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Buffalo Magazine
June 25, 2011

Chautauqua County Escape


            ChautauquaCounty is one of my favorite places to escape to when I need a break from the daily grind. Recreational activities along the county’s five lakes, numerous museums, some with special exhibits commemorating ChautauquaCounty’s bicentennial this year, and almost two dozen wineries are among the county’s offerings.

            Of course, a must-see is the world renowned Chautauqua Institution, a Victorian-era community that has been a center for performing arts, religion, education, and recreation since 1874. The institution’s nine week summer season (June 26-August 27) draws people from all over the world.

            One of these visitors’s is Edward Summer, Executive Director of the Buffalo International Film Festival. “I’ve been going to Chautauqua for half a century,” exclaimed Summer. “When I was young I would drive down with my parents and grandparents and spend the weekend.” Now as an adult he goes to see a particular speaker at the circa 1879 open-air amphitheater or just to spend a pleasant day. “It’s like a big park!”

            One of Summer’s favorite places is the veranda of the Athenaeum Hotel, a Victorian-era wooden hotel that has been welcoming guests since 1881. “Sitting outside on the porch and having lunch is a splendid thing to do!” He added, “What’s terrific about Chautauqua is that it’s a 19th Century place that survived into the 21st Century unscathed. One can step back in time to a kinder, gentler era.”

            Elaine Harrigan, Marketing Director for the KenanCenter in Lockport, has been to Chautauqua many times, but last year was the first time she stayed overnight. “Living on the grounds is a totally different experience. I really immersed myself in becoming a Chautauquan for a week; visiting the library to check out books, checking out the daily paper for what I would do that day, and stopping at the farmer’s market in the morning for fresh salad makings.”

            Harrigan stayed at the Carey Cottage Inn on the institution’s grounds, which she described as a blissful place to stay. “The silence of the grounds made for the most restful sleep I had in months.”

            She added, “There’s also something about a place that encourages and supports religious understanding and tolerance that brings one back to the soulfulness of life. Most vacations we spend running around emptying our pockets on nonsense that simply clutters our drawers, and we feel rushed and harried at the end of it. To go to a place where spirituality is embedded in every day life was invigorating and restorative.”


A variety of things to do

            Each week of the summer season is organized around a specific theme. For example, week three (July 10-16) has the theme American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances (In collaboration with the InternationalSpyMuseum). 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.

            The theme of week nine (August 21-27), The Path to the Civil War, is a timely topic, 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


Contemporary entertainment

            The Chautauqua Institution also features many of today’s popular performers, including Steve Martin (July 1), Clint Black (August 12), and Blood Sweat & Tears (August 19). The Beach Boys will perform on Friday August 26th and comedian Bill Cosby on Saturday August 27th. The Chautauqua Opera and the Chautauqua Symphony also perform throughout the summer season.


Activities for kids and families

            Besides lecturers and concerts, there are also many outdoor leisure activities to choose from, such as golf, tennis, swimming, and even a day camp program for young people. Chautauqua’s special studies program offers classes in music, fitness, and art, just to name a few.


Visiting Chautauqua in the off-season

            For the past 15 years Margo Sue Bittner has been going to Chautauqua with her temple for their annual Rosh Hashonah retreat in September. “Our main focus is the worship,” said Bittner. “We do our evening service, morning service, and Tashlich service, which is a ceremony where you literally cast out your sins by throwing breadcrumbs into a moving body of water; we do this near the lake.”


Many things to do outside the grounds

            As mentioned earlier, ChautauquaCounty is celebrating its bicentennial this year. Get a Bicentennial Passport for only $2 ( ) and visit 16 sites to experience area history.

            In nearby Mayville ride on the Chautauqua Belle, a 98 foot long stern wheel steamboat which offers scenic excursions on Chautauqua Lake ( or shop at the Red Brick Farm (, a collection of boutique shops.

            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.

            Bemus Point is one of my favorite Chautauqua Lake villages. Relax on the veranda of the Hotel Lenhart, enjoy the Bemus Bay Pops on the floating stage at the Italian Fisherman Restaurant, or ride the Bemus Point-Stow Ferry, also celebrating 200 years in 2011.


If you go

The Chautauqua Institution, One Ames Avenue, Chautauqua, NY 1-800-836-ARTS, A gate fee, which varies according to length of stay, is charged during the nine week summer season. Admission is free on Sundays.


Chautauqua County Visitor’s Bureau, 866-908-4569,



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 ( ). America’s Grape Country Wine Festival takes place in Dunkirk on August 13-14, 2011. (



Where to stay

There are many places to stay in Chautauqua County, including resort hotels, B&B inns, condos, cottages, and campgrounds. Below are just a few suggestions; for a compete list, visit or


Athenaeum Hotel, at the Chautauqua Institution 800-821-1881, Accommodations start at $200 a night, including meals.


Carey Cottage Inn, 9 Bowman Ave., Chautauqua, 716-357-2245,


Chautauqua Suites, 215 West Lake Road, Mayville, 716-269-7829,


Webb’s Lake Resort, 115 West Lake Road , Mayville, 716-753-2161,