Saratoga Springs, NY – This is one of the places where the American vacation was invented.
For more than 200 years, people have been coming to Saratoga Springs for their health. Soon after the Mohawks first led white settlers to the spots where strange-tasting water with healing powers bubbled up from deep within the earth, early entrepreneurs began buying up the springs and tapping them for profit. The first hotel opened in 1802, and by 1823 Saratoga Springs mineral water was being bottled and marketed across the country.
Mineral springs have been a form of medicine at least since Biblical times, and there’s more to it than myth and miracles. The water that bubbles up from Saratoga’s springs is highly carbonated and charged with sulfur, iron and other minerals. Soaking in such water can be good for some skin conditions, which were especially common in the 19th century, when most folks rarely bathed. Drinking carbonated mineral water can be good for some digestive problems.
The first pilgrims to Saratoga Springs were seriously ill, followed by those who were wealthy enough to travel to upstate New York for weeks or months of “treatment” for minor complaints. They sipped the famous waters and soaked in them, and had plenty of time leftover for other pursuits the growing village came to provide: fine dining and festive balls at the grand hotels, entertainment and drinks stronger than mineral water at clubs and casinos. In 1864, business leaders built what is now the oldest Thoroughbred race track in the country. Saratoga Springs became the fashionable place for people of great wealth and social status to be seen.
Eventually, modern medicine produced treatments for skin infections and acid reflux far less expensive and more effective than traveling hundreds of miles to bathe in smelly water. But Saratoga Springs remained popular for its other attractions: cool, clean air; lush scenery; arts and entertainment; golf and watersports; drinking, horse-racing and gambling. When business took a nosedive in the late 20th century, Saratogians discovered resources as valuable as sparkling waters: Their town’s history, architecture and distinctive character. Victorian buildings were lovingly restored, parks spruced up, investments made in public art and cultural events. The Roosevelt Baths are still in operation, part of a full-service spa for vacationers who want to pamper their body.
The secret of Saratoga Springs – and similar spots famous for “healing waters” – is that it’s not the water that makes visitors go home feeling healthier than when they arrived. It’s the vacation itself that revives us. Leaving the city, the job, the daily stress behind; getting exercise and fresh air, reconnecting with family and friends in a friendly, relaxed, scenic setting is a tonic for just about anyone. Researchers have found that people who take regular vacations are less likely to have heart attacks, less stressed and less depressed.
Americans still like to spend their vacation soaking – in a pool, hot tub, lake or the ocean – and sipping iced tea, cold beer or fancy cocktails. But the American vacation isn’t what it used to be.
Americans get fewer paid vacation days than workers in other developed countries, and most of us don’t take as many days as we’re entitled to. Project: Time Off, a travel industry-supported group, estimates Americans left 662 million vacation days on the table in 2016.
Between 2000 and 2014, Americans reduced their vacation time off by almost a week, from an average of 20.3 days a year to just 16, the group’s surveys show. The numbers have come up a bit since then, but we’re still taking fewer vacation days than our parents’ generation. That’s not healthy for workers, for companies – or for our children.
We work martyrs tell ourselves the office can’t survive without us, that there will be too much work waiting when we get back, that our bosses will consider us replaceable and less than dedicated to the job. In my experience, those are the kind of reservations that worry me the week before I leave for vacation, but make no sense once I’ve had a few days of sun, fun and family.
This vacation deprivation is something we Americans should talk about, preferably at the beach with a cold drink in our hands. We need to encourage our co-workers and ourselves to take the vacation we’ve earned.
This summer, give yourself a break. Drop a line in the water, a ball on the first tee. Get a little sunburned, a little bug-bitten. Get a little sand in your hair. Take a nap. Play with the kids. It’s good for your health.

— Rick Holmes can be reached at rick@rickholmes.net. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.