Long Drives/2010 Audi Q5
Whenever I heard somebody mention Saratoga Springs, it seemed like a place that was better in concept than in actuality. Getting out of New York City in the summer is always great, but fighting the traffic going to upstate New York? To go to a horse track in the middle of nowhere? Who needs that?
Me, it turns out.
From the relaxing, meandering, traffic-avoiding drive up Connecticut's Route 8 to the startling variety of non-chain local shops and restaurants to terrific golf at every price point, Saratoga Springs is one of those special Long Drives destinations that made me say on my way out of town, "I could live here."
That's quite a statement about a place that gets stuffed to the rafters for seven weeks every summer, during the horse-racing season at Saratoga Race Course. Think of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who pack the grandstands at the sprawling, 147-year-old track -- the oldest continuously operating sporting venue in the United States -- as providing the cash down payment that keeps the world-class restaurants here open the other 45 weeks a year. During the July 23-Sept. 6 season, the track runs 52 races worth a combined $11 million -- including the $1 million Travers Stakes on Saturday Aug. 28. A daily clubhouse ticket is $5, leaving plenty to blow on that boxed superfecta tip you will inevitably get from the guy at the bar.
We arrived two months before the season, in Audi's elegant Q5 mini-SUV. More of a station wagon on stilts than a truck, the Q5 is a spiritual successor to the cult favorite Audi Allroad, but at eight-tenths scale. The quattro all-wheel-drive system, extra ground clearance and all-season tires make the Q5 more assured in foul weather than most crossovers, and the first-rate interior finish quality in Audi's sedans certainly carries over. You're ensconced in standard-equipment leather and wood inlay even in the base model, which starts at $37,350.
The ride is strikingly similar to that of Audi's A4 sedan, but with a little less athleticism. Which one you pick depends on how easy you want your access to the back to be. The Q5 has an enormous dual-pane sliding-glass roof to light up the inside, and a rear hatch. With the back seats set up for people, there's about as much storage room as in a standard car trunk -- but entrance through all three rear doors is easier because of the Q5's height. The size penalty gets paid at the pump, though.
The A4's efficient, turbocharged 2.0 liter gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway. The Q5's 3.2 gets 23 and requires premium gas.
Speaking of premium gas, Saratoga Springs first became a summertime destination in the late 1800s, when cramped (and wealthy) Manhattanites discovered the purported healing benefits of the naturally sparkling water bubbling from the ground. Baths, luxury hotels and gambling houses sprung up in town -- which was an easy ferry trip up the Hudson River from New York City.
Thoroughbreds don't race up and down Broadway in Saratoga like they did before the track was built in the 1860s, but the town still oozes a unique blend of mixed 19th- and 20th-century charm, with its compact downtown bisected by alley-like side streets filled with restaurants and taverns.
Two of the best are a block from each other, in the Beekman Street Arts District. Hidden in an unassuming storefront, the Beekman Street Bistro features a menu of locally raised meat, fish and vegetables. Owner Tim Meaney is the chef and chief emissary, gliding from table to table after delivering grilled Berkshire porterhouse pork chops and house-made gnocchi with white truffle oil and Parmesan. Down the block, The Local Pub and Teahouse has a menu of reasonably priced Irish pub food -- the fries are fantastic -- and casual warmth in the room and the expansive beer menu make it the neighborhood watering hole of choice. The ceiling behind the bar is covered with hooks, on which hang regulars' personalized ceramic beer steins.
The starter at Saratoga National Golf Club won't hand you a sleeve of balls with your name on them, though by the turn you'll wish he had. Plotted around the wetlands on an old horse farm down the road from the track, it's an extreme test. The 590-yard 13th is a microcosm of the 18-hole experience -- water in play off the tee, water protecting three sides of the landing area and deep bunkers around the green. The price is steep: $185. But combined with a few beers and a Hot Brown (open-faced turkey, ham, bacon and cheese cooked under the broiler), it pushes all the buttons that need pushing.
If your long shot doesn't come in, all is not lost. Inside the state park south of town is the Saratoga Spa Golf Course. Built as a part of a Depression-era WPA public bath and bottling project, the Spa is a 7,141-yard, long-lost Bethpage cousin, and tops out at $42 during race season. I walked up and joined three locals playing afternoon hooky. They didn't know how to handicap a race, either.
Saratoga National is across town, near the venerated thoroughbred track.