It’s OK to vacation like an adult – The Boston Globe


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We were planning to go to Legoland.

In the middle of a hot, safer-feeling summer, a new amusement park opened in my home state of New York. Goshen’s Legoland, a sprawling monstrosity designed to capture the minds and hearts of little kids, seemed like an apt fall fit for my family of four. My toddlers, then 2 and 4, were enraptured by the glossy photos: entire cities erected in miniature; two-bedroom “bunk” accommodations, with bins filled with Legos; a series of themes to choose from that could reasonably live out the latent desires of even the tiniest of Lego enthusiasts.

I booked the trip for an October weekend, but the reality of Legoland did not live up to its promises. It wasn’t so much the arsenal that bothered me — what parent, after all, can truly enjoy a hotel room strewn with cruelly sharp-to-the-naked-foot objects — but the park’s sadness. Met with long lines, closed rides, and concessions reminiscent of the worst American mall, we cut our two-night stay short. Five hours into our ill-fated trip, I was on the phone with the concierge at the Mohonk Mountain House, in nearby New Paltz, begging for an extra night.

The original idea for our family road trip had been to balance the needs of the kids with the needs of the adults. It’s why we booked a two-night stay at Mohonk as the bookend to our trip. Built in 1869 and owned — then and now — by the Smiley family, Mohonk Mountain House is an all-inclusive, Borscht Belt-style resort nestled among 40,000 acres of the Hudson Valley’s preserved forest. What was once a 10-room inn has ballooned to 259 guest rooms, all of which recall an earlier era of vacationing.

Rooms lack televisions (but not wood-burning fireplaces, we were happy to discover), and the closest thing to a Lego you’ll find is one of the themed toys in the resort’s gift shop. Our own room, one of the property’s spacious Tower accommodations — it included a sitting area with sofa, a small table and chairs, and two beds — featured Victorian touches, like built-in wooden headboards, period furniture and antique wallpaper. A small deck opened to a view of the fog-crested Catskill Mountains.

If my young children were bothered by our deviated plan, they showed no sign of it. Instead, they took delight in an early morning nature walk, where Michael Ridolfo, the property’s resident naturalist, grabbed at leaves and sticks: here, an invasive Norwegian maple; there, deep purple poke berries with a pigment so rich it stains the fingers. My 4-year-old picked up the debris from shedding oaks, brown leaves that spidered out from a central vein. Was it a red oak or a white? Holding a leaf in his hand, Ridolfo traced the edges of a rounded white oak. The red variety’s leaves are pointed at the tips.

The Mohonk Mountain House, in New Paltz, N.Y., stares at its own reflection on a brisk fall day.
The Mohonk Mountain House, in New Paltz, N.Y., stares at its own reflection on a brisk fall day.Hannah Selinger

Later, robust with the energy from lunch in the wood-framed dining room, we took the slow, long walk to the top of the Sky Top trail, where the Hudson Valley, ringed in reds and greens and burnt umbers, fanned out like a three-dimensional map. “Take a picture,” my son demanded, when he encountered a salamander the color of our front stoop pumpkins. “Is it real?” In fact, it was plenty more real than the Lego characters we had seen the day before. I remembered rainy summer afternoons in the community I grew up visiting in Garrison, N.Y., where we searched for the newts in damp leaf beds and at the bases of trees. It had been one of my favorite activities. How had I forgotten?

I had concerns, in choosing an adult place for a children’s vacation. I wondered if they’d enjoy themselves, or if the role of a traveling parent should dig deeper into the corporeal delights of being a child. But when I think back on the things I loved best about vacationing with my own parents, it’s not the trapeze course in Club Med that I am wistful for (though it was fun). It’s the moments where we did very little, sitting by a cerulean crescent of sea in Eleuthera, or playing a hand of cards on a long-haul train through Alaska’s spiny interior.

The first time I visited San Francisco was also the first time I learned what dim sum was. I was 12, and rapt not by the island trip to Alcatraz, but, instead, by the bustling carts and foods I couldn’t describe. That was my father’s vacation, perhaps, but in dragging me along, he made me his co-conspirator, a lover of a world that catered not just to children, but to everyone. Why couldn’t my kids have that, too?

One gray morning, we rowed out onto the glacial lake. Iced with changing leaves, the boat afforded a misty view of the property, with its craggy outcroppings of rocks and fierce stone structure staring into the glassy water. Leaning down into the water, my youngest marveled at the pristine reflection staring back, the water so clear, the day so crisp. “I can see myself,” he said, and it was true: there were two of him, the boy in the boat and the twin on the surface of the lake.

If I had been concerned for my kids’ enjoyment, I shouldn’t have been. There was the lake, true, as well as plenty of other things to do to keep young minds engaged. Mohonk provides a roster of daily activities, from hatchet-throwing (at an added cost) to movie-screenings. Under the threat of rain, we walked down from the main dining room after dinner one night to find two stone-framed fire pits, the flames licking toward the black liquid sky. What’s better than a city built of Legos? The joy, I’d argue, of charring a marshmallow beyond recognition over an open fire. My sticky children noticed not the absence of primary colors or motorized Ninjago characters. Instead, they leaned into the velvet night, soaking up every drop.

Fog on the glacial Lake Mohonk.
Fog on the glacial Lake Mohonk.Hannah Selinger

By our last night at Mohonk, we had all found our footing. As my husband and I retired to the Adirondack chairs facing the lake — framed, in the evenings, by wooden outposts adorned in Christmas lights, though it was only October — my boys ran the length of the wooden deck, back and forth, back and forth, freed by the space and by the night air.

Perhaps we had taken a chance in dragging them along to a creaky old hotel in the middle of the Hudson Valley. Would they have had more fun in the company of toys and motorized, ride-on trains? I’m not sure. In the end, they seem just as rapt by the serenity of Mohonk as we were, by the fist-size dahlias in the grounds’ garden, by the miniature fairy forest near the greenhouse, by the floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the lake room where we shared breakfast. It made me think that maybe we don’t need to tailor trips to young kids. Maybe the things we love as adults — seeing beautiful places, walking back in time, staring out at fog-crowned mountaintops — can be compelling to kids, too. To raise young travelers is to take them along on the journey, and that journey can be one that everyone falls head over heels for, no Legos required.

Hannah Selinger can be reached at [email protected].

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