Rocketing down an iced bobsled track at 50 miles an hour, my first thought was not of the pageantry and festive spirit that will accompany the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.
Yes, that 16-day winter sports celebration will feature athleticism, grace and life-changing accomplishment, captivating tens of millions watching at home.
But as our bobsled whizzed into a sharply banked turn that flipped me nearly upside down, my reaction was more primal: Am I still living an interactive Olympic experience if I close my eyes in fright?
In the upstate New York village of Lake Placid, home to the Winter Olympic Games in 1932 and 1980, it is much more than an existential question.
For most of us, the Winter Olympics are something to be viewed from afar. We won’t likely qualify to compete, and attending the Games is logistically daunting, especially at this late date.
But the Winter Olympics need not seem like an inaccessible, almost illusionary world set inside a snow globe.
At Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, about a five-hour drive from New York City and Boston, there is a fully operational, authentic alternative for those feeling left out of the Olympic party this winter. And unlike watching the Olympics on your living room couch, in Lake Placid, you get to participate.
In addition to Lake Placid’s Olympic-level bobsled runs, the public can skate on the 400-meter oval where Eric Heiden, an American, won five speedskating Olympic gold medals in 1980. There are miles of groomed trails that take cross-country skiers past the same sparkling, forested scenery that hosted the world’s best Nordic skiers. They even let you cross-country ski and shoot a rifle at a target if you’ve always wanted to try the biathlon.
You can ascend an elevator 26 stories to stand adjacent to the launching point atop the imposing 90- and 120-meter ski jumps. They do not let you go off the jumps, but trust me, you get the idea.
There is downhill skiing and snowboarding on the trails that decided the outcome of six Olympic races at Whiteface Mountain. The terrain at Whiteface caters to all abilities and can be as challenging as anywhere, too — its vertical drop of 3,430 feet is the most in the East, including New England’s famed ski areas.
And last but certainly not least, in the center of the village is the rink where the powerhouse Soviet Union ice hockey team was dethroned as Olympic champion by a band of American college students in what has become known as the Miracle on Ice. It draws more than a million visitors annually.
The public skating opportunity is not limited to the speedskating oval; there is also public skating inside a rink from the 1932 Olympics, which is contained in the village’s Olympic Center, where there is an Olympic museum.
The various sports facilities have been maintained and periodically upgraded — the area still hosts World Cup events — by New York State, which shortly after the 1980 Olympics recognized the need to protect and develop the state’s investment in the Lake Placid Games.
A website, whiteface.com/activities, explains all the details of the Olympic venues and lists the prices to use them. Some venues are more affordable than others — skating on the oval is $8, for example, while the bobsled experience costs $95 for an adult (and includes a photo and T-shirt). There is also a discounted $35 one-day ticket called the Olympic Sites Passport that allows access to various venues; visit whiteface.com/tickets.
But as much as Lake Placid offers a wealth of exhilarating outdoor winter recreational activities, it is much more than a quasi-Olympic fantasy camp. It is a year-round resort — more popular, in fact, in the summer than winter — and as such is chock-full of shops, restaurants, bars, cozy inns and large resort hotels.
It is the reason that Ski Magazine readers regularly select Lake Placid as the best ski village in the Eastern United States.
The dining temptations are many and varied, from Smoke Signals (2489 Main Street; smokesignalsq.com), where the pulled pork and beef brisket are smoked in-house, to The Cellar, which brings an innovative approach to familiar German dishes. The Cellar (2830 Wilmington Road; cellarlakeplacid.com) has been renovated under new ownership and is downstairs from the modest Alpine Inn. But don’t let the understated appearance dissuade you — it’s a subterranean, hidden gem.
Lodging options are diverse and plentiful, with at least 35 to choose from, although the major hotels do fill up quickly on weekends. At one end of the village is the idyllic Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa (77 Mirror Lake Drive; mirrorlakeinn.com; doubles start at $280, weekdays), which has rooms with mountain and lake views and a comfortable lobby where you’ll want to sit by the fire and play checkers all night.
Also located just off Main Street is the Hampton Inn and Suites (801 Mirror Lake Drive; hilton.com; doubles start at $129, weekdays), which is a short walk to the Olympic Center and just steps from another popular local hangout, the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery (813 Mirror Lake Drive; ubuale.com).
The mile-long bobsled run, meanwhile, is about a 15-minute drive from the village, which gives you time to build up your courage. It’s not quite as scary as it sounds, although they do place a heavy duty Nascar-like helmet on your head and assign a professional driver and brakeman to accompany you on the descent through about 20 hair-raising, zigzag turns on the refrigerated track.
It’s sort of like an amusement park roller coaster except in one significant way. A few seconds into the trip you realize that you’re not on rails. The driver’s considerable skills and centrifugal force are keeping you on the track. But it’s also true — and calming — that they have been training bobsled drivers on the site since 1930.
That’s when you realize how deep the Olympic spirit runs in Lake Placid. And that allows you to finally open your eyes to take it all in.
Bill Pennington, a sports reporter at The New York Times, will cover his 10th Olympics next month at the Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea.
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