Top Family Finds

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

Top Family Finds

These ain't no roadside motels: Sleep in a tented camp in California, a secret hideout in Belize, a former lime mill on St. Lucia. . .


Wake up in one of the Early Winters cabins in Washington's remote Methow Valley, and you'll be reminded of a time when summer meant stripped-down pleasures: bare feet on a wood floor, wading in a creek before breakfast, coffee brewed in a tin pot. Your game plan can be as ambitious as staking out one of the Adirondack chairs on your cabin porch. Or you might amble over to Jack's Hut--activities hub for the cabins and adjoining Freestone Inn--to find out exactly what kinds of trouble your clan can get itself into that day. You can sign up for rock-climbing lessons, tackle a guided alpine climb, or try horseback riding, white-water rafting, kayaking, and even ballooning. If that's not enough, rent a mountain bike (kids' bikes are available) or a Sage fly rod, or simply pick up a trail map and head out on your own.

Built in the Forties and restored in the Nineties, the Early Winters cabins come with stone fireplaces, kitchenettes, pinewood floors, and enough authenticity to convince your Game Boy–toting campers that there really was a time before electronics. Happily, there isn't a television in sight. Instead you'll see the jagged Early Winters Spires, a manmade lake full of rainbow trout that's just right for staging swimming races, and miles of entry-level mountain-bike trails crisscrossing the valley floor.

The 15 cabins are all part of the Freestone Inn (800-639-3809 or 509-996-3906), which has a 30-foot stone fireplace, an outdoor hot tub, and an elegant-but-rustic restaurant. Cabins start at $95 a night for a one-room studio; a two-bedroom cabin costs $230 (rates do not include meals or activities).

--Kimberly Brown



Camping at Costanoa, a new tented retreat and lodge an hour south of San Francisco, is like taking an upscale safari--except the grasslands here drop away to pounding waves, the wildlife runs more to bobcats and garter snakes, and a day's activity can include surfing, horseback riding, and coastal hikes at any of a dozen wild beaches nearby.

Costanoa has 160 tent bungalows, most with platform beds and decks, set amid 40 acres of grassy meadows and Monterey pines. Families can roll out their sleeping bags in bare-bones bungalows fit for four, or for a few dollars more, can splurge on two- or three-person units equipped with bedding and 1930s camp-chic furniture. Trips to the outhouse are more like mini spa sessions--the shared "comfort stations" have heated floors, saunas, hot indoor-outdoor showers, and courtyards where outdoor fireplaces are lit at sundown. Costanoa also has the real thing--a full-service spa offering massage, mud baths, and aromatherapy.

The resort's Ranch House is family central; parents mellow out in Adirondack chairs on the wraparound porch, while kids play in grassy berms overlooking the ocean. It's also the place to sign up for guided trail rides on Tennessee walkers or rent mountain bikes ($7 per hour, $30 per day); half of the 100 miles of hiking trails are also open to bikes. Weekends feature yoga classes and Saturday night storytelling.

Families can join in Costanoa's frequent summer barbecues ($5 per person), bring their own food to prepare at one of four cookout areas with grills and benches, or stock up on gourmet soups, sandwiches, and salads at the resort's deli. Bungalows cost $60 for economy units, $70 for standard, and $85 to $95 for more deluxe accommodations that include down comforters and daily maid service. There are also 40 guest rooms in the main lodge ($175–$240), some with fireplaces and Jacuzzis, that can accommodate up to four people. Call 800-738-7477 or 877-262-7848, or check out




Tell the kids to pack their Indiana Jones hats--they'll need them in the jungle when hunting for red-eyed tree frogs. Then announce you're sneaking off to a secret hideout called La Milpa, way in the wilds of northwestern Belize, within the 260,000-acre Río Bravo Conservation and Management Area. Once a field station for scientists, this deep-forest camp run by the nonprofit environmental group Programme for Belize now welcomes travelers, especially families.

Huts at La Milpa
La Milpa

The camp's four roomy cabanas each have two double beds, a kid-friendly loft with a single bed, and a solar- or gas-heated shower. There's also a 30-bed dormitory and an education center; resident researchers take time from their work to lead hikes along nine trails within the conservation area. In the ancient Mayan city of La Milpa, three miles away, you can see the archaeological dig where a royal tomb containing a jeweled Mayan skeleton was discovered just four years ago. Then head back to the camp's mess hut for a meal of steak, rice, and beans (vegetarian diets can also be accommodated). After dinner, join a jungle walk to see toucans, howler monkeys, peccaries, and coatimundis--don't be surprised when the kids swear they saw a tree frog with eyes like red Jell-O.

Daily rates are $93 per adult, half-price for kids six to 11 (kids under six are free). Rates include all meals and two guided excursions. Van transportation from Belize's international airport (about 2½ hours away) costs $175 per vanload (up to ten people). Book several weeks in advance through Programme for Belize, 011-501-2-75616, or e-mail [email protected].

--Stacy Ritz



"My daddy just stepped in moose poop!" was how my best friend's son, Carter, greeted me as he skipped down from the top of 1,088-foot Moose Mountain, thrilled with the possibility that a massive antlered creature might be lurking nearby. The moose never materialized during our two-day stay, but Carter's four-year-old attention span had long since been diverted by all the other adventures at the Village Inn & Resort at Lutsen Mountains, a 127-unit complex in the birch, red pine, and maple forests that border northern Minnesota's Lutsen Mountains Ski Area.

The inn makes a great base for families who want to canoe in the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, sea kayak in Lake Superior, mountain bike in the surrounding Superior National Forest, and hike along sections of the 200-plus-mile Superior Hiking Trail. Kids ages four to 12 can participate in the complimentary Mountain Kids Camp, which includes nature hikes, storytelling sessions, swimming, and arts and crafts lessons. At the adjacent ski area, families can check out the half-mile alpine slide or head for the mountain-bike park (bike rental, $24 per day; lift pass, $18 per day).

The inn's lodge, townhome, and condominium units all have spectacular forest and lake views, but a good bet for families is one of the seven two-bedroom units in the brand-new cedar-and-log Poplar Ridge Homes, each with a two-story stone fireplace and full kitchen. These units cost $700–$1,015 per week; two-bedroom townhomes are $650–$975 per week. There's a restaurant and a coffee shop in the main lodge. Call 800-642-6036 or visit for details.

--Stephanie Gregory



Two years ago, the entire Portman clan of Cincinnati, Ohio--three siblings, their spouses, and ten children--overran Pine Butte Guest Ranch to celebrate the 75th birthday of the family patriarch. They rode horses into the foothills of the Rockies and hiked the nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness and the ranch's 17,000-acre Pine Butte Swamp Preserve. "Naturalists led all the excursions," says Jan Portman. "That was wonderful. My children and I like to keep journals to record the plants and animals we see on our hikes. It was so meaningful to have an expert tell us more than we could ever read in our little guides."

The fact that Pine Butte is owned by the Nature Conservancy means that wildlife-viewing is at the top of the "to do" list. The naturalists go to great lengths to show off the area's headliners, including leading dusk hikes in Pine Butte Swamp, home to 49 species of animal--grizzlies, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions--and 200 bird species. Also on the property is Egg Mountain, one of only two places in the world (the other is in China) where nesting sites of the maisaurus dinosaur have been unearthed, complete with fossilized eggs and baby bones.

Despite the seemingly academic approach to dude ranching, the attitude at Pine Butte is quite laid-back. You can join each day's hike or ride (kids must be eight or older to take a horse on the trail), head off on your own, or simply spend some time poolside. Ten cabins along the Teton River--all with stone fireplaces and full baths--house up to 25 guests. Meals, served family-style in the main lodge, are lighter than your average cowboy fare, with lots of fresh produce from the ranch's garden. While no organized kids' program exists, the ranch is quick to rustle up babysitters. Rates are $1,125 per week per person; kids 1–12, $875. Call 406-466-2158.

--Lisa Twyman Bessone



There should be a sign at Stonefield Estate that says, "Warning: Kids may mutiny at checkout time." And who could blame them? For days they've been running free on a sunny St. Lucia mountainside, riding horses, exploring the ruins of an old sugar factory, going bird- and turtle-watching, taking guided rainforest walks, and drinking gallons of fresh-brewed "cocoa tea" that could very well be the world's best chocolate drink. Not to mention sleeping in a circa 1800 lime mill.

Stonefield, situated in the island's southwest corner just a ten-minute walk from the beach, was once a lime and sugar plantation; families can now settle into one of ten historic white-stucco villas on the 27-acre estate thick with cocoa trees and heart-shaped coralita vines. Best for families are the three two-bedroom, two-bath villas with red-cedar poster beds, locally woven plaid bedspreads, and louvered windows (some even have outdoor showers). For a splurge, book the three-bedroom, three-bath Plantation House, with its own swimming pool and chef. At mealtime you can cook (every villa has a fully equipped kitchen) or try the poolside restaurant, which serves Creole specialties like courbouillon, fish cooked in lime and garlic. Ask for the recipe so you can concoct the same meal back home. Then maybe the kids won't protest too much when it's time to leave.

Two-bedroom villas cost $160–$249 per day ($242–$385 in winter). The three-bedroom Plantation House is $347 per day ($535 in winter); a second three-bedroom villa rents for $297 per night ($460 in winter). The five one-bedroom villas cost $149 per day ($230 in winter). Call 758-459-7037 or e-mail [email protected].


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