Whether you are planning your first Adirondack vacation or your twentieth, you are taking part in a grand tradition that started more than one hundred years ago. In the late 1800s, city dwellers began traveling upstate to escape the heat of summer, drawn by the rugged, indescribably beautiful Adirondack scenery. Visited by a range of tourists, from middle class workers to the fabulously wealthy, the Adirondacks became the newest fashionable place to spend a holiday through the summer and fall, when travelers could cool off on jewel-like lakes and magnificent peaks. Here, wealthy vacationers reveled in the stunning natural scenery, from millions of acres of glowing fall color to rustic meals eaten under a starry sky. As the region grew in popularity, immortalized in classics such as William H. H. Murray's Adventures in the Wilderness, the idea of the Adirondacks as a wilderness resort was born and with it, the Adirondack Gilded Age, a time of transformation and glittering luxury.
Since then, generations of visitors have left their mark on the woods and waters of the Adirondacks. While many early Adirondack landmarks have come and gone, trees fall and new ones grow, millions of leaves brighten the landscape year after year, and rivers change shape, tangible reminders of the area's early vacation history remain. Preserved and beloved, relics of the Gilded Age, of the time when whole months were spent in the wilderness and the outside world was far, far away, remain to give today's travelers and would-be adventurers a peek into the past.
One of the best ways to get a sense of the story of the Gilded Age and the legacy of Great Camps is to take a day tour featuring three very unique destinations. Together, they create an interconnected story that gives the visitor a view of a dynamic, extraordinary period of time in the Adirondacks that helped shape the area we know and love today.
Adirondack Experience: The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake
Founded in 1957 as the Adirondack Museum, Adirondack Experience is an excellent first stop, orienting the visitor to the seemingly endless wonders of the Adirondacks and the myriad ways people have lived, played, and worked in the region. Well worth a day all on its own, the museum has a vast collection of artifacts, art, and interactive experiences.
A new exhibit entitled Life in the Adirondacks offers an excellent introduction to the story and opulence of the Gilded Age. Through artifacts and interpretive displays, the ways families such as the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts spent time "roughing it" in the Adirondacks is told with vibrant visuals, offering a great introduction to who these families were.
Before the introduction of the automobile, travel to the Adirondacks meant trains, carriages, and even a steamboat, depending on your camp’s location. One of the most unique and gorgeous pieces in the collection is the private rail car Oriental, complete with mahogany paneling, marble fixtures, and velvet bedding. The rail car is the type that would have been used by wealthy owners to travel to the Adirondacks, a symbol of the lavish approach to a wilderness vacation. Visitors are welcome and encouraged to stroll through the rail car and one cannot help but wonder what it might have been like to travel in such splendor.
Once wealthy Great Camp owners arrived in the Adirondacks — sometimes at their own private rail stations — they would travel to their camps by carriage and later by automobile, examples of both of which are on display adjacent to the rail car.
The museum also gives visitors a peek at life inside a Great Camp, with artifacts ranging from elaborate picnic china to handcrafted rustic furnishings. This peek will whet your appetite for the next stop on the list, Great Camp Sagamore.
Great Camp Sagamore
Great Camps as we know them really began with William West Durant, a railroad magnate who sought to capitalize on the gorgeous, unspoiled wilderness of the Adirondacks and the desire for the wealthy to have a fashionable, adventurous summer. Durant set out to design and build large vacation homes that the wealthiest families could enjoy in rustic luxury. It is largely because of Durant that the Adirondack Gilded Age became what it was and the Great Camp style of architecture was created by Durant.
It began with Durant's own vacation home: Great Camp Sagamore, a broad chalet-style lodge with broad porches and extensive woodwork. Eventually, Durant fell on hard times and sold Sagamore to Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest young men in the world. Today, visitors may tour and even spend the night at the camp that started a trend, Sagamore, located south of Raquette Lake. Sagamore is a wonderful place to continue a Gilded Age tour and the two-hour guided tour of the property is fun and informative.
Located in a densely wooded forest on a private lake, Great Camp Sagamore sits on a peninsula with views of the lake on three sides. More than a single lodge, the camp complex includes a dining hall, cottages, boathouse, bowling pavilion, and playhouse, formerly the lavish games room for Sagamore's guests, as well as a complex of servant's quarters, blacksmith shop, and workshops.
A tour of Sagamore begins in the upper complex, where educational staff share the fascinating story of Durant, the Vanderbilt family, and the many events and people that Sagamore hosted. It is an immersive tour, allowing visitors to not only see the camp buildings, but also to learn about what life at such a magnificent place was like, as well as the impressive work that went into maintaining such grandeur. One of my favorite stops is the schoolhouse; for much of the camp's history, staff and their families lived on site and the schoolhouse was built to provide the children of the staff with a quality education. This is the side of Great Camp life that few people know about.
Walking down the hill into the lower complex, where the Durant and Vanderbilt families stayed, played, and dined, the main lodge remains just out of view, hidden by expansive trees, as it was intended. The main lodge was meant to be unveiled to guests, whether they arrived by carriage after a train ride, or by automobile as we do today.
At the Adirondack Experience, visitors learn about the history of Great Camps and the Gilded Age. At Great Camp Sagamore, that history comes to life. The lodge is still lived in, now by overnight visitors. Families splash in the water at the tiny beach and pepper the surface of the lake on canoes, just like the Vanderbilts. Hearty meals are enjoyed at long tables, family style, in a dining room designed by Durant and expanded by Sagamore's greatest advocate, Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt. Whether you visit for the guided tour or choose to join in one of Sagamore's unique overnight stays, you will find yourself in a romantic, luxuriously rustic world.
W.W. Durant Boat Cruise
The final stop in the Adirondack Gilded Age tour is perhaps the most beautiful: a dinner cruise on the W.W. Durant. Built in Raquette Lake, the Durant is a replica steamboat built, owned, and operated by the Pohl family. The dinner cruise features a truly delectable four course meal, bar, and best of all, a fascinating narrated ride around Raquette Lake, a spot brimming with history, wildlife, and beautiful lakeside architecture. It’s a fitting way to savor Gilded Age life and a relaxing way to end your day.
A journey on the Durant begins with a warm welcome at the dock; after being shown to their tables, guests are free to roam the boat. Captain Dean Pohl and his First Mate, Donna, along with their family, have created a welcoming, relaxing environment, where fascinating local history is paired with exceptional food and gracious service. Most guests head to the top deck, where they can sample specialty appetizers and cool cocktails with a wide open view. Maps are provided to guests, making it easy to follow along with the captain's eloquent narration, which begins upon departure. One can better appreciate the historical commentary while on the W.W. Durant because of the frame of reference established at the Adirondack Experience and Sagamore. Each spot that the boat passes, whether it is a golden, sandy beach or intricately crafted camp, has fascinating history. You'll even learn how the lake got its name. Hint: French-speaking guests might have an advantage in figuring it out.
There are many places in the Adirondacks where you can dine with a view, but the ever-changing view from the Durant is utterly delightful. You'll spot camps that were, and still are, accessible only by boat, including those on tiny islands. You'll learn more about Durant himself and the famous friends he brought to the Adirondacks. You'll see and learn all of this, and so much more, while having a four-course meal crafted by a chef trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. He also happens to be the captain's son, another member of a family dedicated to celebrating and sharing the history of the Adirondacks. The food, by the way, is precisely perfect and a genuine treat.
A quote on the wall at the Adirondack Experience reads, “To be a true camp it should be full of the spirit of the wilderness.” It is this ephemeral quality that exists still at Sagamore, and in the details of the artifacts and exhibits at the Adirondack Experience. It exists in the cruise along Raquette Lake, where you savor the fresh air, the breeze in your hair, and the legendary tales of this timeless part of the world.