By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008
The skies were cloudy, the air a clammy 44 degrees. Packs of feral teens on skateboards scooted among shoppers and dog walkers while avoiding the ever-widening mud bogs in the garden beds along the main drag. Everywhere, you could hear water dripping as gray-tinged snow melted and springtime tried to make inroads in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
This, my waitress at the Olde Bryan Inn told me last weekend, was "one of the loveliest days we've had in some time."
In only a matter of weeks, no doubt, it'll be warmer, sunnier and greener -- and likely a bit more crowded. Still, it'll be nothing compared with the July stampede, when the fabled Saratoga Race Course begins its six-week season. Lodging will be scarce and expensive, lines at restaurants will be long, and if you want to visit one of the town's bazillion spas for some pampering, you'll have to book far in advance.
I'd rather not. I'm a big fan of horse racing and anything involving water, but I loathe crowds. Fortunately, I found over a two-day stay that you can pretty much do whatever you want -- and when you want to -- outside the confines of peak season.
Since the 19th century, travelers have descended on Saratoga, about 25 miles north of Albany, to take advantage of the town's springs, which are rich in minerals and naturally carbonated. (Whether the water actually has medicinal properties is debatable, but simply soaking in it sure feels good.) And the Race Course is the country's oldest thoroughbred track, operating since 1863. But Saratogians know better than to depend on equine-loving aquamaniacs for all of their income, so there are also abundant art galleries, boutiques, museums, golf courses, public gardens and parks, theaters and all manner of walking tours and plaques alerting passersby to whatever it is they're passing by.
There's no escaping the town's two star attractions, however. Renderings of horses are everywhere, including murals, tourist trinkets and life-size sculptures. I encountered a few of the latter during a self-guided tour of the springs, which I gave up on quickly: Though the springs are easy to spot (many are covered by ornate pavilions that match the area's Victorian vibe), I was diverted by the lure of the $4 happy-hour margaritas at the Circus Cafe, with decor that only a Ringling brother could love.
The tequila was actually a nice change from all those minerals I'd been absorbing. Eager to check out Saratoga's spas without incurring those pesky spa prices, I spent much of my visit hopping from one mineral bath to another. While massages, pedicures and hot-rock everything seem to be available in every storefront, surprisingly few spas offer the baths. I found three that offered the service for $16 to $25 each; they all exceeded the 30- to 40-minute treatment time advertised, and no experience was the same.
At the Medbery Inn in nearby Ballston Spa, about 10 minutes from downtown Saratoga, I entered a claustrophobic world of silk flowers and perfumed air that made me think Grandma was about to saunter in with a plate of cookies. An ebullient woman who seemed genuinely happy to see me greeted me with the promise that I'd feel "unbelievably refreshed" after my bath. She led me to a small room with an upholstered chair, lights on dimmers and a fiberglass tub filled with slightly sulfurous water the color of the Potomac after a big rain.
As I lounged in my candlelit cubbyhole -- nibbling on a strawberry, listening to piped-in Mozart and trying to ignore the chatter outside the door -- several thoughts popped into my head. Why don't I take more baths at home? Why don't I have more classical music on my iPod? And shouldn't I be eating more fruit?
The next day, wood floors and chintz gave way to a sea of glazed blocks, long hallways and dozens of treatment rooms at the Roosevelt Baths & Spa, built in 1935 and part of Saratoga Spa State Park. The bath attendant grumbled that he was working solo that day, then warned me that the porcelain tub I was about to get into was four inches deeper than the floor. Good to know. Within minutes, I was up to my chin in water and blissfully covered in bubbles, feeling like a cherry in a glass of ginger ale.
When the attendant returned 30 minutes later, cracked the door and dropped a heated towel onto a chair next to the tub, I cursed him for being so efficient.
The Crystal Spa, just outside the park, was another study in Victorian froufrou, with cherub statues, flowery wallpaper and a gargantuan chandelier that would be considered too ostentatious for Versailles. But the bath itself? Heaven. The spa's New Age music put me to sleep (ah, zither), and I couldn't hear a sound from the hallway. After I soaked for 25 minutes in a shallow porcelain tub, an attendant placed a heated sheet on the room's massage table and told me I had 10 more minutes to lie down and relax.
Relax? Any more relaxed and I'd be dead. She just about had to poke me with a stick to get me to leave.
Between baths, I stopped into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, a fun, interactive take on all things horsy. The visit didn't start promisingly; after telling me I had only 45 minutes before closing, the woman at the front desk looked disgusted when she handed over my ticket and I said in my best track voice, "Annnnnnnnnnd we're off . . ."
Turns out I didn't need much more than a half-hour to see the museum, but I can imagine true buffs spending hours looking at the exhibits, which include a life-size starting gate, a sculpture gallery, a salute to Triple Crown winners and the hall of fame itself. For $5, you can climb on top of a robotic horse and pretend you're a jockey; for free, you can leave your wife in the dust during a horse-racing video game.
Despite the chill, I could see the real thing later that night at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a separate track that features live harness racing -- and 1,700 slot machines. I bet conservatively, placing minimum wagers on favorites to show and playing penny slots.
True to form, I took a bath.