The drama. The inspiration. The teenagers nailing snowboard tricks you couldn’t even do on a PlayStation. The Winter Olympics have had you (and the world) enthralled these past few weeks -- but now they’re almost over. How are you going to fill the five interlaced holes in your life once the torch is extinguished?
Fear not, because there’s a place a five-hour drive north of New York City where you can get all your Olympic hits in one go. And we’re talking about doing the events, not just watching them on TV. This place is not just the home of the best slopes on the East Coast, but legend-haunted ice rinks, soaring ski jumps, and a white-knuckle bobsled track, too. Hell, you can even go curling if you want. This little upstate treasure also happens to be nestled in thousands of acres of virgin Adirondack pine forest, on the shores of a glassy lake called Placid.
So gather your long johns and pull on your balaclava -- it’s time for a trip to Lake Placid, the host village of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. And one more thing before you go: arm yourself with an Olympic Passport -- it’ll score you discounts and freebies on more activities than you can shake a cowbell at.
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Whiteface Mountain has the best darn skiing New Yorkers can get without lugging their gear onto a plane. The numbers are impressive enough: 87 trails provide more than 22 miles of slopes laced through the evergreens, with a 3,430-foot vertical drop that makes Hunter Mountain look like a speed hump. And it’s called Whiteface for a reason -- the typical winter sees 200 inches of snow here. The season runs November through mid-April, and it’s worth noting that locals swear by March as a surprisingly snowy month (in 2017, they got a whopping 34 inches from a single March storm). Even in a dry period, you won’t be skiing on dirt. These guys were the first to use snow-making machines at the Olympics in 1980, and they’ve now got 99% of the slopes covered -- if need be, they’ll run the guns all night to make sure there’s plenty of powder come morning.
Still, we found out that it pays to get there early. That way you’ll beat the crowds, and you won’t waste precious slope-time finding somewhere to park or waiting in line for ski gear rental. (Tip: get your kit from Bear Den Lodge, where the lines are usually shorter.) But even on Presidents Day weekend, the busiest of the year, there was more than enough mountain to go around. As a novice, I decided to stick to the green runs, starting with the Mixing Bowl -- a bunny slope so gentle that even the 4-year-olds taking the lift with me looked a little embarrassed to be there. By the end of the day, I’d progressed to falling over on a couple of others instead, but I’d barely laid eyes on all the blues and blacks -- once I’ve mastered that snowplow, I’ll be back.
“Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it’s bobsl… wooahhholymoly there’s no way I’m going down there.” And so begins every first-timer’s Lake Placid bobsled experience, when they see the hunk of metal they’re expected to clamber into and go hurtling off into a half-mile of oblivion. Conquer that fear, and you’ll have 55 of the most heart-pounding seconds of your life, plus possibly your only ever chance to say “Sanka, you dead?” in an appropriate context. Besides, there’s no need to be scared when there’s a brakeman behind you and a driver in front who has completed at least 175 crash-free runs in a row before you hop in. It’s pricey ($95 for the whole package), but priceless: This is one of only two bobsled courses in the United States, and the only one east of Utah.
The other option is skeleton ($75). That means grabbing a sort of tricked-out dinner tray and flinging yourself head first down the track. You will come to a stop eventually, they claim.
Most people would be thrilled to sprint on the track where Usain Bolt broke records, or jump into a sandpit where Carl Lewis once got his knees dirty. That kind of hallowed ground is usually off-limits to the general public, but not in Lake Placid. The star of the 1980 Olympics was speed skater Eric Heiden, who arrived wearing a skin-tight gold one-piece, and left with five medals to match. Nowadays, the outdoor Olympic Oval is open to all-comers, so you’re welcome to pull on your blades try your damnedest to match his record-breaking pace. If ice dancing is more your thing (or you just need a barrier to hold onto), head inside for a skate on the 1932 Olympic rink. There’s no shortage of history here either -- Norwegian legend (and later Hollywood star) Sonja Henie won the second of her three golds here.
Biathlon is the ultimate hard-ass winter sport. There’s none of that gravity-assisted downhill malarkey -- instead you’re expected to ski cross-country for between 10 and 20 kilometers while lugging a rifle. You do get to stop on the way, but not for a break -- oh, no. You’ve got to shoot golf ball-sized targets from 50 meters away, while your heart is beating 180 times per minute. The Be-a-Biathlete experience ($55) is the perfect sampler, with a ski lesson on the forest trails followed by 10 shots at the range (or more for an extra buck a pop). Expect to use every single muscle in your body, including some you didn’t even know you had.
No-sweat Olympic activities
You don’t have to be athletic to get a kick out of Lake Placid. Armchair Olympians should start out at the Herb Brooks Arena to see exactly where the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the USSR came to pass. At the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, you can rewatch the original game footage, lay your hands on the puck-marked goal frame Jim Craig defended, and marvel at the towelling team tracksuits that were once the height of fashion. You’ll find a simulator which helps people like me imagine what it’d be like if they were brave enough to actually go ski jumping instead of just tut-tutting when they see a slightly imperfect landing on TV. To hammer home how nuts that particular event is, go to the Olympic Jump Complex itself and take the elevator 26 stories up to the top of the K-120 ramp. Yup, the pros actually launch themselves off of there.
Lake Placid restaurants
If you’re coming from NYC expecting metropolitan-grade food and drink, just don’t. However, there are some homey hangouts more than capable of helping you replace all those burned-off calories. The Breakfast Club is the most popular place for a fried pre-ski feast, and they do a mean salted caramel latte, too. And, although the servers at The Dancing Bears Restaurant in the High Peaks Resort move at a glacial pace, the waffles and flapjacks are good enough to wait for. For dinner, check out the daily-changing farm-to-table menu at Liquids and Solids, or pop next door for comfort food at Lisa G’s (a previous winner of the Adirondack Wing Wars). The hands-down best watering hole in town is the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, which has its signature Ubu craft ale on tap.
Where to stay
We stayed at High Peaks Resort, which is a solid option in a plum location right next to Main Street and Mirror Lake -- it’s got big-resort assets too, namely an Aveda spa and four swimming pools. Mirror Lake Inn is notable, too -- it’s owned by the family of Olympic ski racer Andrew Weibrecht and his medals hang behind the reception desk. The Inn is basically built for cozy mid-afternoon naps -- comfy armchairs surround a crackling fire and cell phones are banned (if you’re lucky the resident harpist will start plucking). If you’ve got the cash to splash, book in for high luxury and fine food on the waterfront at Lake Placid Lodge, or at least go for a cocktail. The Baked Whiteface -- a mix of vodka, Baileys, and Kahlua topped with toasted marshmallow meringue -- is cold, caramelly, and capped in white like the mountains.
Other things to do
A ride on the toboggan is a Lake Placid rite of passage. Riding your wooden sled down a 30-foot converted ski jump is only the start of it -- once you hit the ice, you skid and spin up to 1,000 feet across the lake. It costs $10 per person, and you get the sled until either the novelty has worn off or closing time -- so until closing time, then. For a dose of sledding at a more leisurely, less scream-worthy pace, try dog sledding on Mirror Lake. Find the Thunder Mountain truck at the corner of Saranac Avenue and Main Street, and hand over $10 in cash for a five- or 10-minute ride across the ice, plus a selfie with your favorite Husky.
The best place for a souvenir is not -- would you believe it -- at the store called Non-Vintage Antiques, unless you’re in the market for a $50 faux bronze medal. A mile out of town on Saranac Avenue, there’s a roadside garage filled with actual antiques, including 1980 Olympics memorabilia you’d pay a fortune for in Williamsburg.
How to get to Lake Placid
Head north out of NYC, get on I-87, and keep going until you’re starting to wonder how much further Canada can possibly be. Take Route 73 through 30 miles or so of Adirondack wilderness, and presto: you’ve arrived! The ride takes just over five hours.
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