Modern YMCAs might take you by surprise

Lodge-based camps in hot vacation spots provide affordable, retro-cool retreats with plenty to see, do

October 21, 2007|By Bonnie Tsui | Bonnie Tsui,New York Times News Service

As the lyrics say: "It's fun to stay at the YMCA."

No, really.

Far from the urban recreation centers or all-male dormitories that many Americans think of, a handful of year-round historic YMCA resorts that once catered to summering families and religious retreats have become today's little-known outdoor gems. Though most of the 2,663 U.S. branches of the YMCA, or Young Men's Christian Association, are local community centers that focus on providing after-school activities and fitness facilities for members, several Y's are lodge-based camps in coveted vacation spots such as the Colorado Rockies and Keanae, along the winding coast road to Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The idea is affordable retreats that are under the radar. The YMCA of the Rockies operates the Estes Park Center in Colorado, abutting Rocky Mountain National Park about 65 miles northwest of Denver. Climbing, hiking, rafting, fly-fishing, mountain biking and horseback riding are the top draws there. Spread out across 860 acres, the resort has rustic cabins, vacation homes and hotel-style lodge rooms. Befitting a YMCA camp, there is no end to possible diversions, which include stables, basketball courts, a crafts center, a roller-skating rink, tennis courts and an 18-hole miniature-golf course. In the winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular. Estes Park celebrates its centennial this year and has lately established itself as a family reunion hot spot.

"It's where we would go every year for any school event," said Tomakin Archambault, 26, an analyst for a renewable-energy investment fund in San Francisco. He grew up in Estes Park and says that the area has some of the most beautiful land found anywhere in the country.

"Lots of international climbers head there because some of the best Alpine routes in the world are within 15 minutes," Archambault said. "But Estes is generally more of a local vacation area, and because it's so accessible, most people come from Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas. I'd characterize it in this way: people go to Aspen on their private jets, and people come to Estes in their Winnebagos."

This laid-back profile also describes the crowd at Silver Bay, a YMCA site founded more than a century ago on the northern shores of Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. At the lake's southern end, Lake George Village is a busy tourist spot, its main street lined with T-shirt shops and restaurants. But as you drive north along the western edge of the lake, cell phone service peters out, kitschy motels and kidney-shaped swimming pools disappear, and dense foliage takes over.

The outdoors tradition of the YMCA as a whole goes back to the 1860s, when it started organizing boys' summer camps. Sports firsts happened at YMCAs all over the country: Volleyball was invented in the 1890s at a YMCA in Holyoke, Mass.; racquetball was devised in the 1950s at a YMCA in Greenwich, Conn.; and basketball was first played in 1890s at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass.

The retro-cool appeal of these Y's today is helped by modern amenities that attract vacationing adults and families, including new lodges, upgraded facilities, wireless Internet and business centers.

At Trout Lodge, a 5,200-acre YMCA in the Missouri Ozarks, a new golf course, horse trails and an equestrian arena are among recent additions to the resort; a fly-fishing school at Frost Valley YMCA is set in a renovated turn-of-the-century country estate in the Catskills of New York. Frost Valley also has an environmental education center with its own greenhouse, raptor center and research labs.

Like all YMCAs, these camps are nonprofit and independently owned and run, and their offerings can vary widely.

Basic bunkhouse style still dominates some Y camps, as in Hawaii, but the locations can't be beat. Hikers heading to the Na Pali coast can book cabins or tent space at Camp Naue, on the north shore of Kauai. A few miles west of fabled Hanalei, the Y campground is set on 4 acres and edged by beautiful Haena Beach, which has excellent snorkeling. On Maui's north shore, 20-year-old Camp Keanae overlooks a peninsula of the same name; the grounds feature cabins, a dining hall, gymnasium, fire pits and expansive ocean views. A black sand beach is just a mile away.

Andy Justus has been the director of Camp Keanae for the past eight years; in that time, she has seen an increase in visitors across the board. She points to the camp's new ocean-view cottages as a major reason. "We get a lot of travelers now who maybe weren't interested in roughing it before, and now they don't have to," she said. "We keep making improvements and adding modern amenities, like a nice big commercial kitchen that can cater to groups, and people keep finding out about us through word of mouth. Our location is definitely a plus."

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