Growing up my parents used to always go to Saratoga Springs, New York, for their wedding anniversary. I remember it clearly because it was always my worst weekend of the year—really the only time my mom would leave me for a long period of time. Yes, I was a momma’s boy. It was also because I’m the youngest (by a lot) of four, so the moment my parents shut the door my “babysitting” siblings would miraculously turn into zombies and chase me around the house. I usually ended up in the dark, cold, damp basement until they finally snapped out of it. (It was just recently that I got over my fear of the dark, but that’s a whole other story).
Sadly, my mom passed away in year 2000 from cancer (here’s our tribute page to her). 2001 would’ve marked my parents 50th wedding anniversary and no doubt they would’ve celebrated it in Saratoga (after a surprise party we would’ve thrown).
My dad loves betting on the ponies and that was the big Saratoga attraction for him. I’m sure my mom’s was the relaxing atmosphere, historic hotel, quaint town, and making my dad happy. Since my dad hadn’t been in years, and has been feeling a tad depressed, I figured a trip to Saratoga might be exactly what the doctor would order.
I was excited to go because my dad was excited and I had never been. And just before I rented a car to get us up there from Connecticut, I told my buddy Mike our plans and with his wife and kids out of town, he said he wanted to join us. Even better.
So I flew to Connecticut (really JFK), and we drove up this past Saturday. Saratoga Springs is 160 miles from where I grew up in South Norwalk and 185 miles from New York City. There are multiple routes up there and since the app Waze told me the back roads were quicker (construction), that’s the way we took. It took longer but the scenery was amazing as you can see from the photo above.
Saratoga Springs, New York
Saratoga Springs became popular when a man named Gideon Putnam created a spa resort in the midst of upstate New York’s wilderness in 1795. He found that the area’s mineral water provided for rich natural resources, as local residents had known for centuries. The name Saratoga Springs comes from the Iroquois word Sarachtaque, which means “place of swift water.” The area really started taking off when Governor Franklin Roosevelt in 1929 appointed a commission to develop a health treatment facility there, and so began construction of Saratoga’s spa: “In tribute to the profound and lasting effect of his early efforts, the state funded the project in the 1930s to build the Saratoga Spa State Park including the Gideon Putnam Resort.” Here’s more on the history:
Gideon Putnam Hotel
Our first stop was the Gideon Putnam Hotel, where we checked in. It’s been open since 1935 and at first glance it reminded me of the Otesaga Hotel in nearby Cooperstown, NY (81 miles). Of course, it was opening weekend at the Saratoga Race Course (below), so the hotel was jam-packed—but they were kind enough to host us.
When we checked in, however, they said they didn’t have a room (#324) with two beds—just one with a queen. We all looked at each other, and said that wouldn’t work unless we could bring in two cots. The receptionist said that would work, we all breathed a heavy sigh of relief. It was no problem that night, but the next day we still moved into a room (#211) with two beds and a rollaway cot so it was much more spacious.
The hotel is no doubt beautiful and historic but the rooms are not five stars, as my dad made out to be the case. The big problems: the painting was sloppy, the A/C was loud (in the first room), the bedding was not that luxurious, and the toilets were severely scratched. Still, this is the place to be, as it’s where all the bigwigs stay—and overall, it was a really pleasant experience. You can’t beat the location (inside Saratoga Spa State Park), the staff was super friendly, the Wi-Fi was fast and free, there was free parking including valet, and they have a free shuttle (every 25 minutes or so) to and from town and the track (each two miles away). Rates in the high season start at $349/night. In the low season they start around $159.
No matter whether you stay at the Gideon Putnam or not, you at least want to experience their Roosevelt Spa. It’s a long walk (or short shuttle) from the hotel but it’s like stepping back in time as they have 42 original treatment rooms—so it’s authentic and historic. They do offer a complete modern menu of services, including mineral baths, massages, facials, scrubs, body wraps, and even a full-service salon. My dad and I each had a 75-minute Adirondack Stone Massage ($140 Monday-Thursday or $169 Friday-Sunday) and loved it! Here’s the full spa menu.
For breakfast the first morning we ate at Compton’s in Saratoga Springs since we needed a quick place eat before our spa treatments. My dad woke up late (10 am) so when reception told us breakfast ended at 10 am we jumped in the car and drove downtown. The cool valet recommend we eat at Compton’s for something quick or The Country Corner Café for something fancier. He was right about both. Compton’s iss the quickest place any of us had been to. From the time we put our order in to the time it was delivered, it was around three minutes, and the place was packed! It was cash only, but it was cheap. The bill came to $26 without tip.
When we returned to the hotel we found out they were serving Sunday brunch, which the receptionist failed to tell me. It was just as well, because we ended up saving some money, as brunch cost $29.99 per person.
FYI: Sunday brunch begins at 10:30 am.
The Country Corner Cafe
The following morning we tried the valet’s other recommendation, The Country Corner Café, just a block or two from Compton’s. The Country Corner Café looks like two separate restaurants (we noticed the other walking out), and we ate upstairs, which also houses their tiny country store. The story has items like homemade peanut butter for $12.99, Vermont maple syrup (Vermont is nearby) and old fashion butter fudge for $6.99 for a half pound or $11.99 for one pound. My dad is a sucker for deals, so he took them up on their “Buy one pound get a half pound free” option. Still eating it.
There were only four tables in front of us and we waited a good 45 minutes to sit (we were quoted 10-15 minutes). Service was super slow and not very friendly. They were obviously way understaffed and we all felt like we were annoying them when we asked for more water or coffee. The menu is diverse with plenty of options, including some unique items. I ordered the Sunrise Benedict ($9.25), which has two grilled potato pancakes stacked with poached eggs and topped with roasted red peppers and scallions and hollandaise. I was also tempted to try their fried oatmeal ($5.25) or PBJ Cristo ($6.25), but I would only go back during the slow season and if there wasn’t a wait.
Saratoga Race Course
The big thrill for my dad was going to the Saratoga Race Course. The historic track has been around since 1864, making it the third oldest in the US! It can hold 50,000 spectators and on Saturday, it had to be close to capacity. The track is only open for 40 days each year, and it’s always from the last week in July to Labor Day (here’s the calendar). The first race usually goes off at 12:30 pm, but since we got a late start from Connecticut we didn’t arrive until 4 pm and only caught the 8th-11th races. Four races was plenty for me as they go off every 25 minutes or so.
The entrance fee for general admission is $5 and most people are casually dressed. We had on shorts. But my dad didn’t enjoy it very much since he likes to be up high, so the following day we did it his way—which is the right way. We dressed up, bought Club House tickets ($8) and got a table at the Turf Club (advance reservations recommended). A table costs $10 per person plus $25 minimum on food and drink. Mike learned the hard way that jeans (and shorts) aren’t allowed, but the friendly receptionist told him to go down to guest services where they loaned out clean pants free of charge. All Mike had to do was leave his credit card as a deposit.
Jackets aren’t required, and it was hot and humid, so we took ours off once we were inside. The best view is from the third floor and you want to get as close to the finish line as possible. We moved our table for a better view toward the end of the day. The food in the turf club was good but they stop serving the hot stuff at 4 pm and the cold stuff around 4:30 pm.
Tip: If you don’t want to pay the high prices for food and drink at the track and you have general admission, you can bring your own cooler and stock it with beer cans or soft drinks. If you need water you can buy it from young entrepreneurs at the gate for $1.
Saratoga cabs are a rip-off
There’s no Uber in Saratoga and cabs there feel like a total rip-off—or at least the one we had did. When the hotel shuttle was taking too long (over 45 minutes), I asked a taxi driver how much it would be to go back to the hotel. The driver asked how many, and I told him three. He told me $15. I thought that was crazy for two miles, but it was hot and my dad was tired. Then the driver said he couldn’t take us because he was waiting on a couple. (There was a shortage of cabs at the end of the races). When it turned out the couple was going to our hotel he said we could go, too, which was nice. We made it back, but when we arrived, the driver said it was $5 per person, which I think is a rip. I understand that these guys make the bulk of their money during the high season but it just felt dirty. If Uber had been available, we wouldn’t have had to wait very long, the ride would’ve been much more comfortable and the price would’ve been under $5 (possibly $10 if there was a surge pricing).
As you can see we had a fun trip to Saratoga and after visiting I can see why my parents visited annually. It’s an easy drive from the northeast and it has everything they like, including major concerts (Brad Paisley was performing while we were there). I look forward to going again!