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East, for Eden: Lake George in New York's Adirondacks

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Bolton Landing, N.Y.

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.)

Perhaps because we knew we were only passing through, we even got a kick out of the feature that most people like least about Lake George in summer -- the parade of garish roadside businesses in Lake George Village at the waterway's southern end, which includes such specimens as Dr. Morbid's Haunted House, Tired John's (a restaurant), the House of Frankenstein Wax Museum, the Magic Castle, the Magic Forest, the Alien Encounter and the Tiki Resort, whose Waikiki Supper Club features "fire and knife acts."

We never got around to the fire and knives, nor did we hike the highly recommended Fifth Peak, Buck Mountain and Sleeping Mountain, all nearby. But we did stop at the Up Yonda Farm and the headquarters and bookshop of the nonprofit Adirondack Mountain Club, which has been fighting to promote and protect the area since 1922.

Because Lake George is the most built-up corner of Adirondack Park, Woodworth told me, the streets and waters around Lake George Village get crowded in summer, and the place continues to get its share of weekend visitors after Labor Day. But the weekdays are far slower, he said, and the farther north you go, "the fewer boats you see and the wilder the experience."

The Up Yonda Farm, a few miles north of Bolton Landing, is a former summer-home property and takes up as much land as the Sagamore's little island. It's run as a year-round nature center, with a museum room of stuffed animals and plant samples, a butterfly house, picnic area, woodsy trails and an ideological aversion to trash receptacles: "Carry it in, carry it out," a sign instructs visitors. The property was donated for environmental educational purposes by owners Alice and John Scott because, Alice wrote, of the "desecration of the land around us."

Maybe she just needed a night out at the Waikiki Supper Club.

Anyway, Up Yonda Farm has several nice walking paths, all a mile or less, and you can't help but learn a thing or two as you wander.

In sticking near Lake George, we sampled only the tiniest, southeastern sliver of the Adirondacks. But at every turn, we bumped against landmarks. Back in the middle 18th century when the French and English were skirmishing over who would take over North America, one of the most crucial prizes was Ft. Ticonderoga, which the French called "the key to a continent" but failed to hold.

About 20 years later on the same soil, upstart American troops led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold won their first major victory against the British by grabbing the same fort. (Soon after, the British bloodily took it back, but the larger war for independence was won elsewhere.)

By the late 19th century, the mightiest families of New York had begun building summer "Great Camps" here, giving birth to that rustic cabin-and-furniture fashion now known as Adirondack style.

Legislators, meanwhile, had already begun setting aside the 6 million acres that make up Adirondack Park, which includes about half-and-half public and private property. In all, the park covers more ground than Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon combined.

As author Paul Schneider writes in "The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness," it was here that "masses of (non-Native) Americans first learned to cherish the wilds as a place of solace and recreation."

Novelist James Fenimore Cooper set his "The Last of the Mohicans" at Lake George (though he called it Horicon). And before she started spending her summers in New Mexico in 1929, painter Georgia O'Keeffe and her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were regulars on these shores. In 1927, O'Keeffe even stayed past Labor Day and produced a gorgeous watercolor of the darkening leaves surrounding the deep blue lake.

Since then, visits to the lake have become a summer tradition for tens of thousands of New Yorkers and their East Coast neighbors, and every return trip is a chance to wallow again in the sensations of childhood.

"I've been coming for 20 years," said Sue Jurkowski of Belchertown, Mass., who was playing shuffleboard at the Stepping Stones Resort. "Even my kids -- they're 21 and 23 -- they love it so much that they come back too."

LEARNING THE LAKE

For my three-member family with our 93 years of collective California residency, learning the lake was like finding a new planet, where Hackers and Nautiques (beloved boat brands) dwell in their own damp houses; where a single neighborhood can sustain half a dozen miniature golf courses; where, just a few miles from that neighborhood, you can steer your launch past a dozen private islands; where a Swedish Pimple is not a Scandinavian blemish but a popular ice-fishing lure.

Visitors may want a tour by water, and the options include the Lac du Saint Sacrement, the Minne-haha and the Mohican (three large vessels operated by the Lake George Steamboat Co. in Lake George); and the Morgan, operated by the Sagamore in Bolton Landing. State officials have tightened safety scrutiny of cruise boats and other vessels since the October 2005 capsizing of the 38-foot cruise ship Ethan Allen, which killed 20 senior citizens. (A county Grand Jury investigation found that the Ethan Allen, operated by Shoreline Cruises Inc. on the lake since 1979, had been overloaded, understaffed and made top-heavy by the addition of a canopy and windows.)

Still, there's plenty to see by land. If you bear north on the two-lane New York Highway 9N, which runs up the west side of Lake George, the roadside kitsch gradually falls away, leaving only forest and peek-a-boo views of the lake, the path gently rising, falling and bending.

If you continue to Ft. Ticonderoga at the northern tip of the lake, you pass the tempting tiny town of Hague and the log cabins and docks of semi-rustic resorts like the old Trout House, one of the few year-round lodgings on the lake.

And if you arrive at the fort at midday, just as a drummer in an 18th century uniform is rap-tap-tapping atop a battle-scarred old stone wall, you may briefly suspect you've fallen onto Ken Burns' cutting-room floor. But no, it's only a show, like the demonstrations of how muskets work and military cooks made chocolate for the troops.

In the Ticonderoga exhibition rooms, visitors filed past iron breastplates, arrowheads, etched powder horns and a host of pistols and rifles, where many boys and their fathers lingered and marveled. And from the high ramparts of the star-shaped fort, it was easy to understand the site's importance: It looks down upon the waters of Lake Champlain in one direction, Lake George in another.

But be warned: On Oct. 21, the fort closes until May.

And anybody considering a late summer or fall journey to these parts needs to make a study of seasonal discounts and closures -- sometimes it's a matters of days between a bargain and a locked door.

At the Stepping Stones Resort, management cuts cottage prices roughly in half on Sept. 1 (this year the low end for fall is $120 nightly), then closes for the season at the end of October. Next door at the Red Gate Cottages, the owner halves her prices on Labor Day (which puts her most affordable cottages at $75 per night), then closes on Oct. 8, Columbus Day.

The Sagamore stays at least partly open throughout the year, with room rates starting at $229 in summer, dropping to $179 in September and October, then bottoming out at $129 in winter, when I wouldn't be surprised to see Jack Nicholson patrolling the halls with an ax.

Despite our rocky start with the Sagamore, I should add, by the end of our stay we were won over and were treating its vast lawn like our own backyard. Grace had received two free carriage rides behind a hulking horse named Tom, painted a plaster lighthouse in the resort kids' program, developed an addiction to the blue candies at the concierge desk and toasted her first marshmallows around a campfire.

While those marshmallows were roasting, the resort's song leaders, Chip and Isaac, had their way with a familiar Woody Guthrie melody.

"The Sagamore," they sang, setting economic factors aside for the moment, "was made for you and me."

And the rest of Lake George feels the same way, if you time it right.


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