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I exit the New York Thruway and am pushing hard in the direction of Lake Placid when I stop to eat in the tiny township of Keene, not expecting any miracles.

I stumble upon the Cliffhanger Cafe, one of the few health food restaurants in the Adirondack Mountains. As I'm busy devouring my faux Reuben sandwich, I notice a message scrawled in bold script on a chalkboard near the cash register:

Take a deep breath. Relax. You are in the Adirondacks.

Did some angelic hand write those words? Or have I been touched by a vegetarian? I leave the Cliffhanger a changed tourist.

I return to my car, slip on shorts and hiking boots and drive to a trailhead I remember passing about a mile down the road. Within five minutes, I am winding my way through thick woods. Within 45 minutes, I'm sitting on a rocky overlook. I spot a brilliant-red maple tree amid a sea of leafy green: a warning sign that the seasons are about to turn.

The late painter Rockwell Kent owned a home not far from here. "Farther, higher, steeper, bare-ridged mountain walls to heaven," is how he described these surroundings.

I take a deep breath. I relax. I am in the Adirondacks.

A vast preserve

The 6-million-acre quadrant of upstate New York formally known as the Adirondack Forest Preserve encompasses 2,700 lakes and ponds, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 43 mountains at least 4,000 feet high. This is one of America's original getaway places.

Over the centuries how many summer romances bloomed on these lakes and under these stars? How many family photos were snapped, how many gallons of suntan oil slathered on pink shoulders?

Answer: Enough to give rise to a vacation-dependent subculture whose signature trappings are slat-back Adirondack chairs, low-riding Adirondack guide boats, tightly woven Adirondack baskets, and birch-bark-and-twig Adirondack birdhouses, end tables, mirrors, clocks, lamps, doll beds, restroom signs -- just about everything but birch-bark-and-twig Elvis wall hangings.

In 1894 New York legislators had the foresight to amend the state constitution, declaring that vast, designated stretches of the Adirondacks be kept "forever wild." That didn't mean primitive. Gilded Age gentlemen of means sought relief from the East Coast's belching cities by erecting grandiose "summer camps" in the high, cool Adirondacks.

These part-time pleasure palaces were endowed with every conceivable urbane accouterment: monogrammed china and electrical generators, tennis courts and doting servants. On the rare occasions financier J. P. Morgan actually occupied his backwoods digs, he kept his private rail car under steam 24 hours a day.

Jeff Flagg is director of interpretive services at Great Camp Sagamore, the former playpen of Alfred Vanderbilt. Flagg believes the summer camps led to the opening of wild places to mass recreation. He is also amazed that today the Adirondacks qualify as a best-kept travel secret, noting these collective hills and valleys cover more ground than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Olympic national parks put together.

"West of the Appalachians," says Flagg, "no one knows anything about the Adirondacks unless they're from the East. And most people in the East don't know anything. Do they know it's bigger than Vermont? I doubt it. Do they know it has 80 percent of the wilderness east of the Mississippi River? I doubt it."

You can get a crash course in local history at the Adirondack Museum, centerpiece of the village of Blue Mountain Lake.

Twenty outbuildings celebrate canoe-making, logging, mining, hunting and blacksmithing. A reconstructed log hotel stands near a small "mosaic-twig" summer cottage. There's an antique two-seat privy on site. One exhibit is devoted to indigenous hermits and features the transplanted cabin of Noah John Rondeau, who became a folk hero by virtue of hunkering down along Cold River for almost 50 years.

Rondeau quit the woods in 1959. Museum visitors can push a button and hear taped excerpts from a radio interview in which he reflected upon his marathon stay among "the flowery and the fauny."

Pleasures of pampering

Eager to gain a first-hand appreciation for the Adirondacks, I wanted to stay in lodges that evoked the old, opulent summer camps, or preferably once were summer camps.

Lake Placid Lodge, which clings tight to the shoreline of its namesake, was built in 1882 as a relatively modest private residence, but later went commercial. It includes a mix of rooms and cabins, all done up in Early Ralph Lauren rustic-chic decor. Lake Placid Lodge has its own line of clothing, a 4,000-bottle wine cellar and a tradition of observing afternoon tea.

The ambience is honeymoon-perfect. I count nine throw pillows on the four-poster bed in my room.

A birch-and-twig tissue dispenser, birch-and-twig ice bucket, and birch-and-twig waste basket are at my disposal. I worry that I am being pushed to my twiggy limit, that I might go over the edge and start gnawing on that ice bucket like an anxious beaver.

But this level of pampering required about as much getting used to as a feather bed. After a dusty day-hike and a bout with boot blisters, there is no better reward than to kick back at a classic lodge with diamond-pane glass windows, moose heads hanging high on the wall and an exquisite dining room that serves exquisite food.

A fog of sinful indolence envelopes me at Lake Placid Lodge, the same delightful torpor that I associate with overeating on Thanksgiving. I can't muster the energy to rent an electric boat or mountain bike. Instead, I commandeer an Adirondack deck chair and settle back to watch an orange sun set over the deep-blue lake.

After dinner, I stoke the fireplace inside my room until 1 o'clock in the morning, gleefully tossing complimentary apple-scented wood chips into the flames. For a few, memorable, overheated hours I feel like a Gilded-Age grandee.

Vanderbilt gift

The passing years have been kind to Lake Placid Lodge, not so to Great Camp Sagamore, Alfred Vanderbilt's old haunt. The commodore's son had the good fortune to inherit $36 million while a junior at Yale University.

He later had the bad fortune to be aboard the Lusitania when it sank in 1915. In 1901, young, newly wed Alfred wanted to give his wife a suitable present, so he purchased Sagamore, a sprawling Swiss chalet-style retreat.

Sagamore is about an hour's drive west of Lake Placid, near the town of Raquette Lake. In its prime, it was the crown jewel of Adirondack summer camps: 1,526 secluded acres and 60-some satellite buildings.

There were barns and a bowling alley. There were 26 fireplaces and a state-of-the-art sewer system imported from Brooklyn.

Sagamore's architect went so far as to build a 1,320-yard rail line (the shortest in the world) for the express purpose of whisking guests who arrived by boat from the lakeside dock to the front gate. Those esteemed guests included Gary Cooper, Lord Mountbatten and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Unfortunately, one generation's bauble often becomes a succeeding generation's burden.

By 1954 the Vanderbilt family had grown tired of paying Saga-more's hefty maintenance bills and donated the property to Syracuse University, ushering in a period of White-Elephant decline.

The nonprofit Sagamore Institute now owns and operates the National Historic Site, using it as a backdrop for environmental and cultural workshops, renting the occasional oddball vacant room to off-the-beaten-path travelers.

Despite a formidable restoration effort, Sagamore exudes a faded grande dame's melancholy air. Only 27 of the original buildings remain. Carpets are worn in places. Some of the woodwork appears to have been scratched by feral cats. The gardens have gone fallow.

But take a two-hour guided tour of the grounds and, with only a small booster shot of imagination, you can hear the buzz of cocktail conversation in the refurbished main lodge and envision a boating party out on the lake with parasols extended.

Did the world really need a bark-covered bowling alley in the middle of nowhere? In their clumsy, free-spending fashion, says Jeff Flagg, the Adirondack summer campers were posing a question that still needs an answer: What is mankind's proper place in nature?

About half the land in the Adirondacks remains in private hands; about half is publicly owned. It's a clean split that keeps proponents of preservation and development continually on battle alert.

Some natives remember what life was like before zoning commissions and 130,000 full-time residents. "You've got to talk to Clarence Petty," people keep telling me. So one afternoon I knock on the door of a small frame house across from Story Creek Pond and step into what amounts to a satellite branch of the Adirondack Museum.

An Adirondack life

Clarence Petty is the son of a hunting and fishing guide, and a Syracuse University graduate who spent his working life as a forest ranger, personally mapping more than a thousand miles of Adirondack rivers.

He is 97 now, but his heart ticks as steadily as the grandfather clock that stands in a corner of his living room. When his wife died, Clarence moved back into the house where he was raised. It served as the local post office in 1913, the year Noah John Rondeau asked Clarence's mother, the postmistress, to please hold his mail because he was heading off into the woods for a spell.

"See that deer head on the wall?" asks Clarence. It was Rondeau who flushed the big buck out of the brush over by Peekaboo Hill and Clarence who shot it dead. That was 1919.

Back then, there wasn't much difference between the Adiron-dack Mountains and the Alaskan frontier. It took the Petty family seven years to dig the trench that brought water from the pond on the hill into their house. Clarence remembers the winter of 1933, when the thermometer hit 54 degrees below zero.

He has seen a lot of changes, about all the changes he figures the Adirondacks can take. He spends a lot of time nowadays hunched over an ancient Remington typewriter, pecking out letters to politicians that all basically say the same thing. "People don't come here to see growth and development," Clarence mutters. "They come here to see beauty."

Fishing, hiking

"The last time I was in this pond was last fall," crows fishing guide Todd Dunham, his voice washing over me from the back of our canoe, "and, boy, was I slammin' trout! I probably caught 12!"

So far today, the only thing Dunham has hooked is me.

We're paddling a chain of four lakes linked by short portages. The sky's an unblemished blue. Mountains fringe the horizon. At the moment, life is a sweet, slow float.

"As the glaciers retreated, they left behind chunks of ice," Dunham says as we glide along. "Imagine these lakes as being big blocks of ice."

If that were the case, we could chisel our way to a few trout. As it is, we eventually concede defeat and drive to Northbrook Lodge for a fresh-fish dinner. I'm a guest at the lodge. Dunham is friends with the owners. Laura-Jean Schwartau and her college-professor husband, Randall Swanson, run a resolutely laid-back establishment. Their brochure proclaims, "NO organized activities, thank goodness."

Northbrook Lodge occupies a stubby finger of land on Osgood Pond in the northern reaches of the Adirondacks' lake district. "I've been here 10 years and I still haven't hit 'em all," says Randall, an avid canoer.

A member of the Canadian parliament built Northbrook in the 1920s. It's modest by summer camp standards: 10 clapboard cottages clustered on 10 wooded acres. However, Northbrook has the atmosphere of a good, family-friendly restaurant. It's not oppressively elegant, and there's lots of animated conversation and laughter.

"All I want [from a vacation] is good solitude with good friends," says Cathy Lawson, a businesswoman in her 30s who checked in for a few days with two friends. The three immerse themselves in Northbrook: shooting pool, playing pingpong, generally hooting and hollering like, well, summer campers.

History is the moss of the Adirondacks. It clings to everything. I am sitting in the boathouse lounge one night, reading about a certain Canadian parliament member who had a reputation for rumrunning. Cathy and company are deep into a raucous game of Trivial Pursuit by the fireplace. My ears prick up when Cathy draws a card and reads aloud, "In what city was President McKinley shot?"

Ah ha! I not only know the answer (Buffalo), I know enough about the question that early one morning I make my way to the trailhead of Mount Marcy. At 5,344 feet, Marcy is the highest peak in the Adirondacks. It's also the mountain Vice President Teddy Roosevelt was climbing Sept. 13, 1901, the day McKinley lost his battle with an assassin's bullet.

Mount Marcy isn't a difficult ascent, but it's long: 13 miles of small boulders and tree roots. I cover the first nine miles quickly, but then storm clouds begin coagulating overhead. The sky spits rain. Turn back or keep going? I push ahead.

History is on my side. It was raining even harder in 1901 when a courier was dispatched to fetch the president-to-be, who later commented that he was in the middle of "a bully tramp." A relay team of horse-drawn carriages met Roosevelt at the base of Mount Marcy and hustled him to a waiting train.

After five hours of steady hiking, my boot heels hit the solid rockface of the summit. The clouds have parted. The valley is floodlit with sunshine. Down below are thousands of rainbow trout that Todd Dunham dreams of catching, hundreds of miles of river that Clarence Petty knows personally.

Distant thumps of thunder soon break the silence. Bad weather is building a bridge between me and the journal account that Teddy Roosevelt's guide gave of their Mount Marcy climb:

"We were right in the clouds, then it suddenly cleared for about 10 minutes. ... Mr. Roosevelt looked the whole country over, asked questions about the different bodies of water that could be seen. 'Beautiful country, beautiful country!' he said over and over. The sky darkened, heavy clouds settling like a sea stretching out below us."

The panoramic views disappear behind curtains of thickening clouds and rain. No time to dawdle on an exposed ridge. I race for the shelter of some dwarf pines, wiggle into rain gear and gun my engine downhill. I'm wet. I'm cold. But it has been "a bully tramp." My feet fly to the bottom of the mountain, eagerly anticipating dry clothes, a roaring fire and hot food.

Hmm. Wonder if I can find a lodge that serves birch-bark-and-twig soup?

When you go

Getting there: Southwest Airlines flies directly from BWI to Albany County Airport. If you're driving, take I-95 north to the New Jersey Turnpike and connect with the Garden State Parkway; follow the parkway north to New York Route 287, which merges with the New York State Thruway. It's about an eight-hour drive.


Lake Placid Lodge, Whiteface Inn Road, Lake Placid, NY 12946



* Quintessential but upscale lodge on private shorefront of Lake Placid. Open-air fireplace on the veranda is a nice spot for sunset drinks. Restaurant is three-star quality. Golf course next door. Rates: $300-$400 per couple for rooms (breakfast included); cabins run $600-$800. Open all year.

Great Camp Sagamore, P.O. Box 146, Sagamore Road, Raquette Lake, NY 13436



* Not fancy, but an original "great camp." Offers workshops on boat building, Adirondack architecture and other fare. Free guided tours of grounds. Communal bathrooms, twin beds, bus-your-table dining. Rates: About $100 per person, with meals.

Northbrook Lodge, P.O. Box 246, Paul Smiths, NY 12970


* Family-run lodge. Sixteen rooms in cottages with private baths. The boathouse lounge is perfect for whiling away summer nights. Free lakeside canoeing, fishing, swimming. Open June to mid-September. Minimum stay three nights. Rates: $140-$180 per couple, includes breakfast and dinner; no credit cards accepted.

White Pine Camp, P.O. Box 340 Paul Smiths, NY 12970



* Ten cabins with one to four bedrooms, plus kitchen. No on-site dining. Once served as Calvin Coolidge's Summer White House. Five cabins open year-round. Rates: $110-$290.


Brown Dog Deli Bar, 3 Main St., Lake Placid, NY 12946


* Funky place. Owner Bill Tennant's family has been in town since 1910. Chat him up while sipping one of his 40-some imported wines. Appetizers and tapas (about $7 and up) served from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., plus sandwiches and soups.

Casa del Sol, 154 Lake Flower Ave., Saranac Lake, NY 12983


* Best, most popular Mexican restaurant in the Adirondacks. Plan to wait at least an hour for a dinner table unless you arrive before 5 p.m. Dinner entrees start at $9.95.

The Veranda, 1 Olympic Drive, Lake Placid, NY 12946


* Fine French cuisine in an old mansion with great views of the surrounding mountains and the lake. Dinner entrees start at $14.95.


* The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake (518-352-7311; www.adkmuseum.org) offers exhibits and activities that tell the story of the region's history. The museum shop has an excellent selection of books, prints and local crafts.

* In Lake Placid, the combined 1932, 1980 Olympic Halls of Fame is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lots of video highlights and athletic memorabilia. $4 admission. Call 518-523-1655, or visit www.orda.org.

* Adirondack Flying Service in Lake Placid (518-523-2473; www.flyanywhere.com) will take you on a 20-minute scenic flight for $25.

* For information about day-hiking, contact the Adirondack Mountain Club: 518-668-4447; www.adk.org

For more information about lodging, dining and activities in the Adirondack area, contact:

* Adirondack Regional Tourism Council: 518-846-8016; www.adirondacks.org

* Adirondacks.com: 518-891-3745; www.adirondacks.com

An ideal day

9 a.m.: Catch the day's first gondola ride up Whiteface Mountain, just outside Lake Placid. Get the lay of the land with bird's-eye views of the Adirondack peaks. Have coffee on the observation deck. If it's mid-December to mid-March, you can head over to the Olympic bobsled complex and take a wake-me-up, half-mile ride on the bobsled run.

10:30 a.m.: Drive about 75 minutes south to the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake. Be sure to catch a peek at that record 30-pound trout caught in 1951.

4 p.m.: Head down to Raquette Lake to catch a dinner cruise on the W.W. Durant, a vintage double-decker passenger boat. Enjoy prime rib or salmon as you glide by four lakeside great camps, including the old summer digs of the Carnegie family.

9 p.m.: Mosey over to the Raquette Lake Taproom. It's an old-time, good-talkin' bar where the locals hang out. Down some cold beers and let them tell you some harmless lies.

Midnight: Drive back to your hotel, but don't forget to look up at the sky first. Almost guaranteed you'll see more stars than you do at home.

-- Tom Dunkel

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