When Ralph Ringler was a kid at Camp Medomak in Maine, he and his friends got a thrill jumping off the "monkey tree," a large pine that stretches out over a deep part of the camp's lake. Fast-forward 30 years. The monkey tree is still there, but a couple of things have since changed. With the passing of time, the tree now leans much closer to the water, and when Ralph makes his ceremonial jump every August, he's still a camper, but his fellow jumpers are his 11-year-old son, Matt, and 10-year-old daughter, Rebecca.
Most people assume camps are for kids -- and they are -- but a growing number across the country welcome the entire family. In the last five years alone, family camps accredited by the American Camping Association have doubled, from 231 in 1997 to 548 in 2002. That figure is expected to rise.
Imagine this: You and your family wake up in the morning and smell the fresh dew along the shore of the lake, open your cabin door, stroll down a wooded path to the dining hall to enjoy a morning meal and plan your day. Maybe you'll go kayaking in the morning or take a nature walk, do some arts and crafts after lunch or just sit in an Adirondack chair, reading a book, while the younger family members take a spin on a banana boat. In the evening, your family will sit around the campfire after dinner, roasting marshmallows and singing folk songs while a college student strums his guitar. That's what many of us did as campers when we were kids, and now there are places to relive those experiences -- or try them for the first time -- en famille.
A wide variety of activities in a wholesome, stress-free environment is what you can expect at most family camps. Depending on the camp, family programs are available either all summer for weekend or weeklong stays or for a week or two at the end of August once the child-only camp programs are over. And while some family camps emphasize unstructured family time, others encourage a balance of independent time and family togetherness.
At Tyler Place Family Resort in Vermont, a few miles from the Canadian border, where my family has spent three heavenly weeklong vacations, there is a camp program for children that begins with breakfast at 8:30 and ends after lunch. Our kids, who are 9, 7, and 2 1/2, and their respective age groups spend time petting farm animals, bouncing on the lake trampoline, and singing some of the most creative songs I've ever heard. (For months after our last stay, we kept singing my favorite, "I'm Getting Eaten by a Boa Constrictor.") The adults can choose be-tween free time and organized activities such as sunrise yoga classes or mountain-bike rides, sandwiched by a scrumptious breakfast and lunch featuring locally grown produce and fresh baked breads. (Parents-only meals are another Tyler Place element I favor.)
Children are picked up at 1:30 for an afternoon of family time. When together, adults and kids can continue to explore the array of activities on Tyler Place's 165-acre property along the shores of Lake Champlain or simply relax in their cottage, by the lake, or at the in-ground swimming pool. The children's programs resume at 5:30, with enough time for adults to sip a cocktail or enjoy the outdoor Jacuzzi before dinner. After a gourmet meal served buffet-style, adults pick up the kids and can either head back to their rooms to rest up for the next day or rally for the evening's activity, which can range from a trivia night to a bonfire.
For some parents, family camp is an opportunity to be in safe surroundings, where their children are off having fun but are never very far away. "It's a magical environment in which no one is thinking about work, your kids are having a fabulous time, and there's something for everyone to do," says Phil Neiman from San Rafael, CA, who, with his wife, Maria, and their three children, has been going to the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp near Yosemite National Park for the past six years.
Family camp accommodations can vary from a lodge room or a simply furnished cottage with a kitchenette to a wooden cabin or a tent-topped cabin. Some have bathrooms, while others require a walk to a bathhouse. It's a good idea to decide before you book your stay how rustic you and your family want to go.
When it comes to food, most camps serve three family-style meals at communal tables; others, such as Tyler Place, put more emphasis on finer cuisine and give you a choice of group dining or a quieter table for two. Either way, food is plentiful, with snacks offered through the day to energize campers after their activities.
The best reason to go, say family campers (myself included), is simply the combination of fun, relaxation, and family time. "It's sort of like utopia," says Ringler. "The kids have such a sense of freedom. They're in their own environment, which I can enter at any point." He'll be jumping from the monkey tree again this summer.
Some of the following family camps cater to parents and kids all summer long, while others are available to families for a specific period during the summer. Rates can vary widely, depending on the camp, date, length of stay, choice of accommodations, and number of people. For example, a family of four can spend from $936 for a four-day stay in June at the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp to $5,200 for a week in August at Tyler Place.
Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp
Yosemite, CA, 510-981-5140
Brush Ranch Family Camp
Terrero, NM, 866-757-2267
Washington, ME, 301-854-9100
Cheley Colorado Camps
Estes Park, CO, 800-226-7386
Family Camp at Lincoln-Lake Hubert
Lake Hubert, MN, 800-242-1909
Great Camp Sagamore
Raquette Lake, NY, 315-354-5311
Montecito-Sequoia Lodge Family Vacation Camp
Los Altos, CA, 800-227-9900
Highgate Springs, VT, 802-868-4000