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December 2013

The Luxe Life

A former Rockefeller Great Camp is now the Adirondacks’ most exclusive resort. Inside The Point on Upper Saranac Lake

Photograph courtesy of The Point

At the end of twisty Beaverwood Road, The Point’s twiggy gate swings open. You’re told, “This is your camp. You’re the Rockefellers.” And it feels that way: the champagne placed in your hand as you tour the Upper Saranac Lake property; your handsome room with stone fireplace; the green polo–shirted staff who seem to emerge from the trees with trays of cocktails and gourmet fare.

The Point offers an Adirondack fantasy that conjures William Avery Rockefeller II, who commissioned this Great Camp as his getaway, Wonundra. It was built post–Gilded Age, during the Depression, decades after iconic compounds like Pine Knot, Nehasane and Sagamore welcomed the rich for summer-long stays. By the 1930s the Adirondack house party was still stylish and, in many ways, more exclusive. The Rockefellers were, after all, among those who continued their lavish life, attending posh soirees and sailing races in the midst of the country’s financial collapse. One 1936 New York Times article describes a rendezvous of the Upper Saranac and St. Regis yacht clubs. Listed with the well-heeled attendees and their respective Adirondack Great Camps: “Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller are at their Camp Wonundra on the Upper Saranac Lake.”

William Avery Rockefeller’s grandfather was one of John D.’s brothers, and a co-founder of Standard Oil. Long before Wonundra, the Rockefeller family had established Bay Pond Park, a giant preserve in Paul Smiths. Although William Avery owned much of Bay Pond, he commissioned Wonundra on Upper Saranac because, according to The Point’s archives, his wife at the time “felt Bay Pond was too remote in winter.” Upper Saranac was a major social waterway, ringed with grand homes and their privileged occupants.

In 1933 the camp was completed and named Wonundra—an Australian Aborigine word for “Big Rock,” the story goes, for the property’s prominent chunk of bedrock that pokes into the lake. It was designed by Saranac Lake architect William G. Distin, who apprenticed under and later partnered with William L. Coulter, the man responsible for rustic embellishments now associated with the Great Camp vernacular. By the 1930s, Distin was well-known for regional projects that included St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness, in Paul Smiths; Upper Saranac Lake’s Island Chapel; Eagle Nest near Blue Mountain Lake; St. Bernard’s Catholic Church, in Saranac Lake; Lake Placid’s Northwood School and the 1932 Olympic arena. Upper Saranac Lake lore has Rockefeller approaching the architect, saying, “I know you have a dream house. Build it for me.”

In Wonundra’s main lodge, Distin incorporated his trademark octagonal room, used for the foyer, as well as his “butterfly” or “sun trap” plan, where bedrooms radiate off a soaring rectangular great room. The compound’s buildings—a guest cabin, garage, boathouse and sap house among them—were constructed with native cut stone and Canadian logs, a sturdy approach to the rocky, rugged surroundings, unlike other trophy camps’ delicate tangled-twig and peely birchbark exteriors.

Today, in The Point’s iconic eight-sided entryway, general manager Cameron Karger gives a tour of the resort’s guest rooms: Iroquois, daughter Elsie Rockefeller’s bedroom; Morningside, where sons William and Frederick slept; the Rockefellers’ master bedroom, Mohawk; William Avery’s private study, now Algonquin. In the guesthouse is Weatherwatch, where William Avery, an amateur photographer, had a darkroom. The slate sinks he used to develop film are still in the bathroom and his black-and-white Wonundra photographs hang on the walls. The garage has been renovated into a pub with billiards, a jukebox and Stave puzzles, with guest rooms above and behind. And the Boathouse, perched over parking spaces for an Elco launch and a 1929-replica Hacker-craft, is one of the resort’s most sought-after quarters.

All decor here is Adirondack-style, but stately and re­strained—polished wood, stonework, oil paintings, leather. It’s a contrast to some regional lodges’ abundant taxidermy and textures, but also to the Rockefellers’ original aesthetic: early photographs of Wonundra bedrooms show simple country house furnishings with plain bedspreads and quilts.

The property’s 75 acres are maintained in a careful balance of groomed and wild, what Karger calls “rustic elegance.” There are tennis courts and a manicured croquet court, but also two hiking trails with caches of bottled water and snacks along the way. (Between the trails is Camp David, a cabin where hikers find gourmet nourishment waiting for them and, in season, a crackling fire.) A Ski Nautique, Budsin electric boats, kayaks, canoes, rowboats, guideboats—name the watercraft and it’s here—are available as well as every type of rec equipment, from snowshoes and curling stones to fly rods and yoga mats. Each night a campfire roars on The Point’s big rock promontory; guests can cozy up in Adirondack chairs and blankets or in the tricked-out lean-to with built-in bar. Truffle popcorn’s usually served and expertly carved marshmallow roasting sticks are at the ready. Hammocks are strung throughout the property, staples for digital detox—no televisions, computers or cell phones (coverage is spotty) at The Point. Unplugging may seem like an exotic idea, but Karger says most guests embrace it: “They say it’s their first true vacation; they’re forced to relax.”

Food here is legendary. Award-winning British chef Mark Levy and his team cater to guests’ whims—even in the dead of night. A chalkboard in the main lodge’s bustling kitchen lists the days’ meals, which can be amended for personal taste or dietary needs. (Guests are invited to raid the pantry and refrigerators, one of which is the Rockefellers’ original 1929 GE.) Picnics are prepared for treks to Camp David, for Elco cruises or wherever. As a Relais & Châteaux Property—a distinction that puts The Point with a fellowship of some 500 of the most luxurious hotels and restaurants in the world—fine cuisine is a prerequisite. The Point was added to the Relais roster in 1983, among the first properties in North America, soon after it opened its doors to guests. Depending on the room, a one-night stay here ranges from $1,500 to $2,990 a night (an all-inclusive price that covers food, drinks and activities).

At The Point you get “customized service,” explains Karger. “The tiniest details make all the difference.” The goal is to “anticipate guests’ needs.”

That formula is working, according to Karger: he says The Point has a 60 percent return rate—visitors from everywhere, including Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Canada. He and his staff won’t divulge names, but true or not, word’s trickled out that Robert De Niro, U2’s Bono, Sigourney Weaver, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, British lords, Saudi princes, investment bankers, corporate CEOs and politicians have stayed here. One rumor has Bill Gates being turned away because he brought his kids; children under 18 aren’t permitted (unless the entire property’s been booked, at $23,000 a night), though dogs are welcome.

Hospitality’s an art form at The Point. Each night Karger  or another Point staffer accompanies up to 22 guests for dinner—black tie on Wednesdays and Saturdays—served communally at two round tables in the Great Hall. This is a Point tradition, a throwback to the Rockefeller days, when fabulous guests from all over shared fine meals. Hosting such gatherings takes skill in reading people and shifting conversation when it veers in the wrong direction. But it works in this setting. “A lot of friends are made here, many of whom arrange to come back here together,” says Karger. “We’re creating a relaxed environment that feels like home.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Karger, originally from Texas, has been in this business since he was a kid, first as a busboy at the Hotel Colorado, in Glenwood Springs. “I fell in love with the food and beverage side of things,” he says. Karger fine-tuned his craft at Aspen’s The Little Nell; in Napa he worked at Colgin, Bryant Family, Aubert and Futo wineries (he now runs The Point’s wine program); his next stop was at the Inn at Dos Brisas, a 300-acre farm-to-table Relais property outside of Houston. In 2010 he and his now eight-year-old son, Baylor, came to Upper Sa­ranac, because “The Point has always been the ultimate,” he says.

Under Karger are about 50 staff members, including Holly Dykeman, who works in food service. She’s a 17-year Point employee and says, “I love the people I work for, the guests who come here. I just love my job.”

Those behind the scenes at The Point are mostly Adirondackers. In addition to the staff based at Upper Saranac Lake are on-call experts from across the re­gion: naturalists, massage therapists, guides, stylists. Whenever possible The Point’s chefs use in­gredients from North Country farms. Paintings, woodwork, jewelry, pottery and hand-knit items are sold in the resort’s boutique—pieces by local artists and artisans who front office manager Katrina Lauber discovers at nearby galleries and farmers’ markets.

While The Point’s gate closes behind that night’s paying guests, it takes these connections to the greater Adi­rondack community for the region’s most exclusive resort to thrive.

Which is why it was such a big deal when news broke last spring that The Point’s owners since 2007—a group of investors associated with the Everlands Life Destination Club (an invitation-only consortium of luxury property owners)—defaulted on a multi-million-dollar loan, forcing the resort into foreclosure. There was, and continues to be, fear that a public auction would be the de­mise of the place, displacing workers and compromising the preservation of the Rockefellers’ estate.

According to Karger, an auction will not happen; the owners aren’t interested in closing the property, but selling it as a resort to the right buyer. “The plan is to not make any changes and continue on our path for perfection,” he says. “Guests are coming back, things are happening. We’re looking better than we have in a long time.”

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