2006: Old meets new
Thursday, July 21, 2011
BOLTON LANDING, N.Y.
Hospitality industry executives sometimes complain, with some justification, about reviews of their properties based on a single visit, but the perspective my wife and I brought to our “secret shopper” trip to The Sagamore was different. Over the course of roughly two decades, one or both of us have visited this venerable resort, which occupies its own 70-acre island on Lake George, perhaps a dozen times. So we already knew the place cold; the question was more about the delicate balance between “modernization” and “improvement,” particularly since tradition and familiarity are integral to The Sagamore’s identity.
To be sure, our window of experience at the resort is but a dormer in its sprawling facade. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, The Sagamore first opened in 1883 and became a social center for wealthy patrons from New York, Philadelphia and Boston, some of whom had vacation homes on “Millionaires’ Row” on Lake George’s western shore. Following intermittent burn-and-rebuild cycles, the resort opened for the fourth time in 1985, following a $75 million renovation.
More recent additions have included conference facilities, a completely refurbished fine-dining facility, and a dramatically expanded spa.
The basic storyline is similar to many older Northeast resorts, and The Sagamore could in many ways serve as an object lesson in how to handle change. Of course, it has a number of resources that cannot simply be duplicated, beginning with its setting, closely followed by its Donald Ross-designed golf course, which opened in 1928. Located on the mainland, about a 10-minute drive from the resort itself – shuttle service is provided gratis – it is a par 70 measuring 6,821 yards from the back tees.
The complete renovation in 1985 employed Ross’ original blueprints. Not a Ross purist, I’m content to leave questions of authenticity to others, although one certainly will find the crowned greens, cross bunkering and other features characteristic of the master’s work. More important to the average golf guest are the less obvious reasons for Ross’ iconic status, namely great variety in individual hole design and clever segregation of fairways on a site totaling only 190 acres, including wetlands. Short by today’s standards, the course manages to be plenty long for the vast majority of resort players. “Classical” green-to-tee dimensions make it walkable, though there are several steep inclines, as well as management-imposed restrictions on hoofing it.
The ’85 renovation added an irrigation system, and course conditions – maintenance of which can be a dogged undertaking in these parts – always have been good to excellent, the only exception being the two par 5s that occupy the lowest spot in the terrain and thus are prone to sogginess. No doubt because of limited acreage, the practice range is on the small side, though perfectly adequate for a warm-up, as is true of the two compact putting greens.
The green fee is as much as $115 for resort guests during peak weekends – we paid $85 with cart the weekend before the season’s “official” start – but it’s still a deal relative to many resorts. It is crucial to book a tee time in advance because the course hosts many group outings, is open to pubic play (top green fee: $135) and has some 200 local members. The pro shop staff is accommodating and adept at juggling.
The decision to preserve the Ross design may have been a no-brainer, but The Sagamore’s other adaptations show ingenuity. To compensate for a cramped front desk area where check-in could be chaotic, the resort built a registration center just outside the property’s security kiosk. It both simplifies secure entry and egress from the grounds and frees the main hotel’s desk for concierge functions.
Once considered an option, a full-service spa is today de rigueur for any upscale resort. At older complexes, however, this too often takes the form of an afterthought, shoe-horned into whatever square footage is available. Despite its size and staff of 80, the Sagamore Spa avoids this appearance. The Swedish massage my wife indulged in received high marks but, again, reserving a time required finagling, so book early.
Not long ago, the main dining room resembled – what? – a giant cathouse, I imagine. So we laughed upon seeing that the predominantly pink color scheme had been replaced by a soothing gray
and white palette, the lakefront vistas as grand as ever. And although service at Trillium bis could be sporadic – for example, we had to request bread midway through the meal – the meal itself was among the best resort fare we’ve had. There are a half-dozen other culinary alternatives, including Mister Brown’s Pub and The Club Grill, which is next to the first tee and is a good place for an after-round snack or a steak dinner.
Accommodations at The Sagamore include 100 rooms and suites in the main hotel decorated in a “Colonial revival” motif that complements the building’s architecture. The 240 lodges, half of them suites with fireplaces and terraces, struck us as less quaint and slightly dated – ours had what appeared to be a 13-inch TV – but might be preferable if you bring the kids. The Hermitage is a self-contained “executive retreat” with 10 bi-leveled suites overlooking the lake.
Speaking of kids, this place has enough activities to wear out even the most manic among them, especially in summer. There is a private beach area and a full-service marina. Other options include lake cruises on the Morgan – The Sagamore’s 72-foot yacht – white-water rafting, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding and kayaking. There is a rope- and rock-climbing obstacle course and, in winter, skiing, snowshoeing and skating.
Whether for strategic or purely spatial reasons, The Sagamore also made a prudent choice in locating its conference center at a discrete distance from the main hotel, thus isolating, to the extent feasible, leisure guests from their corporate counterparts. Indeed, a sizeable group was in the house during
the weekend we visited – as were two wedding parties and one 50th anniversary contingent – and this formed the basis of our only regret, however quibbling and self-serving.
Though treated politely, it was sometimes difficult not to feel a bit like outsiders. Being asked to spell and respell my name numerous times – the result of a mistake in the reservations process – did not help. More than that, though, the resort seemed less like The Sagamore of yore, more like the bustling, full-service resort it has become.