Happy Campers

Deluxe camps and exotic travel programs for kids are flourishing, but there's a catch: Just look at what they cost.

April 13, 2003|By Peter Jensen | By Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Here's a summer dream: Sailing on a pristine lake, hiking a wilderness trail, spending hours playing basketball, tennis or golfing with close friends.

For a century or more, well-to-do American families sent their youngsters to the finest rural camps in the summer months to reap the benefits of fresh air and exercise, and get away from the swelter, congestion and problems of the big cities.

Today, the most exclusive summer camps do all that and a whole lot more. And despite a faltering economy, a war in the Middle East, and continued post-9 / 11 troubles in the travel industry, owners of these top-flight camps say they've never been more popular.

"Demand is off the charts," says Keith Klein, owner of Camp Laurel, which annually plays host to 480 campers ages 7-15 at its verdant grounds in Readfield, Maine. "Ten years ago, we didn't fill until February. We've been filled for next summer since mid-October."

Camp Laurel, which boasts such amenities as lighted ball fields, a state-of-the-art gymnasium, a riding stable, and 2,000 feet of lakefront, charges its campers as much as $9,200 for a 7-week session -- or about $200 a day. That makes it one of the most expensive programs of its kind in the country.

Others share its success. At least two dozen similar camps -- representing what industry officials consider the very high-end of their business -- are doing just as well.

"These are the best of times," says David Tager, owner of Indian Head Camp, a 295-acre camp in northeastern Pennsylvania with an indoor roller hockey rink, lighted basketball courts and a heated pool.

Ellen Hollander, a Maryland special appeals court judge and Baltimore mother of three, has sent both her sons to Camp Laurel. She admits the cost was significant, but was happy with her choice. She fondly recalls her own days in summer camp and wanted her children to forge the same friendships and have the same opportunities.

"We used to laugh about them not being in the same financial league, but I just wanted a camp to match my sons' interests," says Hollander, whose sons are now 18 and 21. "You put your kids first -- even if you do miss them terribly. They were getting something so valuable that it was worth it."

Not to be outdone by camps, teen travel programs are pitching elaborate tours designed strictly for young people of means. For $4,000 to $6,000, students as young as 15 will be venturing as far afield as Cuba, Thailand, Fiji, and the Galapagos Islands in tours that might feature adventure (bicycling across Spain) or just as easily, community service (building villages in Costa Rica).

No downturn for camps

While the entire travel industry has suffered since Sept. 11, these summer programs have shown remarkable resilience -- with some even reporting better bookings this year than last.

"We've been pleasantly surprised," says Erik Werner, director of Global Works, a community-service-oriented travel program based in Pennsylva-nia. "A lot of people were reluctant to travel last year, but it must have caused some pent-up demand."

Werner and other summer program directors say these premium travel programs and camps draw enrollment from across the country, and not just from the mega-rich. Camp Laurel, for instance, estimates that half its campers attend public schools.

Whitaker Cohen, 15, a sophomore at Park School, will spend a month in Cuba this summer studying music and dance. She's not worried about homesickness -- she's been traveling since she was 10 and has made trips to England, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

"The biggest challenge is that you can only bring 44 pounds (of baggage)," says Cohen. "I'm thinking about Costa Rica next summer, but you never know."

Travel experts say there are a number of factors behind the rise of teen summer travel programs and the continued popularity of the premium camps. The baby boomlet -- the demographic rise of a generation of boomer children -- is part of that.

But just as important, parents today seek novel educational opportunities for their children. Camp is not just about fun but is seen as a potential enrichment -- learning new skills (mountain climbing or ice hockey, perhaps) or gaining athletic confidence. Travel programs are often paired with public service, a useful addition to a future college application.

"I get people who say they want a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their child," says Eve Eifler, director of Tips on Trips and Camps, a Baltimore-based consulting service that helps place youngsters in summer programs.

"You can't forget what kids gain from these types of summer experiences. They meet people from different places and face challenges in a place where Mom can't call the teacher the next day and fix things for you."

Youth development

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