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Enjoy the mellow sides of Lake George.
Enjoy the mellow sides of Lake George. (B.J. Roche for the Boston Globe)

Lake George's wild and mild and historic sides, too

Email|Print| Text size + By B.J. Roche
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2006

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. -- The honky-tonk starts shortly after you exit the interstate an hour north of Albany, and make your way toward Lake George Village, on the southern shoreline of the ``Queen of American Lakes."

There's Goony Golf at Gift World, Waterslide World, and the A&W, complete with carhops, so retro that it belongs in a Thomas Kinkade painting. It reaches a fever pitch on Canada Street, the village's congested main drag, with Fun World, Kontiki Temporary Tattoos (its motto: ``Wait 'Til Mom Sees This"), Psychic Readings by Mrs. Montez, along with big-block motels, where colorful beach towels hang like yachting flags of hoi polloi over the wrought metal balconies.

Lake George Village, gateway to the Adirondacks, and the largest town on the 32-mile-long lake named for England's King George II, is a summer vacation throwback, a real-world version of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, Provincetown-on-a-lake for the NASCAR set. If you were planning a vacation of fasting and meditation, turn back now.

But stick around and you'll find spectacular scenery, lots to do -- the lake is entirely inside Adirondack Park -- and plenty of history. The French and British fought the Battle of Lake George here in 1755, and seven 30-foot warships, dating to 1758, lie beneath these waters. It's also a short ride to Fort Ticonderoga, one of the best-restored forts in the country.

You could avoid the lake's tacky side by heading north to Hague, a small village at the lake's widest point. We found a happy balance in the town of Bolton Landing, which offers easy access to Lake George Village from the lake's quieter side. Once home to the wealthy (and the still posh Sagamore Hotel ), Bolton Landing has a small center with shops, restaurants, and a grocery store.

Our home base was the Adirondack Park Motel, which, like most lake accommodations, is a nothing-fancy, mom-and-pop operation with a mix of week long cottage rentals and motel rooms with kitchenettes. A walk down a steep flight of stone steps brought us to a classic Adirondack boathouse and dock, where we could kayak into the sheltered waters of a nearby cove. Or swim. Or nap, or watch the speedboats go by, en route to one of the lake's 150 or so islands .

The Bolton Historical Museum, housed in a former church, tells the story of the town's past . Prominent are a few works by sculptor David Smith, who moved to a farm here with his wife, artist Dorothy Dehner, in 1940, and lived here until his death in 1965. Smith created and displayed his huge metal sculptures in the open fields on his farm; many of the works he created in Bolton Landing were part of a recent retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

While Smith welded, Dehner painted, and it's easy to be enchanted by the museum's display of ``Life on the Farm," Dehner's illustrations of daily life in the 1940s, from the comforting -- a country squaredance -- to the unsettling -- the rendering of a pig.

Smith and Dehner were two of the many artists who found inspiration and breathing room in the isolated setting of Lake George. Down the road at the Marcella Sembrich Opera Museum, resident curator Richard Wargo showed us around the pink-stucco building where Sembrich, the Polish-born opera star and founder of the vocal department at Juilliard, taught from 1921 to 1935.

``In the years before World War II, when things were getting bad for artists, the Adirondacks became an alternative to Switzerland and Europe, and lots of artist communities sprung up here," he said. Wargo is keeping up the tradition; the Scranton, Pa., musician summers here, composing on the studio piano when he's not greeting visitors and tending to the museum's affairs. His opera ``Ballymore" was staged at the Fringe Festival at Boston University.

The Sembrich Museum is an exquisitely offbeat little find, offering a peek into the early 20th century through the eyes of a diva, who, according to a reviewer of her 1883 debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, ``shone like a meteor in a galaxy of stars." It's filled with awards, memorabilia, posters, and artworks Sembrich collected in her travels, and several elaborate and beautifully preserved costumes.

The museum sits right on the lake, with a view of a small island just offshore and several shoreline boathouses. Wargo says that when Sembrich was teaching in this spot, visitors would row up to the shoreline to listen to the music. (In keeping with the scene, he plays a CD of Sembrich singing with the great Enrico Caruso, with whom she performed in his 1903 New York debut.)

From Bolton Landing, it's a 40-minute drive north to Fort Ticonderoga, atop a spectacular bluff overlooking the region's other lake: Champlain. The word ``Ticonderoga" comes from the Mohawk Indian word for ``land between two waters," and this stretch was significant as a portage route between the two important wilderness waterways.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French, British, and Americans fought over this turf -- and the star-shaped fort that loomed above it. Built by the French, it was captured by the British and renamed Fort Ticonderoga in 1759. In 1775, it became the site of the first American victory of the Revolution, after a sneak attack by Benedict Arnold, Ethan Allen, and the Green Mountain Boys. Ticonderoga also played an important role in driving the British from Boston, for it was here that Boston bookstore owner Henry Knox began the ``noble train of artillery" in December 1775. It took two months, but Knox and his men accomplished a near-Herculean task, their oxen dragging 59 cannon through the rugged landscape to Dorchester Heights.

In the town of Ticonderoga, you'll spot another Hub connection: a replica of John Hancock's Boston house, now the home of the historical society .

The best way to see the lake is from one of the vintage sternwheel steamboats that leave the pier in Lake George Village several times daily. The Minne-Ha-Ha is the best-known, and it's a memorable sight when the ship returns from its evening cruise, steam billowing, and the paddlewheel wooshing along.

Just up the hill is Fort William Henry Museum, a wood reconstruction of the fort built during the French and Indian War, and the setting for James Fenimore Cooper's novel ``The Last of the Mohicans." This is a family -friendly spot, with plenty of period-costumed docents leading children in marching techniques, and of course, setting off the cannon, which tend s to set off the car alarms in the parking lot below.

But if by now everyone's had enough history, it's a quick walk back to Canada Street, where a slice of pizza, a pound of fudge, and a Skee-Ball lane await. Sometimes the best approach to a tourist trap is to let it catch you.

Contact B.J. Roche, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, through her website, www.bjroche.com.

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