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Ithaca’s ‘glampground’ finishes its first full season

The tented lobby of Firelight Camps is where guests gather for breakfast, happy hour and recreational activity.

By Emily Masters, Jenny Zdrojeski and Katelyn Harrop

Ginger Pinto walks into the lobby and wipes her riding boots on the rug — cleaning off specks of mud before pouring herself a glass of water from the tank by the door. Slices of lemons and oranges bob in the tank. Pinto settles into an armchair and gazes out at the rain.

She’s looking out of a tent flap, not a window.

“We wish it wasn’t raining, of course, but we had sun on our wedding so we couldn’t really complain,” Pinto said.

Pinto and her husband Russell are glamping, or glamorous camping, for their honeymoon at Firelight Camps.

The Ithaca-based ‘glampground’ is finishing its first full season of operation this October.

The glampground is located behind La Tourelle, a luxury hotel and spa. The hotel’s abandoned tennis court has been repurposed as Firelight’s lobby tent and the old tennis pro shop is now the glampground’s bathrooms. A gravel trail leads into the woods, which is now home to 15 luxury tents.

As Pinto waits for her husband inside the lobby tent, camp host Ryan Miga cleans up the locally-sourced continental breakfast buffet.

“We’re trying to give people an easy way to get outside and experience the natural beauty of the Finger Lakes without having to sleep on the ground in a puddle and set up their own tent and eat beans out of the can,” Miga said.

With only six of its now 15 tents, Firelight Camps first opened for a 2-month pilot season in September 2014. This May, the camp opened up for its first full season, which will finish at the end of the month. For a night at Firelight, luxury tent space runs anywhere between $179 and $249 per night.

Miga says the camp gets a diverse range of visitors — from those who have never dared to camp before to those looking for an easier stay. The Pinto’s said they wanted a rustic honeymoon without the work.

“It’s a canvas tent, a safari-style tent,” said Ginger Pinto. “There’s a hardwood platform, a big king-sized bed. […] A nice balcony overlooking the trees. Totally secluded, very romantic, really comfortable. The only down part is having to hike up the hill to go to the bathroom. But that’s what you do when you go camping.”

Russell Pinto, who is a wedding planner, said he was surprised by the small details the camp kept in mind — from umbrellas in the lobby tent for rainy days to small rugs in the guest tents.

“As a planner, everything is in the detail, so I pick up on those things,” he said.

Tents have no electricity or running water, but they do have wifi. Guests visit the lobby tent to charge their phones.

“Honestly, it’s great because we didn’t want to come and sit in a hotel room watching TV, or, you know, be plugging into work emails,” Ginger Pinto said. “We came to really spend time with each other.”

Firelight Camps co-founder Emma Frisch said her and her husband’s goal when developing the glampground was a balance between the comfort of a boutique hotel and the experience of rustic camping.

“For me, my biggest passion is food and the outdoors,” Emma Frisch said. “They are kind of my two cross-roads. It’s this gateway for people to learn about a new experience, travel somewhere new, meet with new people.”

Emma and Bobby Frisch owned a boutique hostel for five years in Nicaragua before moving to Ithaca, where Bobby started graduate business studies at Cornell University, Emma Frisch said.

The couple was working on starting a new boutique hotel venture when a friend mentioned glamping. Emma Frisch said they considered locations closer to New York City but decided to stay in Ithaca.

“We realized that this is where we lived now and we love it and we have a really supportive community and, if we were ever going to make this work, we should do it close to home in a place that we believe in,” Emma Frisch said.

They believe in the Finger Lakes region, she said. Firelight Camps is located at the Upper Buttermilk Falls trailhead, and Miga said he gives guests advice on the best places to visit throughout the Finger Lakes. Emma Frisch said it’s important to her that Firelight serves local food and wine.

“Part of our dream for creating Firelight Camps was getting people around a firepit and encouraging people to unplug and be in this state of meeting new people and sharing stories and that continues to be the heart of the hotel,” Frisch said.

During June, July and August, Firelight Camps had an over 90 percent occupancy rate, Frisch said. Manager Greg Tumbarello said in other months extra tents were filled by bloggers or other media personnel to whom the camp offered special rates.

Thanks to a successful first season, Frisch said, Firelight Camps is working on business plans to add more tents in Ithaca and open a second location elsewhere in New York state.

Miga said most visitors he speaks with leave satisfied and excited to tell their friends what ‘glamping’ really means.

“I think the main benefit is being able to be outside comfortably, like I said, and having kind of a local guide to help you get the most out of your visit. That’s one of the reasons that I love this job,” Miga said. With a laugh, he added, “I also love splitting wood.”

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