Two years ago, when I decided to conquer my driving phobia, I didn't stop at earning my New York State license. I moved on to highway lessons, and from there I advanced to sessions with stick shifts and motorcycles. Next I took off for Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, where I slalomed around a speedway with racing pros. And on real roads in my tri-state area I tested the fastest, slickest vehicles I could get my hands on.
But the automobile that excited me most I didn't get to drive. It was the Maybach, Mercedes's revival of the sybaritic, pre-war, V-12 passenger car favored by such rarefied customers as opera star Enrico Caruso. After seeing the 20-foot-long, made-to-order dream machine at its New York press preview, I longed to take the Maybach on a nostalgic journey. I imagined retracing the route Marcel Proust traveled with Agostinelli, his chauffeur and lover, from Cabourg to Versailles, or making a pilgrimage inspired by Isadora Duncan, who broke her neck on the Riviera when her trailing scarf caught in the rear wheel of a Bugatti.
When I finally received permission to try a Maybach, it came with the strict conditions that I could commandeer the car for one day only, under the watchful eye of a Mercedes supervisor. Where could I go within a scenic day's driving distance from Manhattan that was worthy of the Maybach?The only destination that came to mind was the Point, a secluded hotel 300 miles away on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Designed in 1931 by architect William Distin as Camp Wonundra, the mountain retreat of William Avery Rockefeller, it was the last compound of its kind to be built in the region. I planned to progress upstate at a leisurely pace, one that echoed the languid rhythms of the late-summer migrations to the Adirondacks made by New Yorkers a century before.
My book-editor friend Larry, who lives 2‰ hours from Manhattan in Stuyvesant, offered his house on the Hudson River as a way station. "I'll throw you a party," he proposed. I couldn't exactly refuse Larry's offer, as he had already printed up a circus poster-like invitation that read: "Come see the magnificent Maybach! Come meet Amy Fine Collins, author of the forthcoming book The God of Driving! Meet Attila, her driving instructor!"
I had asked Attila to be my copilot, but because he had to bring his dog, he was siphoned off into a separate vehicle, his navy blue, paramilitary Mercedes G500. By default, Joe, my Maybach minder, became my car-mate.
I gathered up my daughter (she would spend the night at Larry's, as the Point takes pets, but no children), and raced downstairs to my lobby. Across the street, Joe awaited me in front of a resplendent platinum Maybach—a latter-day Apollo in black shorts beside his solar chariot.
We stood for a moment in reverent silence, admiring the ethereal color; the streamlined rhomboid of the gas tank; and the formidable double-M logo etched onto the headlamps. "Seventeen miles to the gallon," recited Joe, who knew his Maybach specs. "Not bad for a three-ton, five-hundred-forty-three-horsepower road yacht that goes from zero to sixty in five-point-two seconds."
My little girl hopped nonchalantly into the right back seat, separated from its neighbor by an Indonesian amboyna-wood cupboard containing a refrigerator, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and a set of sterling-silver goblets. She faced the flat-screen TV, crowned herself with a cordless headset, and slipped The Fellowship of the Ring into the DVD player.
"Here we go, storming the roads!" Joe whooped as we glided onto the Henry Hudson Parkway.
The Maybach was the cynosure of the highway. Near Fishkill, three mustached men in a Subaru grinned giddily.
"A Maybach?" the driver shouted across the broken white line.
We lip-read his question. Joe rolled down his thick window and yelled back, "Yes!"
"I knew it! I knew it!" the man crowed, slapping his steering wheel with two gold-ringed hands. When I accelerated past them, they receded as if on rapid-motion rewind.
A balding man in a BMW X5 paid the Maybach a more furtive homage. He hovered in the right lane beside us, then crept behind us to inspect our posterior.
Maneuvering the Maybach like a show pony, I flounced over to the right lane so he could admire our left flank.
We paused to use a bathroom—the one amenity, my daughter pointed out, that was missing from the Maybach.
"Take a break, Amy," Attila advised, "and give Joe a turn."
Near Rhinebeck, I clicked on my new seat's "pulse" button. I sighed, sinking into the fleshy upholstery. "It's such a hushed, enveloping feeling, being in this car."
"Amy, there's a cop behind us. We're being pulled over for speeding."
"Then, why isn't Attila stopping?"
"Why should two of us get in trouble?"
A New York State trooper walked over stiffly.
"You were doing seventy-seven," he rebuked Joe dryly.
When the patrolman strode back for his notebook, Joe whispered, "The engine's so quiet, he didn't even realize it was on. Usually the first thing they ask you to do is turn it off!"
"What kind of car is this?"
"A Maybach, sir." Joe spelled out the name.
"Oh, you mean may-bach," he corrected, erroneously pronouncing the syllable like the month rather than the personal pronoun. "Is this the first one?" Out of all the fast fish swimming along the highway he had deliberately harpooned us, because he wanted a closer look.
"Yes, sir," Joe said. "On the East Coast."
The trooper's glacial jaw thawed into a triumphant smile.
Meanwhile, our advance man, Attila, had been priming Larry's guests with tall tales of the fabled Maybach. So when we arrived at the summit of Larry's steep gravel driveway, 40 women, children, and men mobbed and cheered us.
"I had no idea a car could be the life of a party," said Larry, surveying the throng from his columned front porch. Larry had been trying, to no avail, to attract his guests' attention with an enormous carrot cake, whose cream-cheese frosting was embellished with a blue-fondant silhouette of the Maybach.
I kissed my daughter good-bye—we were still threehours from Saranac Lake—and Joe and I climbed into the Maybach. Attila coached me from his G500 via speakerphone. "Amy! Don't follow so closely behind me! I won't lose you." Or a little later, on the New York State Thruway, "Keep up with me when I change lanes, Amy!"
We improvised a picnic on two park benches beneath a HISTORIC NEW YORK sign that recounted stories of Huguenot settlers. I passed around a pink box of assorted Fauchon sandwiches—all prepared on flaky, butter-soaked bread and each chilled to perfection by the Maybach's refrigerator.
At our halfway mark—the toll plaza for the Adirondacks Northway, near Albany—Joe, back in the driver's seat, dropped a Tina Turner album into the CD player.
"It sounds like it's coming from everywhere and nowhere," I said. "Where are the speakers?"
"There are twenty-one of them," Joe answered.
A burgundy Corvette, approaching at 85 miles an hour, challenged us to a drag race. Joe declined, but then accelerated anyway to show off our Maybach's peerless power. When he slowed to allow the 'vette to catch up, the guys in the front seat salaamed to us.
On the Northway, the sky thickened into a sulfurous haze. Thunder clapped and rain pelted the cars, big drops pinging against the panes like dull coins. A ghostly mist arose from the road, shrouding us in its folds. "The whole world's turning the same color as the Maybach," I said.
Blue-green pine trees towered all around us, lancing the fog with their bristling pinnacles. My ears popped; we were ascending.
"Are we anywhere near Warrensburg yet?" I asked. We had been adhering to the Point's secret directions, distributed only to paying guests.
"I don't know. I need to program the navigation system. Let's stop here at the 'Lakeside Motel Cabins,'" Joe said, following the arrow on a saw-toothed sign. We were on Route 30, near Long Lake. Attila asked inside the motel office for supplementary directions, and I wandered up a hill to an old-fashioned wishing well. Though dry, it was brimming with pink plastic flamingos. I removed several birds and plunged their wiry legs into the wet soil, arranging them in a flimsy circle around the Maybach.
"The motel manager has never heard of the Point," Attila reported, pulling up the lawn ornaments and piling them back into their nest. Joe, meanwhile, had successfully located Saranac with the Maybach's navigation system—the town was now boldly marked on the screen with a black-and-white checkered racing pennant.
Rain returned, falling this time in a fine, lazy drizzle. "We've arrived at Saranac Lake!" Joe announced.
Coral, purple, and pink bands of light shot out into the fog like party streamers and then, dragged down by the leaden sky, disappeared into the lake. Darkness spread quickly, and the Maybach's automatic bi-xenon headlamps blinked on, bleaching the night air with their chalk-blue beams. As we heaved over hills and slunk around curves, the orbs blazed our way, rolling around brightly in their sockets like dolls' eyes.
"We're lost again," Joe said. "The nav-igator has taken us to the checkered flag, but we don't know how to get to the Point from here." We had now been on the road a total of 10 hours.
"We're going in circles," I remarked after we passed a brown SARANAC INN/AIRPORT sign for the second time.
"A signal!" Joe exclaimed. He dialed the Point's special emergency number. Officially, phones, like TV's, do not exist at the Point.
"Why don't any of the locals know the way?" he demanded.
"They've all been instructed not to reveal the location of the Point," Tim, the manager, explained cheerfully.
At 9:30, 11 hours after our journey began, we arrived at a high, rustic latticework gate with the point spelled out in twiggy letters. A spiderweb, shimmering with raindrops, filled in the knobby void of the O. We punched in a code, and the doors swung open, sweeping us into a sylvan Shangri-la. As we had missed dinner, Tim's staff served our evening meal in the pine-paneled Pub, formerly Mr. Rockefeller's garage. Afterward, wrapped Indian-style in woolen blankets, we reconvened outdoors around a bonfire, where we drank champagne and roasted marshmallows.
In the morning we awakened to Day-Glo green grass, mica-smooth lake water, spire-high pines, and a pale yellow sun, round and cool as a tub of butter—a storybook utopia. But, spirited away by a Mercedes minion while we slumbered, the Maybach had vanished with the night.
WHERE TO STAY
DOUBLES FROM $1,250. UPPER SARANAC LAKE; 800/255-3530; www.thepointresort.com
A country lodge on a private Lake George islandwith a Donald Ross golf course and a European-style spa nearby. DOUBLES FROM $269. 110 SAGAMORE RD., BOLTON LANDING; 800/358-3585 OR 518/644-9400; www.thesagamore.com
Villa at Saugerties
Five modern guest rooms. DOUBLES FROM $135. 159 FAWN RD., SAUGERTIES; 845/246-0682.; www.thevillaatsaugerties.com
Inn at Saratoga
A Victorian-era hotel in the heart of the city. DOUBLES FROM $134. 231 BROADWAY, SARATOGA SPRINGS; 800/274-3573 OR 518/583-1890. www.theinnatsaratoga.com
EXPERIENCING THE MAYBACH
The Maybach is available at select hotels for eight-week periods. Specially trained drivers serve as chauffeurs. Through early October Maybachs can be found at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
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