The coolest souvenir from Saranac Lake, N.Y.: a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Hot Sara.” Who’s Sara? Back in the day, the neon sign atop the derelict Hotel Saranac read “Hot Sara,” when its lightbulbs burned out. When the property re-opened this year, they illuminated the letters HOT__ SARA____ first, and then lit the rest of the name. The crowd went wild, says hotel general manager Michael Salyers, adding, “We can darken those letters at will.” So, if you’re planning to propose to someone named Sara, the Hotel Saranac would be a perfect place: You may be able to talk management into dimming the lights in her honor.
You’d be in good company. Proposals and weddings are commonplace at this hotel, as are prom parties and other major life events. “About eight times a day, someone well tell me, ‘I got married here!’ ” says Salyers. Built in 1927, the Hotel Saranac has been the heart of this small (population 3,300) village in the Adirondacks for decades. Hemingway, Einstein, Twain, and assorted US presidents vacationed here. It was the first steel-and-brick building in the area; all the wooden ones burned down. Owned by Paul Smith College for a time, the venerable property ultimately closed in 2013, and was shuttered for five years. This year, the Hotel Saranac reopened, revealing a stunning $35 million dollar renovation.
How big a deal is this hotel to Saranac Lake? Some couples postponed their weddings for five years so they could get married in the same venue their parents or grandparents did, Salyers says. “People come back and share their stories.”
Saranac Lake has plenty of those. Surrounded by 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, this small community of woods, mountains, and lakes once served as a research center and haven for tuberculosis patients. Patients decamped from the cities in the late 1800s to the 1920s to seek a cure in the balsam-scented mountain air. “Cure cottages,” homes with screened porches, still dot the town. (For a closer look, visit the Saranac Laboratory Museum, www.historicsaranaclake.org.)
Inside the hotel, designers retained many of the building’s historic, Gilded Age glamor while adding touches of rustic-chic Adirondack Great Camp style. The Great Hall Bar, the hotel’s former lobby, has a speakeasy feel, where it feels natural to order classic cocktails like Negronis and Sidecars. Original details, like an old phone booth and a brass mailbox, abound. The hotel lobby is a closed arcade that once featured a barbershop, a bakery, and a shoeshine shop. Now, those storefronts house the hotel’s Ampersand Salon & Spa (named after a nearby mountain) and Academy & Main, a gift shop specializing in Adirondack-themed items that you can’t find elsewhere in town.
The hotel’s standout feature is the street-level Campfire Adirondack Bar + Grill, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With an open kitchen helmed by chef David Pittman, whose resume includes the White Barn Inn, Campfire offers locally sourced comfort fare. Nods to the theme include cornbread served in cast-iron skillets, mess kit-inspired speckled dinnerware, and DIY s’mores at tableside, but the food is seriously delicious. Favorites on the current menu include roasted rainbow trout with celery root puree, and buttermilk fried “picnic chicken,” served with an irresistible mac and cheese that everyone will pick at. A new “Explorer menu” is coming, according to Chef Pittman, featuring more adventurous entrees like roasted quail stuffed with ground pork and braised rabbit cassoulet.
The 82 guest rooms are located upstairs in this seven-floor tower. Dark woods are punctuated with orange accents and crisp white linens; modern must-haves include 55-inch TVs and efficient Wi-Fi. Bathrooms are tiny — for historic integrity, they couldn’t knock walls down — an annoyance if you like lots of counter space (or if you leave the seat up, since wayward towels can fall into the toilet.) If that’s too historic for your taste, there are 20 suites opening this summer in the modern Compass Point building, attached to the main hotel via staircase.
On a recent, bone-chillingly cold weekend, local folks and hotel guests mingled around the fireplace in the Great Hall in layers of flannel and fleece, making plans to ski nearby Whiteface Mountain or do some snowshoeing. Things were hopping in Campfire, too. It’s a buzzy scene, and mittened fingers are crossed that the Hotel Saranac’s reopening will bring new energy to this small town in the Adirondacks. “The community is looking at this hotel as a catalyst for growth,” says Michelle Hill, a long-time resident who runs the Academy & Main Gift Shop.
For now, the return of “Hot Sara” is a heating it up in this outdoorsy outpost.
HOTEL SARANAC 100 Main St., Saranac Lake, N.Y.; 518-891-6900; rates from $199. www.hotelsaranac.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.