In a way, Saranac Lake, N.Y., reflected its history for years — just not in a way this tight-knit community of approximately 3,500 residents would like. A center of tuberculosis care in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, patients from around the world once flocked to the village to take in the clean mountain air and to recuperate on “cure porches.’’ But the advent of antibiotics ended the scourge of tuberculosis, and with that, the once vibrant village began a downward slide that was further exacerbated when neighboring Lake Placid hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics.
But Saranac Lake is on the rise, emboldened by the reopening of historic Hotel Saranac following a three-year, $30 million restoration, and by a lively downtown scene that is transforming it into a destination for foodies and lovers of art and music.
“Saranac Lake is not just anywhere America,’’ says Amy Catania, executive director for Historic Saranac Lake. “It’s a really different town, and I think that quirkiness is attractive to people. It has a historic, authentic downtown, culture, the arts, theater, recreation, all in a beautiful setting.’’
The village has been longing to escape the shadow cast by Lake Placid since those Olympic Games, and locals believe the turnaround is finally taking root. “It’s a sleepy little town with a great heart,’’ says Michelle Hill, retail manager at Hotel Saranac. “It doesn’t have the commercial feel of Lake Placid, and it’s easy to find parking. And we have better lakes!’’
One reason for the resurgence is convenience. Cape Air has daily direct flights from Logan Airport to Adirondack Regional Airport, which is about 10 minutes from downtown. On a recent visit, I was checking into the hotel less than two hours after boarding my flight. The only downside was not renting a car or calling for an Uber upon my arrival; there is only one cab company in town and the extremely high fare reflected it.
A bigger reason that the village is awakening is Hotel Saranac, which was closed for six years. During that time, the hotel stood as a stark reminder of Saranac Lake’s depressed state; now it serves as a symbol of its revitalization. One of the hippest spots in town, it features an upscale restaurant, lavish spa, and a curated arcade offering local products. “Even when people wanted to come here in recent years there was nowhere for them to stay. Now, there is,’’ Catania says.
Ultimately, the goal for Saranac Lake is to attract not just the outdoorsy types who are looking to hike to the summit of one of the Adirondacks’ seven peaks or go kayaking and canoeing, but also people who want to combine that adventure with culture, followed by some shopping and ending with craft cocktails in a cosmopolitan setting.
My visit came during shoulder season, before Saranac Lake springs to life with a summer concert series at Berkeley Green, live music at nightspots like Waterhole, Bitters and Bones, and the Rusty Nail, a thriving farmers’ market in Riverside Park and such special events as an antique boat show and a popular 90-mile canoe race. But there was still plenty to do and see downtown, where you can view the architecture of century-old buildings, visit a half-dozen artists’ studios, and pop into other small businesses that give Saranac Lake its small-town charm.
One such place is Ampersound, an independently owned music store that stocks everything from electric and acoustic guitars to bongos and saxophones. Another is the upscale clothing store T.F. Finnigan, which opened in 1923 and where you’ll step back in time to an era of custom wood shelving and colorful apparel hanging from classic swing racks. And there’s no Starbucks downtown, but there is Origin Coffee, a popular local hangout where the baked goods are prepared in-house and the lunch offerings change seasonally, depending on what’s available at local farms.
If you’re interested in the town’s history of tuberculosis treatment, visit the Saranac Laboratory Museum, which features exhibits and artifacts on patient care and how the village became the destination choice of those afflicted with the illness. There is also the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage, where the author of “Treasure Island’’ and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’’ stayed during the winter of 1887-88, hoping to recover from tuberculosis. You can also walk past the “cure cottage’’ where Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson lived for a time.
The village is also becoming a foodie destination. Campfire Adirondack Grille + Bar, located at Hotel Saranac, is the most recent addition to the thriving downtown restaurant scene. Also opened within the past two years is the farm-to-table Fiddlehead Bistro, which sits on the Saranac River. Local artwork on display and custom-made tables create a cozy setting, while owners Shamim Allen and Craig Bailey change the menu daily. Yes, daily! Recent entrees included seared red snapper, fried pork chop, and Moroccan chicken.
Directly across the street is the Left Bank Café, also set alongside the river that runs through downtown. Once a bakery operated by the father of the current owner, Kenneth Weissberg, who lives in Paris, the Left Bank Café brings a touch of France to Saranac Lake. And as one might expect in a French bistro, the wine list is eclectic. What is surprising is how affordable it is, with no glass more than $12 and the majority of the bottles less than $45.
You could make a meal out of the appetizers. Start with the baguette with Saratoga olive oil and balsamic vinegar (only $3), move onto the snails with garlic butter (just $8) and then to the locally sourced cheese plate, and you might not have room for an entrée.
The downtown area offers numerous other dining choices. The Blue Moon Café, which opened in 1996 as a coffee bar, has been a popular dinner and wine bar destination since 2008, while Little Italy Restaurant & Pizzeria and the Downhill Grille offer more casual options. There will soon be yet another option at the site of former Dew Drop Inn, which is being renovated into a restaurant and apartment building.
Today, the people in Saranac Lake believe they have plenty of reasons why tourists should head their way. “We’ve been up-and-down [for years],’’ acknowledged Hill, the retail manager at Hotel Saranac, “but I feel like we’re on the upside now.’’