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The Grand Tour

by Jo Page on September 7, 2012

Just having bought this new-old house—what I’ve come to think of as a piece of history—a real vacation was out of the question this summer. But I wanted some kind of journey to mark the end of the season and, being a fan of what I’ve heard is an essentially French take on travel, micro-tourism, New York, I knew that even a 24-hour getaway would feel both like time-travel as well as real-time travel if I went to Sharon Springs.

Sharon Springs has no rival in sheer demographic diversity, quirky history, bad-smelling water and amazing hospitality. Its history as a gentry-spa in the middle of the 19th-century is tame compared to the profile of its 20th-century clientele. Increasingly it was Eastern European Jews seeking the waters (and there are waters) who came to Sharon Springs.

After that there were the World War II survivors financed by German war reparations funds, followed by the Hassidim and now—I should say, just the other day—I saw a Russian-speaking trio, possibly staying at the house with the Soviet flag out front. They had doffed T-shirts, exposing ample chests and bellies, and unleashed their pit bull (kindly re-leashing him as I strolled hesitantly toward the sulphur spring) and partook.

Understand, I like funky water. A bottle of Badoit is a real treasure to me. Bring on the Hepar and Gerolsteiner. But this is funky, funky water. The sulphur stuff in the first spring hurt the fillings in my teeth. I strolled toward the magnesium spring. Less tooth pain. Probably good for what ails you, as my mother always said of prune juice.

Of course, both the elaborate bathhouses and inhalation rooms surrounding these two springs are all falling to ruins. As is a phenomenal Moorish-styled 200-room hotel, long-derelict, just across the street. Built in the 1920’s to cater to the needs of Orthodox Jews, it is currently owned by Korean investors who are apparently unaware of how many people have paid visits to the strange and ghostly rooms lining the hotel corridors, though the interior tells a story of vagrancy and off-the-beaten-track tourism which off-site landlords have not been able to quell.

But Sharon Springs is not all about abandoned buildings and eras long bygone. There are restaurants serving delicious, high-quality food, including the American Hotel, which is definitely worth the drive for both the food and the hospitality, and the Black Cat, whose friendly owner serves up a smashing curried chicken salad sandwich. There are bed-and-breakfasts tucked among the sleepy backstreets—I spent the night at the Edgefield Inn and enjoyed morning coffee and good conversation in the Edwardian-styled dining room.

The stars of Planet Green’s Fabulous Beekman Boys, Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, have recently signed on as one of 11 teams to participate in The Amazing Race. This is sure to bring more awareness of and business into town in the months to come. But I’m curious to see how they’ll manage the race as well as run their Sharon Springs goat farm, which is the subject of their realty show. And someone will have to work the counter at their high-end shop on Main Street. (I live just a little too far away to apply for the job!)

Before leaving town the next morning I drove, practically from muscle-memory, down a bunch of gorgeous back roads to the unmarked spring some local girls had shown me a few years ago. It’s just a gush of water out of a pipe on a hillside, but it’s water as sweet as any I’ve ever tasted.

As I pulled over to the side of the road to fill my jugs, a truck edged in behind me. And parked. I gamely took my bottles to the spring, hoping not to be mugged, raped or abducted by the Amish. On the way back from the spring, bottles filled, I approached the truck.

“Does this have a name?” I asked.

“No. But a friend of mine owns the property,” he said. What he really said was: “But a freynd of meyne owns the prop-pertee” in a thick Australian accent.

“It’s great-tasting water,” I said, trying to not let on that I was equally as stunned as relieved to discover an Australian as opposed to a kidnapper at the out-of-the-way and nameless spring. An Australian? Here?

“I guess we got auerselves a great blassing here with this spring,” he finished.

And I had to agree. Sharon Springs is a great blassing indeed.

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