The Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies may have had the funds to propel 19th-century America through its post-Civil War economic boom, but for these Gilded-Age elite families, holidays were about the modest pleasures in life.
In summer during the 1800s, the most prominent East Coast families would gather up their sturdier kitchen wear, linen and packhorses and set out on camping retreats in the Adirondack Mountains, in deepest upstate New York. In reality these rustic jollies were more akin to a modern-day five-star safari, with elaborately designed log cabins that became known as the Great Camps.
Fast-forward to today, and where do the dotcom rich and East Coast bankers go for some R&R but a Great Camp, or at least its modern equivalent. Thanks to Joe Barile, a former Olympic luger and local developer, the Adirondacks are once again home to a Great Camp in the shape of the Whiteface Lodge Resort and Spa.
This new hotel, which is set in 14 acres of woods near the 1980 Winter Olympics village at Lake Placid, aims to evoke the "rustic" splendour of the Gilded Age. Think vast exposed timber ceilings, soaring tree trunks for beams, rough-hewn wainscoting milled from native pine, as well as locally hand-forged cast-iron chandeliers. Add to this a newly opened luxury 24-hour spa, a gourmet restaurant and more outdoor sports than an Olympic luger could shake a sled at and you have a Great Camp for the 21st century. And an additional perk? Just like those families in the Gilded Age, guests can own a piece of this well-kept wilderness.
The latest stateside vacation status symbol is something much smarter than merely owning a holiday home: it is fractional ownership. Fractionals, or private residence clubs, represent one of the fastest-growing areas in the holiday-home market. According to CNN, new sales totalled $1.5bn in 2005, up 42 per cent for the year, with dozens more projects in the works.
The idea of fractionals is that you buy into a resort, affording you the luxuries of a high-end holiday home with hotel facilities, at a tenth of the price. The only drawback is that you can go only a limited number of weeks a year. Yet, distinct from the timeshare concept, you don't just buy holiday time but invest in both the property and the business. Fractionals are just appearing this side of the Atlantic, too. One example is 47 Park Street in London. Aimed at people who regularly visit London for business but are fed up with hotels, this property, like the Whiteface Lodge, offers the added possibility of swapping your residence time with affiliated hotels around the world.
So what kind of experience is offered at the Whiteface Lodge, a hotel where partials represent the lion's share of business? During a snowy February weekend I visited with my family. In the manicured grounds a roaring firepit had been lit by the side of the ice rink (open year round) and someone had laid out marshmallows for toasting. Skates and snowshoes were for the taking in a little yurt-style tent under the snow-laden pine trees.
Yet while the lodge was reportedly near capacity, there was not a guest, or staff member, in sight. "That's a key idea of the place," explains chief operating officer Olivier Bottois the next morning over coffee in the grand dining room – which we had to ourselves. "Each of the 94 suites is self-sufficient, just like a family home. You rarely see people roaming around, and if you do there are so many places to go that they rarely get crowded."
Unlike most guests we did roam around, past the 56-seat surround-sound cinema where the latest movies are screened around the clock, patrons or no, the old-fashioned ice cream parlour and family games room (with mini bowling alley). I took a lengthy dip in the linked indoor/outdoor heated pool and saw not another soul. This might have had something to do with the fact that it was freezing outside. More fool the other alleged guests: the view of White Face Mountain, after which the lodge takes its name, was spectacular.
But at night the bar draws people out of their privileged corners. In fact, to secure a place around one of the granite fireplaces, we share a couch with Rob and Alisa, who've been out all day ice climbing in one of the region's many frozen waterfalls. They don't seem to mind sharing their well-earned fireside spot. "This place is very relaxed," says Rob. "A place for families to come and truly kick back."
Case in point, we deposit our offspring with the babysitter and wander over for dinner in Steak and Stinger, the main restaurant. Under 28ft-high timber ceilings we eat hearty dishes cooked up by chef Brian Moyers, formerly of Manhattan's Nobu, Tribeca Grill and Lotus. We conclude, after getting the bill, that if you're prepared to pay Manhattan prices for your piece of carefully tailored wilderness, then this is the holiday home for you.
How to get there:
Sarah Barrell was a guest of British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com), which flies from London to New York from £432 return. Her car hire was courtesy of Carrentals (carrentals. co.uk), which offers a week's car hire from £151. She was a guest of the Whiteface Lodge Resort and Spa (001 518 523 0500; thewhiteface lodge.com), which offers suites from $407 (£203) per night, plus a resort fee of $18 per person per day.
47 Park Street (020-7950 5528; 47parkstreet.com).
Further reading 'Great Camps of the Adirondacks', by Harvey H Kaiser, (David R Godine) £50