The Chautauqua Institution, a charming Victorian village on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State is the perfect place to get away from it all. It has served as a center for performing arts, education, religion and recreation for over 130 years.
Founded in 1874 by Lewis Miller and John Vincent as a learning experience for Sunday school teachers, it has hosted many notable speakers and guests over the years including Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Duke Ellington and Robert F. Kennedy. In addition, nine U.S. Presidents, from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton, have visited.
Today, over 150,000 people from all over the world flock to Chautauqua during its nine week summer season. Some people come just for a day while others stay for the entire summer. Visitors have many daily options, including worship services, lecturers, chamber music, opera, theatrical performances and other entertainment.
Each of the nine weeks has a specific theme. The morning lecture, held each day at 10:45 in the 5,000 seat amphitheater, features a distinguished speaker focusing on the topic of the week.
Some of the speakers scheduled this summer include Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the National Football League (Sports in America), Norman Ornstein, Co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project (Restoring legitimacy to our election system), and author and television commentator, Roger Rosenblatt (Writing week).
In addition to intellectual and artistic pursuits, visitors to Chautauqua can enjoy a number of recreational activities. The Chautauqua Golf Course, originally designed in 1913, has 36 holes and offers a rolling, wooded terrain. Nearing completion is a 25 acre golf practice and training facility that will include a 350-yard driving range, putting green and chipping green.
There are also a dozen tennis courts on the grounds; lessons are available. Visitors can also partake in shuffleboard and lawn bowling or even rent a boat. If you have children in tow, there is a day camp where they can enjoy a number of activities including art, music, swimming, sports, sailing and more.
Probably one of the more popular leisure activities at Chautauqua is bicycling, whether for pleasure or transportation. Since motor vehicle traffic is severely limited on the grounds during the summer months, bicycling is the way to get from place to place, as well as the best way to appreciate the well-maintained Victorian homes and beautiful gardens. For those who prefer more literary pursuits, there is a library and well-stocked book store.
Not merely a vacation
“Chautauqua is an experience and a way of life, not a vacation,” said Joan Harf of Erie, Pennsylvania, who has been spending the summer at Chautauqua with husband, Walt, for nearly 40 years. “We discovered it when our children were in their teens and now they come back with their children.” Walt added, “It’s a social experience. We share a lot of things with folks all day, including lectures, plays and opera, which we can discuss with them.”
Milt and Carol Peters of Findley, Ohio have been visiting Chautauqua since 1977. “I had heard about Chautauqua on a radio show and thought it was of interest,” said Milt. “We were planning a road trip to New Jersey and we were looking for a place to visit along the way,” said Carol. “I had learned about Chautauqua in my eighth grade history class and thought it would be interesting to stop there. We were so taken with the speakers that we decided to go back again.”
Both couples stated that there are an overwhelming number of choices of things to do. “There are so many good things to do,” exclaimed Joan. Carol added, “First time visitors can get exhausted and stressed out because there is so much to do.” She noted that some people come to relax and do very little, while other people take pleasure in racing from one activity to another. “You can be occupied from 7am to 11pm.”
Many lodging options
There are hundreds of small cottages, apartments, hotels and bed & breakfast inns available on or near the institutions grounds. However, the most well-known accommodation is the Athenaeum Hotel, a “Grand Dame” hotel. Built in 1881 by 90 men in 90 days, it is one of the few Victorian-era wooden hotels still in existence. It was the first hotel in the United States to have electric lights, courtesy of Thomas Edison, son-in-law of Chautauqua founder Lewis Miller.
The Peters, who generally visit for three weeks each summer, have stayed in a variety of accommodations; however, their choice for the past seven years has been the Athenaeum. “The Athenaeum is in the center of things,” said Milt. He added that it has easy access to the grounds and that it is on the institutions bus route, a plus for people who have trouble walking.
“The hotel is very quaint and we like to interact with the other guests,” said Carol. “In our early years we made friends with people who we still see to this day. In the dining room you have the opportunity to get acquainted with other guests from various backgrounds and hear their views on life.”
The 160 room hotel, which has been recently renovated, operates on the American Plan, which includes breakfast, lunch and a five course dinner. Room rates range from $199 (single) to $ 519 (double).
Not just for the summer
While the Chautauqua Institution is best known for its summer season, the grounds are open year-round. Many of the accommodations operate seasonally, although some are open year-round.
During February, the Stateline Horse Club will offer sleigh rides around the Chautauqua Institution grounds from 1-3pm each Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting. Tickets, which are sold at the Chautauqua bookstore, are $3 adults and $2 for children. For information call 716-357-2151.
In nearby Mayville, the annual Mayville ICE Festival takes place on President’s Day Weekend, February 15-17. If weather permits, volunteers will cut blocks of ice from Chautauqua Lake and construct an ice castle; the southernmost ice castle in the United States.
Info to Go
PO Box 28
Chautauqua, NY 14722
The Institution’s nine week summer season runs from late June to late August. A gate fee is charged to enter the village during the summer season, except for Sunday, when admission is free. Fees range from $8 for an afternoon to $325 for the entire week. Lodging reservations should be made several months in advance. Athenaeum Hotel 716-357-4444, 800-821-1881, www.athenaeum-hotel.com Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau at the main gate of the Chautauqua Institution 716-357-4569 www.tourchautauqua.com Open daily 9-5, year-round.