New York’s edification vacation


The Chautauqua Institution began as an experiment in enlightened vacation learning for Sunday school teachers in want of educational, spiritual and recreational uplift.

Going to Chautauqua

Chautauqua Institution: For tickets and accommodations at the Chautauqua Institution, see Good audio-assistance devices are available. The final session starts Aug. 16.


The Heirloom Restaurant, newly opened this year at the Athenaeum Hotel, has a full ã la carte dinner menu from 5 to 9 p.m., as well as a lighter tapas-and-wine menu from 4:30 to 6 p.m.;; 716-357-4444.

Away from the few cafes in and around central Bestor Plaza, there is a semi-secret bargain to be had in the basement of Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church (; 716-357-4045) at the intersection of Pratt and Scott streets, where church ladies serve a solid $7 lunch between noon and 2 p.m. Each tray comes complete with cookie, lemonade or iced tea.

The New York Times

Before I turned left in Manhattan and drove some 420 miles to the Chautauqua Institution in the southwest corner of New York state, I asked a worldly and cultured New York City friend what she knew about the place.

“It’s in Westchester,” she advised me, “but I think it’s pronounced Chappaqua.”

She had much to learn, and so did I, about the Chautauqua Institution, 140 years old this year. It’s a place — far from Westchester — in which I spent a happy week last month, drawn to a hidden utopia that has, over the years, welcomed Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Founded in 1874 by the American Methodist grandees Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, the enterprise was first called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly. Miller and Vincent envisioned their enterprise, planted just west of Jamestown, New York, and east of Erie, Pennsylvania, as an experiment in enlightened vacation learning for Sunday school teachers in want of educational, spiritual and recreational uplift, with the bonus of a refreshing lake breeze up their Victorian skirts and trousers.

What first began with tent housing almost immediately evolved into a pretty maze of lakeside streets crammed with cottages and guesthouses festooned with porches built for the essentials of edifying outdoor living: conversation, dining and, above all, reading.

Late-19th-century pilgrims stepped from ferry boats on the southwest shore of Chautauqua Lake and proceeded right from the dock to Palestine Park, a topological scale model of the ancient Holy Land in all its hills, valleys and miniature Dead Sea. One could cover biblical territory of 350 feet in two minutes, even with stops to visit Nazareth and Gaza.

A tiny, enjoyably earnest and slightly mad educational bit of the whole leafy landscape, the park is walkable still, but over the decades, Chautauqua has expanded considerably, in scope and size, from its Sunday school roots. For nine weeks every summer, the 750-acre campus is a cheery, low-keyed welter of lectures, classes, concerts, theater, dance performances and art exhibitions.

Opportunities for spiritual uplift continue to figure prominently on the daily agenda, with services conducted every morning. But the extended denominational menu now includes Roman Catholic, Unitarian, Christian Science, Quaker, Jewish and Zen Buddhist gatherings, and Friday Muslim prayer. Then again, an early-rising Chautauquan might prefer a guided nature walk, a theology-free Scientific Circle presentation or an independent bike ride instead.

Each week’s programming centers on a Monday-to-Friday lecture theme. This year’s topics include “The Ethics of Privacy,” “The American West,” “Brazil: Rising Superpower” and a week with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The circadian rhythms are set by a 10:45 a.m. thematic lecture by a visiting so-and-so, and the evening’s 8 o’clock concert entertainment, both held in the 4,000-seat open-air amphitheater, with birds occasionally flapping from rafter to rafter

Between those pillars of the balanced life, a daily 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture by a roster of spiritual and educational leaders draws a faithful crowd to the classically designed open-air Hall of Philosophy, while concurrent flocks attend to swimming, sailing, golf, or tennis. Or a class in bridge or ceramics or how to use Twitter. Or summer-afternoon reading while rocking on a porch, always seductive. Napping is also big.

Thus, through a combination of lectures and visitor-friendly prayer, bird-watching and weather watching, the Chautauqua way of life has become a tradition, a constant of summer for those who love its rolling rhythms and sincerely unhip ways.

And as a result, those who love it tend to return year after year, generation after generation, booking for the next season even as they pack up after the week just past. More than 100,000 arrive over the summer. They are mostly a homogeneous population of white boomer-age campers or beyond.

They, I should say, is us. Me, anyway, after this graying boomer-age, Jewish New Yorker purchased her all-important weeklong gate pass ($436) and became a Chautauquan for the first week of the 2014 season, June 21-28 (the final week begins Aug. 16).

A week at Chautauqua is a microcosm of what we can make of our lives, if only we remember to slow down and pay attention.

Read more Travel stories from the Miami Herald

Camels being taken to a track for race training in Dubai, UAE. The small objects on some camel's backs are robot jockeys that are radio controlled. Camels are not strong enough to race with heavy weights.

    Dubai, most populous city in United Arab Emirates, speeds into the future

    Think Vegas without the sin, Disney without the mouse. Dubai, one of the seven Emirates (like a state) of the United Arab Emirates, is just a bit bigger than reality.

A flight over Holuhraun in Iceland shows lava flowing from a volcanic eruption.


    A flyover tour of an Icelandic volcano in action

    There is something so majestic yet simultaneously frightful in a volcanic eruption that someone viewing it just cannot look away. In Iceland now, people are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to experience this bucket-list thrill.

  • Travelwise

    How to navigate airline alliances so they don’t hinder your trip

    While the average traveler has only a vague awareness that their flying experience is changing, airlines are quickly aligning themselves into worldwide teams at a faster pace than any time since airline alliances were invented in 1997. They can’t buy each other due to international regulations, so they are doing the next best thing — becoming best buddies.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category