The only community in America to host the Winter Olympics twice, in 1932 and 1980, Lake Placid has outdoor sports in its DNA. Tucked along a scenic New York lake in the even more scenic Adirondack Mountains, this is not a seasonal resort that rolls up its slopes between Memorial Day and Labor Day. No doubt, skiers, skaters, bobsledders, and spectators of same put this village on the map, but the destination also packs plenty of appeal for hikers, birdwatchers, photographers, and travelers in search of a low-key hideaway. They don’t call it placid for nothing.
5… Discover the good ways that life is downhill
Over the last decade, Lake Placid’s imposing mountain, Whiteface, has invested more than $20 million into new high-speed lifts, trails, on-mountain amenities, and a terrain park for snowboarders to try out their gymnastic 720s and flips. Winter-long promotions for the 2009-2010 season include a $35 lift ticket on Sundays, half the regular rate. The chairlift operates almost year-round because the view from the top is spectacular in any season, especially in autumn when the trees wear their Technicolor best, and in winter when the snow turns the panorama into a Currier & Ives print.
Whiteface is a good place to learn to ski or ride, with ample beginner terrain, but it is the 3,340 vertical drop – longer than Vail, Colorado – that lures downhill diehards. That includes the racers competing in the U. S. Alpine Championships in March, 2010 (www.lakeplacidevents.net). The competition is just one of many world class events held here year-round, including the Lake Placid Marathon each June, and the Lake Placid Ironman each July.
4… Obey your need for speed
The competitors who careen down a sharply curved, iced track head first on oversized, one-person cafeteria trays called ‘skeletons’ or in a two-person luge may or may not be just a bit nuts.
Ditto the visitors who line up from October to April for the chance to tackle the track. However, like its cousins – Utah’s Olympic Park and St. Moritz, to name a couple – Lake Placid doesn’t permit civilian joy rides in skeletons or luges. If you choose to step up, you and your friend (or you and the next solo rider in line) will have to settle for being sandwiched between a professional driver and brakeman in a four-person bobsled. The half-mile run will be either the fastest 52 seconds of your life or the slowest, depending on the speed at which your life tends to flash before your eyes at 80 mph. Either way you get a photo and t-shirt as bragging rights ($75, www.orda.org, 518-523-4436, reservations are recommended).
While devoid of G-force-like turns, a turn on one of the Olympic Center’s four ice rinks can be just as dizzying. There’s a rich history of figure skating here, which began several decades before the 1980 Olympics, and future Olympians train here year-round. Will one of these skaters be the next Eric Heiden, who won a then-record number of speed-skating medals here in 1980, or legendary figure skater Sonja Henie, who headed for Hollywood fame and fortune after her 1932 gold? For the recreational visitor, the rinks, including the speedskating oval, are open to the public when there’s not a competition or show ($7 for adults and $5 for students and seniors; skate rentals $3).
3… Take a hike
Mount Marcy is the tallest mountain in New York State, and popular with hikers whose goal is to dip their toes in the Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the mighty, 315-mile-long Hudson River. You’ll find several well-marked trails past waterfalls and gurgling brooks; just pick the length and difficulty level from the choices at each trailhead.
In winter, you can rent snowshoes and cross country skis from the Adirondack Mountain Club, a non-profit conservation group that also hosts seminars and workshops and operates a popular log and stone lodge, with accommodations for 40 (www.adk.org, 518-523-3441). It’s rustic and relaxed, not modern, which is its main appeal, along with the hearty homemade meals guests are served. Or, head 30 minutes north of Lake Placid village to Au Sable Chasm, whose astonishing rock walls were carved 500 million years ago. Take a hike one-mile past waterfalls and whirlpools, or act like a tourist and board one of the sightseeing boats at Table Rock (www.highfallsgorge.com, 518-946-2278).
2… Go to town
Follow the locals to The Dancing Bears, just off Main Street, for the picture postcard view of Mirror Lake, woodsy décor, piping-hot sandwiches, and ice-cold beer (2384 Saranac Ave., 518-523 3619, www.highpeaksresort.com ). Some reviewers say Lisa G’s (6125 Sentinel Road, www.lisageez.com) has the best burgers in the Adirondacks, although regulars would argue the focus ought to be on the eatery’s chicken wings, hot or not, $5.95 at both lunch and dinner, great to munch outdoors when the weather permits.
Stroll the main drag and pause to see some glassblowing at The Glassblowing Shop (2525 Main St., 518-523-8750, www.theglassblowingshop.com ), or search for furniture and other giftables made by local artisans at Moontree (2422 Main St., 518-523-1970, www.resortstores.com/lp.moontree). Knock off your obligatory souvenir shopping at the ORDA store (2426 Main St., 518-534-1420, www.orda.org ), which carries Lake Placid Olympics logo souvenir cups, caps and trinkets. Or, a few doors down, sniff out keepsakes from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver at the Olympic Spirit shop (518-523-4856, www.teamusa.com).
1… Just get out there
The 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Museum (yes, that’s its official name; 2634 Main St, 518-523-1655, $5 adult, $3 kids and seniors) may further inspire you to get out there and tune into the healthy, outdoors lifestyle that provokes visitors to come back and keeps locals from moving away.
Whiteface is a family-friendly resort, with learning slopes safely away from the main mountain. It can get bitterly cold here in the dead of winter, so long johns and warm gloves and boots are part of the uniform, on or off the slopes. However, it’s easy to build up some body heat on an aerobic circumnavigation of Mirror Lake. A 2.7 mile path around the lake starts and ends downtown. When the ground is snow-covered, it’s ideal for cross-country skiing, and in other seasons, it melts into a red cobblestone walkway for walking or jogging, with or without Fido as company.
In April and May, when the melting snow pack turns the Hudson and Indian rivers into frothy foam, the whitewater rafting here, between Glens Falls and Lake Placid, is the equal of anything in Colorado or Idaho. If you doubt New York State can rustle up Class III and Class IV rapids, you’ll believe once you witness a particularly spectacular stretch that goes on for several miles as the river drops 17 feet (Wild Waters Outdoor Center, Warren, www.wildwaters.net, 800-867-2335).
Then again, if you’re in search of an activity that’s a bit more placid, you can rent a canoe from one of the many outfitters in town for peaceful paddling on Mirror Lake, with or without a fishing pole.