SARATOGA SPRINGS -- World changing history, mineral baths, polo, spas, horses, gambling, ballet and music -- all that and more beckon visitors to Saratoga Springs.
Saratoga is a Mohawk word meaning "place of swift waters." Some historians conjecture that American Indian tribes discovered the mineral springs running under swampland as early as the 14th century and made them a site of pilgrimage. They called them "smelly water."
Everyone from George Washington to Edgar Allen Poe has enjoyed Saratoga's naturally carbonated springs. Waters travel through shale and limestone-absorbing minerals to become the bubbling, salty and sometimes pungent water that made Saratoga famous.
Pick up a tasting tour brochure for the springs from the visitors center and sample the four springs in Congress Park. The waters are dispensed from public fountains reverentially positioned in Grecian-style pavilions. Locals and visitors alike line up with jugs to fill and take home.
It's also possible "to take the waters" by bathing in them at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa, one of the imposing buildings in the Saratoga Spa State Park, a national landmark. The waters in the baths have been in the news lately when it was revealed that the mineral waters were being mixed with regular tap water.
To me the waters seemed dark and decidedly mineral. The whole experience is an odd one -- soaking in a large, deep old-fashioned tub for 30 minutes. My male bath attendant explained the procedure to me and left large towels nearby before leaving the room. The bath probably should be followed by a massage to garner the full benefit from the experience.
It was a pleasant experience, though not quite up to the description in the spa literature: "Millions of tiny bubbles paint your body and begin their massaging action. As the bubbles burst, the natural carbon dioxide penetrates the pores of your skin, stimulating the blood flow."
The 2,000-acre state park offers a swimming pool complex, tennis courts, golf course, ice skating in winter, trails to walk and bike and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The center is the summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The gracious and elegant Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center is also in the park and the dining room offers fine dining in a classic setting.
Saratoga Springs still retains much of its earlier charm. It was the place where the fashionable came to take in the spa waters, try their luck at the casino and bet on their favorite horses. This was the favorite haunt of Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell. Although the roulette wheel doesn't spin here anymore, most everything else is still possible.
>Right on track
Start your day at Saratoga Springs with breakfast at the track, a long-time Saratoga tradition. It's served on the terrace overlooking the track between 7 and 9:30 each morning while jockeys exercise their mounts. This tradition began at the turn of the century when partying racehorse owners ended their all-night sprees with an eye-opener at the track before going home to bed.
Arrive early if you want a table down front with a good view of the track. An announcer keeps a running commentary -- identifying horses, trainers and jockeys and pointing out recent major winners or contenders in forthcoming stakes events.
The jockeys have been riding their mounts since 1863 when John Morrissey built the first thoroughbred race track called Horse Haven. Building the track was easy -- finding the horses was more difficult. The Civil War was raging and every healthy animal had been requisitioned for the war effort.
Somehow, he managed to find 26 beasts that could run. He had two days of races with two races each day. Encouraged by the event's popularity, he built a new track on the very spot where the Saratoga Racecourse now stands -- justifying Saratoga's claim as the oldest track in America.
When the thoroughbreds return, so does some of the elegance of the bygone era. The thoroughbred racing season is short and sweet in Saratoga. The month of August is devoted to the steed. The entire town focuses on one pastime, one sport -- and the town is transformed. The stables are suddenly alive from dawn to dusk. However, harness racing has a much longer run, from mid-January to late November with a short break in April.
The finest thoroughbreds in the country are here for the season, along with their fans -- including the rich and famous. The atmosphere at the track is somewhere between a country fair and garden party, with the grassy paddock, huge trees, flowerbeds and striped awnings complemented by open-air food vendors, musicians, families on outings, jockeys in their colored silks, horseplayers leaning on the paddock fence and elegant summer patrons sporting their straw hats and watching their horses circle the parade ring before the race.
The course is gorgeous with putting-green turf, trees and hedges. There is even a lake in the infield and a canoe that is painted in the colors of the latest Travers Stakes winner.
The Travers Stakes is the top race of the season and the oldest continuously run stakes race in the nation for 3-year-olds. However, the highlight of August at Saratoga is racing for 2-year-olds. These are talented novices from the very best stables who are held back in order to make their debuts before the knowledgeable holiday crowd at the Spa.
Some come to people-watch as much as to watch the horses. There is electricity in the air during the season.
Of course, prices skyrocket during the racing season, so if horses are not a priority, visit during the rest of the year for a calmer and less expensive trip.
The Saratoga National Historical Park is home to the Saratoga Battlefield, the site of a battle that was the turning point in the Revolutionary War. American schoolchildren learn of the surrender of General John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne to the colonists at Saratoga on Oct. 17, 1777. It was a vital and sweet victory for the colonists and certainly turned the course of history.
The best way to get the whole picture is to stop at the visitors center. There, you can pick up a battlefield brochure and see the 21-minute film "Checkmate on the Hudson." The small museum gives a feel for the human dimensions of 18th-century warfare. There are weapons, clay pipes and crude eating implements including a wooden bowl and a little camp stove. There's even a toothbrush owned by colonial soldiers.
The Friends of the Saratoga Battlefield developed a CD driving tour complete with authentic Revolutionary War music that offers an excellent guide to the nine-mile long battlefield. Pick up a CD in the visitors center or your hotel -- it adds a new dimension to the tour. The road is one-way so you can't change your mind and turn back, but you can always skip stops if you are in a hurry. There are audio tapes at most stops.
During my latest visit we counted 12 deer in the park; if you visit during the summer you will likely confront militiamen. Living history encampments are regularly scheduled at the Nielson Farm that American generals used as their headquarters. The farmhouse still stands.
One of the more popular sites is Number 7, the Breymann Redoubt. General Benedict Arnold sustained a leg injury here, just as Americans captured the position. The left boot monument immortalizes the incident. This is the only monument in the country dedicated to a piece of a hero. There's no name on the monument, a fact that reflects Arnold's later reputation as a traitor. Had he died here from his wounds, he would have gone down in history as one of America's finest generals and patriots.
The battles began on Sept. 19, 1777 and ended nearly a month later on Oct. 17 when Burgoyne, vastly outnumbered by the Americans, surrendered. By the terms of the Convention of Saratoga, Burgoyne's depleted army with some 6,000 men marched out of camp -- with the Honors of War -- and stacked its weapons along the west bank of the Hudson River.
The battles at Saratoga occurred at a time when Americans had begun to think their cause was hopeless. The victory restored American confidence and led France to openly assist the colonists in their fight for liberty.
>If you go
Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau: (518) 584-1531, www.discoversaratoga.org.
Saratoga National Historical Park, located at 648 Route 32, Stillwater (outside of Saratoga Springs): (518) 664-9821, www.nps.gov/sara.
There is a wide range of accommodations in Saratoga Springs. The Adirondack Inn, 230 West Ave., is a pleasant choice. Located about a mile from the state park, it allows dogs and provides transportation to the racetrack. Info: (518) 584-3510, www.adirondackinn.com.
Take the New York Thruway to Exit 34;
Continue on the Northway (Route 87 North) to Exits 13N, 14 or 15.