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Summer camp, for me, conjures two distinct memories. The first from childhood, where, with lanky legs, skinned knees, and hair brushed into a high ponytail framed by pom-poms, I boarded a bus for day camp. Deep in the Appalachian mountains, my week was spent hiking, swimming and, just before closing-flag ceremony, running three-legged races. On our final day, the grand finale, we slept overnight in sleeping bags in lean-to huts, toasted s’mores around a blazing fire and sang camp songs. I loved the forest and soft pine needles beneath my feet; the rushing stream and waving wildflowers. But disliked the competitive team sports. And the bugs. So many gnats and mosquitoes.
My next ‘summer camp’ experience came decades later, as a young adult, at the invitation of a friend, to her family lake house in New Hampshire. She warned me, ahead of time, it was rustic. A simple log cabin with no indoor plumbing – just a make-shift, outdoor, rain-bucket shower. And functional outhouse. I remember restricting my intake of fluids for fear of having to actually use the outdoor wooden structure. Especially at night. The worry of making my way, flashlight in hand, and stepping on a snake or bumping into a wild raccoon, opossum, bear – was real.
Neither experience prepared me for my stay at Lake Kora in the Adirondacks, one of the last remaining ‘Great Camps’ in the United States, which miraculously combined everything I loved from my former camping experiences: the towering pines, glistening lakes, flowers and endless walking trails. But with adult comforts. Gourmet meals. Wine. Cushy beds. ‘Wiki-ups’ (as they are called here) for toasting s’mores around the fire. Lavish baths featuring claw foot tubs and lake views. Even a private steam room and sauna.
Owned by New Zealander Mark Palmer (who also owns Annandale in New Zealand), Lake Kora is a true slice of Americana – a sprawling, timbered compound on the edge of a private lake built on generations of America’s most influential and monied families.
“I love being around the books, especially knowing that Theodore Roosevelt held them in his hands,” says Lake Kora’s Jill McKenty, while showing me through the camp’s main lodge, home to a massive stone fireplace and rows of centuries-old taxidermy (elk, deer, bear, birds) – once-prized hunting trophies – and all of which can be discreetly removed if desired. “It’s like touching history.”
Indeed, Lake Kora is rich in history – beginning with Roosevelt’s lieutenant governor, Timothy Woodruff, who once owned the 1000-acre compound and whose tenure was legendary in his circles for importing gondolas from Venice to ply the lake, releasing semi-tamed bears to roam among the cabins, and introducing telephone service as early as 1903.
Following Woodruff’s death, his neighbor, Albert Vanderbilt, purchased the property, but owned it only briefly. The next owner, Francis Garvan, a former New York assistant district attorney – and later his widow, Mabel Brady Garvan (whose favorite Tree House room is still intact) – kept the property ‘off-the-public-radar’ for decades. It was only after Palmer purchased Lake Kora, that the former Great Camp was opened to the public as an exclusive-use (14-guest) experience. Perfect for families.
Under Palmer’s mindful eye, Lake Kora – fabulously updated with wifi, cushy bedding, and much-loved stashes of M&Ms and blue-glass-bottled spring water at every turn – continues to offer guests slices of its gilded past.
Today’s guests walk the same round-the-lake trails. Paddle the same (now-vintage) canoes; sit on the same exquisitely carved handmade furniture; bathe in the same claw foot tubs; knock down the same wooden bowling pins on the same Brunswick lanes. And warm up by the same gargantuan stone fireplaces, as much a signature of the Adirondacks as its famed wooden deck chairs.
Guests also experience the same exhilarating hospitality – with Callum Farnell, general manager (who splits time between Lake Kora and Annandale, NZ) – the ultimate host. And boatman. As adapt on the water as he is an engaging conversationalist, lightening the fine-dining table with intriguing stories and tales of the wilderness.
In true camp style, days are spent on and around the water. Swimming. Sunbathing. Kayaking. Standup paddle boarding. Tubing. Water skiing. Fishing. Or simply just walking. Every morning, I rise early and, with coffee in hand, walk quietly around the lake. The silence deafening yet beautifully reflective. I return to an active long dining table where fellow travelers, over coffee and Relais-Chateaux-worthy omelets and buttermilk pancakes, are making plans for the day. Which, as with many groups who stay here, include those age-old camp-sports rivalries. But here, they are civilized. Friendly even.
Our 14 ‘campers’ – drawing names from a hat – are quickly divided into two teams: ‘Ospreys’ and ‘Loons,’ with competitions set up in the bowling alley, on the kickball field and, following lunch on the patio (complete with lemonade vodka), the water. Via a two-person kayaking relay race to ‘the island house’ (a gorgeously secluded home in the middle of the lake) and back.
The rest of the day is at leisure. And while most dive into the lake, or board a boat captained by Callum for tubing and water-skiing, I slip away – under canopied pine trees, and past lush green ferns and timber houses – to the camp’s former ‘ice house’ now turned two-story spa. Here, I dip into a private wooden sauna to bake, then pad quietly outside onto a shaded deck, with Adirondack chairs and ice-cold rain shower. A ritual I repeat several times. Over several hours.
The day ends with the sun sinking over the lake and gourmet meal by the fire before heading off, small flashlights guiding our way, across the great lawn to the wiki-ups – furnished with comfy pillows and bedding. No one is hungry, but we gather around the roaring fire anyway – toasting our marshmallows until they are ‘just right’ (brownish but not burned) – pairing them onto graham crackers with bars of chocolate. A taste of childhood. Catered to adults.
Note: Lake Kora is open July 1 through October 15. From July to September 1, the property is reserved on an exclusive-use basis (up to 14 guests). From September 1 to October 15, Lake Kora is available as both exclusive use. Or individual rooms may also be booked.
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