Beautiful backdrops, friendly locals, and a fascinating history are interwoven into the tapestry of the growing Saranac Lake community
By Sonja Stark
The principles of wellness and science are interwoven into the tapestry of a small village tucked among the hills of the Adirondacks called Saranac Lake.
The culturally-rich destination invites visitors to experience the healing power of a good meal, crisp mountain air and working with your hands.
Historically, Saranac Lake was considered a preeminent health resort for TB care in the late 19th century, unarguably, it’s still a place of hope, comfort, and creativity that’s far outlived the disease by generations.
Base Camp in Style
I wanted to do something special for my father’s birthday in June. Born into the frugal backwoods of St. Lawrence County, cosmopolitan, he is not, so taking him to a big city would not work.
I invited him to experience a “gilded otherworld” called the Hotel Saranac. This proved to be a rich and defining alternative to Dad’s ostensibly low-key environments. Part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, the hotel is also the “heartbeat, hub and backbone” to a downtown ripe with cultural appeal.
Dad’s eyes grew wide as we met in the parking lot of the notable Historic Hotel of America, a designation earned by only 23 others in the entire state of New York. “This place looks familiar,” Dad smiled. We entered a gleaming first-floor arcade updated with a hipster eatery on one side and a fancy gift shop for retail therapy on the other.
Our shoes tap-danced over restored terrazzo flooring. Overhead, five honeycomb-like chandeliers, all original, emitted a soft, warm glow.
Built in 1927, the property took nearly four years and over $30 million to resuscitate.
“All part of the restoration to bring back the original blueprint of the atrium,” said Carolyn Bordonaro, director of sales, told me during an interview later the next day.
It was no wonder that the hotel won the prestigious Excellence in Historic Preservation award earlier in the year.
Around every freshly-painted corner survives a time capsule: an antique bronze letterbox near the elevator, a vintage phone booth in the Great Hall Bar and black and white photos of the town’s famous Winter Festival near the Terrace.
“Hot Sara,” as many call her, triggers fond memories for returning visitors. Dad remembered being inside this hotel once before when he was a high school sophomore. He played trumpet in a marching band that bussed kids in twice a year to high step in parades.
He and other young musicians changed into uniforms in rooms minded by the hospitality students attending Paul Smith’s College. At that time, the college operated the hotel that helped graduates gain real-life experience.
Our royal digs were wrapped in comfort. Dad reveled in his own spectacular 2-room king suite with retro travel posters and breathtaking views of Lake Flower.
I camped out down the hall in much smaller quarters, a single queen, still equally appointed. There would be no need for bug spray.
Dining Al Fresco
Before heading to the museum, Dad and I grazed over appetizers on a windy Terrace just off the Great Hall Bar. Saranac Lake has some of the coldest temps in winter so getting the opportunity to dine al fresco is always a treat. Under a blue umbrella, we ordered fried cheese curd with maple grain mustard dip and venison chili with campfire cornbread.
In truth, breathing in the fresh elevations, be it on a veranda or cottage porch, would have been par for the course if you had a dreadful disease known as pulmonary tuberculosis.
After lunch, we walked around the block to visit a small museum with a big impact.
The Saranac Laboratory Museum
During the pre-antibiotic era, conventional thinking was that a regimen of rest and good nutrition in a mountainous environment could cure the sick.
Some improved, but many did not, after all, it was considered the deadliest plague of its time.
From 1894-1964, the Saranac Laboratory Museum, a precursor to the Trudeau Institute, was the first center in the country for scientific research on TB and other lung diseases.
It was founded and run by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, also known as the “Beloved Physician” until he too died of the disease in 1915.
Museum administrator, Chessie Monks-Kelly met us at the door and encouraged us to enjoy a short film first. The museum has gone to painstaking efforts to reconstruct what would have been a fully-equipped, state-of-art lab during its heyday.
Everything was preserved including the oversized, ceiling-to-floor windows that allowed light to enter the lab during short winter days.
Over a 70-year period, TB transformed not only Western society but Saranac Lake. The town became America’s most famous sanatoria with homes and porches built or converted into medical-run “open-air curing” facilities.
The young and old, rich and poor, famous and infamous, whether they related or not, became members of a greater family, a family called Saranac Lake.
I thumbed through a book of famous sufferers that included singer Al Jolson, silent screen actress Lila Lee, poet Robert Louis Stevenson and Eddie Diamond, brother of the notorious gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond. They all came here for treatment.
The space illustrated just how important small museums are to the heritage of a local community. Many exhibits were donated by the family members of resident physicians who worked in the lab.
Preserving the Trudeau legacy remains a top priority to many, including Doonesbury comic strip creator Garry Trudeau, great-grandson to E.L.
The artist-turned-filmmaker returns often to support several restoration projects including plans to turn the family residence next door into a museum. As a personal touch, visitors can contribute their own harrowing memories of knowing someone with the epidemic onto yellow memo notes and sticking them to the “My TB Story” wall.
Dad used to dabble in antiques and found the collection of milk bottles in the restored John Black wing, part of “The Roaring Twenties” exhibit, especially fascinating.
At the end of our tour, Monks-Kelly gave us directions to the first cure cottage called the Trudeau Sanatorium run by American Management Association. “The grounds are beautiful, especially the stone chapel, make sure you see it!” she said as she waved goodbye.
Celebrate Paddling for Old Times Sake
Saranac Lake sits inside a six-million-acre Adirondack Park that contains no fewer than 3,000 lakes and ponds plus an estimated 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. Having competed in a 90-miler called the Adirondack Challenge, there aren’t many that I haven’t paddled.
With so many bodies of water, it makes perfect sense then that there would be a month-long festival called Celebrate Paddling to honor the sport. Jason Smitz, the owner of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitter, would later tell me the goal is to inform and educate would-be paddlers.
Dad’s army green Old Town canoe was the boat of choice when I was a kid, today, it’s a florescent lime kayak. It’s easy enough to rent boats from several popular outfitters in town, Adirondack Lakes and Trails or the St. Regis Canoe Outfitters to name two, but I have a friend willing to let us borrow hers.
Denise Bujold is the owner of Adirondack Vacations/Harbor Hill cabins and cottages on Lake Flower. Yes, the lake is as pretty as the name! She was not at home when we arrived but we found the sturdy crafts, life vests and paddles on the beach near the rustic Tamarac cabin.
Bujold rents out six rustic lakefront properties, some with hot tubs, others with fireplaces, all with fully equipped kitchens and pet-friendly. A couple years ago, I overnighted here and awoke to a gaggle of hungry mallards serenading me for breadcrumbs on the camp’s private dock. Bujold’s kindness and generosity extends to her guests long after they’ve checked out.
Within minutes we heard the haunting call of a loon and paddled to the middle of the lake in hopes of seeing it. It slipped under the water for several minutes and reemerged at the far end of the lake, clearly, the chase was in his favor. Visit the Adirondack Loon Center at 15 Broadway to learn more about loon ecology, behavior and habitats.
That evening, we found the town preparing to kick off their first Third Thursday Art Walk for the summer season. While Dad took a quick nap to recuperate, I explored what could be best described as the “arts” capital of the Adirondacks.
Clusters of painters, authors, musicians, and performers gathered on sidewalks and in front of storefronts to show off their silly, sublime, abstract and absurd originals.
I called Dad’s room to wake him from his short slumber. This amount of unique talent was not to be missed. A steaming cup of caffeine and a blueberry scone at the Blue Moon Cafe delivered the lift he needed.
Historically, there’s an integral link between the town’s profound art scene and the TB generation. It goes back to when patients taking the “rest cure” were encouraged to keep their minds occupied by painting, jewelry making, sculpting, woodworking and more.
The bedridden would often spend weeks, months, even years, perfecting their preoccupations; when the patient recovered their hobbies became lifelong skills that lead to a living wage.
Today, the tradition continues as evidenced by the number of colorful galleries and continuing education venues throughout town: Adirondack Artists Guild, BlueSeed, Art Works and the Saranac Lake Young Arts Association, to name a few.
Our self-guided tour started at the Pendragon Theater on River Street, extended down Main and zig-zagged through town. 33 artisan exhibits in total showcased the literary, musical and artistic talents of the community.
Dinner at Fiddlehead Bistro
The imagination parade didn’t end there. We take our reservations for Fiddlehead Bistro on an outdoor patio perched on the banks of the Saranac River. Over plates of green curry mussels, our server handed us pink lemonades pimped out with decorative paper birch straws. What, no plastic straws? Hallelujah!
The locavore menu was just as mindful with sustainable dishes rotated on a seasonal basis. The Bistro buys and prepares foods from several 100% grass-based farms in the Tri-Lakes (Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake) area. Local food truly is fresher, healthier and tastes better when it’s brought in from nearby.
Dad ordered the Lamb Kafta, I ordered the Tofu Steak. Owner Shamim Allen treated us to complimentary dishes of ice-cream and strawberry shortcake. Per her suggestion, we visited the Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning to bread from Triple Green Jade Farm.
The Healing Woods
As expected, Dad awakes the next day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I’m relieved because there’s exercise on the itinerary starting with a customary hike.
The Saranac Lake 6er Challenge is a designation given to those that climb all six Adirondack mountains: Baker, St. Regis, Scarface, Ampersand, Haystack, and McKenzie. None are considered High Peaks but McKenzie is a whopping 10 miler so you still need to be in shape. For those that finish, they are welcome to ring the ceremonial bell in Berkeley Green.
At 1.8 miles, Baker was literally a piece of cake. At the summit, we reveled in stunning views of the McKenzie Mnt. Wilderness Range. We huddled under a canopy of aromatic pines on a rocky ledge and enjoyed our small achievement. On our way down we took the more aggressive but prettier route.
We mellowed out even more with a round of local craft at Blue Line Brewery followed by delicious Mexican next door at Casa del Sol.
Don’t like mosquitos or black flies? Sounds like an indoor exploration of the outdoors is more your speed. The Wild Center in nearby Tupper Lake is a picturesque 20-minute drive from Saranac Lake. Though the Wild Center has many impressive exhibits and educational programs, most people come for two reasons: to see the otters play and to do the Wild Walk — an elevated treetop walkway that’s the Adirondack’s answer to New York City’s High Line.
LINKS TO HELP PLAN YOUR VISIT
Hotel Saranac, 100 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-6900
The Terrace at Hotel Saranac, 100 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-6900
Fiddlehead Bistro, 33 Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-2002
Blue Moon Cafe, 55 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-1310
Adirondack Lakes & Trails Outfitters, 541 Lake Flower Ave, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-7450
St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, 73 Dorsey Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983 (518) 891-1838
Blue Line Brewery, 555 Lake Flower Ave, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 354-8114
Casa Del Sol, 513 Lake Flower Ave, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-2272
The Wild Center, 45 Museum Drive, Tupper Lake, NY 12986, (518) 359-3253
Harbor Hill Lakefront Cabins and Cottages, 1 Harbor Hill Lane, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, (518) 891-2784
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Sonja Stark is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD’s most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.