77 miles S of Buffalo; 142 miles SW of Rochester; 406 miles NW of New York City

Located on a beautiful, 18-mile-long lake in the southwestern corner of the state, the Chautauqua Institution attracts thousands every summer for a vacation like no other. For starters, there's the stunning setting: 750 acres of beautiful wooded grounds, dotted with Victorian mansions and pulled together with a red-brick walkway. In season (end of June to end of Aug), some 7,500 people are in residence daily -- attending classes, playing sports, enjoying a symphony, and taking in lectures on anything from Cuban politics to photographing for National Geographic.

Founded by Methodists in 1874, the institution was established as an experiment in vacation learning, offering courses of the Sunday school variety, but it quickly broadened its focus to encompass the realms of education, arts, recreation, and religion (the Institution's four pillars). Over the years it has evolved into an internationally respected forum for the free exchange of ideas -- including politics, literature, the arts, and science. Presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton have stayed here; the latter in the grand Athenaeum Hotel, and the former in a tent, despite the Miller cottage (the first permanent structure on the grounds) having been built specifically for his visit. And Chautauqua continues to expand: Most recently, the Institution added the Fletcher Music Hall and the Turney Sailing Center, thanks to philanthropic support.

With more than 2,000 events every season, your stay here can be as enriching as you'd like. Daily lectures, tied in with the theme of the week, are held in both the amphitheater and the hall of philanthropy, and are covered by your gate fee. Chamber music is performed every Monday -- you'll need to purchase tickets, so get in line early, as they sell out immediately. While the demographics at Chautauqua skew older, there is plenty here for kids as well, from day camp to music lessons. Opportunities for recreation -- including swimming, sailing, tennis, and golf -- are also plentiful.

Though the institution is non-denominational, there are houses of worship for several Christian congregations, and a Jewish life center. Shops and a refectory are open in season, as is the elegant restaurant at the Athenaeum. Once the summer has passed, there's little activity here outside the library and archive center.