Enjoy the Chautauqua Experience
It is difficult to completely describe the Chautauqua Institution to people who haven’t been there, as Chautauqua is an experience and a way of life, not merely a vacation spot. The world renowned Chautauqua Institution, about ninety minutes south of Buffalo, is a 856 acre Victorian community that has been a mixture of performing arts, religion, recreation, and education since it was founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller and John Vincent as a summer learning experience for Sunday school teachers.
By design, Chautauqua offers a getaway from busy modern life. In some aspects, time has stood still in Chautauqua: vehicular traffic is limited, most people get around by walking or by bike, people enjoy a more relaxed pace of life, and children can play safely outdoors while enjoying waterfront and beach activities. The institution’s goal is to create an environment that puts leisure time to good use.
Many people who have never experienced Chautauqua have a mistaken image that the institution is an enclave for the wealthy that lacks diversity. That is not true; Chautauqua is actually very welcoming to people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds and it offers activities for all ages, from families with young children to senior citizens. Chautauqua actually offers several scholarships to limited income families to experience Chautauqua for the first time.
Besides the lectures and concerts, there are outdoor leisure activities including golf, tennis, sailing, swimming, shuffleboard, lawn bowling, and more, as well as cultural activities, like the Chautauqua Opera, the oldest continuous summer opera in America, and the Chautauqua Symphony, which has members from around the world. Special studies classes are offered as part of the institution’s commitment to lifelong learning. Courses are offered in a variety of subjects; including education, music, fitness, and health, just to name a few. In addition, there are day camp programs for young people, age pre-school through college.
Today, over 150,000 people from all over the world converge on Chautauqua during the nine week summer season. One can come for as little as a few hours or stay for the entire season. A gate fee, which allows admission to the various lectures and concerts, is charged daily during the summer, except on Sunday, when admission is free.
One of the most popular programs is the 10:45am lecture each weekday, which is held in the circa 1879 wooden-roof, open-air amphitheater, which hold up to 5,000 people. There is no other venue like this in the country. A less formal afternoon lecture, held in the Hall of Philosophy, is more religious oriented. Often a visitor’s first experience at Chautauqua is attending a single concert or lecture; after that, they usually want to experience more and end up coming back for a longer period of time.
Each week of the summer season is organized around a specific theme. For example, week three’s theme is American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances (In collaboration with the InternationalSpyMuseum), with an afternoon theme of Spies for God. Some of the speakers include Peter Earnest, Executive Director of the InternationalSpyMuseum, R. James Woolsey, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and Body of Lies author, David Ignatius.
Week nine’s theme, The Path to the Civil War, is a timely topic, with much interest in the Civil War this year, since it was 150 years ago that the Civil War began. This week is in collaboration with Colonial Williamsburg and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Distinguished speakers this week include Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of Politics and African American studies at PrincetonUniversity, and two Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Daniel Walker Howe and Gordon S. Wood. On a lighter note, the Beach Boys will be performing in the amphitheater on Friday August 26th and comedian Bill Cosby will take the stage on Saturday August 27th.
To experience Chautauqua fully, one should stay for several days or more. There are many different types of accommodations available, both on the grounds of the institution and in the surrounding communities.
Dominating the grounds of the institution is the “Grand Dame” of Chautauqua, the Athenaeum Hotel, which has been housing visitors since it opened in 1881. Listed on the National Historic Register, it is one of only a handful of wooden Victorian-era hotels that are still in use. Many notable guests have stayed in the hotel, including nine U.S. presidents. Prices start at as little as $200 night, with all meals included. www.athenaeum-hotel.com.
In addition to the Athenaeum, there are also hundreds of privately-owned accommodations on the grounds, including cottages, guest houses, small hotels, and apartments. There are also hotels and bed & breakfast inns a short drive away in nearby Mayville and other communities.
The Chautauqua Institution, One Ames Avenue, Chautauqua, NY 1-800-836-ARTS, www.ciweb.org
Other things to do near Chautauqua
Enjoy a ride on the Chautauqua Belle, a 98 foot long stern wheel steamboat which offers scenic excursions on Chautauqua Lake. (www.269belle.com) Shop at the Red Brick Farm (www.redbrickfarm.com), a collection of boutique shops or eat in one of the many area restaurants. Kids will enjoy MidwayState Park, an old-fashioned amusement park just across the Lake in Maple Springs. Established in 1898, it is one of the oldest continually operating amusement parks in the country. Events this summer in ChautauquaCounty include Art in the Woods, at JamestownAudubonNatureCenter (www.jamestownaudubon.wordpress.com) July 16-17 and two open-air art shows sponsored by the Chautauqua Craft Alliance on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution July 8-10 and August 12-14. (www.craftsalliance.com)
Lake Erie Wine Country
As you travel through ChautauquaCounty you’re bound to notice an abundance of vineyards because the soil and climate in this area are perfect for growing grapes. In fact, the area is actually one of the largest Concord grape producing areas in the country. This area stretches about 45 miles, from Silver Creek, NY to North East, PA. Sample some of the fruit of the vine by visiting some of the 23 wineries found in Lake Erie Wine Country, formerly known as the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail (www.lakeeriewinecountry.org ). America’s Grape Country Wine Festival takes place in Dunkirk on August 13-14, 2011. (www.agcwinefestival.com)