I can hear the eye-rolling of camping aficionados already, true outdoorspeople ready to battle me to the pain in declaring that "glamping," or glamorous camping, is not actually camping. Sorry to disappoint, but there shall be no fighting here because, after giving the matter much thought and having an incredible time glamping at the Firelight Camps in upstate New York, I’m inclined to agree.
As a comparison, let’s consider Zumba. As a performer who loves salsa and other Latin dance styles, and once toured the country with a dance show called Burn the Floor and now watches many of my former castmates as the pros on “Dancing With the Stars," I used to bristle at people saying that Zumba is the same thing. Then I got down off my high, bedazzled horse and realized that although Zumba may not be the exact same thing, it is still an innovative thing all its own with roots in traditional salsa, that closely resembles it at certain moments, and it has great value on its own.
Back to glamping—I had been invited to check out the Firelight Camps, and the pictures I saw online appealed to me, so I made plans for the four-hour-ish drive from NYC to Ithaca. Right off the bat, for anything to make a four hour drive feel totally justified is a feat, but the immediate sense of relaxation upon arriving at Firelight did just that.
I was welcomed in the lobby tent by enthusiastic youngsters Matt and Shannon at the front desk, and directed to my tent, which was a short walk down a little path that divided into more little paths along the campground. One of the tents had a long ramp in front and appeared a bit larger than the others, and when I jokingly asked whether that was the Presidential Suite Tent, I was informed that ramps indicate wheelchair accessibility.
Well hush my mouth.
The tents have either Queen or King Size beds in them, as well as a desk, chair, night tables, multi-level luggage rack with clothes hangers, and a trunk for storage.
I’m a born and raised city gal, but the moment I stepped onto that patio, I just wanted to sip a cocktail and look up at the sky. There was just enough daylight visible above the tent, tempered nicely by thickets of trees that provide not only shade from the sun, but more privacy than I had expected.
I was looking around and happily inhaling the delicious air up there, already enjoying my “camping” trip despite having just gotten there. And then I had to pee.
I knew that even glamping means no indoor plumbing, and that there would be communal bathrooms, but it’s not until I had to get up off of that comfy bed and put shoes on to walk outside to the bathroom for a tinkle that it really hit home.
Luckily, the communal bathrooms were spotless and well-appointed, and there are even two private bathrooms for when one needs to be fully alone with their bowels.
At 5pm daily, there’s a complimentary wine tasting in the lobby tent, and the campfire is lit. There are tables, chairs, couches, and benches everywhere, and though the last vestiges of jaded New Yorker in me sometimes bristles at situations that are set up for strangers to mingle, what I found was a lovely, laid-back gathering of folks enjoying wine and beer, and sampling the board games and LPs that Firelight provides for everyone’s enjoyment.
Firelight Camps was co-founded by husband and wife team Bobby and Emma Frisch, who are such nature enthusiasts that Emma told me they spent their honeymoon in a tiny cabin in the Adirondacks. She says, “we embark[ed] on a new outdoor activity every day with the arsenal of gear we’d packed in our car: climbing, biking, canoeing and swimming. In fact, we came up with the initial idea for Firelight Camps while hiking near Lake Placid!”
I appreciated that Emma consciously avoids Columbusing in noting that, although Firelight puts unique and individual touches on your experience there, the idea of merging camping and traditional hotel hospitality is “not novel,” as she put it, mentioning safari camps in Africa.
The couple, who have been together for ten years and just welcomed a six-month old daughter, have also been entrepreneurs together for a while now, having previously opened their first hotel, a boutique hostel, in Nicaragua, where Bobby had gone with the Peace Corps after college. Emma had grown up hiking and playing in the woods, and she tells me that “as a college student, I trained to become an outdoor trip guide and rock climbing instructor,” which is why respect for nature is front and center at Firelight, with the comforts of non-camping life co-existing with but not overpowering the woods.
My favorite thing about Firelight: it honors its roots in genuine, rustic camping and never falls back on the glamour elements to mock them or subvert them 100%. A glampsite with crystal chandeliers swinging from the tents that serves caviar by the campfire, some over-the-top affair that juxtaposes Baccarat crystal stemware against the “backdrop” of the woods, seems gimmicky at best and disrespectful to the environment at worst, and it only hit me after the fact that Firelight’s #1 draw for me is that it provides a camping experience with comforts and elegant touches of modern convenience, but it’s not some Niles and Frasier Crane-esque pageant of ostentatiousness.
I remember sitting in the main communal tent in the afternoon, as the camp staff went about their business while singing along to the music coming softly through the speakers and people came in and out to ask for specific hiking directions or grab a cup of their specially-brewed coffee, and being struck by how cozy it was. I appreciated the rustic wooden furniture and the design of the decorations, which were beautiful for sure, but still simple and utilizing the organic beauty of nature.
I accidentally spilled some water in my tent at one point, and my initial panic to try and mop it up immediately vanished when I saw how little it had bothered the wood floor, and how quickly it appeared to start evaporating in the sunlight. Having a wood floor and furniture on a campground is certainly privileged and glamorous, but Firelight avoids being pretentious or precious.
Along the walking paths that surround the site, there are benches that seemed to pop up just when I was thinking I could stand to rest, but they’re simple planks of wood resting on two shorter planks. They are aesthetically appealing in their austerity, but also more functional than anything, which I so prefer to seeing an elaborate wrought iron park bench plopped down in a wooded area.
Those wooded areas are lush, and I definitely had the feeling that I was visiting nature, and to behave like a guest in nature’s home, which is the way it ought to be. It rained on the second day of my visit and I was relaxing in the King size bed, listening to the rainfall on the tent and watching some Hulu on my fully-charged tablet, when I almost got some of the quiche I’d brought back from the complimentary breakfast on my tablet. As if on cue, to break the ridiculousness of that happening while camping, a chipmunk skedaddled under my patio “door,” looked around, and scooted right back out again, as if to say ma’am your quiche and electronics are cute but you’re in MY house.
Indeed, as I was enjoying a shower, something flew swiftly over the shower curtain that appeared too big to be an insect yet also too inappropriate to the location (the location being an otherwise comfy, warm, soapy shower with organic body wash), to be a bird. From what I could ascertain by gawping at it through the splayed fingers of the hand I impulsively raised to cover my face upon its entry, it looked like something that should be perched upon the shoulder of a character on game of thrones. Still, I survived, and was reminded that bugs are a great equalizer. Thank God for my CVS store brand Skin So Soft.
Activity options at Firelight abound, from visiting the spa and steakhouse that they share land with (hello, Frasier!), to fireside yoga to hiking the Buttermilk Falls State Park, or just playing games or enjoying Firelight’s bocce ball court.
Firelight Camps wants you to be able to charge your phone, but they don’t want to raze the land and slap an Apple logo on the trees. One of their cardinal elements is to “pioneer low-impact infrastructure and natural landscaping that help sustain rural and wild properties, while providing guests with opportunities to explore and experience the natural beauty.”
Oh, and Firelight also wants you to make s’mores. Emma told me about a time when a young couple visited who had never heard of s’mores, and how they were instructed in using Firelight’s s’mores kits by a group of other guests around the campfire, in what she calls “a perfect example of how the campfire brings people together from all walks of life.”
The campfire brought me together with a frog as I sat under the stars enjoying a cocktail made for me by Tyler, the late-night Firelight host. It startled me at first, but then I just raised my glass and turned on my laptop. It might not be “roughing it,” but it’s definitely in nature, and glamping is glorious.