Family Escapes

Remember what family vacations used to be like? Take your children (or your inner child) for a trip down memory lane.



10 Great and Nearby Family Escapes

 

By Malerie Yolen-Cohen

 

Think back to the days when a family trip meant shoving the kids into the station wagon with a few suitcases, stopping for the best grilled cheese ever at HoJo’s, then bedding down for the night in a faded glory hotel room.

 

In the crystal clarity of my own childhood vacation memories, a yearned-for pony ride and a piece of rock candy were the icing on the cake of a great weekend filled with ocean swimming, animal viewing, trolley rides and, maybe, a glimpse at other lifestyles. My parents took me to caverns and game farms, Atlantic Ocean beaches and whaling museums. I learned about life, not through high-tech exposure, but through low-tech means—using all of my senses to experience what I’d only seen in dusty encyclopedias. These days, kids are jaded world travelers—if not in reality, then virtually—hooked into Internet, MP3s, video games, five-star comfort. They are electrified by a daunting influx of information, so much so it seems that only Terminator force can get them off their little bottoms.

 

Don’t you wish you could just unplug them for a weekend? Show them how it used to be? Take one of those olden-days vacations when you actually talked (not on cellphones but to each other) in the car and laughed together while eating slow-food meals?

 

Within a three hour drive—there are still places to go—where triple-loop roller coasters and large-screen TV sets do not rule the day; places where you can loll on wide, clean beaches, explore caves, milk cows, shoot hoops, talk to working fishermen. Some I experienced as a kid eons ago. Others sport brand-new attractions or are newly reinvented. What did kids do before TVs, computers and PlayStations took over? Take your children—or your inner child—on one of these weekend trips to find out.

 

 

Amish Country, PA

www.padutchcountry.com

Distance: three-hour drive

 

The Lancaster, PA, region is one of the only places in the country where buggy whips still fly off the shelves. The austere Pennsylvania Dutch and German, who eschew most things modern, still farm the old-fashioned way—with beasts of burden and hand-driven plows. The world has changed since the Amish settled towns named Bird-In-Hand, Mt. Joy, Paradise and Intercourse, but you can immerse yourself in a culture that resists changing with the times. Stop in at the Mennonite Information Center (800-858-8320), where you can hire a “step-on guide” who will steer you to neighbors’ homes and answer any questions you may have about the “plain people”—like what exactly is in that locally popular but Fear-Factor-y sounding Shoofly Pie. (For those who must know, ingredients include molasses, brown sugar and eggs; no flies.) You can ride real buggies, tour farms and ogle quilts. 

 

For a true “simple life” experience, stay on a real working farm. Rocky Acre Farm ($95 to $105 per night; 717-653-4449) provides comfortable accommodations, opportunities to milk cows or gather eggs, and ingest farm-fresh foods around a groaning breakfast table. For adults, Eldreth Pottery crafts authentic, signed Redware at unbeatable prices. Be sure to try at least one “family-style” meal at Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant (717-768-8156), where each table is laden with what seems to be the entire contents of a Boston Market shop.

 

Catskill Game Farm, NY

www.greenetourism.com

Distance: one-hour drive

 

Part petting zoo, part quirky farm, part Michael Jackson’s Neverland, the refreshingly unsophisticated Catskill Game Farm (518-678-9595) has been exposing kids—and kidwannabes—to exotic animals in a somewhat campy setting since 1933. And what a disparate group of critters! Housed within a compound of cages, some large, some vexingly small, the list ricochets from addax to zebu, lions to rhinos. More than 2,000 animals are on view here and, unlike in the wilds of Africa or our at own Bronx Zoo, you can get close enough to some of these wild creatures to (theoretically) perform oral surgery. For more realistic hands-on interaction, kids can bottle feed lambs, goats and the ultra-popular pot-bellied pigs in the petting zoo. When you tire of zoo going, cool off at Zoom Flume Water Park (518-239-4559) or rent a rowboat in nearby North and South Lake State Park (518-589-5058). To complete the “kitsch” family weekend, stay at the 200-acre Sunny Hill Resort (518-634-7642; $240 for two weekend nights per adult includes three meals a day and activities), which boasts wall-to-wall carpets, color cable TV and “individually controlled” heat and air conditioning in each room. More summer camp than country club, the hotel feeds you morning, noon and night in a “dining hall,” where, thankfully, you sit with your own group and don’t have to share table space with those annoying nasal-voiced kids. Sunny Hill hosts talent shows, kids’ softball games, pizza parties and water aerobics classes. You’d almost expect to see a bit of Dirty Dancing after the evening Polynesian Luau. The Winter Clove Inn ($90 per person per night; 518- 622-3267) offers antique-filled rooms, complete meal plans, an indoor pool, an on-site bowling alley, hiking and fishing on its 400 acres. 

 

Riverhead, NY

www.licvb.com/central_suffolk.cfm

Distance: one-hour drive

 

Positioned just at the notch of Long Island where the North Shore begins to jut into the Sound and the South Shore extends to Montauk, Riverhead could be considered the island’s inland hideaway. But that doesn’t mean it’s not full of watery fun. Splish-Splash (631-727-3600), a 96-acre waterpark which has been voted one of the top 5 in the United States, cools off the hottest kids-at-heart. Those with strong stomachs and stronger backs can attempt the eight-story “Cliff Dive”—or one of the other twisty-turny body flumes. For the more sedate, there’s Lazy River, a passive, flowing loop that takes you past faux rock outcroppings and under the more aggressive water slides. Next, don’t miss New York’s newest aquarium, Atlantis Marine World (631-208-9200), featuring a 120,000-gallon shark tank and the country’s largest museum-based live coral reef display. Have your picture taken with a smoochy Sea Lion and wade in an interactive faux salt marsh. Take the two-hour “environmental cruise” aboard the Atlantis Explorer, which plies the waters of the Peconic River. When the fishy fun tires you out, indulge in a nap at the Best Western East End ($200 per night; 631-369-2200), then head downtown to a local favorite, Digger’s (631-369-3200) for dinner. This proud Irish pub has been dishing out corned beef and cabbage along with rack of lamb for years.

 

New Bedford, MA

www.newbedfordtourism.com

Distance: three-hour drive

 

New Bedford was the world’s wealthiEST whaling port in the mid 1800s. So great were the riches gleaned from spermaceti (whale oil), New Bedford, known as “the city that lit the world,” claimed more millionaire residents than anywhere else in the United States. The banks that went boom (then bust) as a result of the city’s fortunes have been transformed into chic museums and restaurants where style-mongers sip cocktails or admire paintings in cozy basement deposit vaults. Congress deemed New Bedford the best place in America to tell the story of whaling, designating it a National Historical Park in 1996. 

 

Start at the Visitor’s Center (508-996-4095), then walk down cobblestone streets to the best-in-its-class New Bedford Whaling Museum (508-997-0046). The Seaman’s Bethel (508-992-3295), made famous by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, was built in 1832 to counteract the “licentious” temptations of the waterfront (whalers often frequented the ubiquitous brothels), and still operates as a house of worship. An increasing number of people are drawn to the fishing trawlers near the new Waterfront Visitor’s Center (508-979-1745). These fishermen and scallopers aren’t extras in a movie—they’re the real deal. Though there’s an adequate Days Inn in New Bedford for families with very young children, the best way to savor the flavor of this city is by staying in a refurbished Whaling Captain’s home. Orchard Street Manor ($115 to $230; 508-984-3475) provides a complimentary fruit salad and warm home-baked muffin breakfast in an ornate dining room. Captain Haskell’s Octagon House B&B ($70 to $140; 508-999-3933) offers accommodations for you and your pet. Your taste buds will not lack for excitement in this fresh seafood city. Try the killer chowder at Freestone’s City Grill (508-933-7477). Fancy hot dogs? Naughty Dawgs (508-993-3220) dishes out an assortment of the gourmet variety just down the street from the Historic Park. Don’t miss the Portuguese cuisine at the popular Antonio’s Restaurant (508-990 3636) where Jaguars park next to beat-up Chevys, and where there’s always a wait. Slip across the river to Fairhaven with in-the-know fans of teeny-tiny, off-the-tourist-track Margaret’s (508-992-9942). Try the right-off-the-backyard boat scallops that are, to my taste buds, caramelized to perfection. “We dock in Fairhaven every year on our way to Boston,” says a Greenwich mom, “just to eat at Margaret’s.”

 

 

Essex, CT

www.ctrivervalley.com

Distance: one-hour drive

 

Long ago, train tracks looked positively naked without view-obscuring poles or overhead cables. You can relive these simpler (though louder) times—when “more powerful than a locomotive” meant something—in Essex, CT, by riding an authentic, rebuilt 1920’s coal-fired train. The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat (860-767-0103) takes families on a selection of train trips through the Connecticut River Valley followed by a riverboat ride on the picturesque Connecticut River. In the summer, you can opt to take the train to Chester where a cross-river ferry floats you to Gillette Castle (860-526-2336), a rather eccentric, jagged medieval structure built by William Gillette—the original Sherlock Holmes actor—between 1914 and 1919. Later, explore the dockside Connecticut River Museum (860-767-8269), which does a serviceable job preserving and interpreting the valley’s maritime heritage. The Griswold Inn, known locally as “The Griz” (860-767-1776), which has rooms from $130, is the antithesis of “hip,” having been the place for dinner and a room in Essex since 1776. Dine on steak in darkened opulence, beneath the roof of an authentic New Hampshire covered bridge surrounded by vintage Currier & Ives steamboat prints. Situated on Main Street, the historic Inn puts you within steps of ice-cream shops, sea captains’ homes and restaurants like the Black Seal (860-767-0233) where you can feast on carb-loaded New England favorites such as chowder in a breadbowl.

 

 

Springfield, MA

www.valleyvisitor.com

Distance: two-hour drive

 

When Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote, “Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won,” he may have just been spinning lyrics about his own hometown, Springfield, MA. In Springfield, there is much fun to be done—and points to be scored at the newly rebuilt Basketball Hall of Fame (877-4HOOPLA). With an eye-catching design that attracts motorists from speedy Interstate 91, the new slick planetarium-looking structure draws Michael Jordan clones and driveway slam-dunkers alike. In the expansive lobby, visitors stand in athletes’ footprints while watching videos of season highlights. And the regulation-size Center Court hosts clinics, shooting competitions and

skill challenges. Downtown Springfield serves up several worthwhile attrac-tions. The Springfield Museums (two art, one history and one science; 413-263-6800) and the outdoor Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden are good rainy-day options. The Springfield Armory (413-734-8551) was originally built by George Washington as our country’s major arsenal during the Revolutionary War and operated, until 1968, as a manufacturer of rifles and muskets used by our armed forces. It is now a National Historic Site housing one of the world’s largest collections of American military firearms. Thanks to a local college presence, dining and nightlife in downtown Springfield tends to be funky and au courant. Worthington Street vibrates with live music on spring and summer nights, and little gems like the new Big Mamou (413-732-1011) are reminiscent of the Big Easy by serving phenomenal Cajun fare (yes, even alligator) in a space the size of a dorm room. A local landmark, Student Prince and Fort (413-788-6628) has been dishing out schnitzel and other German specialties since 1935. Theodore’s Booze, Blues, and BBQ (413-736-6000), its walls adorned with paintings of jazz and blues greats, was just named the Best Blues Club in the country by the Blues Foundation. Both the Sheraton (413-781-1010) and the Marriott (413-781-7111) hotels offer turndown service, weekend package deals that include Basketball Hall of Fame or Six Flags tickets ($175 to $200 per room per night) and a convenient downtown location.

 

 

Howe Caverns, NY

www.schohariechamber.com

Distance: two-hour drive

 

People, kids in particular, have a primal fascination with caves. Perhaps it’s the Tom Sawyer-out-to-impress-Becky effect, a hint of peril, or the whole Batman thing. Whatever the reason, the Howe Caverns complex (518-296-8900) has been the anticipated destination of local spelunking families for generations. This cavernous enterprise is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2004 with myriad subterranean events. And yes, pony rides are still offered up top. The Schoharie County region provides visitors with a variety of attractions from the top-notch Iroquois Museum (518-296-8949), where kids can make their own beaded jewelry and corn-husk dolls, to the interactive Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Visitor’s Center (518-827-6121), which demonstrates how our power is made and used. For a more “wild cave” experience, seek out Secret Caverns (518-297-8558) with its claustrophobic 45-minute tour, where you tromp down 103 “formations” (known as steps), witness a 100-foot underground waterfall and experience a prolonged “moment of darkness.”

 

Have lunch or dinner at the George Mann Tory Tavern (518- 295-7128), where plates heaped with delicacies like chicken and shrimp in tarragon sauce or sea bass with lemon pecan crust, are brought to your table by servers in Colonial attire. Conveniently, Howe Caverns has its own moderate Howe Caverns Motel (518-296-8950); weekend rates begin at $80 (includes Continental breakfast for two). For a more upscale experience, try the 150-year-old, nine-room American Hotel (518-284-2105), which has won accolades from Condé Nast Traveler, from $150 per night.

 

 

 

New London, CT

www.mysticmore.com

Distance: one-hour drive

 

Benedict Arnold burned American maritime stronghold, New London, down to the ground in 1781. Good thing for us it’s been rebuilt as a quirky, artsy weekend destination. Guests love the new Visitor’s Center at renovated Fort Trumbull State Park (860-444-7591) where, among dozens of interactive amusements, they can look through a periscope and search for Trident submarines slipping by on the Thames River below. Cross the bridge into Groton for a self-guided tour of a real below-water sub at the Historic Ship Nautilus (800-343-0079), but be prepared for a very snug fit. Eugene O’Neill aficionados will love the Monte Cristo Cottage (860-443-0051), where the playwright spent his boyhood summers. Lyman Allyn Art Museum (860-443-2545), situated on 13.6 landscaped hilltop acres, showcases largely American and European art. At Hygienic Art Galleries (860-443-8001), avant-garde exhibits can be a bit controversial. To get an overall taste of the city, take the narrated Bus Tour of Historic New London (860-444-7264; summer weekends only).

 

Stay at the opulent and recently renovated Lighthouse Inn (from $135; 860-443-8411), with its upscale restaurant, Timothy’s. Gaze out a bank of windows overlooking the river while dining on the likes of seared eggplant timbale. Tiny Anastacia’s (860-437-8005) is downtown New London’s answer to Mom’s home cooking. On warm spring afternoons, share your fries with the seagulls at Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock (860-439-1741) or Fred’s Shanty (860-447-1301).

 

 

Newport, RI

www.gonewport.com

Distance: two-hour drive

 

Summer “cottages” to the ultra-wealthy, massive mansions to you and me, the majestic homes of Newport flaunt the lavish lifestyle of the Gilded Age with guided tours of these palaces. Robert Redford skulked around Rosecliff while filming The Great Gatsby. At Astor’s Beechwood (401-846-3772), costumed actors portray John Jacob Astor and family, engaging you in conversation as you tour their home. The dramatic 3.5-mile Cliff Walk takes you along back lawns of these incomprehensibly large homes while Atlantic Ocean waves crash below. Almost a dozen of these lofty money pits offer captivating tours. Though there’s an onslaught of tourists in the summer months, it should not deter you from the delights of a cacophonous downtown. Just join the giddy crowds spilling in and out of chowder joints, clothing emporiums and vintage shops on Bowen’s Wharf and Bannister’s Wharf and the main streets. “It’s so much fun just to browse in the boutiques and funky consignment shops on Thames Street,” declares Annette Batkin, a Greenwich resident who owns an apartment in the Newport Historic district.

 

Stay in genteel Victorian-age luxury (round of croquet, anyone?) at The Castle Hill Inn (from $400 per room in season; 888-849-4666), a Newport standout overlooking the ocean—named one of the top 500 hotels in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine. The Hyatt Regency Newport (from $305 per night; 401-851-1234) puts you right in the middle of Newport Harbor, with unobstructed views of hundreds of world-class yachts. It seems that every renovated home, on streets that incline as you head away from the harborfront, is a quaint bed and breakfast. Log on to www.gonewport.com for a listing. Black Pearl (401-846-5264) on Bannister’s Wharf serves French classics on linen-clothed tables. Yesterday’s and The Place in Washington Square (401- 847-0116) has a great kids’ menu and, to please parents, 36 beers on tap.

 

 

Point Pleasant, NJ

www.pointpleasantbeach.com

Distance: one-hour drive

 

This family-friendly shore town has been catering to generations of sun-worshippers and boardwalk babies. With a mile-long esplanade lined with mini summer homes and typical shoreside enterprises, Point Pleasant typifies the dyed-in-Coppertone culture that families crave. By day, laze on the beach and stroll the boardwalk to grab a quick bite. Stop into the diverse but small Jenkinson’s Aquarium (732-899-1212) where you can watch seals, sharks and penguins chow down.

 

Had enough of the hot sand? Take a soaking ride on speedy Seablaster (732-899-3066), a Nascar-fast boat that bounces off ocean waves like a bucking bronco ($20 adults,

$15 kids). You can set your summer clock by evening events ranging from fireworks to children’s beach concerts. If downing a frosty while listening to a live rock band is more to your liking, head over to Martell’s Tiki Bar with its incongruous clumps of palm trees and sway to the beat with sand between your toes.

 

Avoid the “tourist trap” restaurants where, quips local photographer and boater Herb Segars, “they move ’em in and out.” Go instead to the splendid, out-of-the-way, 12-table Red’s Lobster Pot (732-295-6622). With an extended dockside patio, patrons can mingle with lobstermen right off the boat. Various forms of lobster—steamed, rolls, cakes, bisque—are so succulent and fresh, you’ll never go back to those Food Emporium versions again. The Shrimp Box (732-899-1637) offers complete, no-frills “sunset dinners” from $10 to $14. White Sands Oceanfront Resort & Spa (from $220 per summer night; 732-899-3370) is the only hotel located right on the beach. More modestly priced rooms can be found at the Surfside Motel ($53 to $199 per night; 732-899-1109) and the unfussy Gull Island Inn, $100 per night (732-295-5500).

 

 

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