How the Mystique of the Adirondacks Summons a New Generation

Max Burkhalter

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There is an open bar every 30 feet here and 6 million acres of the Adirondack Park beckoning outside my door. I am unsure what choice others might make in this situation, but I have uncorked a bottle of Chablis. It is late December, and I am at the Point, an 11-room, 75-acre resort on Upper Saranac Lake.

A log fire readied by an unseen staffer leaps to life at the touch of a match. A charcuterie platter awaits me on a rustic table set by the hearth. Although I had been told in advance that the Point caters to every need, there are luxuries here it never occurred to me to want—fresh-baked gingerbread beneath a glass cloche at the bedside, say, that miraculously becomes a whole loaf again every time I take a slice.


Max Burkhalter

Built in 1933 by William Avery Rockefeller II, a nephew of the Standard Oil tycoon, the Point is one of the Adirondacks’ fabled Great Camps, those sprawling, opulent log mansions that mushroomed throughout the wilderness of northern New York State during the Gilded Age. Sometimes lauded as one of the most luxurious resorts in the U.S., the Point was acquired in 2016 by New York financier Pierre F. Lapeyre and his wife, Laurie, longtime guests who then proceeded to sink a fortune into renovating the place. Some things have observably changed, like the $3,700-per-night Boathouse suite, lavishly redesigned and winterized. Others, like the vintage launches, secluded location, and majestic prospect overlooking the lake, have not.

Revivals of some kind are always imminent or underway in the Adirondacks. Already in 1997, the New York Times was proclaiming a rebirth of the Great Camps, noting that a dozen new compounds “hewn from materials of the forest” had recently sprung up and that many of the region’s storied trophy properties had been acquired by the spiritual descendants of the 19th-century industrialists. More recently, hostelries like the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake—first opened in 1927 as a “metropolitan hotel in the woods”—and the Adelphi in nearby Saratoga Springs have been refreshed with a patina of hipness designed to attract a new generation of visitors to grand piles that, like the Point itself, had grown faded and sad over time.

The aim was to capitalize on a region whose appeal is hardly mysterious. Established in 1885 and regulated by a state agency, the Adirondack Park is larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Everglades National Parks. Unusually, more than half of the park’s vast acreage remains private property. For new arrivals like the Alibaba founder Jack Ma—who in 2015 spent some of his estimated $39 billion fortune on a massive chunk of upstate wilderness that includes a 2,200-foot-tall mountain—the area’s attraction may lie in its wide skies, storied trout streams, and untrammeled reaches. Or perhaps it is the chance to rusticate in the manner of a modern-day Rockefeller or Astor, “moneyed urban sportsmen,” as the Times once described them, “dressed in velveteen of approved cut and fortified by crème de menthe served in tin cups by their butlers.” It is an illusion amply orchestrated for guests of the Point—whose Great Hall bristles with elk and deer trophies, whose pine floors are covered in zebra skins, and whose deep-cushioned sofas are upholstered with enough buffalo plaid to give Ralph Lauren pause. The Point’s owners know that God is in the details. Thus guests have at their disposal a small fleet of electrified mahogany Budsin launches in summer and snowshoes, ice skates, and cross-country skis stocked in every size.


Max Burkhalter

There are stashes of $1,000 hand-sawed Stave jigsaw puzzles in the renovated Pub and, of course, a fully stocked bar. For that matter, a bar has been tucked into seemingly every available corner and even the hollows of trees.

To facilitate the prevalent fantasy, a dress code is enforced: formal attire for communal cocktails and dinner, meaning fancy dresses for women and suits for men, except on Wednesday and Saturday, when black tie is the rule. Since my job as a style reporter requires me to wear dinner jackets more often than anyone whose job is not managing waiters, I have timed my visit to avoid bringing a tuxedo. Though surely in a sweater and jeans I would not pass muster in the Great Hall, so I settle comfortably into my large room and order a dinner of roast chicken and steamed vegetables to eat by the fire.

And I dive into the historian Harvey Kaiser’s gossipy and definitive Great Camps of the Adirondacks, a book abounding in tales of the sort of millionaire whimsy that went into the creation of retreats like Camp Topridge. This camp on a ridge high above a pair of twin lakes was once owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress (and builder of Mar-a-Lago). At unimaginable expense, Post staffed her rustic hideaway with no fewer than 85 employees, among them the expected laundresses and footmen but also an engineer, a forester, a pilot, and a barber.

Following its sale by Post’s heirs, Topridge underwent a long spell of neglect and faced the same  fate that already threatened many of the Great Camps when Kaiser wrote his book in 1982. “It was a dire plea to save these historic landmarks,” says Kaiser. He had been inspired to write the book after being handed the unhappy task of selling off Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s Camp Sagamore for his then employer, Syracuse University. “Many were in danger of being destroyed.”


Max Burkhalter

That has all changed. Harlan Crow, the Texas real estate magnate, bought Camp Topridge in 1994 and poured money into restoring it in a fashion that inspired a raft of deep-pocketed copycats to begin snapping up the remaining camps. Once there were few takers for properties requiring armies of seasonal labor to maintain them. “Nowadays you can’t touch any of these places for less than ten million,’’ Kaiser would tell me after my Point sojourn. “A whole new generation of the same kind of people who built the camps is now coming in to save them. They’re hedge fund people, entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley tech billionaires, people that like a challenge, that like to tackle something big.”

Rooms from $1,750, all-inclusive; thepointresort.com.

Adirondack Essentials

HOTEL SARANAC

An Adirondack icon, with its imposing limestone and brick façade, in the popular village of Saranac Lake. (New York governor Andrew Cuomo vacations there.) Last year the hotel reopened following a head-to-toe makeover that restored its Jazz Age flair. Rooms from $115.

LAKE PLACID LODGE

This American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property is a 137-year-old former Great Camp that burned to the ground 14 years ago and was subsequently rebuilt—carpenters even made the floorboards squeak like they used to. Rooms from $399.

ADELPHI HOTEL

A Victorian landmark in Saratoga Springs, the Adelphi recently underwent a major renovation that included bringing in celebrity chef David Burke, whose restaurant, the Blue Hen, occupies the 142-year-old hotel’s spectacular glass conservatory.
Rooms from $149.

LIQUIDS AND SOLIDS

A beloved, meat-focused restaurant in Lake Placid with an occasional food cart featuring local meats and cheeses and an attached butcher shop.

DARTBROOK LODGE

A former roadside motel that also features a farm-to-table bistro and a shop offering stylish, modern takes on Adirondack furniture, such as a writing desk made out of reclaimed barnwood and unhewn hickory. Rooms from $175.

GREAT CAMP SAGAMORE

A Great Camp formerly owned by the Vanderbilts, now a National Historic Landmark managed by a nonprofit that allows tours.