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Destination: New York

Camp Revivals : The welcome mat is out at some of the Adirondack Mountain retreats built by the country's richest families

June 09, 1996|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a freelance writer based in Quebec, Canada

RAQUETTE LAKE, N.Y. — It was the late 1800s and America's richest and most famous were experiencing an itch to "get away from it all." They looked from their city homes in New York City and Boston toward the great sprawling wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York state, where they began commissioning the more than 100 rustic but lavish summer retreats built in the Adirondacks between the Civil War and the Great Depression. The "Great Camps," as they are now more appropriately called, are situated in the most scenic spots on lake shores and in the mountains of Adirondack State Park, 6.5 million acres of wilderness including 46 peaks over 5,000 feet--the biggest park in the Lower 48.

These days, forest has grown tall above what remains of many of these elaborate summer homes. Though too many have disappeared altogether, a revival has started up and great camps are being restored--some as inns and hotels, most as private residences--as there's renewed interest in this chapter of American history.

About a four-hour drive from New York City, two hours from Albany, the Adirondacks are a well-known retreat from the city, and tales of the great camps are legend in the Northeast. What's less well known is that you can visit many of them, and actually stay in some, enjoying the lifestyle of a bygone era at prices that run the gamut from "affordable" to "probably not unless you have a Great Camp-style pocketbook." Although bookings are heavy in summer, especially for weekends, there are lodging reservations available midweek--and the Adirondacks are spectacular and less traveled in early fall. Great camps inns generally include meals with accommodations, but for day-trippers there are eateries in small Adirondack towns and a good selection of restaurants in the mountain hub city of Lake Placid.

The most accessible Great Camp for unrehearsed visits is Sagamore Lodge, now run as a nonprofit organization. In the early days of the century, it was the Vanderbilt family compound where Alfred Sr. and Margaret and their children would spend summers and Christmas holidays. Its 29 structures set on 1,500 acres of lakefront land deep in the forest still stand intact, including the exquisite main lodge, a grand log mansion fashioned after a Swiss music box.

While many great camps are private and open only a day or two a year for special occasions, Sagamore offers weekend retreats as well as courses year-round in outdoor education, Adirondack history and culture. Weekend courses, which can be anything from apple-basket weaving workshops to learning how to kayak, start at about $200 per person for the weekend, including accommodations in one of the main or outlying buildings, meals beginning with dinner on Friday night and all activities. When there is space available, guests who haven't signed up for a course are accommodated for overnight stays with meals at $112 per adult.

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"The Adirondack 'camps' were to the mountains what the 'cottages' of the ultra-wealthy were to Newport, Rhode Island," Beverly Bridger, director of Sagamore, explained as we stroll across the sprawling grounds. "Newport was how the Gilded Age went to the beach; the great camps were how they went to the mountains."

Bridger is taking me on a tour of Sagamore (the camp is known for its excellent tours at $5 per person). The main lodge served as a vast living room with luxurious bedrooms upstairs: some of the camp's 46 bedrooms, with 23 bathrooms, complete with hot and cold indoor plumbing, sewerage and electricity--unheard of then in most homes in major cities. Separate cottages functioned as extra bedrooms. When the children were 21 years old, each was given his or her own cottage on the lakefront.

The nearest neighbors were families whose camps also nestled deep in the wilderness, and they had names like Morgan, Rockefeller and Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Post cereal heiress. At Topridge, about an hour's drive north of Sagamore, near Lake Placid, Post made do with 85 servants for the 65 buildings of her camp, which was reached via a trip across Upper St. Regis Lake on a yacht, then a private funicular railway to the main lodge. Post passed away in 1973 and, although Topridge took in paying guests during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, it is no longer open to the public.

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