In a decided twist on the typical camp experience in which you send your kids away to camp, some parents go to camp with their kids. This past December, the Zachter family of Princeton — Mom Nurit, Dad Mort, 18-year-old college student Ari, and 15-year-old high school freshman Aleeza — went to “camp” over winter break, a trip of a lifetime to Costa Rica. They are still basking in the glow of the nearly perfect family experience — seemingly a contradiction in terms when teenagers and parents are involved.
“Frankly, my husband was dreading it,” confesses Nurit Zachter, “because while the trip sounded great in theory, he was worried about the squabbles and fights that can erupt when togetherness can become too much. He was also worried that we would pay a lot of money for activities and then the kids would back out. Initially he agreed that the trip would be great for our family, but as we got closer to the date, he got very nervous and kept trying to make excuses to back out.”
There was not a chance that would happen. But was there any pushback from their two teenagers? “My daughter is always up for an adventure, so all I had to do was tell her there were zip lines and horses and she was ready,” says Zachter. “My son was interested in the ATV experience so although he was just as apprehensive as my husband, in the end, everybody was on board to go.”
While the rest of their family and friends were getting ready for the holidays and battling the winter cold, the Zachters flew off to warm and sunny Central America for the Costa Rica Family Escape, offered by West Coast Connection, a company that traditionally has specialized in travel adventures and programs aimed at teens.
‘They had received a lot of feedback from parents that their kids were having so much fun on their trips, they were wondering if there might also be a program tailored for them or for their families,” explains Nurit. “So for the first time this year, the company put together a family trip. Our trip had seven families with a total of 17 kids ranging in age from 18 all the way down to age 6. I have to confess we were all a little nervous. It’s one thing to travel with your own family; when you’re traveling with other people, you have no idea of how that will go.” West Coast Connection is now planning a summer family camp program to Costa Rica.
Zachter, especially, knows something about teens and travel. For the past two years, she has been the New Jersey advisor for Tips on Trips and Camps (www.tipsontripsandcamps.com, 609-497-3434), a free referral service to families, offering information on quality overnight summer programs for students ages 8 to 18. The company itself has been in business since 1971 and is currently based in Baltimore. In addition to the owners, 19 advisors worldwide, including Zachter, provide clients with up-to-date information camps and programs across the country, enabling parents to make an educated decision when choosing a summer experience for their child. Tips on Trips and Camps has a relationship with over 600 programs, including traditional sleep-away camps, specialty camps, community service, language immersion, pre-college enrichment, and even eco-adventures, very hot right now.
“A lot of the family programs (these organizations) are developing are extensions of the regular programs,” says Zachter. “The companies have knowledge in working with teens, and now families, so this is great. Ours was a diverse group, and we had kids of all different ages, but the people were all fantastic and the chemistry worked out just right.”
The group stayed in two resort locations in Costa Rica; first stop, the Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa built right in the countryside of the Rincon De La Vieja volcano, in the mountains in a forested area with hot spring pools, mineral mud baths, and horse stables. “Since it was built over a volcano and there was bubbling mud, there was a natural thermal steam room,” says Zachter. “There were lots of fabulous restaurants, a beautiful pool, and poolside barbecues. We stayed in bungalows spread out in a hilly area. There was horseback riding on the premises and we got around by driving golf carts.”
The trip provided the perfect opportunity for the whole family to get in touch with their spirit of adventure: whether the incarnation of Indiana Jones, Tarzan and Jane, or just simply the wild child within, all of them were able to experience the thrill and the rush that comes with skirting the edge of danger. “For my son, the ATV experience was everything he thought it would be, and he had the opportunity to do it twice, first on the grounds of a ranch, and then on a private beach. They came back absolutely black, covered in dirt, and when his goggles came off he looked like a raccoon. I was concerned that he only would want to do the ATV but he ended up participating in everything, it was so adventurous and fun.”
The adventure and fun also included hiking to a waterfall and rock climbing, which provided Zachter with one of the most heart-stopping moments on the trip. “We rappelled over a steep canyon and we got to this one scary part where they lowered you on a rope straight down. I looked straight at the guy, and told him ‘no rapido, not too fast,’ and then he agreed, ‘okay,’ and then he still dropped me really fast. I was kicking my feet and screaming so loud I sounded like a monkey. They caught it all on video and my kids were playing that video over and over again. They had some good fun at mom’s expense,” she says.
Speaking of monkeys, there were many in the rain forest, along with other exotic wildlife, especially birds. “They kept telling us we would see monkeys and toucans, and when I finally saw the monkeys, it was amazing — just like in that children’s book, ‘Caps for Sale,’ where there are all these monkeys sitting in the trees. There were whole families of monkeys, trees and trees full of them. It was a highlight for everyone.”
In addition to experiencing adventure and wildlife, there was ample opportunity for family bonding time. Zachter recalls with particular fondness one night out on the water in the catamaran. “Everyone had gone out snorkeling or had chosen to hang out on board. It was sunset, the wind was blowing, and my daughter and I were sharing a blanket and cuddling together for warmth. Even though it was cold, I had this deep feeling of contentment, and I remember thinking, this is really working out well.”
Zachter says that one of the best parts of the trip was being forced to get out of a personal comfort zone and learn something new. “After a few days people were commenting on how relaxed Mort and I were looking. There was a real transformation. We were so relaxed and happy. It was exhilarating and peaceful at the same time.” Best of all, a very pleasant surprise: the kids did not squabble. “Ari and Aleeza made other friends and had fun. There was structured activity in the evenings, and the events were well-planned so there was something for everyone. For the two youngest in the group, they could look up to 15 older kids who were willing babysitters.” There were also nights when the kids were supervised so that the parents could have couples time to go out for dinner or a night out alone. “It was the perfect balance of teen time, family time, and adult time,” says Zachter.
There was also a community service component. Before proceeding to the oceanfront Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort where they would spend the second half of their trip, the group visited the village of Canas Dulces to bring holiday cheer to the community of about 150 by running a holiday carnival. “I was worried that it would be hokey but I was pleasantly surprised and really impressed,” says Zachter. “The company had brought huge duffel bags filled with everything needed to create a carnival for the children. We had face painting, jump rope, throwing games. Everybody got into it and all the kids — the local kids, and our own kids — had so much fun. And we felt like we were doing good work for the local people too. One of the parents even dressed up as Santa Claus.”
The beach provided lots of options for rest and relaxation, but for those who craved adventure, it provided just as much opportunity as the rainforest. “The kids loved it,” says Zachter. “They got to learn how to surf, and we went river tubing as a family, which was great but there were rapids so there was that element of thrill. We also did a night hike in the forest, where we saw tarantulas.”
Both Zachter and her husband had plenty of experience with camp as children themselves. “We grew up with a family tradition of camp,” she says. “We both went to sleepaway camps as kids. When I was looking for a program for my kids, somebody told me about Tips on Trips and Camps, and they gave me more service than the educational consultant I had hired. That explains in part why I was so eager to take on the business when the opportunity came up a couple of years ago.”
The Zachters both grew up in Brooklyn. Nurit attended the Yeshiva of Flatbush, a Hebrew day school, until her parents, both holocaust survivors, moved the family to the five-towns area on the south shore of Long Island, in the middle of high school. She earned a degree in art from SUNY Purchase. Her husband, Mort, has a CPA, MBA, and a law degree, and is now a fulltime writer. The author of “Dough,” a memoir about his baker family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he is currently working on a biography of Gil Hodges, baseball player and manager who led the New York Mets to the World Series title in 1969.
“Friends tell us we are a match made in heaven and it’s literally quite true, since we met in mid-air on a flight aboard El Al coming home from Israel,” says Nurit Zachter.
“I was in my 20s and had just led a group of teenagers on a trip through Israel. We had both spotted each other at the airport and taken notice. I got to my seat late and discovered I was sitting next to him, and on my other side was an attorney. When my mother picked me up I said I was sitting between a CPA named Mort and an attorney, and I hope it’s okay I gave Mort my phone number. She said, what you only gave your phone number to one of them? So Mort and I met in flight, on the course of personal adventure since he had been traveling in Israel as well. Nine months later we went back to Israel together and were engaged. On that trip my mother called from America and said if you don’t have good news don’t come home.”
After 12 years in Long Island, the Zachters moved to Princeton 15 years ago. After so many years of family life and traveling with their children when they were younger, why this trip to Costa Rica, and why now? “There was the concern that once the kids got to a certain point in college, we would never have this kind of opportunity again. It was a now or never moment. Let’s seize the day and do this trip because we don’t know what the future will bring,” says Zachter.
She also says there was a personal incentive to taking this kind of trip now, especially with all of the physicality needed on many of the excursions and a major milestone birthday occurring later this year. “When I was in my 20s I did parachuting and parasailing and rappelling. With a big birthday coming up this year, I’m kind of getting up there, so I was thinking if I don’t do this stuff now I’ll never do it. You feel the difference in your body and your life, so I wanted to seize the day there too.” She compares the feeling to a memory she has from when she was first married. “I went into this store to buy a dress. It was a black sequined evening dress, tight and sleek. And the sales lady told me if you don’t wear it now you never will. Taking this trip now, with all of us, was like that.”
Would she do it again? In a heartbeat, she says. It was everything she and her family wanted, and more, and nothing that they had been afraid might come up did. In fact, there is another trip planned already. The women on the Costa Rica trip got along so well they are planning a mini-reunion of their own in St. Maarten. “Husbands and kids will have to wait for the next family trip,” she says.
There are dozens of camps and organizations offer programs for families. Nurit Zachter of Tips on Trips and Camps recommends the following four:
West Coast Connection/360, 800-767-0227, www.westcoastconnection.com. Contact: Ira Solomon.
Eight-day vacation in Costa Rica — action and adventure balanced with plenty of rest and relaxation — soothing mud baths, hot springs, hiking, horseback riding as well as optional spa treatments, surfing, zip lining, river tubing, ATVing waterfall rappelling and much more! On select nights, families eat together, along with our other participants; on other nights, parents can enjoy a relaxing, private meal alone or with their new adult friends, while the teenagers and younger children partake in separate events run by the staff.
Cost: $1,995 per person in standard room with two double beds; $1,695 per child under 17 sharing a room with two adults. Dates: August 21-28, 2010; December 22-29; and December 26 -January 2, 2011.
Wellsprings, 866-364-0808, www.wellspringcamps.com. Contact: John Gordon.
Weight loss program. Located at the four-star Pinehurst resort, famous for its golf and southern hospitality, for families with children ages 5 to 15. Amenities include personal training, hiking, fitness classes, swimming, and a wide variety of sports, games and other activities. Weekly sessions begin June 20 through July 11; families may attend multiple sessions.
Deer Hill Expeditions, 800-533-7221, www.deerhillexpeditions.com. Contact: Richard Malcolm.
Vacations for private groups and families, custom-designed according to your needs and goals. Luxurious river trips, wilderness experiences, service and art projects with native peoples, set in the landscapes of the American Southwest and Costa Rica.
Cottonwood Gulch, 800-246-8735, www.cottonwoodgulch.org. Contact: Mike Sullivan and Amy Kohout.
Family camps focusing on art, archeology, history projects, and environmental or community service. This summer, two week-long family treks are scheduled for July 11-18 and August 1-8. Participating families will enjoy living in their own cabin on the Foundation’s 540-acre nature preserve, where they can choose from activities like swimming, hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking. Day trips to lava tube caves, mountain peaks, ancient ruins, and contemporary pueblos are also part of this family vacation in the backcountry of northwestern New Mexico.
Google “family camps” or “intergenerational camps” and you will get lots of optios. For example on www.kidscamps.com, click on “family camps and programs” for lists of family camps in all 50 states; or www.ymcarockies.org, which offers family camps and programs in two locations in Colorado — 5,100 acres at Snow Mountain Ranch, and 860 acres at Estes Park. For sample listings of family camps in the northeast and Pennsylvania visit http://travelwithkids.about.com/od/northeastresorts/a/summer_camps.htm.