By Jamie Martin (@jamielmartin) / April 2013 Experience Life Magazine
Huddling close to the blazing fire as the sun settles behind the Adirondacks, I sip my glass of chardonnay and take in camp.
Just-lit tiki torches mark the gentle slope to our canvas cabin. Lanterns and flickering tea lights set in carved birch limbs light the rustic dining pavilion and backcountry kitchen. A gurgling creek provides a comforting soundtrack in the otherwise silent woods.
It’s our first night at Camp Orenda, and after spending the previous evening in Manhattan, the quiet is a welcome reprieve from the city’s hustle. Thankfully, though, leaving the city doesn’t mean relinquishing our creature comforts. Because this is not your typical camping adventure.
Nestled on 40 acres in Mill Creek Valley, a former mining and trapping region in the southeast corner of the Adirondack Mountains in New York, Camp Orenda is a “glamping” retreat. Short for “glamorous camping,” glamping is an upgraded version of the traditional outdoor activity. It gets you out in nature without the hassle of actually pitching a tent. Or sleeping in sleeping bags, or eating hot dogs charred to a crisp over a campfire. Here, there are comfortable beds in heated tents, portable toilets, even a tiled outdoor shower. Oh, and home-cooked meals. Speaking of which . . .
“Dinner is served, guys!” calls camp chef Stacia Daniels. Tonight’s menu: grilled salmon with an asparagus-dill cream sauce over a bed of wild rice, with sautéed asparagus and cucumber salad. Not a charred hot dog in sight.
AS OUR five-year wedding anniversary approached, my husband and I wanted to celebrate with something more memorable than the usual dinner out. My camping experience was limited to the few days a summer my family spent at a Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp-Resorts when I was growing up, but my husband had at least canoed the rugged Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota in his youth. These days we both get our nature fix at our family lake home.
Camp Orenda offered us a chance for an exciting outdoor adventure without camping’s inherent annoyances, like soggy sleeping bags and arguments over whose idea it was in the first place.
Glamping’s origins date back to the early 1900s, when wealthy European and American travelers adventured to Africa. After days spent hunting or on safari, they retreated to canvas tents, fully furnished and equipped with all the amenities of a luxury hotel. This approach to camping spread beyond the continent and has been popular internationally for years, especially in Europe.
Only within the last decade has glamping taken off in the United States. While accommodations and prices vary greatly depending on the outfitter or resort (see “Going Glamping,” at ELmag.com/glamping), the idea remains the same: to take the “roughing it” out of camping and make the pleasures of nature available to a more comfort-seeking crowd.
“We get a lot of city people who are just looking to escape from their hectic schedules for a few days,” says our host David Webb, the founder and owner of Camp Orenda, which opened in 2011.
“They want to be outdoors, but they don’t want to spend their time worrying about the logistics of camping, like buying and setting up all the gear.”
We briefly cross paths with a few of these folks when we arrive at camp late Sunday afternoon. “We are hooked on this place,” says Courtney DeCrenza of Fleetwood, N.Y. “It’s the best of both worlds, combining an outdoor experience with catered meals and the romantic vibe of the beautiful tents.”
She, her husband, and three close friends, all from the New York City area, had spent the weekend at Orenda hiking and ATV-riding. Their neighboring campers were five New Jersey women on a getaway to celebrate a 50th birthday. “What a cast of characters,” DeCrenza says. “Our groups immediately clicked. We sat around the fire all weekend making each other laugh for hours.”
With only five “cabins” and one large campfire pit, Camp Orenda is an intimate setting — an intentional decision Webb made during construction.
“I wanted to create a place where people can really connect with others,” he explains. “A lot of times, a family or group of friends will rent the entire place; other times, people are complete strangers. Thankfully, we’ve never had a problem with people getting along. They usually leave promising to keep in touch.”
Such is the case for DeCrenza and the New Jersey glampers. “We enjoyed each other’s company so much that we continue to keep in touch. We even plan to get together in the city around the holidays.”
AFTER THAT first delicious dinner (and s’mores for dessert), it’s time for bed. Our 10-by-12-foot canvas cabin is toasty warm, thanks to a little wood-burning stove. The queen-size bed is topped with plenty of pillows and cozy fleece blankets; a good thing, since we’ve arrived just as an unseasonable cold spell settled in. The matching bedside tables are stocked with candles, matches, books, towels and bottles of water.
I fall asleep reading, the crackling wood lulling me to dreamland.
At 5:30 a.m. I wake up with a cold nose and nudge my husband to relight the fire. It takes some effort, but it’s soon warm and we both fall asleep until 8:30. It’s the latest I’ve slept since our daughter was born two years ago, and I feel refreshed, ready for our first full day.
We dress in layers before making our way to the backcountry kitchen, where Webb greets us with fresh-brewed coffee and orange juice. Breakfast is made to order, and we opt for scrambled eggs and locally sourced bacon, cooked by Webb over the open fire. He moves deftly around the well-stocked kitchen, cleaning and prepping for the day as we enjoy our meal.
We’re hoping to go for a challenging hike, and Webb, a former construction manager turned mountain guide, explains that Crane Mountain is our best bet. “I’ll take you there when you’re ready. Can I pack you lunch to take along?”
Three hours later, at the summit of Crane Mountain, we stop to enjoy the breathtaking view and eat. Webb had dropped us at the trailhead, leaving us with clear instructions for making our way first to Crane Pond, one of the few bodies of water on a mountaintop on the East Coast, and then to the summit.
It was a challenging climb and we’re starving as we unwrap our gourmet sandwiches: ham and turkey layered with fresh arugula, tomatoes, mayo and mustard, all encased in delicious ciabatta bread.
We nosh on trail mix and apples, and we talk. Just talk. Without phones or a rambunctious 2-year-old around, it’s the first time in months that we’ve had this kind of concentrated time together. We cover everything from day-to-day to-dos to big dreams and goals. We agree that we want to nurture a love of nature in our daughter, doing activities like this with her as she grows.
BACK AT camp later that afternoon, we’re exhausted and sore from the rocky descent. We’re thrilled with our accomplishment, and ready to relax. I take a long, hot shower (water is piped from the creek and heated in an overhead tank), watching as the steam rises into the crisp mountain air, mingling with falling leaves. I feel my muscles begin to release.
Webb’s love of the land, which has been in his family for half a century, is clearly conveyed in the care and consideration given to every detail of camp. “My goal was and is to expose people to the beauty and wonders of the Adirondacks that I enjoyed as a child,” he says.
I take some time later in the afternoon to poke around the grounds. Posts and logs are decorated with rusty beaver and muskrat traps, hinting at the area’s history. Pots of yellow and burgundy mums adorn the steps to the dining and kitchen areas and each cabin deck; seasonal gourds and pumpkins top the picnic tables.
We’re the only ones at camp right now, so I check out the other tents, which are situated to give each party plenty of privacy. I make my way up the hill to the camp garden, the bounty of which fed campers earlier in the summer.
It’s starting to cool off as I join my husband by the fire and settle in with a cup of hot tea. Webb and his staff are beginning the dinner prep as a new group of fellow campers arrives.
A couple in their mid-20s from New York City, Maureen and Tianna, are wearing the same looks of wariness we donned upon our own arrival just yesterday, not quite sure what to expect.
“It typically takes people an hour or so to ‘get’ what this is all about,” says Webb. “People expect tent next to tent, like a lot of campgrounds. When they realize that it’s a quieter, more intimate experience, then they begin to relax.”
We ask the newcomers to join us, answering their questions and sharing our tips as now-expert glampers. We gush about the food, the beds and the hospitality. We share our plans for kayak-ing Garnet Lake and hiking to Lizard Pond tomorrow, then lounging in the hammocks. In no time we’re bonding over shared loves of music and plates of grilled sausage with peppers and onions.
Glamping, it turns out, is the ideal outdoor experience for my husband and me. It’s the perfect balance of nature with creature comforts, activity with relaxation, time alone with time connecting — with each other and new friends. I have no doubt that we’ll glamp again, whether here or closer to home in Minnesota, and with our daughter.
I can already imagine her splashing in the creek, her shrieks of joy mixed with the clinks and clangs of our next meal being prepped nearby.