If you’d like to step back in time and get away from it all, this summer is your chance as The Hotel Lenhart on Chautauqua Lake hosts two old-fashioned Victorian teas.
The hotel is celebrating its 137th year in operation. And while it’s truly no frills – as in no air conditioning and some guestrooms without private bathrooms – Bebe Johnston, who is fourth-generation owner with her brother, John Lenhart Johnston Jr., says repeat visitors flock to the destination every summer hoping that nothing at all has changed. It’s worth a visit to sit on the rocking chairs and enjoy a spectacular view of the lake, but make reservations quickly.
The hotel is open only 100 days a year from Memorial Day to Labor Day and it will host tea twice this summer so Johnston says now is the time to make a reservation.
Q: How did the tradition of serving Victorian tea come to be?
A: We started in 2005. It was our 125th anniversary so that’s when we started dressing Victorian as well and then we kept it going. People act like it’s Disney saying, "You look so cute."
Q: What should people know if they’re interested in the tea on July 20 or August 17?
A: It’s $27 and includes tax and tip. It takes a couple of hours to eat, hear the history and enjoy the walking tour of the hotel. We offer iced tea, lemonade and coffee too. Everybody gets three tea sandwiches, scones, gingerbread and sweets. Some people dress up in sundresses and hats.
Q: You serve the tea in beautiful china. Where did you get the collection?
A: All of the china is from my ancestors, from both sets of grandparents. The tea cups we’ve collected over the years from family.
Q: Do visitors ask about ghosts on the hotel tour?
A: Some ask about ghosts – usually kids – but the hotel is not haunted. We have friendly spirits. I’ll show them the kitchen and the old ice box and explain how my great grandparents would chip a piece off ice off of the lake.
Q: You try not to give into technology. But are there some changes you’ve had to make?
A: We just added an ATM because the nearby bank closed. (The hotel is cash only.) We added plumbing and electric in 1937. We used to have chamber pots in every room.
Q: How loyal are your visitors?
A: One family comes from Virginia and one comes from Texas every year for 18 years. We have 53 guest rooms – 37 with private bathrooms. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the clientele is repeat and they’ll make reservations for next year before they leave. Most visitors are from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo.
Q: You’re also known for repeat summer employees. How many are working here now?
A: We have 50 employees – all local. We’ve put people through high school and college. Lots of siblings work here. We had two people meet here and now they’re married with two kids. There are a lot of summer romances.
Q: How do people choose to celebrate their special events with you?
A: We host weddings usually in June or September in the offseason. We can have weddings on the front lawn. We host rehearsal dinners, showers and reunions.
Q: How does it feel to know that you are carrying on a tradition?
A: I love it. I’m a people person. My brother runs the bar, I run the front desk and my sister-in-law runs the dining room and kitchen. We’re not a (AAA) Five Diamond hotel, but our guests will say, "Please don’t change anything." It’s a step back in time.
*Read more about the nearby Chautauqua Institution: