Recently, almost at the peak of fall foliage season (the first week in October), I took a three-day road trip through the Adirondacks and Lake Placid with my friend Alison Wellner (About.com's guide to Culinary Travel). Here are a few highlights from my trip, which took us through Chestertown, North Creek, Blue Mountain Lake, Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid.
The Adirondacks also comprise several other notable towns and areas that we didn't have time to visit on this trip, including Raquette Lake and nearby Old Forge, and at the southeast corner of the region, the touristy but festive Lake George area, which abounds with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and recreational activities.
01 of 13
The Adirondacks refer both one of the most prominent mountain ranges in the eastern United States as well as the enormous state park in which they're encompassed, in northern New York State. Adirondack Park spans over several counties in upstate New York and comprises some 6.1 million acres - although it's not part of the national park system, the Adirondacks are definitely on the scale and grandeur of some of the country's top national parks (consider that Grand Canyon National Park is 1.2 million acres, roughly one-fifth the size of Adirondack Park).
02 of 13
Getting to the Adirondacks - Best Times to Go
Within a two-hour drive of Montreal and a five- to six-hour drive of New York City and Boston, the Adirondacks comprise both undeveloped wilderness and small towns - in fact, nearly 60% of the park is private land. The region has long been a popular summer destination, renowned for its sprawling "camps" - actually compounds of multiple houses and outbuildings, where well-to-do families vacationed beginning around the late 19th century.
But with the exception of early spring, which can be rainy and muddy, the area is popular for vacationing just about year-round, with some of the nation's most spectacular foliage during the fall months, and a multitude of snow sports during the winter season - much of this latter activity is concentrated around the region's most famous vacation hub, Lake Placid, which has twice hosted the Winter Olympics (most recently in 1980) and is home to the acclaimed White Face ski resort
03 of 13We drove up from the Hudson River Valley, where Alison lives, driving up through Albany, stopping for coffee and a quick stroll in the historic resort town of Saratoga Springs (about an hour south of the Adirondacks), before checking in to our hotel for the first night of the trip, Fern Lodge. This spectacular lodge-style B&B contains five rooms, all of them spacious and sumptuously outfitted - it's a classic honeymoon spot set deep in the woods on the shores of Friends Lake. Hosts Sharon and Greg formerly operated Friends Lake Inn, just down the road (and also a quite nice lodging option in the area), and also can host small garden weddings on their property (the property is very gay-friendly, and same-sex weddings and receptions are welcome).
Fern Lodge has the look and style of one of the great camps of the Adirondacks, and rates include an impressive full breakfast. If it's a special occasion, book the two-room suite, which opens to a patio overlooking the lake, has a... large in-room hot tub, a fireplace, and a stunning two-person waterfall shower with multiple shower heads.
04 of 13
Soon after checking into Fern Lodge, we drove up to a relatively new restaurant about a 15-minute drive away in North Creek, called Basil & Wick's. The rambling, contemporary building with high ceilings and tall windows feels a bit like a ski lodge - indeed, it's just down the road from Gore Mountain ski area and is a popular apres-ski option in winter. The casual spot serves a nice mix of update, well-executed comfort foods - lobster mac-and-cheese, cedar plank salmon, campfire steak with horseradish and blue cheese. We shared ahi tuna tostadas and each ordered one of the delicious, fist-size burgers, which are available with a variety of toppings. There are several craft beers on tap, too.
The nearby tiny village of North Creek continues to grow and develop a bit more of a tourism infrastructure - while at Basil & Wick's, we met the owners of another of the area's terrific dining options, Bar Vino, which I'm looking forward to trying next time.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
05 of 13Chestertown and North Creek are fairly near the southeastern edge of Adirondack Park, easily accessed from I-87 if you're driving up from New York City. From Fern Lodge, we continued north along Rte. 28, one of the classic mountain highways through the Adirondacks, for about 45 minutes to the town of Blue Mountain Lake. Any town in the Adirondacks with "lake" in its name is, as you might guess, set on a good-size lake, and this one is no exception. We then spent the good part of the afternoon exploring the fascinating exhibits of the Adirondack Museum, which comprises numerous exhibits set in different buildings set over the extensive property.
We could have easily spent another day here (in fact, the $18 admission is good for visits on any two days within a one-week period). Highlights include exhibits on the historic boats of the region, paintings, natural history, train and coach travel (on display is the carriage in which Teddy Roosevelt rode from Lake Placid to North... Creek Station, where he continued by train to Buffalo upon the death of President William McKinley, to be sworn in as his successor). There's a very good gift shop, too, and a cafeteria-style restaurant with lovely lake views, though very basic food.
06 of 13After leaving the Adirondack Museum, we drove through the towns of Long Lake, Tupper Lake, and Saranac Lake to our base for the final two nights, the elegant Mirror Lake Inn Resort & Spa, a historic compound overlooking Mirror Lake and the shops and restaurants of downtown Lake Placid. The 131-room hotel has been very enthusiastic about marketing to GLBT travelers in recent years and, as a popular wedding and honeymoon destination, is a superb option for a same-sex ceremonies. Ski, romance, and spa-themed deals are among the several packages offered throughout the year. Rooms are pleasantly furnished with the traditional look and feel of a country inn, and some have small balconies overlooking the lake. The furniture was all sourced from New York state's Harden Furniture company, which has been around since 1844.
07 of 13We enjoyed a deftly prepared dinner our first night in the hotel's View Restaurant, which is also the site of a quite good, full buffet breakfast each morning. The draws here are an outstanding wine list, an emphasis on local produce and ingredients, and top-notch service - in fact, the consistently friendly staff throughout the resort was a highlight over our stay, from front-desk employees to housekeeping. For dinner that night, I enjoyed the citrus-and-herb-stuffed quail with quinoa, smoked bacon, and roasted golden beets. I don't order desserts especially often, but the one we shared was exceptional: walnut shortbread topped with bourbon vanilla ice cream, glazed walnuts, and maple-caramel and dark-chocolate sauces.
08 of 13I worked out in the inn's small but well-outfitted gym in the morning (only slight knock is that some of the equipment could use updating), and then proceeded to the inn's spa, where I was to try my very first Ashiatsu treatment, whereupon therapists use their feet for a bull body massage. I've had plenty of different types of massage, and I tend to prefer deep-tissue bodywork - this may very well be my favorite yet. My therapist gave me some overview on the history of this treatment, explaining that it's a relatively new treatment for the spa at Mirror Lake Resort. From my perspective, the benefits are that a therapist can use her feet to place long, deep, but still gentle pressure, as she's able to transfer more of her full body weight with each move of her foot. I quickly forgot that I was being massaged with feet rather than hands, but a full week later, I'm still feeling the happy effects of that treatment.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
09 of 13
The village of Lake Placid, which played host to the Winter Olympics in 1980 and 1932 and is home to the stellar Whiteface Mountain ski resort as well as the Lake Placid Olympic Center is perhaps the best base for an Adirondacks visit. It's easy to get here from I-87 (just 30 miles to the east), and also convenient to the area's top attractions.
We strolled around the charming village of Lake Placid one evening - the main drag (Rte. 86) hugs Mirror Lake and has several very good restaurants as well as clothiers, sportswear shops, galleries, and the like. We had an excellent dinner one night at Brown Dog Cafe & Wine Bar, an inviting shabby-chic space hung with canine-inspired artwork. The wine list is extensive and well-chosen, and the food tasty if somewhat pricey for what it is - although there are less-pricey "lighter fare" options, and at lunch it's a better value.
10 of 13
The hardscrabble town of Tupper Lake had long been unappreciated compared with other communities in the heart of Adirondacks, especially considering its enviable position on a lovely body of water. In 2006, the state-of-the-art Wild Center Natural History Museum opened in this town that's on the main route between the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake and Lake Placid. On our second day in Placid, the first one of the trip with full sunshine, we backtracked 30 miles to visit this impressive museum. It comprises a great hall, a widescreen movie theater that shows rotating films on the area's flora and fauna throughout the day, and terrific interactive exhibits on the geology, ecology, and other aspects of Adirondacks natural history.
Live participants among the main exhibit area include a couple of very playful otters, who dive happily into their mini-pond to the delight of visitors. There's also an ice wall, which explains the glaciation that produced the mighty peaks... of the Adirondacks mountain range, plus up-close glimpses of marshes, swamps, forests, and lakes. Encircling the airy, contemporary building are numerous nature trails, including one that reveals green building practices behind the museum's inner-workings (the Wild Center is Silver LEED certified). Allow at least a couple of hours to tour the Wild Center.
11 of 13
One of the most scenic villages in the Adirondacks, Saranac Lake lies between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. We stopped here a couple of times on our drives between the two towns, on the sunniest afternoon watching the sun set over Lake Flower, the body of water over which the village center looks. The town is named for three larger bodies of water - Lower, Middle, and Upper Saranac lakes - that lie to the west and can all be reached via Route 3, the main road heading west. There are a handful of shops and galleries in the village center, plus some hotels and restaurants.
We drove by the tiny Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage & Museum, where the famous author spent a winter in 1887 - it was closed by the time we arrived. Nearby, we stopped by one of the most inviting inns in the area, the Porcupine B&B, which is in a historic neighborhood of fashionable homes on a bluff near downtown. There are five guest rooms, all of them furnished with gorgeous, Adirondack-style antiques... and period photos.
Also worth a stop, about midway between Saranac and Placid on Rte. 86, is Tail O'the Pup BBQ, a rustic and funky in-the-rough lobster and barbecue joint nestled beneath a grove of towering evergreens. There are also inexpensive cabin rentals on-site. We stopped briefly for bowls of quite tasty clam chowder.
12 of 13
On our last day, we drove 35 miles east of Lake Placid via Rte. 73 and Rte. 9N to the small but beautifully situated village of Westport, which sits along a cove overlooking Lake Champlain and, beyond that, the rugged Green Mountains of central Vermont. Westport is a small town of about 1,300, and we came here primarily for practical reasons: I was headed to Vermont from the Adirondacks, and would be taking the ferry across the lake a bit south of here - in Crown Point - later in the afternoon. And my friend Alison was headed back down to Hudson, south of Albany, where she'd parked her car prior to the start of our adventure, so that she could pick it up later to drive it home.
Westport is home to the train station at which Amtrak trains between Montreal and Albany stop closest to Lake Placid. If you're planning to visit Placid by train, keep in mind that it is possible to take a Ground Force 1 shuttle bus between the Westport and Lake Placid. You don't really need a car... once you're in Lake Placid, and you can rent in town for day trips around the area.
Westport's village center has a deli, diner, and a couple of other businesses, as well as a much-recommend inn with its own on-site coffeehouse and bookstore, the Inn on the Library Lawn. It's a good place to spend the night at the beginning or end of a trip farther into the Adirondacks park.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
13 of 13
Beautiful Long Lake, where I'd summered at my grandfather's camp as a little kid, would have been more of a focus of my visit had I more time - and had the weather cooperated. As it happened, we stopped in the village, which lies on the eastern shore of this narrow and long - of course - lake (it's 14 miles end to end). There are some offbeat shops in the village center as well as some old-school hotels and an atmospheric diner. The family-operated Shamrock Motel & Cottages are an efficient, clean, and affordable overnight option, with frontage on the lake.
I paused at the town beach, from which float planes regularly take off and near where the boat used to carry us many miles north to my grandfather's camp, Watch Rock Point, which he sold in the late '80s. It's not easy to get back there these days, and so with darkness descended and rain beginning to fall, we drove on that evening to Lake Placid (this was just after our visit to the Adirondack Museum).
Howev...er, as fate would have it, while flying home a few days later on the first leg of my journey, between Burlington and Detroit, my plane did fly directly over Long Lake. And it was then, finally, after more than 20 years, that I was able to look down directly over the compound at Watch Rock Point and enjoy a perfect view of it.