria Pool, the nation’s first heated pool (but no longer heated), is surrounded by arcaded brick galleries, landscaped flowerbeds and hedges. A bar and restaurant occupy one part of the slate deck, where there were plenty of lounge chairs. Opened in 1935 and renovated about five years ago, the pool costs $8 for an adult and $4 for a child.
The park’s other pool, the Peerless, costs $6 a car load and $2 for an adult and $1 for a child. Larger and shallower, it is a no-frills pool but has a terrific water slide. After the pool visits we stopped by the Roosevelt Baths. Appointments were necessary. The only ones available were late the next day or 9:15 a.m., which we took. My wife and I drove back for a soak, taking part in a ritual with long-ago origins.
Saratoga’s springs had been known to the area’s Indians for centuries when the first Europeans sampled the waters in the late 18th century. Within several decades the earliest resorts appeared, and in the years just after the Civil War, Saratoga Springs became one of the most favored tourist destinations in the country.
In the 1930s federal relief money helped build the complex of bathhouses named Roosevelt and Lincoln. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had polio, had a special interest in the springs.) Two symmetrical arcade buildings face each other in the heart of the park, with a reflecting pool in the middle surrounded by a lawn. One used to be the Hall of Springs, where people would flock to take curative sips of mineral water. The other housed a laboratory. Modern medicine, of course, killed the spa regime as a treatment for illness, and the lawn was empty the day we were there except for joggers and dog walkers. Science had silenced this place.
Now most of the buildings have been turned into something else: offices, a banquet hall, a dance museum. Many are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One wing of the Roosevelt bathhouse still functions, operated by the Gideon Putnam Resort.
It was at the bathhouse that we signed up for a 40-minute soak, at a cost of $25. (The spa also offers a long list of therapies, massages and treatments.) The attendant, Jess, collected us and brought us along corridors with the original tiles to our rooms — each with a massage table and the original built-in tub. The water was a murky rust color, the room the size of a small bedroom in a Manhattan apartment. Jess assured me that she scrubbed the tub and refilled it for every customer.
Since Saratoga’s mineral water is cold, about half of the tub was filled with hot tap water (two tubs of heated pure mineral water were available but booked). A dim light filtered through the window. The reflection of water rippled on the tile wall as I slid in. Bubbles from the slightly carbonated water detonated daintily on the surface.
I couldn’t resist sipping the liquid. It was surprisingly sweet but also tangy. A fact sheet listed 16 substances in the water. The largest concentrations were of bicarbonate, chloride, sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Soon Jess had knocked on the door and left a towel and bathrobe outside. I don’t know if I was cured of anything, but a sense of calm filled my bones.
Later that day we met with Rebecca Mullins, a park naturalist, for a tour of some of the park’s 10 springs. (Tour schedules are available on the park’s Web site, saratogaspastatepark.org.) Some spouted upward, others poured out from fixtures. Each had its own taste, ranging from the State Seal spring, which was sweet like “melted snow,” in Ms. Mullins’s words, to the pungent Hayes Spring, a salty carbonated water.
At the State Seal people filled up gallon jugs to bring home. (There is no fee.) Ms. Mullins said some of the springs, particularly the Orenda, with its high iron content, attracted people who drank from it for health reasons. At the Hayes Spring four slightly guilty looking teenagers lingered around a carbon-dioxide exhaust valve near the spigot. Local lore has it that sucking in the vapor produces a buzz. The result, instead, is nothing more than a headache.
Along with the springs, pools and baths, one of our best water experiences came in the hotel, the otherwise mediocre Inn at Saratoga, which calls itself the oldest operating hotel in town (from 1843). I chose it because it had suites available for $200 a night, saving us the cost of booking two rooms.
Our suite had not only a whirlpool bath but also a steam shower. For our children they were worthy substitutes for the hot baths.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Rates are significantly higher during racing season in late summer.
The Adelphi Hotel (365 Broadway; 518-587-4688, adelphihotel.com) is the grande dame of Saratoga Springs.
The Saratoga Arms (497 Broadway; 518-584-1775, saratogaarms.com) has a terrific front porch.
WHERE TO EAT
Hattie’s Restaurant (45 Phila Street; 518-584-4790, hattiesrestaurant.com) serves dinner nightly, 5 to 10 p.m. Southern and Louisiana cooking since 1938. About $50 for two.
Ravenous (21 Phila Street; 518-581-0560, ravenouscrepes.com) serves brunch and dinner; crepes are around $11; closed Mondays.
WHAT TO DO
Other than taking the waters or going to the races, there is:
The Saratoga Automobile Museum (110 Avenue of the Pines; 518-587-1935, saratogaautomuseum.com), which has a fine permanent collection and periodic exhibits of vintage cars.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (108 Avenue of the Pines; box office, 518 587-3330; spac.org) is a summer home of New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra and also hosts jazz, pop and chamber music concerts and the Lake George Opera.
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