Shannon Geise remembers the night she was cutting up strawberries and chicken for her kids, then 9 months and 3 years old, when she suddenly faced the prospect of an entire summer at home with them.
“I was going out of my mind,” she said. “I needed a vacation.”
But taking one, with two small children, was a challenge in itself — especially for a self-described nervous mother. Geise, of Arlington, settled on a little-known but increasingly popular solution: summer camp. Not just for the kids, but for the whole family.
Drawn by their own nostalgia for camp, the chance to get away from e-mail and cellphones, and the luxury of letting someone else do the cooking and build the fire, more and more parents are opting for family camp — a step up from pitching a tent and a few rustic rungs below staying at a resort hotel — where they can choose to can let their kids roam free in safety on acres of grounds, or take out a boat, go on a hike, or learn archery with them.
The Geises booked a week at Alden Camps, a 103-year-old collection of cabins and a lodge and dining hall on the Belgrade Lakes in Maine, which offered fishing, boating, waterskiing, arts and crafts, and the chance to do all kinds of other traditional New England camp activities.
“It can literally be a full day of just looking at the sky, relaxing, maybe having some adult libations, and remembering that it’s rare to have that time to spend together,” said Geise, whose family has since returned for seven straight summers.
Accommodations and services at family camp vary, but most offer open wooden cabins, cabins with partitions that stop short of the ceiling, or platform tents (though a few, such as the Tyler Place Family Resort in northern Vermont, are considerably more lavish, with furnished cottages and a spa). They’re basic, but clean, with private or close-by bathrooms.
“It’s a camp cabin. It’s not a hotel room,” said Diane Asher, of Milford, whose family spent five summers at Medomak (pronounced med-OM-ack, like the river) Family Camp, a onetime children’s camp in mid-coast Maine, northwest of Rockland. “We had no issues with it, but if people are used to staying at the Ritz, it might not be their thing.”
The real amenities are outside: night skies full of stars, the smell of pine trees, the calls of loons on lakes.
“You’re coming up to Maine to be in nature,” said Carter Minkel, the fourth-generation owner of Alden Camps. “We call ourselves upscale camping. The draw is, when you come to a place like this, you’re getting away from that fast-paced lifestyle, putting away your car keys, and staying.”
It’s a throwback, said David Brunner, director of Medomak. “We get people who went to summer camp when they were kids and loved it and want to relive it. We also get a fair number of people who wish they had gone to camp as a kid, and they see this as an opportunity to do that. They’re looking to unplug. They want something simpler.”
Another draw: the food. It’s generally much, much better than the summer camp food adults remember. Most New England family camps these days feature locally grown meats and produce and lobster clambakes, and let guests bring wine or beer.
After dinner, there are camp-wide activities, from kickball games to contra dances and talent shows, and campfires with storytelling and marshmallows.
But what really attracts families to family camps is the chance to do all this together, said Vanessa Riegler, director of Ohana Camp in central Vermont, run by a foundation formed by the alumni of several other area camps.
“It’s a real opportunity for them to reconnect,” said Riegler, who spends the summers at the camp with her husband and their two kids. “Life is so busy and it’s the one time of the year that they can sit down and talk.”
That’s become especially pronounced in the era of e-mail and smartphones, she and other family camp directors said. (Family camps also generally have no TVs.)
“The downfall of this place is Internet and cell service,” said Minkel, who grudgingly makes Wi-Fi available for guests who need it, and who is only half joking. “I have been known to get up and snap it off when I see kids sitting out there and playing games and texting.”
At Ohana, Riegler said, some guests seem to need technology detox.
“The beginning of the week is tough for folks,” she said. “But give them about two days and you can physically see those parents’ shoulders settle down.”
By then, they’re settled into a routine of letting their children head off each morning with counselors and friends, and picking them up each afternoon for lunch.
“For us urban dwellers, it’s like getting out into the country, yet with all the conveniences, great food, comfortable accommodations, a nice beach, and just enough activities to keep everybody busy but still be able to keep the pace slow,” said Martha Stack, of Hingham, who brings her family to Alden.
“There were days we didn’t see the kids,” said Xhazzie Kindle, of Marblehead, who took her family to the Ohana Camp. “We could let them go and never worry. There really was always something we could either do together as a family or split up in four different directions, so we were together or apart as much as we wanted to be.”
Her experience at Medomak was a nice mix, said Asher, “of the kids being able to be on their own, us having some alone time, and all of us spending time together, all in one vacation.”
Regular-season rates for families of four range from $2,880 for a week at Alden to $3,415 at Ohana and $4,400 at Medomak. Some camps encourage tipping; some prohibit it. Most are all-inclusive, but a few charge rental fees for boats.
Prices drop, and there’s more availability, in the low seasons of mid-May to mid-June and late August to early September, when a cabin for four at Medomak, for example, falls to $3,200, though there may be fewer counselors on hand to supervise activities.
Family camps are also trendy places now for weddings and family reunions, and are so hot, many conventional boys’ and girls’ camps have started running them at the ends of their summers.
Kingsley Pines near Sebago Lake in Maine, for instance, runs a family camp from mid- to late August, when the regular coed children’s season ends. So does Wyonegonic, a Maine girls’ camp.
“It’s probably one of the fastest-growing segments at the moment,” said Bette Bussel, director of the New England chapter of the American Camping Association.
Many families meet at these camps and plan their returns to coincide the next year.
“A couple of times I’ve said, ‘Should we try something else this year?’ ” said Stack, who is returning to Alden for her 16th summer. “And it’s my 14- and 16-year-olds who say, ‘No way! We’re going back.’ ”