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Camp Makeitupasyougo
They met as teenagers at sleepaway camp. Years later, they headed out West as a married couple to re-create their endless summer . . . one piece at a time.

By Rachel Nichols
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2003

nfortunate things can happen when you try to re-create the past. You know this. I know this. Anyone who has tried on the jeans they wore in high school knows this.

Yet my husband and I were determined to do it anyway this summer.

The idea began bubbling back in June, as we watched yet another group of kids in our neighborhood troop off to sleepaway camp. Max and I met when we were teenagers at camp, so we have an unusual attachment to the archery range and the soccer field, to the dining hall we used to sneak behind to steal a kiss.

For years, we've wanted a little of that camp feeling back, but we didn't know where to go. Our old camp was, well, for kids. We're not what you would call tent people, so just plopping down in the middle of the woods was out as well. Then there were the "adult camps" that have become popular in recent years -- apparently, you can spend a week doing everything from wine-tasting to square-dancing -- but few camps featured the range of activities we liked, and even fewer had the traditions we adored.

We wanted the opening-night campfire and the closing-night finale show. We even wanted a version of the "rest hour" our counselors forced us to take after lunch. Only this time, we also wanted central air conditioning.

"We really just want to make our own camp," Max said to me one afternoon, noting that we could do a more grown-up version of camp, substituting age-appropriate activities for some of the old stuff we loved best. No archery range? We could hit the driving range instead. No need for swim lessons? We could take a surfing lesson. We could even give ourselves a version of rest hour by hitting a spa for massages.

We set about designing our own cut-and-paste experience, with a few rules: We'd do at least one different sport or activity a day, preferably something we'd never done before. We'd try to incorporate as many of our old camp's strange little rituals as possible. (Once each summer at camp, we'd have a "doughnut morning," where the counselors would bring us boxes and boxes of them. So we scheduled a doughnut morning on our trip as well.) Finally, we wouldn't feel bad about getting it a little wrong, because that was half the point -- we weren't trying to be the kids we once were as much as give our adult selves a kid-like experience.

So we set out . . . to San Diego. Mind you, our old camp was in Maine. We made the change of locales because the weather on the East Coast has been so unpredictable this summer, but as we headed to the airport, I wasn't so sure. Who goes to sleepaway camp in San Diego?

"We shouldn't have tried to do this ourselves. We should have gone for more authentic," I mused to Max.

"Sunshine," he replied, and sure enough, when we arrived in San Diego, the weather was a perfect 75 degrees and clear. By the time we made our way to Coronado, the tiny beach island that runs alongside the city, I was feeling more hopeful. When I started to smell a campfire, I knew we just might be in the right place.

The Loews Coronado Bay Resort, where we spent our first few days, is not specifically designed for those yearning for their camp years -- but it easily could have been. The resort offers tennis classes, basketball shootouts, arts and crafts and, on Friday nights, a marshmallow roast on the beach. In fact, after the sun goes down on the weekends, fire pits line all the beaches of Coronado, turning the night air into an appealing concoction of burning wood and ocean spray.

One deep sniff and camp was in session. But just like in the old days, we went to bed earlier than we would have liked -- "Lights out, no talking," we joked -- because the morning was going to bring our first real test. We had set up two days of lessons at Harbor Sailboats, an American Sailing Association-affiliated academy that promised to certify us as 22-foot keelboat operators. At camp, we were always getting certified at something (Red Cross swimming levels, tennis groups, etc.), but neither of us ever really learned how to sail, and we wanted to.

By 9 o'clock the next morning, we were in the capable hands of Tony Igar. Igar had a sure hand around the winches and a kindly face that looked a little like a piece of bread left in the toaster a bit too long; he was exactly the kind of "counselor" you'd want on such an excursion. He was always patient, even when it took us a few tries to understand that you push the tiller right when you want to go left.

Igar's composure may have come from his love of being out on the water. After a long career in radio in places like Tennessee and Alabama, he had fallen so hard for sailing on a vacation that he promptly moved his wife out to California. Then again, perhaps his tolerance stemmed from the fact that we were paying him. Either way, he was serene in the face of our ineptitude, and eventually, we became less and less inept.

We learned all the parts of the boat. We learned how to sail with the wind, against it and off it; we even learned how to dock the boat for lunch. And while we were so exhausted the first night, and decided to skip dinner and just go to bed, we were still plenty eager the second day.

By the time it was over, Max and I could dart our little sailboat all over San Diego Harbor, and we were able to pass the short written test for certification. We even had nice suntans to boot.

That made it harder on our third day to not just head back to the water. But there was new territory to tackle, and it didn't involve a boat. At camp, we'd been forced to take tennis lessons, three a week, and while both of us really love the sport, neither of us is remotely good at it. So we switched to a golf lesson.

We'd been playing for years in the unofficial smack-a-ball-violently-around-a-golf-course way, but this would be the trip on which we'd learn to stop injuring passing birds. We drove up to the Coronado Golf Club full of determination. Then we were pointed in the direction of Zeke Browning.

Browning, I must note, is nearing 90. He cruises around the golf club in a cart, even when just coming from the parking lot. Needless to say, we were a bit concerned when he drove over to meet us with the golf cart's steering wheel in one hand and a cane in the other, and things didn't seem to be looking up when, in a wheezy voice, he directed us to a section of the driving range that featured a blue-and-white-striped lawn chair about 10 feet behind a tee. Browning hoisted himself out of the cart and into the chair, and for the next 40 minutes, he did not get up.

You'd think it would be a relatively ineffective way to conduct a golf lesson. And yet I think I learned more in those 40 minutes than I had in years of hacking my way around unsuspecting golf courses up and down the East Coast. Every few swings, Browning would call either Max or me over to his lawn chair and show us a slight alteration in our grip, or a different cock to our club.

He waited until we absorbed it before starting on yet another adjustment. Toward the end of our time, he pulled out some photos of himself from when he played on the PGA Tour. The pictures were from 1937.

By the time we left Browning, we were raring to test out our new skills, but first we wanted to switch hotels. If the Loews had a camp-like roster of activities, the Hotel Del Coronado had more of a camp layout, with a beachfront-activities area just like our old lakefront in Maine. The Hotel Del, as it's nicknamed, was not only beautiful but quick, coming through with a tee time on a nearby par-3 golf course that afternoon.

I will not gloat and tell you which one of us shot the lower score, but I will say that Max got his revenge on me the next morning. It was surfing day. And as I would soon learn, I cannot surf.

"It's the most amazing feeling," I'd been told by Pat Weber, who runs the San Diego Surfing Academy in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a town in north San Diego County and the de rigueur spot for local surfers.

Weber may have been telling me the truth about the rush surfers get, but since I only stood on my board once -- and briefly at that -- I had to take his word for it. Mostly, I was trying not to gulp down too much sand as I tumbled to the ocean floor, but I will admit I felt pretty cool in my wet suit, and the few times I did manage to ride a wave, it was pure exhilaration.

Max was even more smitten. This may have been spurred by the three little boys who were learning along with us -- grommets, as they're called in surf lingo. More likely, Max's former skateboarder instincts had kicked in, and when he found out the Hotel Del offered lessons at its own beach, he eagerly signed up for more instruction for the next day.

I, on the other hand, was ready for rest hour. In fact, I was so ready that I nearly ran off with the woman who gave me an amazing massage that afternoon. But it was time for the last part of camp, and we had a plane to catch.

At camp, the summer always ended with a "final show," usually a musical extravaganza featuring some of the more theater-minded campers caterwauling the music of "Bye Bye Birdie" or "Grease." When planning this trip, nothing on the San Diego theater scene had struck our fancy, so we decided to do the only acceptable thing when looking for a fantastic blockbuster ending: We headed for Las Vegas.

More than one friend had told us to see Cirque du Soleil, so we got tickets for "O," a show at the Bellagio resort that's performed in the air and in a pool. In truth, it turned out to be more like taking a stroll through a Salvador Dali painting.

"I don't think anybody gets it until you see it live," one of the performers, Paul Bowler, told me the next day. Bowler is a six-year company member who is officially listed as an "aerial cube artist" but is more aptly described as a man who has learned how to trick gravity.

"Before I ever saw any of the shows, I thought Cirque was just a bunch of weird people who climb poles," he said. "But then I was like, 'Oh. My. God.' It's a cross between gymnastics, aerial ballet and a kaleidoscope of lights and shapes."

This may actually be an understatement -- at one point in the show, the performers, hoisted 60 feet in the air, run around a pirate ship made entirely of metal. Leaping from one end to the other, they dabble in trapeze, tumbling, the parallel bars, what looks like hang gliding and, finally, high-diving into the pool.

And then someone swings in with a lighted torch. You know, to make it interesting.

We were still breathless as we headed home the next day. Our trip was officially a success. But had it felt like camp?

The answer was both yes and no, the same way it always is when you try to tug the past into the present.

The week certainly had that feeling of trying something new each day, as well as that nice feeling of being in a world completely different from home. We had learned to sail, honed our golf games and learned to surf (sort of). There had been campfires and doughnuts and even some new friends.

But it wasn't as communal an experience as camp had been, since we weren't with the same group of people each day. The housing was a whole lot nicer, yet in a way, I sort of missed the bunk beds and the off-key rendition of "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee."

At least at the end of it all, I got to kiss the same boy I did when I was 15. And this time, I didn't have to sneak around to do it.

Details: Do-It-Yourself Summer Camp

GETTING THERE: Nearly every major airline has flights from Washington to San Diego. America West has particularly good deals and makes it easy to book a one- or two-night stopover in Las Vegas. Round-trip fares generally are in the $250 range, but through Orbitz, a fall fare sale drops prices to $209.

WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel Del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., 800-HOTEL-DEL, www.hoteldel.com) is beautiful and historic; it has not only hosted a state dinner but was also used in the filming of the Marilyn Monroe flick "Some Like It Hot." Rates start at $210. For a more standard resort on the bay side, try the Loews Coronado Bay (4000 Coronado Bay Rd.,800-81-LOEWS, www.loewshotels.com). Most "camp" activities at the hotel are either free for guests or carry a small charge. Rates start at $175.

WHAT TO DO: Anything outdoors usually qualifies as a camp activity, so be creative and mix it up. We took a two-day class at Harbor Sailboats (2040 Harbor Island Dr., 800-854-6625, www.harborsailboats.com), which includes 18 hours of boat and classroom time for $250 a person. A two-person, 40-minute golf lesson with Zeke Browning runs $40; hour-long and half-day lessons are also available. Details: Coronado Golf Club, 619-435-3121 (ask for the pro shop).

We also tried out the San Diego Surfing Academy (San Elijo State Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, 800-447-7873, www.surfsdsa.com), which offers private, group and week-long lesson packages. A two-person lesson is $70 per hour and includes loaner board and wet suit. The Hotel Del Coronado can also arrange surfing lessons on its private beach; a two-hour lesson is $90 per person. Bike rentals at the hotel are $10 an hour.

Tickets for "O" at the Bellagio in Las Vegas can be purchased by calling 888-488-7111 or going to www.bellagio.com. Prices range from $93.50 to $150.

INFORMATION: San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, 619-236-1212, www.sandiego.org. Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, 702-892-7575, www.vegasfreedom.com.

-- Rachel Nichols

© 2003 The Washington Post Company