You can't help but feel that a vacation to Saratoga Springs should be spent strictly at the racecourse wearing a boater , a seersucker suit and a pair of saddle shoes in late July. That's when the track opens for business for one of the best six-week seasons in the horse-racing world. The old wooden grandstand, the quaint carnival atmosphere of the surrounding grounds, laced with wooden picnic tables under the shade trees, conjures up a bygone era at the turn of the twentieth century.
But to stop only at the racetrack and then continue on your merry way would be to miss out on one of the great towns in America. Saratoga Springs, New York, should be on everyone's destination list—even when it's not racing season.
Start with the hotels. The Adelphi, sitting on the main drag, Broadway, is a throwback to the great Victorian hotels and retains all its Old World charm, while still being regularly renewed. Or check out the Gideon Putnam in the Saratoga Spa State Park, a completely intact Depression-era WPA project from the '30s, with old spas and massage rooms inside stately brick buildings that are spread around the grounds. Likewise, the Gideon Putnam has been refurbished, but not done over in an overtly modern way.
Great restaurants are plentiful too. Chez Sophie, which frankly lost some of its charm by moving from an old diner location south of town into a space at the modern Saratoga Hotel, has retained its standard for perfect food and service that is reminiscent of a Parisian bistro. Sperry's Restaurant is a typical downtown bar-food kind of place. And, if you can get in, try Ciro's, which is open only during racing season, and by all accounts, grosses more in those six weeks than many restaurants do in a year.
Walking down Broadway is another must. Start your morning at Mrs. London's bakery near the corner of Lake. I'll say it here: you can't find a better croissant or pain au chocolat this side of the Left Bank in Paris. Next seek out William Roach at the Putnam Market wine shop (putnamwine.com), who, more than any other New York retailer I know, takes advantage of the state law that allows in-store tastings. There are always two or three wines ready to be drunk, and Roach's hand is usually on the bottle pouring it for you with a complete history of why he loves the wine. During the evening and late-night hours, it's also worthwhile to stroll the backstreets in search of nightlife. On any given summer evening, you'll find half a dozen bars or nightclubs with live music.
The top-notch spas' massages and beauty treatments should also be part of the your itinerary. Try the Sanctuary Spa (sanctuarysaratoga.com) or Belisama Bodyworks, or check out the massages at the state park. Saratoga also has two great golf courses. Saratoga National is listed on Golf Digest's top 100 public courses, but my favorite remains the Saratoga Spa course, an old William Mitchell design that plays 7,141 yards from the tips and can challenge anyone despite its straightforward, simple layout.
Head off the New York State Thruway to this gem north of Albany, and you'll see what I mean. The racetrack opens July 25 and runs through September 3. Post time is 1 p.m.