It's the granddaddy of all summer festivals

It's the granddaddy of all summer festivals

By Anne Mischakoff Heiles

In its 140th season, Chautauqua is America at its best. A place with riches to offer all generations and every member of the family, Chautauqua enjoys a shoreline in southwestern New York state along the 17-mile-long Lake Chautauqua.

For nine weeks, the venerable institution combines recreation, arts and entertainment, education, and a wide experience of worship opportunities, especially in the three Abrahamic religions. It is about as safe as anywhere in the world, at once a quiet glance back in time and a lively look to the future.

For a vacation refresher, try swimming at one of three beaches, playing tennis, renting a boat (or bringing your own sailboat) or getting together a game of golf.

And be sure to walk. Most people leave their cars in the ample parking lot upon arrival, walking instead along the shady lanes to see old Chautauqua homes dating from the 1880s and new Chautauqua condos and lavish lakeside dwellings. At daybreak and sunset, nothing beats a lakeside stroll.

Chautauquans sit on open porches and chat with family and friends, porches that are magnets as well for new friendships. With a good percentage of older people, the institution has become disability friendly; free tram and bus rides are available as well as (for a fee) motorized scooters.

The social hub is Bestor Plaza, a lively center where people gather to schmooze or read, teens to meet their peers, children to play Frisbee and all perhaps to get an ice cream cone. Well, there's no perhaps for my husband and me. Weather is cooler than in central Illinois, with pleasant evenings, but the summer sun does shine.

At the heart of the program are lectures, concerts and ballet in the 5,000-seat Amphitheater. Each week has its own theme: this summer has included "America, 1863," "Markets, Morals, and the Social Contract," "Diplomacy," "Turkey: Model for the Middle East?" For Week 6, the scheduled lecturers were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Garrison Keillor; for Week 7, Nicholas Burns, Robert Kagan, Victoria Nuland, Aaron David Miller and Dennis Ross.

National Geographic photographers and spy masters also have been lecturers, as have many writers, such as novelists Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow and poet Billy Collins. Workshops for aspiring writers are led by faculty coaches in poetry, fiction and nonfiction, with specific topics changing through the season.

Music abounds: concerts by the Chautauqua Symphony and the Festival Orchestra, chamber music, the resident opera and ballet companies, recitals by faculty and college-age students, and many pop events that draw standing-room-only crowds. Two art galleries change exhibits biweekly, a theater company has sold-out performances and an old-time movie house offers six films a week.

Children can participate in Boy's Club or Girl's Club activities, including swimming lessons and crafts. The Youth Activity Center and College Club provide informal group activities for teens. Two fitness centers have up-to-date exercise equipment. More than 300 special studies courses are given on subjects from computer to yoga, painting and sculpture, investing, digital cameras, juggling, and almost anything you might imagine, attracting about 10,000 lifelong learners over the summer.

Restaurants on the grounds are casual. Within 2 to 4 miles are an outstanding four-star French restaurant, La Fleur; a casual lakeside restaurant with a beautiful view, The Watermark; and Olives, an excellent bar and restaurant. On the other side of the lake, across a bridge with a great view, is the Italian Fisherman in Bemus Point, informal lakeside dining with large portions of good food, plentiful beer or iced tea, and, on Sunday afternoons, loud entertainment from a docked boat.

Accommodations on the Chautauqua grounds vary widely in price, weekly rentals from $125 for a room, $1,500 to $2,800 for a condo, to $5,000 for a large house. If you forgo central air conditioning, you can find substantially less-expensive rentals that are usually cool enough for good sleeping.

The Grand Dame is the Athenaeum Hotel, built in 1881, where candidate President Clinton stayed to prepare for his second-term presidential debate. Call 800-836-ARTS or visit for more information about the programs, tickets and accommodations.

Anne Mischakoff Heiles, an Urbana resident and violinist, violist and writer, has taught university students and youngsters in a long career before and after playing in the Detroit Symphony, several quartets and, yes, the Chautauqua Symphony.

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