After the heavy tourist traffic of Lake Placid , Saranac Lake village comes as a relief. Saranac Lake, an unpretentious place with a busy downtown, caters to residents, not tourists.
Although classified as a village, Saranac Lake is a sizeable town (pop. 5,830), with stores, banks, churches, and supermarkets. Like Lake Placid, it is not located on the shores of its namesake, but on smaller Lake Flower, the body of water that you see downtown. The Saranac Lakes—Lower, Middle, and Upper—are farther west. Upper Saranac Lake is famous for its rustic Adirondack architecture, best glimpsed by boat.
Settled in 1819 by Jacob Smith Moody, Saranac Lake soon established itself as a center for Adirondack guides. All of Moody’s sons became guides, and their Uncle Martin once guided everyone from President Grover Cleveland to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1876, a Dr. Livingston Trudeau, suffering from tuberculosis, came to Saranac Lake to die. Instead, the fresh mountain air restored him, and in 1884 he opened the first outdoor sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. By the early 1900s, the Trudeau Sanatorium was famed worldwide, with thousands flocking to “The City of the Sick” to take the cure.
The Trudeau Sanatorium closed in 1954, after antibiotics were developed, but its legacy lives on in the Trudeau Institute, a scientific research institute, and in “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau. Garry is the great-grandson of Dr. Livingston Trudeau.
Saranac Lake centers on Main Street and Lake Flower. Lively Hotel Saranac—a regional landmark run by students from Paul Smith’s College—provides a good base from which to explore the area. A pleasant public beach (518/891-1990, open from dawn to dusk) is located on Lake Colby, just north of downtown.
Among the pioneer “lungers” who came to Saranac Lake to take the cure was Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1887, fresh from the success of his just-published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the author rented a cozy cottage (11 Stevenson Ln., 518/891-1462, 9:30 a.m.–noon and 1–4:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun. July–Oct., adults $5, children under 12 free) on a hill within easy reach of Dr. Trudeau.
While living here, Stevenson wrote some of his best essays and started his long tale, The Master of Ballantrae. “I was walking on the veranda of a small house outside the hamlet of Saranac. It was winter, the night was very dark, the air clean and cold and sweet with the purity of forests. For the making of a story, here were fine conditions,” reads the quote by the door.
In the cottage today is a large collection of Stevenson memorabilia, including his ice skates, playing cards, letters to Henry James, autographed first editions, and the velvet jacket that he always wore while writing. On the mantelpiece are Stevenson’s cigarette burns, which he left wherever he went.
The Pendragon Theatre (148 River St., 518/891-1854) presents professional regional theater November–January and June–September. On the docket are both classic and contemporary works.
A number of popular bars, many hosting local bands on the weekends, hug Main Street near the Hotel Saranac and along Broadway north of Main. Among them are the teeming indoor-outdoor Water Hole (43 Main St., 518/891-9502) and Schue’s Adirondack Bar and Grille (65 Broadway, 518/891-4630), offering pub grub, a bar laminated with maps of the region’s canoe routes, and an outdoor patio. The Boathouse Lounge (100 Main St., 518/891-2200) in the Hotel Saranac is a cozy, low-ceilinged bar/lounge that gets quite crowded on Saturday nights.
The large and friendly St. Regis Canoe Outfitters (73 Dorsey St., 518/891-1838, www.canoeoutfitters.com ) is both a sprawling retail shop and the place to go to set up a canoeing or kayaking trip. St. Regis rents boats and camping gear, provides instruction and trip-planning advice, and offers guided trips and shuttle services. Trips can be arranged for as short as one morning or as long as two weeks or more.
Both Adirondack Foothills (518/359-8194, www.adkfoothills.com ) and McDonnell’s Adirondack Challenges (518/891-1176, www.macscanoe.com ) offer customized hiking, camping, canoeing, and fishing trips. XTC Ranch (Forest Home Rd., Lake Clear, 518/891-5684) offers horseback riding and wagon and sleigh rides.
Hotel Saranac of Paul Smith’s College (100 Main St., 518/891-2200, www.hotelsaranac.com , $68–120 d) is a full-service, snug brick hostelry built in 1927. Contained within are 88 small but comfortable rooms, and a lobby that’s a replica of the foyer in the Danvanzati Palace in Florence, Italy. The hotel is run by eager-to-please students studying hotel management at nearby Paul Smith’s College.
The hotel’s breakfast restaurant, A. P. Smiths’, is also run by students. In back, you’ll find Boathouse Lounge (average entrée $14) which serves contemporary American fare.
It might seem rather surprising to find a good Mexican restaurant in the heart of the Adirondacks , but nonetheless, here is the bright and cheery Casa del Sol (154 Lake Flower Ave./Rte. 86, 518/891-0977, $12). In summer, dine on the outdoor patio.
Morgan’s 11 (33 Broadway, 518/897-1111) is the place to go for wood-fired pizza and pasta, or for a drink at a friendly local bar. An outdoor patio overlooks the Saranac River.