Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017

Lake Placid Lodge.

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Diamonds in the rough

The Great Camps of the Adirondacks recall a bygone era of glamour and privilege in the wilderness

It has been almost half a century since Alfred Vanderbilt Jr. last sat in front of his cottage the shore of Sagamore Lake in upstate New York. He had come one last time to visit his family’s former summer “camp,” a lavish compound of 29 structures set on 607 hectares of waterfront, deep in the forests of the Adirondack Mountains.

Standing in front of Alfred’s Cottage today, I realize that it must have seemed to him that little had changed at Sagamore since his parents, Alfred Sr. and Margaret Vanderbilt used to entertain the likes of Lord Mountbatten, Gary Cooper and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek here. Most of the estate that was used by the family from the turn of the last century to the 1950s is still intact — the dining pavilion, the exquisite main lodge built of huge logs and fashioned after a Swiss music box, and the children’s individual cottages.

When America’s richest and most famous experienced the urge to “get away from it all” in the late 1800s, they looked north from New York City and Boston towards the wilderness of the Adirondacks in northern New York State. They then commissioned more than 100 “Great Camps” — as they’re now more appropriately called — between the Civil War and the Great Depression. The camps were set in the most scenic spots on lakeshores and mountains of what is now Adirondack State Park.

Vanderbilt style

At Great Camp Sagamore (not to be confused with the grand hotel of the same name on Lake George), Margaret Vanderbilt was renowned as “The Hostess of the Gaming Crowd” and the adventures of the Vanderbilts and their invited guests — there were 46 bedrooms — were reported in the gossip pages of The New York Times. Guests were offered a roll call of activities including skeet shooting and bowling at the camp’s fully covered two-lane bowling alley which still survives. The Vanderbilts used Sagamore until 1954 when Margaret donated it to Syracuse University.

These days the forests have grown tall above the remnants of many of those elaborate family resorts; others were altered to accommodate summer youth camps or retreats for universities and religious organisations. There has been a revival in interest in this period of American history and Great Camps are being restored, most as private residences, but some as inns and hotels.

Great Camp Sagamore (tel: 315-354-5311; sagamore.org; adults $299 per person for two nights; kids under 18, $149.50) (all prices in US dollars) is now run as a non-profit organisation whose mission is “ to put people back in the woods” and weekend retreats are offered in Great Camp style. You can also attend year-round courses in outdoor education and Adirondack history and culture. All weekend courses — which can cover anything from mountain music to learning to build rustic furniture — include lodging in one of the main or outlying buildings — including the cottages which were presented to the Vanderbilt children on their 21st birthdays.

Almost all camps are built of local materials — white cedar, red spruce and granite. The bark was often left on logs for its rustic look and outer walls were papered in sheets of durable bark that can last a century. Decorative twig and branch trim was used on balconies and railings. Classic Adirondack rustic design found its way into cottage construction across the country and even into the style of the present US National Parks buildings nationwide.

Antlers and twigs

A gem of a collection on the Great Camps era is presented at the Adirondack Museum (tel: 518-352-7311; adirondackmuseum.org; open May to October 14; $18) on Blue Mountain Lake, less than half an hour’s drive from Sagamore, where some of the interiors of the Camps have been reconstructed with chandeliers of intertwined deer antlers and chairs of bent saplings and some of the private rail cars used by Great Camp owners to reach their “cottages” are on display.

On a late spring afternoon at Raquette Lake — a 15-minute drive from Sagamore — I boarded the turn-of-the-century-styled WW Durant (tel: 315-354-5532; raquettelakenavigation.com; 90-minute cruise or two-hour Sunday brunch, $52; lunch cruise, $37; dinner, $55; reservations required for meals), a 20-metre double-decked vessel that cruises along the shoreline past the largest concentration of Great Camps in the Adirondacks. None of the camps are open to the public, but it was wonderful to see them emerge from the trees as we glided by on the two hour lunch cruise.

May to October Stott Camp was the retreat of magazine publisher Robert Collier and has a trophy lodge, boathouse and a gazebo teahouse on a small island connected to land by a 30-metre-long footbridge. The Carnegies were not far away with their complex of Swiss chalet-style buildings. One camp had its own casino. With its rare twin-towered main lodge, Echo Camp was built for a governor of Connecticut in 1883 and served for 40 years as a private girls’ camp in an exquisite series of roughhewn buildings decorated with arched logs on its porches and balconies. Now a private residence, twigs and branches still spell out “Echo Camp” on the railing of the main lodge.

Inn on the lake

The most common reincarnations of Great Camps are in the form of hotels and inns. The Hedges (tel: 518-352-7325; thehedges.com; open late May through October; doubles from $180), on Blue Mountain Lake was built by Hiriam B. Duryea, a Brigadier General of the US Reserves in 1880 and is now a cosy complex on the lakeshore with a main lodge, cottages and a boathouse. White Pine Lodge, built in 1907 was used by President Calvin Coolidge as the “Summer White House” in 1926; its lakefront cottages are now rented out by the week in summertime.

Lake Placid Lodge (tel: 877-523-2700; lakeplacidlodge.com; doubles from $700 including breakfast). Open year around, built by a German family in 1882, is a deluxe inn with 17 elegantly rustic guest cabins and 13 lodge suites with views and wood-burning fireplaces. It is the only hotel directly set on the lake and it allows guests to live in Great Camp style. Each room is filled with hand-crafted furnishings created by local artists and carpenters; despite the main lodge being almost completely destroyed by a 2005 fire, the complex re-opened in 2009 with the same atmosphere of rustic luxury as the original lakeside lodging.

Legendary The Point Resort (tel: 800-255-3530; thepointresort.com; doubles from $1450 double all inclusive; open year around) was the last — but definitely not the least — Great Camp to be constructed. On the shores of Upper Saranac Lake, there are no signs leading to this former Rockefeller hideaway nestled at the end of an obscure dirt road west of Lake Placid; directions are given with a confirmed reservation in one of their 11 suites.

Here, the grandeur of the Great Camp era has been maintained intact. Set in seclusion on a rugged granite peninsula jutting into the lake, this is the place to experience Great Camp life as it was in all its rustic luxury. Originally called Camp Wonundra, it was built for William Avery Rockefeller (a great nephew of John D.) in 1933. The nine buildings are now one of the most highly rated resorts in the US with prices to match. But then, in the heyday of the Great Camps, no one ever asked the price, as evidenced in the words of former Great Camp owner, J. P. Morgan: “If you have to ask the cost, you can’t afford it…”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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