Summer camps aren't just kids' stuff

Summer camps aren't just kids' stuff
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center guests have a choice of rooms, cabins, yurts and dorms. (Steven Weller)

In my youth, nothing spelled summer more than my box of stationery, stashed in a trunk next to my insect repellent, shorts, towels and bathing suit. Summer camp was the pinnacle of the illusion of freedom, albeit in a controlled environment. There I learned to swim and French kiss, and my parents learned only what I wrote on that pink paper and mailed home.

Whether a response to the world's changing landscape, or the Peter Pan-esque ambitions of summer camp aficionados, a handful of California camps have invited parents along — and not just for the talent show. Best of all, these family camps are in some of the top spots in the Golden State.

Montecito Sequoia Lodge Family Camp

At first, I wondered why so many people were so devoted to Montecito Sequoia Lodge, but the answer was pretty straightforward: You breathe better here among the sequoias; you're forced to unplug; you don't have to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner; and if you're so inclined, you barely have to see your own children.

Montecito Sequoia, wedged between Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, offers an array of activities. Upon arrival, children are grouped by age, assigned to a college-age counselor (who come from as far as Australia), and then set off to participate in activities from waterskiing to tie-dying.

Because moms and dads don't have to worry about what's for dinner — a former presidential master chef takes charge of that chore — they can swim in the lake with their toddler or shoot a rifle with their teenager, forage for mushrooms or read a book while sipping Chardonnay and enjoying the luxury of nothingness.

When the sun sets, counselors prepare a kid-friendly casino night, costume party, talent show or the ever-popular s'mores and stories around the campfire. Then yawns become more frequent than songs, and everyone retires to modest but comfortable rooms (or cabins).

Montecito Sequoia Lodge, 63410 General's Highway, Kings Canyon National Park; (800) 227-9900, Montecito summer family camp packages include meals, lodging and choice of activities for the entire family. Package rates are priced by number of people per room, per week. Rates begin at $2,995 for two and go up to $7,495 for eight. Accommodations include modest cabins (with shared outhouse bathrooms), standard rooms with private baths and slightly more plush suites. Ten full-week camp sessions, from June 20 to Aug. 22

Paskowitz Family Surf Camp

It's not often you see a child and a septuagenarian shredding the waves. But this is common among the Paskowitz clan, the descendants of Doc Paskowitz, the now-legendary surf instructor. If you want your kids (or your partner, for that matter) to know how to surf before that trip to Kauai, the self-proclaimed "first family of surfing" promises that in six days (of two two-hour sessions a day) you will surf. Alone.

At dawn, you can spot dolphins and pelicans as you slip on your wetsuit and join your instructor in the Pacific. Lessons are intimate, with no more than three students per teacher. Your instructor is in the water protecting nascent surfers as young as 5 while riding alongside their more (or less) advanced parents.

The Paskowitz tented compound is in a gated section of San Diego's Campland on the Bay. Campers gather to eat three non-camp-like meals a day prepared by professional chefs (last year's was a "Top Chef" contestant). After dinner, you can soak those muscles in a much-needed Jacuzzi, watch a surf movie, gather around the campfire or head off in search of grunion spawning just steps away.

Paskowitz Surf Camp, 2211 Pacific Beach Drive, San Diego; (949) 728-1000, Campers sleep in tents (provided by the camp) but must bring their own sleeping bags. The $1,250 per-person cost covers six nights, three meals a day, two surf lessons a day, equipment (wetsuits and boards), transportation to and from the airport or train station and outings. Families receive a 5% discount. Ten weekly sessions, from June 13 to Aug. 20.

Emandal Farm

Driving 15 miles on a gravel road doesn't sound far, but 45 minutes later, when we're still chugging along, the world seems older. Cellphone service is lost, but just when we wonder whether we should turn back, the 100-year-old Emandal farmhouse appears.

This organic farm, founded in 1908 in Mendocino County, delivers a pastoral experience that will slow even the most intense urbanite. Generations of returning families book the same rustic redwood cabins (complete with down comforters, private bathrooms and outdoor fire pits) nestled on the Eel River, a year in advance. Children who once ate fresh-picked strawberries as they bounced on their parents' knees, now strum guitars by the campfire, singing Beatles songs.

The food, most of it grown and prepared right on the property, is superb. During the day, kids are shooed away to milk goats and make cheese, or pick blackberries for that evening's cobbler. Once they return, they can dress their own pizzas with edible flowers, then cook them in the outdoor oven. The bell rings, beckoning campers to the wooden communal dining hall for a meal that would make Alice Waters proud.

Emandal isn't for everyone. There are no planned activities. Your kids get dirty. You get dirty. But if splashing in the river or collecting freshly laid eggs for breakfast makes you giddy, this haven will inspire you to visit.

Emandal Farm, 16500 Hearst Post Office Road, Willits; (707) 459-5439, Six-night stays begin at $750 for adults; children's rates range from $185 to $510. Includes lodging, three organic meals a day. Some shorter stays also available. Camp sessions from June 23 to Sept. 17.

Trinity Mountain Meadow Resort

You have to work hard to get here, but this remote Trinity Alps resort, 92 miles northwest of Redding, promises a wilderness experience without having to sacrifice cold beer, a bed and a shower.

Outdoor adventurers travel from as far as England, lugging kids of all ages, to sleep in rustic cabins under the aromatic cedars and foxtail pines. The resort has been luring campers for 30 years: Kids here grow up together, visiting the same week year after year and often returning as counselors.

It's easy to see why families are enamored with the resort's amenities. Adults can trek deep into the Tamarack sugar pines to snag trout or scale mountains, while the munchkins take short hikes with able-bodied counselors. Then clans gather for a burger in the dining hall and spend the afternoon lazing by the solar-heated pool or playing volleyball as ospreys soar above.

Kids are served dinner separately, with entertaining (read: patient) counselors, while parents enjoy a kid-free dinner of seafood, tacos or barbecue, complete with adult beverages. Here's where you can finally learn the names of your kid's friends' parents and talk about more than soccer leagues and diaper woes.

After the sun goes down, the campfire is set ablaze, guitars come out and that particular feeling of summer's endlessness takes charge. Under a sky exploding with more stars than you thought existed, you remember what it was like to be 10, when anything was possible.

Trinity Mountain Meadow Resort, Star Route 2, Trinity Center; (530) 462-4677,, $920 for adults, $640 for children age 10 and up and $460 for kids under 10. Children younger than 2 are free. Camp sessions are Saturday to Saturday in July and August. Rates include food, lodging, activities and recreation. No credit cards.