Family Vacations, Summer 1998
Don't let Free Willy overload diminish your enthusiasm for seeing killer whales in the wild. It's a can't-be-captured- on-celluloid spectacular. But the Island Institute program does more than simply show you the whales; you'll also learn about porpoises, harbor seals, sea birds, and tidal-pool denizens of Puget Sound's San Juan Islands. You can go hiking or cycling, and the institute's marine specialists lead boat tours, snorkeling adventures, sea-kayaking trips, beach hikes, and after-dinner lectures in the library of the Beach House, a converted B&B that serves as home base.
The Beach House sleeps just 12, so the group is small. Rooms in the turn-of-the-century seaside B&B are furnished in pine, and down comforters swallow the beds. Expect to share a bathroom. Meals feature freshly baked bread and local oysters and barbecued salmon. The Golden Ages: Kids nine and older get the most benefit from the program, but kids of any age are welcome. Been There, Done That: Melanie Riggs of New Rochelle, New York, was there last summer with her husband, Bruce, daughter Marcail, 14, and son Aaron, 10. "We saw a whale breech. The kids loved it. Not a half hour after we arrived, we were all out paddling. The staff makes sure that you are doing exactly what you want to be doing." The Bottom Line: The Marine Life Adventure runs seven days. Prices are $1,195 for adults and $825 for kids 12 and under, including lodging, meals, boat tours, guides, and all activities. The shorter San Juan Sampler runs from Saturday through Tuesday for $525 for adults, $375 for kids 12 and under. Call 360-376-6720.
Dolphin Discovery Camp
Dolphin Discovery Camp is a program conducted at Anthony's Key Resort, 40 miles off the Honduran coast. For six days, from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., your kids can learn virtually all there is to know about the Bottlenose dolphin. Biologists at the internationally acclaimed Institute of Marine Sciences, adjacent to the resort, teach with hands-on feeding and training sessions and classroom seminars. The program culminates with a swim with the dolphins.
Parents are welcome to join in some of the camp activities, or they can go scuba diving in 80-degree water with 150 feet of visibility along one of the world's most stunning reefs; guests can get certified at the resort. For the kids, there's snorkeling, hiking, horseback riding, beach volleyball, sand sculpting, scavenger hunts, and picnics. Campers reunite with their parents at lunch and dinner. Lodgings are private bungalows with toilets, showers, and electrical outlets. Meals are served in an informal dining hall, and the menu includes plenty of fresh fish and tropical fruit. The Golden Ages: Dolphin Discovery Camp is for kids ages 8-14. Been There, Done That: Michele Moliver of Clear Lake, Texas, traveled to Anthony's Key last summer with her husband, Clay, son Hunter, nine, and daughter Morgan, eight. "Adults tend to get somewhat freaked out by what large animals dolphins are, but the kids jumped right in and swam alongside them. The dolphins kissed and nudged them — they seemed to realize that they were dealing with little people. The resort videotaped the kids' swim with the dolphins, which I'm so glad to have." The Bottom Line: Adult dive packages are $750-$825 per person for seven nights, plus $500 per child attending Dolphin Discovery Camp. Included are airport transfers, all meals, and activities. Call 800-444-0099.
Maine Island Kayak Company
This camp operates completely in the field, offering three to five nights of sleeping under the stars on several uninhabited islands off the Maine coast in Casco or Penobscot bays. Although the accommodations are basic (top-of-the-line tents and camping gear are all provided), the dining is five-star: fresh fruit, vegetarian lasagna, salmon steaks, and chardonnay. The emphasis here is on paddling skills and seamanship, and both single and double kayaks are used. Groups of eight explore deserted beaches, tidal pools, abandoned forts, and lighthouses. Expect to see lots of birds, and occasionally some seals. The Golden Ages: Ten years and older. Been There, Done That: Dick Rice, of Madison, Connecticut, took his son Adam, 14, last summer. "I enjoy a close relationship with Adam. But I know in two years he'll have his own life and not be as interested in spending time with me. So I'll always look back on this as one of those memorable father-son experiences." The Bottom Line: The family programs run the second, third, and fourth weeks of July for four, five, or six days. Cost averages about $125 per person per day. Kids who share a double kayak with a parent get a 30 to 40 percent discount. Call 800-796-2373.
Cheley Colorado Camps
If your idea of roughing it is refusing the hotel mini-bar key, this isn't the place for you. But if you're nostalgic for cornball summer-camp days and up for hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and rock climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park or Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, the Cheley Camps, in operation since 1921, can provide these activities plus crafts, archery, campfire sing-alongs, and talent shows. Families bunk together in a four-bed covered wagon (really!); bathrooms and showers are in a separate building. Hearty "down-home" cooking is served family-style in a dining hall with floor-to-ceiling windows. The Golden Ages: The program welcomes kids as young as four, though most are closer to nine. Been There, Done That: Kathy McCue lives in Iowa City, Iowa. "Seven years ago, I went with a friend I had met at Cheley as a kid, along with our sons, who were then eight and nine. We knew our husbands would hate it, so we left them at home and ended up having this magical mother-son experience. I've been going back ever since. Cheley is my best week of the year. I feel free, like a kid again." The Bottom Line: Family camp runs August 11-16 (kids-only the rest of the summer). Cost is $350 per person for ages nine and up, $185 for under nine. Call 800-226-7386 for more information.
Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing, New Castle, Virginia
Don't let the brochure, with its quotes from General George Patton, or the fact that the owner is a retired Marine colonel scare you. Granted, this is no pampered, candelabra-at-dinner wilderness affair (we're talking freeze-dried food, and you help with the preparations and clean-up), but it's not boot camp, either. Just good old-fashioned Camping 101, an introduction to tent living, with beginners warmly welcomed.
The 500-acre camp backs up into the deciduous wilderness of the Blue Ridge Mountain's George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Activities include caving, screaming down a 900-foot zip line, rock climbing, kayaking, high ropes courses, and hiking. There's daily instruction in animal tracking, friction fire-starting, backcountry etiquette and skills, and plant and insect identification.
And not all meals are that nasty freeze-dried stuff. Some meals are prepared at the camp's homey wood-beamed lodge and brought to the base camps, to the relief of even the staunchest backcountry purist. The Golden Ages: The program is designed for kids six and up. Been There, Done That: "I went with my nephews Matt and Michael, ages nine and ten," says Maribeth Frank of Virginia Beach. "Matt — who by the way is a phenomenal athlete, no couch potato — discovered that he was a Ritz-and-room-service kind of guy. He says the best part of the week was loading up on Snickers at the camp store. Michael, however, discovered a love for the wilderness. He'll be attending a hard-core outdoor camp this summer. That's the beauty of the program. It's a wonderful outdoor sampler and not daunting at all." The Bottom Line: Family Adventure Weeks are June 7-13 and August 23-29. Cost (including gear) is $445 for ages nine and up, $225 for ages 6-8. Call 800-782-0779 for more information.
Great Camp Sagamore
The Adirondacks have long been the vacation destination of the well-heeled New York set. So when we say that Sagamore is rustic (okay, bathroom-sharing is involved), it refers to a magnificent 100-year-old lodge that's listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Meals are sumptuous buffet affairs that look like something out of Martha Stewart Living.
Sagamore's Family Weeks are a great first experience for your littlest campers: small doses of ultra-safe wilderness activities geared specifically to the elementary school crowd. At check-in, guides sit down with the group to fully assess the skill level and interests of all campers. The resulting program might include swimming, interpretive nature hikes, scavenger hunts, canoeing, croquet, crafts, biking, or fishing. After dinner, head out to the campfire pit to eat s'mores to the strumming of dulcimers. Hardier guests can dispense with the cozy log beds and sleep under the stars for a night in a lean-to.
There are no parental getaways worked into the Sagamore schedule; this is family camp, so you'll spend virtually the entire week with your kids. Wednesdays are left free, so most kids coerce their parents into bagging the outdoor stuff and heading for the water park in nearby Old Forge. The Golden Ages: The program welcomes kids up to 14. Been There, Done That: Darrell Bush, a wildlife artist from Moline, Illinois, has attended the program for the past two summers with his wife, Nancy, and Alyssa, eight, and Ryan, five. "At Sagamore, we can experience the outdoors as a family without hard-core roughing it. That's nice for families with kids that are still quite young, when beds for good naps, hot and cold running water, and good food still come in handy." The Bottom Line: Family Weeks are July 26-31 and August 16-21. Adults are charged $445 each; kids through age 14 pay $245; prices include lodging, meals, and activities. Out-of-camp options, like whitewater rafting, kayaking, and spelunking, are extra. Call 315-354-5311 for more information.
Strathcona Park Lodge
Strathcona is a perennial favorite of this magazine for these reasons: The lakeside setting amidst old-growth firs and snow-capped peaks is heart-thumpingly beautiful; the caliber of instruction in outdoor skills and activities is top-notch; and the price makes it one of the best outdoor bargains going.
Strathcona's Family Week is the perfect wilderness starter course. The guides are prepared to talk the most timid family member through a maiden kayak voyage or first rock-climbing pitch. But this certainly isn't a greenhorn-only affair. In addition to kayaking and rock climbing, there's also hiking, orienteering, a high ropes course, and canoeing. While at the resort, accommodations are rustic but come with flush toilets and eletricity. After so much exercise each day, families say they greatly appreciate sitting down to the resort's generous and healthy meals, though some kids complain that dinners are too spicy and veggie-intensive. The Golden Ages: Six and older. Been There, Done That: Pat Shopher of Davis, California, headed to Strathcona last summer with her husband, George Wong, and their three children, ages 13, 11, and six. "In our annual Christmas letter, the kids said that Strathcona was the best thing we did all year. They really enjoyed orienteering — it was like a big treasure hunt to them. The guides are encouraging without being pushy." Bottom Line: This year's Family Adventure Weeks run June 28-July 1, July 5-11, July 26-August 1, and August 23-29. The cost, $473 for adults, and $303 for kids, includes lodge rooms, meals, and non-stop instruction. Call 250-286-3122.
Illustration by Calef Brown