Call of the Wild

The Point and Lake Placid Lodge offer a true Adirondack experience: rustic seclusion in high style.

A custom-made, 32-foot Victorian fantail launch, all mahogany and brass, is waiting with chilled Champagne at the head of Upper Saranac Lake when the guests arrive. Eight women board and lean back as Tim Thuell stewards them along the almost silent lake, finally pulling up to the boathouse of a private estate. The year is 2001, but it could easily be 60 years earlier. Thuell is the general manager of The Point, sometimes called the finest small hotel in the country, and he is about to induct them into a hidden world of old-fashioned Adirondack elegance.

Larger than the state of Massachusetts, Adirondack Park is the most magnificent, unspoiled wilderness tract in the Northeast, but for the sophisticated traveler it has long been hard to find a foothold there. When the park was established in northern New York in 1892, over half its land was in private hands (small towns, huge estates) and stayed that way, with development strictly controlled. What was left became state property deemed "forever wild." As a result, most hotels are clustered in the region's few tourist towns; worse, many suffer from a theme-park rendition of local style—too many antler chandeliers and Hudson's Bay blankets, too little personality. Until The Point and its sister property, Lake Placid Lodge, opened their doors, true luxury in the woods was hard to find.

But, having spent every summer of my life in the region's High Peaks, I wondered: Could these hotels really reflect the insider's Adirondacks? Undoubtedly they would be comfortable and stylish, but would they also have that elusive and intoxicating mix of seclusion, relaxed charm, rustic authenticity, and total immersion in the mountain landscape? It seemed unlikely.

Part of what gives the point its mystique is its legitimate place in the history of the Adirondacks. Ironically, the mountain wilderness we find so restorative and alluring today seemed savage and forbidding to distant generations, which explains why the area stayed undiscovered for centuries while the rest of the East Coast was being steadily built up. Then, in the late 1800s, an unusual set of circumstances coalesced, changing everything.

First, there was the money. At the turn of the century, there were more millionaires in Manhattan than in any other city in the country. Financiers and railroad magnates were pulling in $1 million or so a year and having trouble finding creative ways to spend it. Then there was the timing: High society had hit a wall. Newport was becoming too much like New York—the same people, the same fancy balls, the same gilt and marble everywhere. Society needed a new watering hole. But most important, there was the mind-set. As America industrialized, nature—once the enemy—became instead the Romantic ideal. These Gilded Age tycoons wanted estates on remote mountain lakes where they could hide out, fish, hunt, and, they imagined, learn the ways of the wild.

Thanks largely to an architect and developer named William West Durant, they found their answer: the Adirondacks. It had everything a sportsman could dream of and the available land was endless. What it didn't have was creature comforts, but that's where Durant came to the rescue, building a series of fantasy houses that were at once rustic and refined.

With typical upper-class understatement (à la Newport "cottages"), these vast properties, many encompassing dozens of buildings and thousands of acres, were called simply "camps." (Two dozen were later dubbed Great Camps by historians, to distinguish the finest examples of the new vernacular.) They were quickly snapped up as summer estates by Morgans, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Harrimans. The decadence was legendary: New York lawyer Edward Litchfield, for instance, stocked his 14,000-acre property with wild boar, elk, and moose.

With these over-the-top camps, Durant launched an imaginative architectural idiom reflecting America's new-found passion for the wilderness: Adirondack style. His most ingenious innovation was the way he incorporated the texture of the woods into the design through intricate twigwork detailing and materials deliberately left in their natural state: unpeeled cedar logs, rugged sheets of birch bark, rough granite boulders. Great Camps were a collaboration with, not a conquest of, nature.

The Point was the last of these Great Camps ever built: the end of the age of indulgence. Originally called Camp Wonundra, it was constructed between 1930 and 1933 by local architect William Distin as the year-round estate for William Rockefeller, great-nephew of John D. It is said that Distin first conceived of it as his own dream house, but could never afford to build it. One day Rockefeller, a recluse who liked to fish and enjoyed his drink, saw the plans on Distin's desk and said, "I want you to build that for me." The result is craftsmanship at the highest level, with no two rooms alike and every detail lovingly thought through.

The main lodge, one of a cluster of buildings, sets the tone of understated grandeur emblematic of Great Camp style. Although it is massive, the wings are set at an angle, so the structure is never overwhelming; it just keeps unfolding as you walk along. Rockefeller insisted that everything be kept as harmonious with the setting as possible; when he discovered that a particularly fine white pine stood where the terrace was supposed to go, he simply had Distin build the terrace around the tree. Similarly, the mottled blue slate roof and the log-cabin-style exterior walls of weathered pine trunks are barely distinguishable from the surrounding landscape. The house is set in a dramatic stand of 80-foot white and red pines; step back 20 feet in any direction and it seems to recede into the wilderness. In fall—perhaps the most beautiful season to be up north—even the driveway is so carpeted with pine needles that it looks like forest floor.

Inside, an octagonal entryway leads to the Great Hall, which evokes a turn-of-the-century hunting lodge: 18-foot hand-carved post-and-beam ceilings with wide-board wainscoting and a whole wall of paned windows with wrought-iron latches. The upholstery is reds and plaids, the walls covered with trophies (moose, elk, Indian water buffalo) and museum-quality paintings from the Hudson River school. Towering fireplaces of local boulders anchor each end.

Current owners David and Christie Garrett have obviously updated things, but so seamlessly that it's hard to pinpoint what's new. Everything feels like it might have belonged to Rockefeller—the sofa draped in real zebra skin, perhaps, or the well-worn Oriental rugs, or the Limoges china laid out for high tea. "Christie handpicked each pillow and piece of furniture," David Garrett says. "We tried to keep everything as original as possible. We don't want to disturb the heritage of The Point."

Not long ago, that heritage was not so assured. After Rockefeller died in 1964, the family held onto the property for a few years, then sold it to Steve Briggs, who sold it to Ted Carter, who tried to make the estate his home. Carter couldn't quite swing it financially, and turned the place into a glorified B&B in the early 1980s. Around that time, the Garretts came up for the weekend from Boston. As soon as they walked in, David, who was then in the investment business, turned to his wife and said, "This place is so extraordinary—let's buy it." She replied, "Well, with what money, and what will we do with it?" In 1986, when The Point came up for sale, the Garretts rounded up some investors and made their move. It was bold (some would say foolish): The Point had already failed as a moneymaker, was in the middle of nowhere, and was expensive to maintain. The kicker: Neither of the Garretts had a lick of experience in the hotel or restaurant business.

What the Garretts did have was great taste and a genuine love of the area. From the start they treated the place like their own home, which may explain its authentic feel. There's another reason, too: David Garrett is a real woodsman. In 1970, at 26, he paid $27 an acre for a few hundred acres of virgin Adirondack forest near Schroon Lake. The property was a four-mile hike from the road, but that didn't stop him from hauling in an axe, chain saw, mortar, and plenty to eat. "I lived in the forest for six months," Garrett says, "and built myself a log cabin." Who better to appreciate the ultimate log cabin, a Great Camp?

The Point is wonderfully intimate, warm, and personal. The tone is set by Tim Thuell, the irreplaceable general manager, whose casual charm, sense of humor, and gracious hospitality make The Point seem much more like a visit with old family friends than a stay at a hotel. Once the rustic cedar entrance gate swings shut behind you, nothing is off limits. You can wander into the kitchen anytime to see what's for dinner, or help yourself to chilled Pinot Blanc or single-malt scotch from either one of the two well-stocked bars. There are no numbers on the rooms and there's no need to ever lock your door; we left ours propped open all day. The room rate is all-inclusive and paid in advance, so there are never any meal chits or tips to think about. Instead you can concentrate on being pampered—which is easy, as there are 42 staff members and never more than 22 guests at a time (and no children or outside visitors). "We say 'yes' at The Point," Thuell likes to say. He's usually laughing when he says it, but it's true: If you dream up some way to improve your trip, he'll make it happen—even if it means driving to the head of the lake in the cocktail launch to pick you up.

By our second day there, the incredibly attentive yet unobtrusive wait staff remembered not just our names but what we liked in our picnic basket (smoked salmon and tenderloin). Other thoughtful touches: bottles of spring water stashed every mile or so on the hiking trail, a nosegay tied to our box lunch, a note on our door inviting us to cocktails. They even filled up our car with gas (unbidden) before we left.

Three years ago, Garrett hired Kevin McCarthy, a talented Culinary Institute of America graduate, and quickly promoted him to executive chef. The 28-year-old orders top-quality ingredients from around the country. Each morning he surveys his stash, and only then does he decide what to make. Seared duck, perhaps, with fresh chanterelles from Oregon, baby corn from California, and a natural jus. Or fresh Hawaiian escolar, a rich, flavorful white fish, in a ginger-lemon-grass sauce. "Honolulu has the best variety of seafood," McCarthy says, pursing his lips for a moment as he arranges roast potatoes on a lunch plate. "I can order unusual fish like nirogi, opah, and uku, which is the best snapper you will ever eat."

In the evenings the Great Hall is candlelit, with a fire crackling at one end. Guests dress for dinner, with the option to don black tie on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Everyone mingles for cocktails before convening at two large, round tables. As in a private house, the menu (five to eight courses, all with well-paired wines) is decided by the chef.

While some people (myself included) may dread the idea of having to make conversation with strangers over dinner, at The Point it's somehow different; the house-party atmosphere is convivial and quite unique. Both times I stayed there, the crowd was relaxed and fun and the dinners a real pleasure. Several people told me they had made lasting friendships there over the years. The guests tend to be low-key, older couples, mostly Americans, the type of people you might imagine would be drawn to a quiet mountain retreat. You can always order meals to your room, but few do; a good hedge is to sit by Thuell.

In the morning, you are awakened by a knock at your door and a tray of coffee and homemade pastries. In the Great Hall, shafts of sun blaze through the paned windows and the room is dominated by a view of the lake through the pines. The two tables are set for breakfast and the only sound is the clink of china in the kitchen. Guests filter in; by now they know each other's names, especially since most couples stay two or three nights.

The 11 bedrooms are scattered between the main lodge and the cottages nearby. Each is unique, but all have rustic furniture, a stone fireplace, a king-size goose-feather bed, and loads of personality. None has a phone or TV—a gutsy gesture for a hotel that charges over $1,500 a night, but one that is absolutely essential. It's quite easy to forget that the rest of the world exists, which is really the point. (There is a phone that connects you to the staff, should you need anything.)

The best rooms are the Boathouse—whose cult following is due largely to its huge balcony right over the water—and Weatherwatch, with its post-and-beam ceiling, canopy bed, picture window looking onto the lake, and secluded stone patio. But all of the rooms are divine: Evensong for its high ceilings and paned windows; Morningside for its dappled early light; Trappers for its charm and fabulous beadboard bathroom; and Sentinel and Lookout for their private balconies.

Even when all of the rooms are full (which they often are), it still feels like you have the grounds to yourself. Much of the time you do, as guests tend to spend their days sequestered on terraces, wandering the woods, or exploring the lake in electric boats. The Point's ten-acre main property is linked to another 62 private acres cut with trails. A stone pathway winds from the main lodge down to the boathouse and the point. And somehow things are precisely where you'd want them: Round a corner, and a hammock is tucked away by the shore. Climb a hill and there's a lean-to filled with kilim cushions and blankets, with an already-set fire just waiting for a match.

The point itself, a rocky outcrop over the lake, has been left completely natural, with two Adirondack chairs perched on the end. Sitting there one morning, I found myself transfixed by a boat tootling along, unfurling two shimmering ribbons of water behind it. As the wind shifted, I could hear the murmur of fishermen and the click of a reel, then silence. To the south, a distant boathouse roof blinked silver in the light; the lake reflected foothills ruffled with birch and pine. Water licked the shore below, and the air was thick with the earthy fragrance of pine needles and blueberry bushes hot in the sun. As the breeze cleared everything from my mind, I realized that I had spent the last several minutes lazily watching a bumblebee negotiate the air currents. "There's something so calming about being here," Garrett said to me later. "It's indefinable but so unique."

Not long after opening, The Point gained a strong word-of-mouth momentum; soon it was booked consistently, with more than a quarter repeat customers. "We kept having to turn people away," says Garrett. "And there really wasn't anywhere to send them, so we decided to find another Adirondack property that would have the same sensibility." Before long they discovered another serene setting on the shores of Lake Placid, about 35 minutes south of The Point.

"We originally intended it to be less expensive and family-oriented," Garrett says. "But then we realized, what are we going to do—put in cheap sheets? No, we're going to put in the best sheets, the same as the ones at The Point. And the same goose-feather beds, and big stone fireplaces in every room. So it very rapidly evolved into a higher-end property." They opened Lake Placid Lodge in 1994; three years later it became the second (and last) Adirondack property to be selected for Relais & Châteaux. (The Point is, of course, the other.) Garrett is now president of Relais & Châteaux North America.

Lake Placid Lodge is not nearly as flawless as The Point, but it is a good complement to it; in fact, many regulars swear by both places. For one thing, it's bigger (17 guestrooms and 17 lakeside cabins), so there's less privacy and seclusion, but more schedule flexibility. There are phones and CD players in the rooms, although still no TVs. And it's newer; part of the main building is originally from the 1800s, but a lot of the property was torn down and rebuilt by Peter Torrance in traditional Adirondack style. The choice suite is Whiteface. The best cabins, such as the Birch Room, are those with picture windows looking onto the lake. (The cabins were just renovated, but their beadboard walls and polished pine beams look convincingly old-fashioned.)

Recently, the dining has improved significantly with the addition of promising new chef Sean Mohammed, who trained under the esteemed Tom Colichio andClaudeTroisgros. His dishes—including a richly concentrated beef broth with nutty sweetbreads and fragrant truffle oil; foie gras with crispy boudin noir sausage; and pan-seared sea scallops—reflect a range of international influences, from France to Trinidad.

The lodge is irresistible at night, when the diamond-paned windows glow comfortingly as you walk up to the main lodge from your cabin. Inside the pub, a fire burns and forest-green walls with birch-bark detailing glisten in the flickering light. The guestrooms have the same cozy eclecticism as The Point and there are some very charming fireside nooks. The interiors serve as a showcase for dozens of local artisans. There are some chic, one-of-a-kind rustic chairs, tables, and beds by first-rate designers such as Barney Bellinger, George Jaques, and Jean Armstrong, as well as the inevitable lapses of taste. Many of the pieces are for sale; should you fall in love with a burled side table, the lodge will put you in touch with the artist.

One of the lodge's chief assets is convenience; Lake Placid is much easier to get to than Upper Saranac Lake; by car it is closer to Boston and New York by half an hour. For skiing Whiteface or hiking the High Peaks, Lake Placid Lodge is the best choice.

The Garretts may be rooted in the Adirondacks, but they have slowly, carefully begun to apply The Point's ingenious approach to small-scale luxury to other properties around the country. In the early 1990s, they helped develop Twin Farms, a 14-room hotel on the former Sinclair Lewis-Dorothy Thompson estate in Barnard, Vermont. Soon after it opened in 1993, it became known as one of the best hotels in New England, if not America. Just this spring, they opened the 22-room Willcox in Aiken, South Carolina.

The Garretts have no formula. Instead, they lavish each of their hotels with personal attention and a fresh perspective, always with a deep respect for local history and tradition. That, surely, is what imparts such an extraordinary sense of place. "It's hard for a hotel to be great if it's not true to its environment," says Garrett. "We really want our properties to be in touch with the land. That's good business for us; it's why people come."

The Insider's Adirondacks

One of the best places to buy rustic furniture is Lake Placid Lodge, but there are other high-end shops and craftsmen:

ADIRONDACK MUSEUM hosts two annual sales that are a must for anyone interested in traditional craftsmanship: a rustic-furniture fair (September 14), which has one-of-a-kind work by 50 artisans, and an antiques show (September 28), which has 100 exhibitors. Blue Mountain Lake; 518-352-7311;

ATEA RING GALLERY For sublime oils of Adirondack landscapes, it's worth the 35-mile drive from Lake Placid to reach this tiny fine-arts gallery. Selections by American modernist Harold Weston (1894-1972) include Conference ($20,000), a gouache from his stone series. Also look for Paul Matthews' luminous cloudscapes. Sam Spears Road, Westport; 518-962-8620.

GEORGE JAQUES RUSTIC FURNITURE The first thing you see in the entryway at The Point is an octagonal mosaic table that looks as if it's been there since the Rockefeller era. It hasn't; Jaques custom-made it. Offerings in his shop on Route 73 (20 minutes south of Lake Placid) are scant, so make an appointment to see his workshop, which has a broader selection. Keene Valley; 518-576-2214;

TOM PHILLIPS is as old-school as they come. A self-taught cabinetmaker, he lives in a 200-acre forest, a mile from the nearest neighbor, where he harvests his own materials (mostly yellow birch) to make exquisite custom furniture. You can see his dining-room chairs at The Point and a whole cottage devoted to his pieces at Lake Placid Lodge. "I grew up in the Adirondacks," Phillips says. "I'm steeped in it; it's part of my soul." No wonder he's booked a year in advance. Tupper Lake; 518-359-9648.

RALPH KYLLOE RUSTIC DESIGN The author of several books on rustic furniture, Kylloe's expertise in his field is evident in the enormous selection at his shop. If you want birch-bark detailing or antler anything, this is where to find it. Just off the Northway (exit 21). Lake Luzerne Road (Route 9N), Lake George; 518-696-4100;

SAMPSON BOG STUDIO has fabulous furniture handmade by the Bellinger family. "I'm an empirical artist; I rely on experience and observation rather than system and theory," says Barney Bellinger, who is self-taught. "I explore and experiment with found objects: fantastic root bases, beautiful burls, twisted beech." For The Point, the Bellingers transformed an ordinary pool table into an amusing rustic riff that is now the centerpiece of the pub. By appointment only. 171 Paradise Point, Mayfield; 518-661-6563.

Nothing combats a long hike better than a few spa treatments:

THE SPA AT MIRROR LAKE INN It's a delicious surprise to find such an elegant spa tucked away on the edge of the town of Lake Placid. After a recent $3 million renovation, the quality is first-rate. The men's and women's lounges are appointed with marble and mahogany; each is equipped with a fireplace, sauna, whirlpool, and steam room. 5 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid; 518-523-2544;

Room rates at The Point ($1,200-$2,300) are all-inclusive. Reservations: 800-255-3530, 518-891-5674; fax 518-891-1152; Suites at Lake Placid Lodge run $675-$725; cabins, $550-$950. Reservations: 518-523-2700; fax 518-523-1124;