"Have you heard the coyotes yet?"
Bobby and Emma Frisch, the co-owners of Firelight Camps, are looking at me in an excited, expectant way that says they think hearing the howls of wild dogs in close proximity is an experience worth having.
I am from Brooklyn and have traded the wail of the city’s sirens for the—apparently literal—call of the wild and a stay at Firelight Camps, four hours north in Ithaca, New York. Sensing my hesitation, Bobby laughs and says that I’m not the first city slicker to feel a bit apprehensive about a close encounter with nature. “We had a couple from the Bronx who had never camped before, and they came up a bit wide eyed, asking lots of questions about animals and deer coming into their tent,” he says. “In the evening, they bought one of our s’mores kits and headed to the fire with their stick, but had no idea what to do since they had never had s’mores before. Soon some of our other guests had gathered around the fire to help them roast their marshmallows. Seeing everyone working together and these first-time campers laughing and chatting was really wonderful.”
These reluctant outdoorsmen are just the sort of visitors the Frischs had in mind when they opened Firelight Camps. “A lot of city folks don’t own the equipment, so we wanted to make the camping experience easy enough that they could just come out for the weekend,” Bobby explains.
A love of the outdoors and a desire to help others to enjoy them have been themes for the couple who, after meeting as students at the University of Pennsylvania, got their start in hospitality running an eco-friendly hostel in Nicaragua for several years. Bobby took care of business operations while Emma focused on the food, opening a coffee shop and café with produce sourced from local farms. “I had to ride a horse two hours to get a bushel of potatoes and tomatoes,” Emma laughs.
The Frischs returned to the U.S. for Bobby to attend graduate school at Cornell. Wanting to stay in the Finger Lakes region and work in eco-tourism again, the couple came up with the Firelight concept after helping to create a “glampground” for the Bonnaroo Music Festival. They leased 70 acres of woods behind Ithaca’s La Tourelle Hotel and opened Firelight Camps for its first full season this summer.
“The guiding principles that went into designing Firelight were that it had to be eco-friendly, have a light footprint, and be made from materials we could source right here from this land,” says Emma. The result is 15 safari-style canvas tents tucked along paths winding through the woods. The tents are comfortable and extremely photogenic, with queen or kind-sized platform beds, writing desks, exotically-patterned throw rugs, and private porches looking out over the forest. “We don’t use any pressure treated lumber or concrete when we build," says Bobby. "The piers that go into the ground are Black Locust and the tent platforms are made from Larch from local lumber mills. The tent polls are Maple and Ash, sourced right from these woods.”
This local, organic approach is echoed in Firelight’s food offerings. Campers get a free, daily breakfast of baked goods, granola, yogurt, and coffee—perfect fuel for hitting the property’s hiking trails, which lead to some of the state’s most scenic waterfalls at Buttermilk Falls State Park. The camp also offers yoga classes on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and hosts live music around the campfire on Wednesday nights.
As for me, after a long day of exploring the great outdoors, I return to camp just as dusk is falling. A quick trip to the bath house for a shower, and then down the hill to Firelight’s lobby tent for their complimentary wine hour, featuring vintages from the wineries of the Finger Lakes. Because Firelight shares its grounds with La Tourelle, it's an easy walk up the road for an excellent, old-fashioned steak dinner at the hotel's John Thomas Steakhouse. Full and happy, I take the battery-powered lantern supplied by Firelight and head back down to the camp's lobby tent, bedecked with well-worn carpets and comfy, overstuffed chairs. Piles of board games sit ready to be played at the long, family-style tables. The faint ‘click, click’ of the balls from the nearby bocce court lit with fairy lights echoes in the background.
The cool evening air inspires me to order a bourbon from the bar (really, this is hardly roughing it) and settle in around the roaring camp fire. I strike up a conversation with the couple across the flames, Staten Islanders, who marvel at the light as it fades behind the hills, all of us agreeing that it’s been way too long since we’ve seen a proper sunset.
As the fire starts to die I make my way down the tree-lined path back to my tent and climb into bed. I never do hear coyotes, but as I turn off my lantern’s light and settle into the dark, a symphony of crickets and frogs bids me goodnight instead.