Friday, July 29, 2005

Summer camp for adults

In every couple or family, it seems, there is one partner or parent who prefers vacationing in the mountains and the other who prefers the seashore. Ours is no exception. S. prefers the seashore, whereas I never really learned to swim. I absolutely love the mountains; S. gets acrophobia. Recipe for disaster?

Last summer we did a week of each. We spent a week at Arcachon on the Atlantic coast of France, then a week on the French side of the Pyrenees. Arcachon is perched at the mouth of a virtually-enclosed bay famous for oyster farming/fishing. The beaches there, and especially the ocean beaches on the other side of the Cap Ferret peninsula, reconciled me with the seashore in the summer. They were uncrowded, and on the ocean side, the waves were wonderful. At low tide, B. and D. spent their time looking for crabs and seashells and building elaborate castles. That is, when they weren’t playing on Europe’s largest sand dune, the dune du Pyla. Since then, it seems we’re always meeting people who have some connection to the bassin d’Arcachon.

The week in the Pyrenees was very different, but equally spectacular, and everyone acquired a taste for hiking.

Earlier this month, we spent a week in the Vercors, a mountain range southwest of Grenoble, sort of the foothills of the Alps. The Vercors is a plateau, with steep cliffs all around it and a series of parallel valleys running down its length. A natural fortress, it was used by French resistance fighters during World War II until the Nazis’ overpowering force rooted them out in July 1944.

We stayed in a family resort, run by an organization called “Cap France”. The main building was a converted sanatorium that used to cater to children believed to be at risk of developing tuberculosis. So there are lots of high-ceilinged, institutional-looking corridors, and small rooms. And I mean small! But, OK, we didn’t spend much time in the room anyway. Instead, we were participating in the hikes organized by the resort, bicycling, visiting a nearby market or farm, having meals in the dining room, watching the basketball camp that also shared facilities with us or dancing. We had a full meal plan, and meals were fun. Tables were for eight and we were seated as we arrived, so, therefore, with people we didn’t know. We met people from all over the country, from Strasbourg, Nancy and Lille. We met people from Paris and people from a small village in Auvergne. And everything was arranged for us: meals, daytime activities and evening activities. All we had to do was make our beds, which we didn’t. Summer camp for adults! No wait, in summer camp you have to make your bed ….

We went on five hikes during the week, including one full-day hike I did with B., and B. and D. were clamoring for more. Each hike was led by one of the staff, who stopped every so often to talk about some nearby flowers or point out a faraway marmot. They explained how to tell which animals had been where we were, and how the forest exists thanks to the ants (they eat certain insects that damage trees) and their waist-high ant hills.

The food was the only aspect of the week that came in for near-universal criticism. Complaints were both quantity- and quality-oriented. It was generally agreed that the price of the week was attractive because the food was … well, cafeteria fare, but, mind you, French cafeteria fare. And because of the size of the rooms. In a more expensive resort, the difference would probably be in those two parameters rather than in more extensive facilities. Maybe we’ll find out next year. Rendez-vous here in July, 2006.

On several occasions, we have looked for this sort of resort in the States. On the East Coast, the only comparable thing we found was the Smuggler's Notch Family Resort in Vermont, which looks like a lot of fun, but also looks huge and expensive. Peak summer rates are in the $2,500 - $3,000 range for a family of four, and I don't think this includes meals. We have also looked into dude ranches in various parts of the country. Many of them looked exquisite, but even more expensive, in the region of $1,500 per person per week. By way of comparison, the week in the Vercors cost the four of us a total of €1,400 ($1,680), all meals included. Even with the internet, however, it's hard to do this sort of research from afar. Suggestions, anyone, either mountains, seashore or that vast expanse in between?



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