Camping for the one percent


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When I was six or seven years old, I went on the first camping trip with my dad.

We packed the trunk of the car with dusty lanterns and moldy sleeping bags, and drove to Colorado pulling the kind of pancaked camper trailer that was hand-cranked to life once we arrived.

Dinner was Vienna sausages and fruit cocktail in a can and I can still remember the frigid morning walk to the campground showers, towel in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other.

“Glamping” it was not.

Think of it as camping for the one percent. Glamorous camping, or glamping, is the hottest thing going in luxe travel, with glampgrounds popping up everywhere from Africa to the Lake District to most states in the U.S., according to the web site glamping.com.

While the glamping experience varies wildly in amenities and price – The Resort at Paws Up in Montana, for instance, charges $1,500 per night for its one-bedroom tents – the idea is the same: A whiff of nature for people who aren’t sure they want to sleep outside, a form of roughing it with 300-threadcount sheets and free Wifi.

Robert Frisch, who runs the FireLight Camps outside Ithaca, struggled with the term glamping when he was setting up his campground. Frisch, a former Peace Corps volunteer who ran a youth hostel in Nicaragua before getting an MBA at Cornell and opening Firelight last fall, has since made his peace with the glamping label, in part because Google and other search engines demand it.

“We know there are some negative connotations with the word,” said Frisch, who runs Firelight with his wife, Emma. “And we very quickly realized that we had to embrace it.”

Firelight certainly ticks all of the glamping boxes. The tents themselves feature hardwood floors and oriental rugs, just down the road from the bocce ball court. It’s certainly glamorous, in its way.

But is it camping?

“How exactly does this work?” asks the man from Queens, who is struggling over the fire pit to figure out how the marshmallow is supposed to work with the chocolate and the graham cracker.

It’s his first-ever experience with a ‘smore, and my nearly six-year-old son, Zachary, is doing his best to school him. Zack and I are spending the night at Firelight for our first father-son camping trip, pretty much the mirror image of my trip to Colorado with the half-sized camper.

“You get to catch your stick on fire on purpose,” Zack explains, jamming the marshmallow into burning ash.

The ‘smores man, it turns out, is a fairly representative glamping customer: First-time camper, lives in the city, on a weekend getaway with his wife but without his kid. Of the nine tents booked the night we were there, all were occupied by couples, most of them empty-nesters or parents with older children. Zack was the only child, which Robert Frisch said is typical.

As for the glamping experience itself, think country bed-and-breakfast, just without the front door. The tents are nothing if not tasteful, with throw pillows, fluffy towels and blankets. There’s no electricity, though that seems as much a schtick as a necessity; each tent is equipped with a number of battery-powered lanterns, each with a tiny port in the back that can also be used to power up your cell phone.

There are porta-potty bathrooms – the upscale kind, with black lacquer sinks – two minutes away from the tent, and porta-showers just behind the main tent. For breakfast, Emma Frisch, who had a run on “The Next Food Network Star,” has stocked homemade muffins and breads. (She also assembled the ‘smores kits, which sold for $4.50 a pop.)

And yet you never forget you’re outside. The night we were there, it rained torrentially, loudly pelting the tent in a way that kept me up all night. It was also unseasonably cold, forcing us to resort to a propane space heater. Zack never slept more soundly.

Robert Frisch wrote the business plan for his glamping venture while at Cornell and has ambitions for a chain of Firelight camps. He’s signed a preliminary agreement for a much bigger glampground in the Hudson Valley and alternates his time between raising money and running the Ithaca property. (Prices here are more in line with the industry average, around $220 per night on the weekend, and $170 during the week. Dirt stayed free, as a guest of the glampsite.)

When I told him the story about the Queens man, experiencing ‘smores for the first time, he smiled. “That’s exactly what we’re about,” he said. “We want to make nature accessible.”

It reminded me of home. I live in Brooklyn, where hipsters with day jobs as ad executives wear flannel shirts and suspenders on the weekends, and brine their own pickles in the closets of their apartments. It’s pretend, just like our faux campground off the Ithaca highway.

Zack insisted we make one more stop before heading to the car. He wanted to buy a $14 pendant on sale at the main tent, a souvenir hand-crafted out of rope and carved wood.

“That,” he said as he bounded up the driveway, “was the best night ever.”




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