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Lakeside, a Family Tradition

<i> Jean Woestendiek Letai is a free-lance writer in Medfield, Mass</i>

With rosy cheeks, sunny spirits and relaxed tempers, my husband and children and I lounged in front of a crackling fire in the huge stone hearth of Canoe Island Lodge. Tony and I were sunken into the soft sofa, tired and happy after an exhilarating day of doing nothing. Kate and Andy flirted with Tyler and Prince, Labrador retrievers stretched out on the hand-braided rugs. We discussed what to do the next day--take another sailboat ride on Lake George, hike in the surrounding Adirondack Mountains, water-ski, or fish and play on the beach some more. We decided on all of the above.

We could not have felt more at home, yet there were no meals to cook, no dishes to wash, no phone calls to make, no buses to catch. Though several attractions are a short drive away, we left the resort only once, to buy a deck of cards at the Potbelly Deli a mile down the road. We spent evenings in the knotty-pine cabin we were sharing with old friends, playing hearts and watching the passage of moonlight across the lake. We spent days in, on or alongside the water, with no demands on our time--in fact, with no awareness of time.

Such leisure is how people used to define vacation: leaving home and work and all their demands and distractions for a week or more empty of cares. That was in the days before the Disneyland concept of vacation as entertainment, before affordable air travel put distant vacation destinations within reach of working families.

From the 1880s until the 1960s or ‘70s, Upstate New York, with its vast stretches of mountains and lakes, was one big vacationland. Railroads from New York City sped the rich north to Saratoga Springs and lakes George and Champlain. Just about every lesser lake in the Adirondack and Catskill mountains was home to at least one resort, some of them posh, most of them plain. Whole families came for a week at a time, lazing away the days, sleeping in lodges or cabins, coming together at mealtime in dining halls, playing cards or bingo in the evening.

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Tony and I, and our friends Roland and Shirley, have taken our share of busy sightseeing vacations and long driving trips. Now, with three children between us, the idea of spending almost a week in one place was very attractive.

All of my own childhood summers were spent at a lakefront cottage in Canada, and my husband was curious about the magic that the cottage still works in my memory. Living in the Boston area, not too far away, we had heard about Lake George and its reputation as a family-friendly resort area. With a bit of research, we determined that Canoe Island Lodge was just right as a place where we all could truly relax. We booked four nights after Labor Day, when rates drop but the weather still says summer.

Canoe Island Lodge is open from May to October. In July and August its rates include breakfast and dinner and supervised programs for children, plus a variety of boating, but not lunch. In the other months, lunch is included in the price, but there’s no children’s program.

We felt immediately at home in the main lodge dining room, where the waiters and waitresses quickly memorized our children’s names and used them. The pace was unhurried, and they cheerfully delivered a second glass of milk for 3-year-old Kate, an extra box of Cheerios for 15-month-old Andrew. Once, they brought a whole plate of sliced cucumbers for 20-month-old Gavin, our friends’ son, who had decided to eat only cucumbers that day.

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It was not entirely just like home for us grown-ups. Tony and I usually have cereal for breakfast, but we indulged in the lodge’s freshly baked bread and muffins, which were served as starters before the pancakes, eggs and so on.

At lunchtime we hoarded the homemade cookies. At dinner we filled up on grilled steak and salmon (and, for the kids, pasta). I skipped dessert; my treat was not having dishes to wash.

We also felt at home on the beach. One day, we were playing in the sand as two boathouse workers began heading over to Canoe Island in a motorboat. They were off to fix some signs a storm had blown over on the island, but when they saw us watching they came back to ask if we wanted to go along for the ride. I felt like a kid sister whose big brothers had invited her to tag along.

Others must feel at home, too, because 85% of Canoe Island Lodge guests are repeat customers.

I could see the attraction. By all accounts, the resort hasn’t changed much in its 50 years, all under one family’s ownership. It has grown to accommodate more guests--about 200--and the fleet of boats is up-to-date, but the essence of the place is the same. The main lodge and cabins are built of stone, logs and knotty pine. Many have kitchenettes for keeping drinks cold and snacks handy. Our cabin was furnished in the well-worn country style that can handle sandy bathing suits. (Some rooms I peeked into were done up in a more romantic rustic style.) The evenings were cool, and the well-stocked fireplace was inviting. In the mornings, the piney air and the view of the lake and mountains made us eager to start the day’s activities.

From sailing we turned to water-skis. Craig, our motorboat driver, was patient. He kept turning the boat around so Tony could try to get up on the skis again, just as my older brother had done with me when I learned to ski many years ago. Craig told me with a proud smile that he had taught a 4-year-old girl to water-ski during her family’s weeklong stay.

Neither Tony nor Roland did so well (“choppy water,” they explained). They redeemed their egos by windsurfing, and by catching bass from a rowboat.

Canoe Island, less than a mile offshore, is part of the resort’s property. It has a dock and a beach--and a barbecue dinner every Thursday over the summer.

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From the guest quarters it’s a short walk uphill to tennis courts, pingpong and shuffleboard. A few steps down from the main lodge are an outdoor terrace, the resort’s private beach and a boathouse. Guests can borrow rowboats and sail boards or request rides on the sailboats and motorboats.

Ironically, a boat you will not find at Canoe Island Lodge is a canoe. The island was named for the American Canoe Club, founded there in 1887. The resort used to provide canoes for guests but stopped because of liability risks.

Across the road, a 20-minute hike leads to “The Ledges,” rocky plateaus that afford breathtaking views of Lake George, its hundreds of islands and the surrounding Adirondack countryside. The trail was steep at times, but our 3-year-old managed most of it without being carried.

“If people can come here and feel they’ve been treated well and go home refreshed, then we’ve accomplished our mission,” says Bill Busch, the octogenarian who traded 124 bushels of buckwheat seed in 1943 for Canoe Island. He purchased property a few years later on the side of the mountain overlooking the island. “I’m a farmer by education, a butcher by trade and a resort operator by choice,” he says. These days he is retired, watching his daughter, Carla Burhoe, and her family carry on his “mission” of running a quality family resort.

A few miles north of Canoe Island Lodge is a resort that defines the opulent end of the Adirondacks’ resort history. The Sagamore was built in the 1920s to accommodate New York sophisticates in country comfort, and for years it set the standard for resort service. It was renovated in the 1980s and still commands the area’s highest prices.

Before heading for home, we drove the scenic route around the lake and turned into the Sagamore’s driveway just long enough for a look. It was beautiful.

Lake George is about 240 miles, or four hours of mostly Interstate driving, north of New York City. Ft. Ticonderoga, on the north end of the lake, and Ft. William Henry on the south end are popular with history buffs. The latter was the site of an Indian attack on a British garrison in 1757, fancifully immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper in “The Last of the Mohicans.”

On the lighter side, there’s plenty for summer visitors to do. Just outside the village of Lake George, on the lake’s south end, are Water Slide World and Lake George Action Park. A few miles south is Great Escape Fun Park, whose roller coaster, the Comet, was ranked the nation’s best by American Heritage magazine last year. (All close after Labor Day.)

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Attractions like these will be important in a few years when our children are older. But we were content to have the quiet post-Labor Day season for total relaxation. After four days we shook the sand from our clothes and returned home. But we forgot to empty one dresser drawer full of Andy’s baby clothes. The clothes arrived in the mail soon afterward, neatly folded in a box. When I called Canoe Island Lodge to apologize for the inconvenience, a cheerful voice on the other end of the line assured me, “Oh, it happens when you have kids. Don’t worry.”

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GUIDEBOOK: Lazing by Lake George

Getting there: Round-trip air fare from Los Angeles to New York City starts at $416 for nonstop service on American, United, Delta, Continental, Tower and TWA. Lake George is about 240 miles north of the city on Interstate 87, Exit 22.

Where to stay: Canoe Island Lodge is on Lake Shore Drive (Route 9N). Rates (no openings until Aug. 28) include breakfast and dinner in July and August, plus lunch during May, June, September and October, when the lodge’s snack shop is closed. Rates: daily, $95 to $161 per adult, $50 or less per child (12 and under); weekly, $570 to $1,016 per adult, $315 maximum per child. The mailing address is P.O. Box 144, Diamond Point, NY 12824. Telephone (518) 668-5592, fax (518) 668-2012.

For more information: Warren County Tourism, tel. (800) 365- 1050, Ext. 5100, or Lake George Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, tel. (518) 668-5755. Also, New York State Tourism, P.O. Box 2603, Albany, NY 12220; tel. (800) 225-5697.


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