Category Archives: Historic Hotels

This Holiday Season Give the Gift that Transcends Borders and Time: Travel

Venice, Italy. Take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and holiday deals to give the gift of travel. Perillo Tours is offering $500 off per couple on all 2019 Italy escorted tours on Black Friday © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Many complain that the true spirit of the holidays have been corrupted by crass materialism. But there are ways to be less material and incorporate values – family values, social values, environmental values, global values – into your gift giving. Think travel.

The gift of travel is the gift of together, of time, of memory, of experience that is life-changing or life-enhancing, of new perspectives and new awareness – of self, of others, of our place in the world and time itself.

But it is also possible that we can use gift-giving to support or help sustain heritage, culture, environment.

Many of the great museums and institutions of the world offer some of the most interesting, innovative and creative items in their gift shops and you can support their endeavor by shopping online or through catalogs: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org), the Art Institute of Chicago (855-301-9612), Smithsonian (Smithsonianmag.com), the Nassau County Museum of Art, which usually have special items oriented around major exhibitions, and you wouldn’t believe the great Harry Potter items you can get at the New-York Historical Society, in conjunction with its “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit (www.nyhistory.org),  to list just a few.

The gift of travel can be invaluable to support important institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, through visitor fees, purchases at the store and online catalog, and purchasing memberships, some, like the Smithsonian Institution, even sponsor tours and magazines © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Zoos and aquariums and special attractions are fantastic to shop at, especially for kids: The Palm Beach Zoo (www.palmbeachzoo.org), for example, has eco-friendly items. There are also Adopt-an-Animal programs. The Bronx Zoo has similar programs and an online store (www.bronxzoostore.com). And you don’t have to visit the Kennedy Space Center, to get space-related items (www.thespaceshop.com), though visiting offers incomparable experiences.

Another gift idea is to purchase family memberships in these entities, which gives a sense of “ownership” and encourages multiple visits as well as giving access to benefits.

Just call or go online to your favorite museum, zoo, aquarium, preserve, historic site or attraction and you will likely find a store or various ways to support the organization with your gift.

You can give a donation that preserves the planet and good social purpose, often getting something material in the bargain. In recent years, I have “purchased” an acre for preservation and sent a furry animal and booklet to my niece and nephew through the Nature Conservancy (nature.org/gifts and there is an actual catalog); became a member of the Smithsonian Institution  and received not only a subscription to the outstanding Smithsonian Magazine for myself, but a free subscription/membership to give as a gift, not to mention the incredible journeys offered through the Smithsonian (www.smithsonianmag.com); enrolled my loved one as a member of the National Parks Conservation Association so they received a fleece blanket plus the NPCA magazine; made donations on behalf of my loved ones to National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service which earned gifts as well as membership benefits.  A gift membership to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, for example, gives access to online guides to bike trails and often some giveaway like a hat (www.railstotrails.org).

Hiking the John Muir Trail in Yosemite National Park. You can gift a donation to National Parks Conservation Association and also receive a fleece blanket plus the NPCA magazine in support of national parks; national parks are also supported by the Subaru Share the Love Event © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can give a gift that supports important organizations which protect destinations, historic or cultural sites, or the mission of exploration, like  National Wildlife Federation (my nieces enjoy their holiday subscriptions to Ranger Rick magazines I’ve gifted them for years, nwf.org). Also on my holiday list: Audubon Society(www.audubon.org), the Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org/store), the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org); and World Wildlife Fund (wwfus.org).

The Rainforest Trust has a completely new twist to raise funds during this season: a public auction for the naming rights to one of 12 species recently uncovered in South America https://auctions.freemansauction.com/auction-catalog/1618B).

Many worthy organizations are also supported by purchases: the National Park Foundation, which supports national parks, gets support from Subaru of America through its annual Subaru Share the Love Event, now through January 2; over the past decade, the event has raised over $7 million for national parks. Earthwatch Institute, which offers “civilians” the opportunity to join real scientific research expeditions (earthwatch.org) is supported by purchases made through AmazonSmile (https://smile.amazon.com). When you buy travel insurance through World Nomads, you can make microdonations to support local communities (the site also steers people to responsible travel, https://www.worldnomads.com/make-a-difference/responsible-travel/).

Consider these organizations for support on Giving Tuesday.

Trips That Make a Difference 

The very act of traveling benefits communities by spurring an economy that sustains culture, heritage, the environment, community, and forges a mutual understanding that can translate into foreign policy.

But for those who want to go even beyond to improve conditions for people, there is a category of travel, Voluntourism, that organizes travel to a destination to volunteer for good purpose – whether it is participating in scientific research, working to save a species from extinction or save the planet, or helping disadvantaged communities, or rebuilding after some disaster, as in Puerto Rico.

andBeyond has launched philanthropic-focused itineraries in TanzaniaKenya, and South Africa to give guests a first-hand look at its core ethos of caring for the land, wildlife, and people. The activities range from adopting an elephant at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya to participating in local school conservation lessons in Tanzania to visiting the Grootbos Green Futures College in Cape Town, an organization that provides educational training to unemployed young adults in the city (www.andBeyond.com)

andBeyond has launched philanthropic-focused itineraries in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa to give guests a first-hand look at its core ethos of caring for the land, wildlife, and people.

Earthwatch Expeditions enable you to join scientists in the field as they research urgent environmental issues, in places that would otherwise be closed to visitors. Expeditions address wildlife and ecosystems, climate change, archaeology and culture, and ocean health, for example, researching lions and their prey in Kenya, rewilding the Scottish Highlands and studying orcas in Iceland. (800-776-0188, 978-461-0081, www.earthwatch.org),

Habitat for Humanity’s Habitat for Humanity Global Village offers opportunities to help in disaster recovery or build or improve housing, schools, clinics, and other essential structures in 40 countries (www.habitat.org)

Sierra Club arranges around 90 affordable volunteer trips each year through its Sierra Club Volunteer Vacations to engage in hands-on conservation work like building and maintaining trails, removing invasive plants and assisting on archaeological digs. For example: park maintenance in Hells Canyon, Idaho (with transportation by jet-boat up the Snake River Canyon), forestry service at the New York Botanical Garden (a 50-acre urban old-growth forest) and native-bird habitat restoration on the Big Island of Hawaii (with hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park).

Adventure Life, a tour operator, incorporates voluntourism into some of its trips. For example, on its trip to Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano, travelers lend a hand with reforestation efforts, painting interpretive signs and performing trail maintenance; a trip to Costa Rica’s Pacuare Reserve for whitewater rafting also includes two nights with biologists for research at an important nesting ground for leatherback turtles; a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula enables travelers to take part in citizen science projects aboard the ship (www.adventure-life.com).

Village Experience expanded upon its fair-trade retail shop (which supports local craftsmen) to create an ambitious program that brings travelers into their villages, creating another stream of revenue (www.experiencethevillage.com).

WorldVentures Foundation offers 42 VolunTours in 12 countries — professionally planned and guided trips where volunteers spend time beautifying communities, building infrastructure and brightening the lives of local children – reported that its 2017 programs impacted the lives of more than 50,000 children around the globe with over 50,000 volunteer hours (worldventures.com).

Other entities offering voluntourism opportunities: Biosphere Expeditions (800-407-5761, www.biosphere-expeditions.org), Globeaware (www.globeaware.org/volunteer-vacations); Global Volunteers (https://globalvolunteers.org/volunteer-worldwide/),  Volunteer Guide (volunteerguide.org), American Hiking Society (americanhiking.org/volunteer-vacations); Projects Abroad (www.projects-abroad.org).

But don’t expect that because you are volunteering your services the trips are cheap, sometimes you pay for the privilege of doing good and your fees help support the mission.

There is a whole category of experiential trips that not only enrich and inspire and make the world a better place, but support important institutions like National Geographic, the Smithsonian (which also offer student and family programs); Outward Bound, Road Scholar, Sierra Club (sierraclub.org), just as examples.

National Geographic is offering up to $1000 off each child under 18 who travels with you on its family-friendly National Geographic-Lindblad expeditions to Alaska and Galapagos (booked by Dec. 31). Through the National Geographic Global Explorers Program, kids and teens learn to develop the skills and curiosity of an explorer while working alongside our certified field instructors -observing the behavior of blue-footed boobies, painting watercolors using glacier ice, or filling a field journal with wildlife sketches of all kinds (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/expeditions/). Traveling with National Geographic helps further the work of its scientists, explorers, and educators around the world (natgeo.com/giveback).

Also, National Trust for Historic Preservation (the organization is the umbrella for Historic Hotels of America, historichotels.org), offers Great Experiences & Tours, (nationaltrusttours.com). The National Trust has just introduced a new program to make history fun for families: Distinctive Destinations. From grand homes to artists’ studios to working farms, these places across America can add memorable moments to your off-the-beaten-path road trip, create new opportunities for your next vacation, or even be your new favorite gift shop (https://savingplaces.org/distinctive-destinations). They even have created an online list of holiday experiences at its collection of historic holiday sites. (https://savingplaces.org/collections/distinctive-destinations-historic-holidays).

Often, just showing up is a way of sustaining, revitalizing communities with tourism supplanting obsolete extractive and exploitive economic pursuits. Also, some travel companies donate a portion of their guest fees to local community, in addition to doing their best to purchase locally, hire locals, and help sustain communities. For example:

Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), which is part of Boston-based Grand Circle Corporation’s family of travel companies, supports the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation established in 1992 by owners Alan and Harriet Lewis to support communities in which Grand Circle works and travels, including some 300 humanitarian, cultural, and educational endeavors worldwide, among them, 100 schools in 50 countries.  The Foundation is an entity of the Lewis Family Foundation, which has pledged or donated more than $169 million since 1981 (www.oattravel.com).

Travelers who take Overseas Adventure Travel’s trips help its parent company’s Grand Circle Foundation support communities in which Grand Circle works and travels, including some 300 humanitarian, cultural, and educational endeavors worldwide.

World Bike Relief has partnered with tour operator Tourissimo to present a week-long mountain biking tour in the Apennine Mountains of Italy led by World Champion Rebecca Rusch. Funds raised through this trip will help empower students, healthcare workers, and entrepreneurs in rural Zambia and give them access to reliable transportation. Tourissimo is also donating two Buffalo bikes per rider. https://www.tourissimo.travel/appenninica2018.

There is a whole category of “sustainable travel” companies and projects that not only structure their travel programs with social responsibility in mind, but leverage the power of travel and tourism to improve the lives of people and their environment (see sustainabletravel.org).

Travel Gift Card, Registry Programs 

Black Friday, Cyber Monday kick off the holiday shopping season. But gifts don’t have to come in a box. You can also gift the experience of travel and all the life-enhancing, even life-changing benefits that travel affords, from creating the opportunities for family bonding, to enriched learning, to broadening perspectives and world-view, to laying the values for social consciousness by seeing other cultures and habitats.

Many travel entities – hotels and resorts, cruiselines, tour companies –  have gift card programs – spas (Spafinder.com), ski resorts, cruiselines. Some have registries.

Many of the grandest Historic Hotels of America members – each one distinct, and most often grand, historic and luxurious – offer gift cards – like Wentworth by the Sea, NH; Omni Grove Park Inn, Mission Inn & Spa (the list goes on and on) – just inquire. To see members, visit historichotels.org and its European counterpart, Historic Hotels of Europe,  www.historichotelsofeurope.com.

Great stocking stuffer: a gift card to a grand historic hotel, like famed Mohonk Mountain House in New York’s Hudson Valley © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The key here is that if there is a destination, a cruise, a resort you want to “gift” to your loved one, just ask if a program is available. Check on expiration dates and how the gift card can be used.

And how much better to let someone special know you care by gifting them the fulfillment of a fantasy? There are Fantasy Camps for just about every interest. For example: Broadway Fantasy Camp, geared to adults of all ages and levels of experience, immerses you in the world of performing and creating live theatre, working closely with theater pros – veteran stage directors, choreographers, and musical directors – who guide you through the process (www.broadwayfancamp.com, 212-713-0366). Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp, based in Las Vegas, offers a variety of music, as well as Songwriting Fantasy Camp and Vocalist camp (check their site for calendar and events, www.rockcamp.com, 888-762-2263).

And if you are struggling for that special gift for the hard-to-please teen, consider an Outward Bound expedition: Sailing on the rugged and beautiful Maine Coast; Sea kayaking through the Outer Banks; Dog sledding on the frozen Boundary Waters of Minnesota; Mountaineering in the Colorado Rockies, High Sierra or Pacific Northwest; and many more choices to fit students’ interests, schedules and locations. The company makes it easy to purchase a Gift Certificate (outwardbound.org, 866-828-1195).

The holidays are a great time to check off items from that bucket list.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday

The travel industry makes it easy: gift cards and certificates, some offer registries. Many have Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, holiday discounts and sales – just google sites to find them. This is the time to indulge that bucket list or fantasy.

Just a few to recommend:

For example, on Black FridayPerillo Tours, is offering $500 off per couple ($250 per person) on all 2019 Italy and Hawaii escorted tours.  The offer is valid on new bookings only for travel January 1 – December 31, 2019.  The 24-hour Black Friday sale is bookable online, via phone or email from 12:01am to 11:59 pm on November 23, 2018 (must use booking code: BlackFri18).

On Cyber Monday, November 26, the Divi & Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusives offering a discount of 50% off hotel stays between April 21 – December 22, 2019. Plus, one lucky winner who books the Cyber Monday deal will be selected to receive their stay free (www.diviaruba.com orwww.tamarijnaruba.com)

The historic Red Lion Hotel, famous for Norman Rockwell’s painting of Stockbridge, is one of the hotels, resorts and travel companies offering Cyber Monday specials © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Save up to 40% off bookings at the historic The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA. Rates for winter and spring travel start at $99 per night; summer dates start at $179 per night for bookings online on Monday, November 26 and can be booked online at: https://www.redlioninn.com/getaway-deals/.

At Porches Inn at MASS MoCA receive 25 percent off midweek stays (Sunday through Thursday) through Labor Day 2019. The offer is only available on Monday, November 26 and can be booked online at https://www.porches.com/berkshires-hotel-specials/

Glamping Hub, an online booking platform with 35,000 tree houses, tipis, yurts, safari tents, airstreams, cabins  – accommodations that are unique and secluded in nature – is participating in its first-ever Cyber Monday sale, adding 20% to each gift card purchased on Monday, Nov. 26. Visit https://glampinghub.com/.

Travel Related Gifts

Still wedded to the idea of a material gift? There are umptium possibilities for the travel-bound, especially where some special-interest or activity that requires special gear or equipment is involved like skiing, biking, hiking is involved.

Among our favorites: REI, www.rei.com/s/holiday-gifts-for-travelers, 800-426-4840); Eastern Mountain Sports, 888-463-6367, ems.com;  LL Bean, 888-610-2326, llbean.com; Sun & Ski, 866-786-3869, sunandski.com; Tennis Express, TennisExpress.com), Bass Pro Shops (www.basspro.com). And of course, luggage (I had a good experience with Luggageonline.com,  888-958-4424).

Cameras are big on the list for travelers, with size and functionality among the key criteria. Some of the new smaller cameras have almost as much functionality as the larger digital SLR, but are compact, light, easily carried and in most cases even have quality video. (For really important trips, good to have a DSLR as well as a smaller, versatile point-and-shoot.) Look for a wide-range digital zoom, ISO range, image stabilization, video capability, battery life, how fast the camera focuses and shoots and WiFi capability).

Criteria for a travel camera: small enough to wear around your neck, easy enough to shoot with one hand, sharp and fast enough to shoot while riding a bicycle, Venice to Istria. The Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS100 fits the bill © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

After consulting with experts at this year’s PhotoPlus Expo, I have a list of cameras for when I don’t want to pack my DSLR that fulfill my criteria – that is, what can I wear around my neck, shoot with one hand while riding a bicycle that gives excellent quality images, image stabilization, decent zoom lens, auto focus, is fast and responsive on/off/shoot, and is reasonably priced. Here’s my list Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS100 (which I use), Panasonic Lumix DMC AZ200, Canon G9X, Canon G7X, Sony RX100V.

Drones and GoPro-style cameras are also popular, as well as new accessories that enhance the photo capability of smartphones.

Consider getting your traveler a waterproof camera for those adventures into the rainforest, snorkeling, whitewater rafting and such; for the astrophotographer, the astronomer, the birder, the survivalist, the underwater photographer, the adrenalin junky.

Take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and holiday savings deals at major camera stores and online sellers like B&H, www.bandh.com, 212-465-4018, 877-865-9088 and Adorama, www.adorama.com, 800-223-2500.

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

3-Day Fall Getaway in the Catskills: Fairlawn Inn is Superb Hub for Exploring the Hudson River Valley

The historic Fairlawn Inn, Hunter, NY, looks out to the Catskill State Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School art movement, sailed up the Hudson River to the Catskills and was smitten by the landscape, by the natural world, by the respite from the bustle of New York City. And so convenient to reach, even then, coming by the new steamships which was the “thing to do”. He railed against the influx of “progress” even then, and the ravage of the axe that was already decimating the lush forest. It is remarkable that we have Cole and his student, Frederick Edwin Church who built his magnificent Olana on a hilltop with a view over this magnificent Hudson Valley, to thank for its preservation. The Catskills are magnificent any time of the year, but in fall, there is an explosion of color. And like an explosion, it is fleeting.

Less than three hours drive to Hunter, NY, from Long Island, is the Fairlawn Inn, a magnificent bed-and-breakfast inn with an incredible story to tell. It will be my hub to explore the Hudson River School Art Trail that offers some of my favorite hikes in the world. They trace the footsteps of the artists and you can see the very same scenes they painted.

On my way to the inn, I have already visited two of the sites on the trail – relished the view from Kaaterskill Clove, marveling how it still looks much as it did in Thomas Cole’s “The Clove, Catskills” (1827), and Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849) -even the tree just turning red for fall foliage seems the same as the scene in the painting – which you see from the parking lot for the hike up Kaaterskill Falls, then continuing on to take this stunning hike to the heights of the double falls. They are along Route 23A, the scenic byway you take from the Thruway to get to Fairlawn Inn, in Hunter, less than a dozen miles further.

View of Kaaterskill Clove with the Hudson River School Art Trail marker that lets you compare the scene today with the Cole and Durand paintings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During my all-too brief three-day getaway to the Catskills/Hudson River Valley, I spend two days hiking trails associated with the Hudson River School Art Trail in the Catskills State Park, just beginning to show their fall colors and imagining how the artists walked these trails before me, and one day re-discovering two historic jewels: Olana, Frederick Edwin Church’s exquisite mansion home and estate that has become one of New York State’s most visited historic houses (for good reason), and the Thomas Cole House Museum, devoted to the artist known as the “Father of the Hudson River School” which has been restored since my last visit with new ways of experiencing the museum that really give you a sense of the man.

The Fairlawn Inn is ideally situated, and so charming and comfortable, you immediately feel whatever city stress or physical exhaustion dissipate as soon as you cross the threshold – all of this the artistry and craftsmanship of the gracious host, Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko, who has anticipated everything to make his guests feel absolutely at home – even providing refrigerated drinks, ready snacks and fruit, a coffee maker and a refrigerator for guests to help themselves.

It is about 5:30 pm when I arrive at the Inn, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon. Set beside Hunter Mountain (the entrance to the popular ski resort is less than a half-mile away) and with views of the Catskill State Park from its wrap-around porch, the bed-and-breakfast inn is in a Victorian jewel originally built in 1840 and expanded in 1904 as the summer home of a wealthy Jewish philanthropist and real estate developer, Harry Fischel.

The charming dining room at the Fairlawn Inn where a made-to-order breakfast is served © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko, with 40 years in the fast-food industry, bought the bed-and-breakfast in 2002, and remodeled, redecorated, refitted, and refurnished with stunning antiques and period pieces and other amenities, exposed the gorgeous oak and maple floors and woodwork (hemlock, which was typical of the area because it was a byproduct of the tanning process the area was known for), created the stunning landscaping, added a patio, fire pit and waterfall, all with an eco-friendly eye.

Chuck claims to have the only historic home in North America that has earned a 4-key rating (on a 5-key scale) from Green Key Global, a Canada-based eco-tourism organization and was named Good Earthkeeper for 2013 and #1 Inn in New York for 2010 by New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association.

Indeed, it is quite remarkable for a 113-year old house to get that distinction– Chuck has used composting, solar tubes that bring in natural light to otherwise dark hallways,low-flow shower (yet still wonderful pressure); LED lighting throughout; the outdoor lanterns are solar-powered (from Ikea, no less; he has a plan to use them for Christmas lights).

One of the parlors at the Fairlawn Inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking around the inn, there are wonderful sitting areas outfitted with books, a parlor with a bar with snacks and a refrigerator with drinks as well as coffee maker to help yourself; a pool table in another parlor; a living-room area; outside a gorgeous, lushly landscaped patio with waterfall, solar-powered lanterns, a fire-pit.

I love to see Chuck’s clever innovations – how he made a wine rack out of crown moldings and planter hooks; a fire pit out of a coal bin; how he turns “shabby chic” into beautiful pieces of furniture.

Each of the guest rooms at the Fairlawn Inn bnb has its own theme and decoration © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are 5 rooms upstairs of the main house, each one differently configured and scrumptiously decorated, several with fireplaces. The Glenwood Room has a two-person Jacuzzi and a fireplace. Several rooms are “outside”, along a lovely porch with charming sitting areas, in that extension to the home that originally housed the Jewish scholars and served as an ice house. My room, the Spring Valley, was originally a mikvah (a ritual bath for a bride).

The rooms are each uniquely themed and decorated in period furniture (several have clawfoot bathtubs), but with modern amenities (private bathroom in each, free Wifi) and eco-friendly features like solar-tubes which bring in natural light. Several have gas-operated fireplaces; at least one has a two-person Jacuzzi bath.

The Fairlawn Inn, a Gold Eco-Rated Lodging and 2015 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence winner. is gorgeous, comfortable, wonderfully situated, excellent amenities, but the best asset is Chuck, himself, who is more than a gracious host.

Bed-and-breakfast inns really reflect the character of their structure and the personality of the innkeeper. The Fairlawn Inn is an expression of Chuck’s phenomenal sense of hospitality and his prodigious artistic talents – the interior design and decorative arts, antiquing, painting, landscaping, and culinary arts. He loves to cook.

Fairlawn Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko preparing breakfast © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Many bed-and-breakfast hosts love to show off their breakfast creations but Chuck goes beyond: he offers his guests a selection of four different made-to-order omelettes (I enjoy his feta cheese, spinach, kale and arugula omelette) plus a special item like pancakes (selection of fillings), fresh fruit and muffins (pumpkin spice), freshly brewed coffee, served in a gorgeous dining room (just the right size – not too big, not too small), with glorious sunlight flooding in from the windows.

Before we leave the table, he comes out with a bottle of water and snacks to take on our hikes.

Everything is so caring, so thoughtfully arranged, so meticulous – there is even a night light in bathroom and hooks. Little things that matter. There is a remote control for the fireplace which Chuck has decorated himself with antique tiles.

Wicker lounge chairs on the Fairlawn Inn porch make for a comfortable place to relax © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The porch has a delightful sitting area of wicker lounge chairs – even a blanket nearby – as well as tables if you should want to eat al fresco.

I am truly intrigued by Fischel’s story which Chuck relates as he gives me a tour of the inn and ask who built the house and why it is so enormous, with a huge two-story extension. Chuck explains that Fischel would house Jewish students in the summer; my room, Spring Valley, actually was a mikvah (a room used for a ritual bath for a bride).

The Spring Valley room at the Fairlawn Inn was used as a mikvah by the original owner, Harry Fischel, who built the Victorian home in 1904 © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chuck points to a thick biography of Fischel, written by his son-in-law, Rabbi Harry S. Goldstein. Fischel, I learn, was born in 1865 in a small, isolated  town of Meretz, Lithuania, to poor but pious parents (his father was a cabinet maker). Yisroel Aaron Fischel (later known as Harry) became an architect and a builder by the age of 19. At 20, he emigrated to America virtually penniless (“he had 60 cents in his pocket” Chuck tells me) and earned his first million in real estate at a young age (he pioneered building tenements in the Lower East Side on irregular-shaped lots, becoming the first successful Jewish developer on the Lower East Side). But even when he was earning just $10 a week, so his biography reads, he sent money home to help support his parents. “Fischel was one of the leading pioneers in the growth of American Judaism, in general, and in American Jewish Orthodoxy, in particular, particularly in the dynamic precedent-setting first half of the 20th Century,” the Wikipedia biography notes.

The Hunter Synagogue which Harry Fischel built across the street from his home, in 1914 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chuck notes that Fischel laid the cornerstone at Yeshiva University, built a high school for Jewish girls, and personally prevailed on President Taft to install a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911, so that Orthodox Jewish immigrants could have the opportunity to eat kosher food during a probation period (so they could be strong enough to pass the test to avoid deportation).

He also built the first modern Jewish theater in 1904 (exclusively for Yiddish productions).He was first Treasurer of the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War in 1914, a member of the Executive Committee of the Joint Distribution Committee in 1914; organizer of the Palestine Building Loan Association in 1921; built the home, office, yeshiva and synagogue for the Chief Rabbi of Palestine Abraham Isaac Kook at his own expense in 1923; established the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research in 1931 (which, after the creation of the country of Israel, trained, for many years, a large percentage of the judges who presided over the religious courts in the country); and established the Harry Fischel Foundation on January 4, 1932 (later renamed the Harry & Jane Fischel Foundation). He laid the cornerstone at Yeshiva University.

Harry Fischel’s summer home, now the Fairlawn Inn, and the Hunter Synagogue directly opposite, both built by Fischel more than a century ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fischel also built the first synagogue in Hunter, but it burnt down in 1914, so he built a new one across the street from his home – a charming Victorian from 1914 that is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still operating.

Fischel died in 1948, just before Israel became a nation.

The Fischel house remained in the family until 1993, when a couple bought what had become a decrepit structure and devoted 3 ½ years to restore and renovate it into a bed-and-breakfast, which opened in 1996.

Fischel’s great grandson, Aaron Reichel, has visited the inn twice, Chuck tells me.

It is interesting to see some of the relics of the past: built 1904 when electricity was considered “transitional” (they didn’t know if electricity would last), there are light fixtures that were made to accommodate both electricity and gas; fixtures pointed down (for electric) and up (for gas). Electricity was delivered but made gas on-site – capturing methane released from coal, but sometimes blew up.

The hemlock wood paneling that is so stunning especially in the dining room was actually a by-product of the tanning process that was the major industry in Tannersville and Prattsville.

The outdoor patio which Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko created is part of the lush landscaping at the Fairlawn Inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Fairlawn Inn is perfect for corporate retreat (with all the outdoor activities- from skiing to mountain biking that are so great for team-building); special interest groups, multi-generational getaways, destination wedding with expansive lawns for a tent (Chuck loves to cook and has accommodated weddings with up to 150 guests).

The inn is ideal for a hub-and-spoke itinerary for exploring and enjoying the amazing array of historic, heritage, cultural and outdoor attractions and Chuck offers lists of attractions walking distance and a short drive that fill out a three-day getaway but can also easily fill a longer itinerary. He also can put you on the path for antiquing, and the Hudson Valley Wine & Craft Beverage trail (TravelHudsonValley.com)

(And Chuck can steer you to every one, providing comprehensive lists, brochures, maps, print-outs, and his personal guidance and tips.)

Plenty of space: the architecture of the Fairlawn Inn, the summer home of Harry Fischel, was unusual because he used it to house students and today makes a great venue for corporate retreats, special interest groups, and family gatherings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hiking is a huge activity and for my second day at the inn, I go to the North-South Lake Campground from which there are many trails as well as a fantastic lake (people are actually swimming with the record high temperature for a fall day), and set out for one of my favorite hikes that takes me to more of the Hudson River School artists’ favorite spots: North-South Lake (site #6 on the Hudson River School Art Trail), Artist’s Rock and Sunset Rock (site #7 on the HRSAT); another trail goes to where the Catskill Mountain House stood (trail site #8).

Pre-Revolutionary chair, made in Philadelphia, may well have been used by George Washington; it is flanked by chairs that had been owned by Elizabeth Abell, who introduced Mary Todd to Abraham Lincoln © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For my third day, Chuck gives me a tour of the Hunter Antique Mall, housed in what used to be the Masonic Lodge, which he also owns, which offers a literal treasure trove of fabulous finds, with fascinating documentation and excellent pricing. He points out a pre-Revolutionary chair made in Philadelphia that easily could have accommodated George Washington, and a pair of chairs signed on the bottom for Elizabeth Abell, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who introduced Mary Todd to him. (It turns out that chuck is an absolute expert on antiquing, and can steer you to auctions and a “junking” trail where you can find treasures at garage-sale prices). He offers his patrons clever ideas: like turning a stack of vintage luggage into a sidetable that also affords cramped apartment-dwellers storage; and how you can make a bird feeder out of gorgeous blue-and-white China cup and saucer; and decorates otherwise bland furniture with a waxy-press-on craft.

Fairlawn Innkeeper Chuck Tomajko shows how he might make a bird feeder out of blue-and-white china cup and saucer © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

I then go on to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill (#1 on the Hudson River School Art Trail, www.thomascole.org) with a sensational guided tour as well as featured exhibit in the New Studio (this year’s exhibit is “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills”); the house usually closes at the end of October but this year has an extended season of November weekends; and then on to Olana State Historic Site (#2 on the HRSAT), in Hudson NY, which closes for the season on Oct. 28 (www.olana.org).

I prefer hiking to experience fall foliage, but those who prefer driving will find several scenic byways: Greene County’s two National Scenic Byways include a 21-mile route that descends from high country peaks to Durham Valley farmland.; along the way, you will find views that stretch across the Hudson River Valley to summits in four neighboring New England states. Then take an excursion along Mountain Clove, a byway that meanders through ravines, historic districts, and waterfalls. In fact, one of the best foliage views in New York State, Chuck notes, is just 2 miles from the Fairlawn Inn door, at the intersection of Rte 214 and 23A – which looks toward Bear Creek and some half-dozen mountains that form layers.

The intersection of Rte 214 and 23A, just two miles from the Fairlawn Inn, looking toward Bear Creek is ranked as one of the best foliage views in New York State © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

An Arts-Meets-Nature Driving/Exploration Route: The Kaaterskill Clove Experience provides a new self-guided discovery tour through the history of American art, and the primeval landscape that inspired it. Tailored, easy-to-follow itineraries provide a roadmap for families, adventure seekers and leisure travelers to experience the Kaaterskill Clove at your own pace, while enjoying everything that Greene County has to offer, from farm stands to charming cafes.

Other attractions include:

Sky Walkway over the Hudson River alongside the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

Antiquing (Tannersville and Catskill are the main villages, but Chuck can steer you to auctions and a “junking” trail where you can find treasures at garage-sale prices).

You can follow the Hudson Valley Wine and Craft Beverage trail (travelHudsonValley.com)

Bike (or walk) the 2.7-mile long Huckleberry Trail that follows the old Huckleberry Railroad track and is mostly under trees.

There is mountain biking and golf at Windham Mountain (another wonderful ski mountain just 8 miles up 23A).

Close by in Coxsackie is The Bronck House (in the same family for 400 years) and the quaint town of Hudson with its galleries, antiques, boutiques and restaurants, which is operated by the Greene County Historical Society (http://www.gchistory.org/).

The Fairlawn Inn is within 90 minutes of major attractions including Hyde Park (Franklin Roosevelt’s home and library), the Walk Over the Hudson, Hyde Park (FDR),Walk Over Hudson, Huguenot Village in New Paltz (a national historic site with costumed interpreters, www.huguenotstreet.org), Howe Caverns and Cooperstown (Baseball Hall of Fame). And it’s just 2 ½ hours from “the universe” of New York City.

The village of Hunter is accessible from Amtrak to Hudson, MTA to Poughkeepsie, where you can find Enterprise and other rental car agencies, car service and Uber.

The Fairlawn Inn, 7872 Main Street (Hwy 23A), Hunter, NY 12442, 518-263-5025, www.fairlawninn.com. (Children must be 10 or older.)

Really helpful sites to plan your getaway include www.greatnortherncatskills.com and its fall hub www.greatnortherncatskills.com/catskills-fall-foliage offered by the Greene County Tourism, 700 Rte 23B, Leeds, NY 12451, 800-355-CATS, 518-943-3223.

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Historic Inn at Saratoga Captures Sense of Place, Gracious Victorian Style

The Inn at Saratoga, Saratoga Springs’ oldest continuously operating hotel, dating from 1843, offers Victorian gracious style and a sense of place © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Saratoga Springs, one of America’s first tourist towns, has been drawing visitors since the 14th century when Native Americans discovered the mineral springs which still draw visitors today. But it is also where formal horse racing began, and over the years, has also developed an amazingly rich cultural menu of offerings, especially in summer, when its Performing Arts Center is home to the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. It is fitting that among its key attractions are the National Museum of Dance (who knew there was such a thing?) as well as the National Racing Museum (fascinating), historic racetrack, lively live-music venues, stunning boutiques (you know a top-notch town by its olive oil shop and haberdashery).

It doesn’t take long, as you walk among the giant painted horses and ballet shoes to recognize this unbelievably charming town is a combination of Louisville, Kentucky and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a touch of a spa-wellness destination thrown in. And totally enchanting.

But walking around and taking in the breathtaking Victorian architecture, you also realize that Saratoga Springs has had its ups-and-downs. Indeed, the celebrated historic Racetrack even closed down in 1896 because of financial hardship, and historic markers on Broadway point to whole historic streets that were torn down in the 1960s until a preservation movement took root.

This makes you appreciate all the more the work underway ($30 million worth) on the historic Adelphi Hotel, where the colorful Irish-born prize-fighter, horse-racing impresario, gambling entrepreneur , New York State Senator and Tammany Hall enforcer John Morrissey, a regular of the hotel, died in 1878.

You get to live Saratoga Springs’ history at the Inn at Saratoga, which has basically “seen” it all. Built around 1843, it is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Saratoga Springs, and its own history mirrors that of the village.

The Inn at Saratoga, which dates from 1843, puts you into the city’s story © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Anyone who appreciates as I do how a historic hotel is like a direct line to a place – putting you on the inside track rather than being an outsider merely passing through – seeks out historic hotels wherever possible. They have presence, and give you a sense of place.

These historic hotels immerse you into the collective memory and heritage of a place – like being inserted into the scene of the village as it might have been 150 years ago. They are so much more than brick and mortar – they have personality, character, even soul (not for nothing that many also harbor a ghost or two).

It is also about providing the gracious hospitality we associate with times past – the personal attention, the tranquil pace, a quiet calm.

So, coming to Saratoga Springs, I do what I always do when I plan a trip: seek out Historic Hotels of America website (historichotels.org, 800-678-8946), a membership program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation with nearly 290 historic hotels that have faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place and architectural integrity. I discover the Inn at Saratoga, which turns out to be the oldest continuously operating inn in Saratoga Springs, dating back to 1843.

Over the years, the inn’s fortunes have had its ups and downs along with the city (now decidedly up in its fortunes)  and, like the city and hospitality industry, has gone through many incarnations – a physician tapped Saratoga Springs’ legendary mineral waters for his patients and operated the inn as an early version of a spa hotel; a Cuban owner had a travel pipeline for visitors from Cuba; a rabbi catered to Jewish vacationers escaping New York City’s oppressive summers.

Fortunately, it is now in the loving hands of the Israel family, who acquired the inn in 2003, and who bring a deep appreciation for historic preservation and their role as stewards.

Indeed, when you experience such places, you cannot take their existence for granted – rather, they are to be celebrated as survivors against long odds – surviving wrecking balls, economic and natural disasters, and new owners’ predilections to go “modern.”

Owners of these historic properties take on their stewardship with a sense of obligation and humility, recognizing they are links in a chain, without which, these places will simply cease to exist.

The Israel family, who are active in Preservation Society for Saratoga Springs, has spent considerable resources removing the “modern” that previous owners had installed, and restoring the hotel’s period features and charm, while providing the amenities that guests crave today, including spacious bathrooms, in-room coffee maker, flat-screen TV, voicemail, dataports, complimentary wired and wireless high-speed Internet access and such.  As they say it is “the perfect marriage of past and present.”

Painting along three sides of the inn’s elevator depicts Saratoga Springs of 150 years ago © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I joke about the hotel having an elevator (which has an exquisite pastel painting of Saratoga Springs as it might have been 150 years ago that spreads across three sides) and the receptionist says, this place didn’t even have running water in 1843. But to install the elevator, Liz Israel, who has the role of General Manager, tells me, the previous owners removed a formal staircase.

The inn once had around 100 rooms, more than twice the number, 42 rooms and suites, as today – because traditional hostelries had tiny rooms with a washbasin and guests shared a bathroom.

Best of the past and present: four-poster bed and period furnishings create the atmosphere in the guest room at the Inn at Saratoga; modern amenities including spacious bathroom, TV and WiFi heighten the guest experience © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Big band music plays in the hallway as I make my way to my room (you can’t hear it when you are in the room) but you use a modern key-card to enter. It is pure pleasure to sink into a four-poster bed so high you need a step ladder, and of course a spacious modern bathroom. Each room is different and appointed with period furnishings.

Robert Israel, a tax attorney who first came to Saratoga Springs in the 1960s when it was in decline (and property was cheap) bought the hotel in 2003, has meticulously gone about acquiring period furnishings at auction – a stunning bookcase that adorns the dining room; wood paneling that as a young man in his 20s, he salvaged from a hotel in Newburgh that he kept for 40 years before finding just the right place, in the inn’s lobby; the side board we take our coffee cup from for breakfast came from the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. The walls are graced with stunning oil paintings (purchased at auction) as well as prints that Israel collected from the Grand Union Hall, which when it was built, was the largest in the world (it burned down). He acquired a shuttered railway ticket cottage which he reassembled and repurposed in the inn’s garden to serve as a bar for special events. The ballroom has an intricately “carved” fireplace which came  from a movie set. And the dining room has a specially made red velvet banquette that captures the Victorian ambiance perfectly.

Inn at Saratoga is justifiably proud of the full breakfast served buffet style in the tradition of a bed-and-breakfast inn © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One feature of the Inn at Saratoga is the complimentary full buffet breakfast that is included – a lavish affair that reminds you more of a bed-and-breakfast inn where the host seeks to really out do themselves with memorable meals. One breakfast consisted of delectable scrambled eggs seasoned with herbs, served on a fresh croissant, along with bacon, potatoes, selections of fresh fruit, cereals, bagels, pastries and muffins, perfectly delectable coffee, served on beautiful china.

Liz Israel was 18 years old when her father bought the property. She grew up waiting tables, handling the reception desk, and went on to get a degree in hospitality management in Ireland, where she worked at the Shelburne Hotel in Dublin before returning to the Inn at Saratoga with her Irish husband.

Liz takes me on a walking tour of the hotel, recognizing how much I appreciate the restoration.

Once an open porch, The Tavern bar has big picture windows that overlook the street bustle on Broadway, Saratoga Springs’ main street, and where there is live music five nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday.

The inn’s original lobby is repurposed for a dining and lounge space; the couch is an Israel family heirloom © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Primo’s Restaurant, where you enjoy breakfast and which serves dinner, is a Victorian confection. Liz says that they lifted up the carpet and removed a cement layer to expose the original hardwood floors.

There is a beautiful ballroom that opens to a garden where a tent has been erected for a wedding reception; there is also an old railroad ticket cottage that Israel acquired and repurposed for a bar.

The inn has a few vintage Roadmaster bikes available for guests’ use (two hours at a time). Guests also enjoy complimentary access to Victoria Swimming Pool located in Saratoga Spa State Park and the nearby YMCA. Complimentary parking in its on-site lot is a significant amenity as well. (The inn offers a spa package with the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa in the park.)

The Inn at Saratoga offers a gracious setting © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition to the hotel, there is a separate Brownell Cottage (which was purchased along with the hotel) which features four luxurious suites, accommodating up to four people depending on the suite. Beautifully appointed, the cottage offers an array of modern amenities: whirlpool tub, heated bathroom floors, steam shower with multi-head massage shower, authentic Franklin Stove fireplaces, cable TV, coffee/tea maker, speaker phones with data port, voice mail and in-room safes and free high-speed wireless Internet.

The Inn at Saratoga is an ideal venue for wedding or family function or meeting because of its scale, the charming ambiance, and facilities.

Inn Follows Fortunes of Saratoga Springs

I love the back story to the inn: it was built as a large boarding house in 1843 by Isaac Hall, a carpenter from New Hampshire, 11 years after the railroad provided easy access to Saratoga’s spa for tourists.

In 1846, Hall sold the property to Thomas Smith of Virginia, who turned over the management to Dr. Richard L. Allen, who, like other physicians of the time, operated boarding houses to treat “chronic cases” – an early version of a health spa. That lasted until 1853, when the property was sold to Hervey P. Hall (Dr. Allen remained in Saratoga Springs and published a popular guide for health seekers in Saratoga).

The hotel passed through three other owners until 1865 when it was acquired by Benjamin V. Frasier, brother-in-law of Thomas Marvin, the proprietor of the huge United States Hotel (largest hotel at the time). “The wealth created by the Civil War and the pent-up demand for pleasure created the greatest boom Saratoga had ever seen.”

It isn’t a coincidence that organized horse racing, brought by casino operator and future congressman, the prize-fighter John Morrissey, had begun in Saratoga Springs.

Frasier significantly expanded the hotel, building the three-story wing in 1866 and added a brick veneer, and re-named the hotel Everett House.

The historic Inn at Saratoga pays tribute to Saratoga Springs’ horse-racing tradition with one of the painted horses © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Frasier gave up the hotel in 1875 (the same year as the first Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky) and it was sold to Nathaniel Waterbury, a prominent Saratogan, who made improvements but quickly  went into foreclosure. The US was in the midst of a major economic Depression. The property was purchased at an 1878 sheriff’s sale by Thomas Marvin’s daughters, Mary Louise Sackett and Virginia Perry. By 1882, they had leased it to Primo M. Suarez, who catered to Cuban vacationers for 35 years; he rebuilt the front of the hotel in 1887 in the High Victorian style that was fashionable at the time.

After World War I, Saratoga’s old clientele was slipping away; and instead of two-week sojourns, auto touring was the newest fad. But there was a growing audience of Jewish New Yorkers who sought to escape the city’s summer heat and could afford a country retreat. In 1919, Nathaniel Heller took over Everett House and by the 1924 season, renamed it Hotel Brenner, operated by Rabbi Charles Brenner and his extended family. That continued until 1973 when the hotel was purchased by Dom Nardelli of Saratoga Springs who “updated” the facility and renamed it the Coachman Motor Inn.

That was a fairly dark time for Saratoga Springs, when many of its historic buildings were taken down. A historic preservation movement took hold in the 1980s, and when Nardelli put the hotel on the market in 1987, it was sold to four businessmen who sought to recreate the graciousness of a Victorian hotel.

In 2003, the hotel was acquired by the current owners, Robert Israel of Franklin Square Associates, a historic preservation professional who has sought to restore the hotel’s historic quality and enhance the guest experience.

Liz tells me her father uses the inn as an excuse to shadow auctions and indulge his passion for antiques.

The Inn at Saratoga offers several package options, including:

GirlFriends Getaway Package, featuring dinner, wine, mineral baths and massage treatments at the historic Roosevelt Baths & Spa in Saratoga Spring State Park.

(The Roosevelt Baths & Spa Saratoga Springs opened in 1935 largely because at the impetus of President Franklin Roosevelt who wanted to develop the mineral baths at Saratoga Springs as well as Warm Springs, Virginia. Today, the Roosevelt Baths & Spa offers 42 original treatment rooms and a complete menu of services, including mineral baths, massages, facials, scrubs and body wraps, and a full-service salon.)

The inn’s Victorian Romance Package features a deluxe guest room or suite accommodations, a rose, chilled bottle of Champagne delivered to the room, plus morning buffet breakfast and gourmet 3 course dinner for two at The Inn at Saratoga’s Restaurant. Upgrade to a suite for the ultimate experience, most Brownell Cottage suites have a whirlpool tub, heated bathroom floors, steam showers and a Franklin stove fireplace.

The Israel family also owns another boutique hotel, in St. Thomas in the Caribbean.

The Inn at Saratoga is near most of Saratoga Springs’ attractions, such as the National Museum of Dance and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is summer home to the New York City Ballet © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Centrally located, The Inn at Saratoga is conveniently near center of the village and its attractions including Congress Park, Skidmore College, Saratoga Performing Arts Center (summer home of the New York City Ballet), the famous Saratoga Thorough-bred Racetrack, the Saratoga Harness Track, the Saratoga National Museum of Dance, the National Museum of Racing, and the Saratoga Spa State Park.

On the Friday night that I am in town, I can choose from seeing the New York City Ballet, see a polo match or a live folk performance at Café Lina, among many other options.

Besides the nearby attractions of Saratoga Springs (see story), The Inn at Saratoga is well situated to year-round attractions, including Lake George (half hour); Gore Mountain (hour), and the Revolutionary War-era Saratoga National Historical Park (20 minutes).

The Inn at Saratoga, 231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, 518-583-1890, 800-274-3573, theinnatsaratoga.com. 

See next: Exploring Saratoga Springs 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Mansions on Fifth Historic Boutique Hotel in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Sends You Back to Gilded Age

The jaw-dropping grand Mansion on Fifth, in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood, home to Carnegie, Frick and other celebrated industrialists and bankers, now a boutique hotel where you get to feel as if you were transported back to the Gilded Age © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

I return to Pittsburgh when I come back to do my second Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage, a fantastic rail-trail that stretches across Western Pennsylvania, from Cumberland, Md. to Pittsburgh, this time a longer trip, 150 miles, that finishes on the Montour Trail (see stories).

I had been dazzled by Pittsburgh on my first visit a year ago, and the same is true this time. It is no wonder that this city, built on steel and coal, rejuvenated, revitalized, has been named one of America’s most liveable cities. What is best about it is how it retained the best of old and new.

This time, as luck would have it, I choose a historic hotel, Mansions on Fifth, that is in the Shadyside neighborhood, a short walk away from the Carnegie Museums and the Cathedral of Learning, so that my all-too-brief time in this glorious city is spent immersed in the city’s leading cultural attractions that I had not been able to visit a year ago.

Mansions on Fifth in Pittsburgh’s tony Shadyside neighborhood is the sort of place that when you pull up, your jaw drops. And for the brief time that you are here, you feel what it must have been like to be part of Pittsburgh’s upper-crust, the society of industrial titans. You know how historic places being “living history” places because of people? That’s what you feel like when you stay and inhabit these rooms, continuing the life and spirit of these structures that seem to have a life of their own and stories to tell. People come and go, after all, but these structures remain, albeit in the care of stewards who take on the responsibility. (Whenever I travel, I first check out Historic Hotels of America’s site, historichotels.org, to see if there is a member property because the experience is always extraordinary; for my last visit, I stayed at the Omni William Penn Hotel, an iconic property right downtown. Mansions on Fifth used to be an HHA member, prior to being acquired in 2016 by Priory Hospitality Group, Pittsburgh’s premier owner, operator and developer of independent hotels and event spaces. Among its other holdings, Priory Hospitality Group owns and operates the Priory Hotel and Grand Hall at the Priory on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.)

Indeed, Mansions on Fifth puts you right back into Pittsburgh’s history and its story:

“The late 1890’s and early 1900’s were in many ways Pittsburgh’s golden age, measured by prosperity and economic might, if not by a clean environment. Pittsburgh was a financial and industrial powerhouse as well as a center of river and rail transportation. In 1900, Pittsburgh produced more than half of the crucible steel in the nation, and by 1910, it was the eighth most populous city in the country.

“It was also a time where giants of the business world traversed Shadyside’s Fifth Avenue – ‘Millionaire’s Row’ – on a daily basis. Names such as Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse and Heinz were among the leading citizens of the day.”

This 20,000 sq. ft. mansion was built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick for himself, his wife Mary and their 10 children.

The main house of Mansions on Fifth, built in the early 1900s by Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

McCook was most famous for having represented Frick, but he was highly accomplished in his own right, the notes show.”A groundbreaker in modern day corporate law, McCook studied law at Columbia University following his graduation from Yale in 1873. He was also a pioneering athlete, serving as captain of Yale’s first football team and playing in the first intercollegiate football game in the nation. Later in life, he served as president and director of the Pittsburgh Steel Company, and was a partner in the law firm McCook & Jarrett. He died in 1923 at the age of 72.”

Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, which was also home to many of the city’s leading industrialists, innovators and bankers of the city, including George Westinghouse, Frick, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie and the rest of Pittsburgh’s exceptionally wealthy families of the era.

Here among the leafy green trees on a hilltop, it is easy to imagine how clean and cool the air in comparison to the choking atmosphere of the steel mills that shrouded the city below.

The Amberson House, built for McCook’s daughter, Bessie McCook Reed, next door to the main mansion. She lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. It is now part of the Mansions on Fifth historic hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As his mansion was being built, McCook’s daughter Bessie became engaged, so he contracted to build a more modest (but still spacious at 8,000 square feet) home adjacent to his own. The smaller mansion (now the Mansions on Fifth Hotel’s Amberson House) was completed first, and the main house (now called the Fifth Avenue House), was finished in 1906.

The two mansions were designed in the Elizabethan Revivalist and Tudor styles by the architectural firm Carpenter & Crocker, of Pittsburgh’s East End. Many of the firm’s other projects, which range from Florida to Washington state, exist today, including the iconic Trinity Cathedral Parish House in downtown Pittsburgh. The contractor on the McCook estate was Thomas Reilly, who also built the massive and magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral just down Fifth Avenue from the estate. Reilly also worked with Carpenter & Crocker on the Parish House at Trinity Cathedral.

“McCook and his designers and builders spared no expense, using some of the finest craftsmen of the era, including master ironworker Cyril Colnik (fixtures and decorative items), Rudy Brothers Art Glass (leaded and stained glass installations), and Rookwood Ceramic Tile (for the decorative tile around the fireplaces in the houses). The stunning carved wood in the Grand Hall of the Fifth Avenue House was produced by Woolaeger Manufacturing of Milwaukee. The total cost of the project was $300,000 in 1906 ($7.6 million in today’s dollars).

Light streams in to a wood-paneled lobby from stained glass windows on the staircase of the Mansion on Fifth to one of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After McCook died in, 1923, the family continued to live in the main mansion through the 1930’s. But the Great Depression took its toll and the family was unable to keep current with their property taxes. Seized for sheriff’s sale by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department, the mansion was purchased in 1949 by Emil Bonavita, Sr. and his wife Margaret for $28,000. The Bonavitas moved into the mansion with their two children, Emil, Jr. and Charles.

As a way to pay for upkeep for the massive building, the Bonavitas rented out rooms on the upper floors to students at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Students were thoroughly screened, and many of those attracted to the historic property were studying at CMU’s prominent arts and theater schools. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette architecture writer Patricia Lowry, tenants included Albert Brooks, Andy Warhol, Shirley Jones and George Peppard. Margaret, who acted as a house mother to the many students who resided at the home over the years, resided in the McCook mansion until her much mourned death in 2003.

Bessie McCook Reed, for whom the Amberson House was built in 1905, lived in the home from the time of her marriage until her passing in 1966. Three years later, Emil Bonavita, Jr. and his wife Marie acquired the Amberson House and moved in to raise their family of four children. Emil and Marie also assisted in the boarding operations at the larger Fifth Avenue House.

In 2004, the Fifth Avenue House, the main mansion, sustained a horrific fire which caused extensive damage to the upper floors. The building became uninhabitable, and its tenure as a home for students ended. Emil and Marie looked to sell the damaged mansion to a purchaser who would restore it.

Pittsburgh preservationists, husband and wife Mary Del Brady and Richard Pearson, acquired both houses of the former McCook estate from the Bonavitas for $1.5 million. Their idea was to redevelop the property into a boutique hotel and event center. Restoration and repair work, which was extensive given the fire damage, began in January 2010. The Fifth Avenue House, the primary mansion, was completed in early 2011 and opened to the public in March of that year with 13 guest rooms and suites, the grand hall event space, a library, the Oak Room pub, and two private dining rooms. The adjacent Amberson House, with 9 guest rooms and suites, opened in November 2012. Total cost of the project exceeded $8,000,000.

The properties were recognized as an historic landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.

New Era for Mansions on Fifth

In late September 2016, Pittsburgh-based boutique hotel owner/operator Priory Hospitality Group acquired the operating assets of the Mansions on Fifth Hotel and assumed operations of the Shadyside property. Owned and operated by the Graf family since 1986, the Priory Hospitality Group’s properties include the award winning Priory Hotel (a Tripadvisor Hall of Fame member), Grand Hall at the Priory event facility (Best Wedding Venue – City Paper 2016; Best of the Knot 2006-2016; Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant 2012 & 13), and Priory Fine Pastries commercial and retail bakery (Runner Up – Pittsburgh Magazine Best Bakery 2012 & 13).

Priory Hospitality Group invested considerably to upgrade the properties and amenities.

The Mansions on Fifth today offers 22 elegant guest rooms (each one different; you feel more like a family guest than an out-of-towner) in the two distinct historic buildings – the main 20,000 sq. ft. Fifth Avenue House and the adjacent 8,000 sq. ft. Amberson House. The Fifth Avenue House also has the hotel’s reception desk, dining room, Oak Room pub, chapel, library and wine cellar.

The Front Desk is staffed 24 hours a day to provide help with directions, restaurant recommendations, check in, , while butlers are available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day to assist.

My room is in the Amberson House, which for your all-too-brief stay makes you feel like you are really at home in a mansion. The Amberson House offers its own cozy and comfortable first floor common areas in addition to guest rooms. It would be perfect for a family or group to take over (indeed, during my stay, there is a large wedding party.)

One of the cozy sitting areas in front of a fireplace at Mansions on Fifth, a Gilded Age mansion converted to a boutique hotel © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can appreciate the renovations: each of the elegant guest rooms and suites features a spacious bathroom with glass and ceramic shower enclosures, Gilchrist and Soames organic bath and shower amenities, and soft, thick towels woven with bamboo fibers.

Some guest rooms and suites also feature fireplaces and jetted tubs. The spacious Presidential Suite has two separate bedrooms and baths and nearly 1,000 square feet of living space.

My room at Amberson House makes you feel more like a weekend guest of the McCook family rather than an out-of-towner © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In addition, the Mansions on Fifth Hotel offers a wide variety of amenities and services, including:  complimentary continental breakfast (with a more hearty ala carte breakfast available at an additional cost); complimentary newly upgraded Wireless Internet service; complimentary on premise parking (not a small matter in Pittsburgh); guest computer with WiFi access and printer; Fitness Center and The Oak Room pub, open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, featuring craft cocktails, fine wines, and a variety of microbrew beers.

The Oak Room pub also is the venue for a variety of weekly events, from wine flights, to whiskey tastings, to live music.

Mansions on Fifth is a delightful venue for weddings (there is one that had just finished when I arrive), family reunions and special events. You can basically take over the two mansion homes.

(I am also intrigued to visit the Priory Group’s historic, 42-room boutique hotel that was once a Benedictine monastery, built in 1888, meticulously restored to modern standards and featuring all the amenities of a large downtown property with the intimacy of a small European hotel, located in Deutschtown on the North Shore, a near walk to the Andy Warhol Museum and downtown Pittsburgh. The Priory Group spent $2.7 million to upgrade the property, adding a new, larger front desk and a cozy pub — the Monks’ Bar – in the original building, a Fitness Center and Business Center, as well as state of the art meeting space in a new wing.)

Mansions on Fifth, 5105 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, 412-381-5105, 800-465-9550, http://mansionsonfifth.com/.

For more information, contact Visit Pittsburgh, 412-281-7711, 800-359-0758, 877-LOVE PGH (568-3744), info@visitpittsburgh.comwww.visitpittsburgh.com.

Next:

Mansions on Fifth Historic Hotel is Steps Away from Pittsburgh’s Top Cultural Attractions

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s BikeTour on Great Allegheny Passage Highlights Benefits of RailTrails

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn Biketour on Great Allegheny Passage Showcases Forgotten Towns

‘World’s Largest’ Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar, Pennsylvania

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