Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
The Seneca Indians who named Chautauqua Lake were captivated by its beauty, tranquility, and nourishing connectivity with nature, and so settled here centuries ago. The founders of Chautauqua Institution also recognized the draw of the waterfront when they first built their Sunday school training camp on Chautauqua Lake.
Today, the lake is a playground for all forms of recreation, from boating and fishing to sailing and swimming, and the Institution uses its strategic position to fortify its recreational mission of relaxing intellectual engagement.
“The waterfront has always been an integral part of what attracts people to Chautauqua,” said Gary Snyder, director of the Sailing Department at the John R. Turney Sailing Center. “It offers many opportunities to practice what we consider recreational life skills, and the beauty of the lake, in a major way, makes the Institution grounds what they are: a venue with a distinct ambiance.”
An essential component to this ambient venue is the Institution’s four public beaches. University Beach, Pier Beach, Children’s Beach and Heinz Beach are key vertebrae in the backbone of Chautauqua recreation. A vacation at Chautauqua would be drastically different without these summer oases on the eastern face of the grounds.
Melissa Long, who grew up spending summers on the shores of Chautauqua Lake and started working at the Institution as a lifeguard 10 years ago, is very passionate about these aquatic amenities. As beach director, her passion is well channeled.
“The beaches are always the center of many people’s summers,” Long said. “We work hard to make sure they’re available for our patrons every day of the season — weather permitting. They’re always staffed, always safe, and always aesthetically pleasing. The pure fun and soothing tranquility that the beaches provide is something that makes the Institution so special.”
Open daily from noon until 5 p.m., University Beach offers seclusion and retreat from everyday stresses for students and other Chautauquans.
The most northern beach, University is located on North Lake Drive across from the President’s Cottage and is hidden from the road by a gentle slope.
A short walk from Bellinger Hall, Fletcher Music Hall, the School of Dance and the School of Art, this beach is a popular relaxation destination for students. The quiet, grassy beach is ideal for reading, sunbathing and pensive sea gazing. A long dock leads out to a deeper swimming area after a shallow wading section.
“If students are studying or in the middle of rehearsal, they can really take advantage of University for a break and some personal time,” Long said. “They can easily walk down from the schools, read a book, lay out, dip in the water and then get back to their studies.”
Long offered one word of caution, however: this section of the lake is riddled with rocks and mussel shells, so water shoes are a wise choice.
Located near Miller Bell Tower across from Miller Park, Pier Beach is a deeper swimming area that is open from 11 a.m until 6 p.m. The water level is about 5 feet deep from the beach’s concrete slab and drops to about 8 feet at the buoy line.
In the past, this area was reserved for steamboats to dock and drop off passengers. Today, it is reserved for recreation, although, the Chautauqua Belle routinely docks nearby.
“A lot of families will come down to this area on nice days,” Long said. “They drop all their stuff at Children’s Beach, where the kids can swim and play, and the older crowd can jump in at Pier.”
A relatively sandy swimming area, this beach is among the most crowded on the Institution grounds. Barbecues, craft shows, sports tournaments, religious services and other events are often taking place in Miller Park, the Sports Club, and Palestine Park, attracting a large number of Chautauquans to this picturesque social hub on a daily basis.
“There’s always something going on around Pier and Children’s Beaches,” Long said. “The deeper swimming area attracts a lot of college-aged kids, but mainly we see families ready for a picnic or some fun in the sun.”
Adjacent to Pier, Children’s Beach is also open from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and is traditionally the busiest beach of the bunch. Its shallow waters, sandy play area, and central location make it a family favorite for the entire season.
“I think people are really attracted to Miller Bell Tower, since it’s the face of the Institution,” Long said. “It’s also a straight walk down from Bestor Plaza, so it’s a very popular area for all Chautauquans.”
Children’s Beach’s relatively shallow depth makes it a sandy sanctuary for kids to splash around, play sharks and minnows, and make lifelong memories of carefree summers. Unlike the other beaches, children under 13 years old do not have to pass a swim test. However, Children’s Beach is staffed by two lifeguards instead of one because of the large crowds it attracts.
Located across from Heinz Fitness Center and the Youth Activities Center, Heinz Beach is the recreational nucleus of the Institution’s south side. Open daily from noon until 5 p.m., this area is a regular destination for Chautauquans in the Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
“Heinz Beach used to be the most popular beach on the grounds until a lot of the daily activity shifted toward Miller Park,” said Long. “It’s still a very accessible beach and very convenient for people who use [Heinz Fitness Center] or live in that area.”
Like all the beaches at the Institution, Heinz Beach provides a changing room and shower service.
The many docks at Heinz Beach are an idyllic locale for patrons to get their daily doses of vitamin D. Additionally, a sandbox and shallow end are perfect playgrounds for younger children.
Whatever demographic one associates with, Long stresses that the waterfront is for anyone and everyone — college students need not feel confined to University Beach.
“The waterfront, including the beaches, simply attracts people. I don’t think anyone at Chautauqua takes it for granted,” Snyder said. “There are Chautauquas all over the country with similar educational and religious themes. I don’t think they have anywhere near the draw we have here because they lack the recreational aspects of the waterfront.”
Synonymous with the waterfront, the beaches at Chautauqua Institution epitomize a vacationer’s paradise with an abundance of recreational opportunities.
“When people decide to come to Chautauqua, they don’t usually make that decision based on our beaches, but it’s one of the aspects of the grounds that brings them back,” Long said. “There’s something about the beaches that rekindles childhood memories and fosters new ones, contributing to the refreshing nature of this place.”