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Chautauqua rated the best small town to visit in the U.S.

While there’s something to be said for umbrella-drinks-on-the-beach vacations — and the mental break that comes with them — there are also getaways that expand your mind instead of emptying it. You can spend a week (or a whole summer) exploring some of life’s most important questions just 90 minutes south of Buffalo at The Chautauqua Institution, a 750-acre lake community and educational center where visitors enjoy open discussion and activities aimed at intellectual and moral self-improvement.

Originally the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, the Chautauqua Institution was founded by Methodists in 1874 as an escape from hectic city life and an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. It didn’t take long before it grew to include academia, music, art and physical education, all of which are still an integral part of the Chautauqua experience today.
Educational programs include the morning lecture series, the Institution’s signature program; the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, America’s oldest book club and the first distance-learning program; the Chautauqua Writers’ Center; and Special Studies programs that offer courses in everything from personal development and amateur astronomy to West African hand drumming and red wine appreciation.

Chautauqua also brings together professionals from around the world for cultural programs that include a symphony, ballet, theater and the oldest continuously producing summer opera company in the U.S.

Religion continues to play a major role at the Institution, whose Charter for Compassion calls for the treatment of all human beings with justice, equity and respect. Worship services and programs celebrate Chautauqua’s Christian heritage as well as interfaith commitment, with lectures that address issues of everyday life from a theological, ethical, moral, philosophical and religious perspective.

The benefits of enriching the body — in addition to the mind and spirit — are also recognized at this haven for enlightenment. There’s access to swimming, sailing, tennis, golf-learning centers, myriad youth activities and a sports club whose activities include kayaking, canoeing and lawn bowling.

And every body needs sustenance. Visitors can choose from contemporary cafés to church fellowship-style meals, or grab an ice cream or latte as they meander around the grounds. Other amenities include the refurbished movie theater, a farmers market, 400-seat Amphitheater and charming Victorian hotels, including the 1881 Athenaeum, which is listed on the National Historic Register.

Roughly 7,500 visitors (which have included former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) are in residence on any given day during the nine-week season that runs June 21-August 24. In addition, as many as 100,000 visitors attend scheduled public events, while over 8,000 students enroll in the arts-focused Chautauqua Summer Schools.

Recently, Smithsonian magazine was so impressed by the visitor experience at the Institution that they named Chautauqua the best small town to visit in the U.S. This third annual list, which singled out communities that offer “enrichments unbothered by the growl of our increasingly urban lives,” is certain to spur even more pilgrimages to the friendly confines of Chautauqua, which includes the village of Mayville.

Sundays are free at Chautauqua and include admission to the grounds and an afternoon show in the Amphitheater. For a full list of programs, classes and community events, visit Ciweb.org.

Destination: Mayville

While visiting the Chautauqua Institution, be sure to take in the quaint nearby village of Mayville. Complimentary trolley service departs on the half hour from Chautauqua’s Main Gate Welcome Center parking lot beginning at 9:30 a.m. and running until 10:30 p.m.

Things to do

On the water…

  • Chautauqua Belle: Honoring the original steamboats that once cruised the waters of Chautauqua Lake, it shuttles passengers to and from Chautauqua Institution. Three-hour concert series and themed cruises are also available, as is a fully stocked bar.
  • Chautauqua Marina: Get out on the lake with the marina’s new-model powerboat, pontoon boat, kayak, and fishing boat rentals. Or sign up for one of the many safe boating classes and youth fishing contests. Open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

On the links…

  • Webb’s Miniature Golf: State-of-the-art course boasts 18 challenging holes, complete with gorgeous landscaping. Enjoy Glow-in-the-Dark Golf every Saturday night from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. (July & August only).

On foot…

  • Chautauqua Rails to Trails: Dedicated to preserving abandoned rail corridors and converting them to safe off-road trails for recreation, this system provides public access through scenic woodlands, wetlands and flowering meadows.

On the menu…

  • Redline Drive-in: Waitresses skate to your car and deliver food on a tray while you listen to ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n roll music. Open spring through fall.
  • Stedman Corners Café: Fresh roasted coffee, muffins, cookies, scones, pancakes with local maple syrup, sizzling sausage, homemade granola, fresh fruit yogurt parfaits and more.
  • The Sweet Spot: Café specializes in delicious sandwiches and homemade soups while the bakery features decadent desserts like gourmet
cheesecake, cupcakes and cookies.

On the strip…

  • The Art Loft: Restored, early 1900s lumber mill houses over 100 local and national artists, showcasing pottery, jewelry, glass, fine art, sculpture, wood and wearable art. The gift shop is full of one-of-a-kind handmade items. Open Tuesday-Sunday.
  • Brick Village Gourmet: Offering all-natural, super premium products to please the most discriminating palate, Brick Village Gourmet has established a loyal following of “foodies.”
  • Home Chic: Funky entertaining, dining, decorating and living accessories ranging from repurposed vintage furniture and local artwork to platinum wine glasses and luxe bedding and bath.
  • Reno Pottery: Handmade porcelain dinnerware and one-of-a-kind pieces featuring whimsical zoomorphic designs of crabs, fish, dragonflies and chickens.
  • Webb’s Candy Factory & Gift Shop: Specializing in goat milk fudge, all candies are made using copper kettles, wooden paddles and marble slabs. Gift shop also carries goat milk skin care products. Factory tours Monday-Friday.

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