The Adirondacks, land of long lakes and last Mohicans, do their big business in the summer, when upstate New York gets its meager annual allotment of warm weather. The forest-fringed waterways and low mountains leap to life as boaters and campers arrive from downstate and beyond. From the '20s cabins in the northern woods to the kitsch-rich village of Lake George, the whole place seems to buzz with merriment and just-born bugs.
Then everything freezes.
By mid-October, dozens of lodgings and restaurants have closed for winter, and scores more will follow. By January, the subzero nights have arrived, the crust on the lakes is thickening, and the population has dwindled to skiers, snowmobilers and ice fishermen fingering their Swedish Pimples. (You have 28 more paragraphs to try to guess what a Swedish Pimple is.)
But there's a gap in the conventional wisdom about the Adirondacks, and it extends from Labor Day to Columbus Day, maybe a few weeks beyond. During that spell, the leaves turn, the lodging rates fall and the locals are happy to see you, especially on a weekday.
Maybe because the color comes so early and lasts so briefly, the Adirondack leaf season doesn't get outsiders' attention the way neighboring New England's autumns do. But the more locals I spoke with in late July during my family's five days around Lake George, the more I saw the area as a two-season temptation.
"Not only do we have the reds and the maples and the yellows of the beech and the birch, we have the brilliant yellow of tamarack, which you don't often find in New England," said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Still, my introduction to the territory was not pretty. First, US Airways cost us a day by canceling our incoming flight to nearby Albany, N.Y., for crew-related reasons. Then the Sagamore resort, the grandest hotel in the region's southeastern corner, assigned us to a nonsmoking room that stank of cigarettes. (Could this be what happens, I wondered, when you vacation where New Yorkers vacation?) Then, killing time while the staff was finding another room for us, I found that the snack bar was charging a mandatory 18% gratuity. By dinner time, I was practically snarling.
And then the lake tide turned.
Part of the reason was simple scenery: First you see the thriving maple and oak and beech and willow and pine and spruce, then you look down and see it all again, upside down, in the waters of the spring-fed, 32-mile-long Lake George. And then there's the Sagamore hotel, where we spent three nights.
The hotel, built on its own 72-acre island in 1883 and connected to the lake shore by a short causeway, burned twice and was rebuilt twice. The 350-room version that endures today really began with a 1930 redesign and expansion that was inspired by George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va., so the heart of the place is the column-lined veranda where two wings of the hotel come together, with lawn all around. It's grand in every sense.
But with its peak season so short, the Sagamore has had a rocky history. It fell idle for a few years in the early 1980s, then re-emerged with new owners and 200 new guest rooms and condos at one end, an indoor pool at the other.
Our room, chosen from the least-costly price category, was among those added in the '80s. It lay half-underground, with no lake view, where a butler's butler might be lodged. In those first grumpy minutes, I sat there considering the $233 a night it was costing. But it was spacious (roomier than most of the 100 rooms in the hotel's historic main building, in fact), and I grew to like the way light filtered down to our shady little balcony.
The longer we stayed, testing three of the resort's restaurants and a few of its kids' programs, the better the service seemed. And I will long remember lolling on the Sagamore's sloping lawn while our daughter, Grace, and her friend Caroline turned somersaults as only 3-year-olds can.
THE VIEW FROM ON HIGH
Off the hotel grounds, we took in the views from atop hiker- and driver-friendly Prospect Mountain. (Though the mountain barely clears 2,000 feet, you glimpse three states and on some days Canada.) We clowned around on the big red Adirondack chair at Ben & Jerry's in high-toned Bolton Landing. And we lunched dockside at the Algonquin Restaurant while a sudden shower drummed on the canopy overhead.
"Sorry for the delay," servers said to us at several restaurants -- even though we hadn't noticed any delay. (Vacationing where New Yorkers vacation: Hmm. . . .)
We also explored the lake on a speedboat, checking out private estates and overgrown islands, and I took a quick spin in a kayak that mostly left me wishing we had more time.
(Woodworth, of the Adirondack Mountain Club, told me later: "You see as many kayaks as canoes now, maybe even more kayaks" -- a major change in a territory where canoes have been part of the scenery for centuries.)