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Escapes: Ace Adventure Resort in W.Va. offers camping, rafting and more

By Buzz McClain
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 24, 2010; WE20

"Does anyone want to go surfing again?" shouted Daniel, our rat-tailed, bespectacled guide, over the roar of the waves. The vote was a unanimous "yes," and Daniel ordered us to paddle back into the raging foam breaking over the rocks. We put the nose of our inflatable raft right into the vortex of swirling water and it dipped bow first into the turmoil, soaking Luke and me, but particularly Patrick, who had moved to the front of the raft for just this opportunity.

In a few seconds that felt much longer, the power of the growling river pushed us out of the churning stream and into the relative calm a few yards from the rapids.

"Surfing" is just one of the activities we tried on a day-long white-water rafting trip on the Class V Lower New River in West Virginia. We hurled ourselves off a 20-foot-high boulder -- I'm proud to say that my 15-year old daughter, Samantha, unhesitatingly went first -- rode rapids on our butts and exited the river under the magnificent 850-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge.

We could have been riding horses or ATVs or crawling through a mud obstacle course or shooting paintballs in an organized battle. Or rappelling cliffs, fishing for trout or mountain biking rugged tracts. In fact, we could have stayed a full week at Ace Adventure Resort and still not had time to do all the action-oriented activities it offers.

"The bad thing about places like this," said my 12-year-old son, Luke, "is the drive home. It seems to take so long because you had so much fun."

Man, he nailed that one. Ace is an all-highways five-hour drive southwest into the mountains of West Virginia, in Oak Hill, the mining town most famous as the place where Hank Williams was found dead in the back of his Cadillac in 1953. It was a much faster trip getting there than the slog home, although our exhaustion probably had more to do with it than the monotony of I-81.

Ace is a lush, 1,500-acre compound of cabins and campgrounds reclaiming a formerly strip-mined mountain, although there is scant evidence of its years of coal production. The centerpiece of the enclave is a five-acre lake full of oversize inflatable climbing, jumping and sliding toys that truly bring out the kid in grown-ups (although, truth be told, this grown-up could not make it to the top of the outsize Iceberg Climbing Wall in the middle of the lake, dang it).

For three days, the five of us -- Luke and his pal Patrick, Samantha and her pal Francesca and I -- lived out of a pristine cedar cabin and relaxed from our daily activities with plunges in the lake waterpark. We ate breakfast in our cabin and lunched at the lakeside snack shack and had dinner at the Lost Paddle Bar & Grill, where, blissfully, there was WiFi. One night we ventured out of the resort and shared a pizza at a dreary local place, a mistake.

The lodging options are as plentiful as the activities, ranging from sleeping in your own tent to staying in a "bath and bunk" group house to renting the three-bedroom Truman Lodge, which is where Harry S. Truman stayed when he came to the area to hunt, long before the resort became a resort 31 years ago. (The Secret Service cabin is now the summer residence of one of the owners.)

Places like this depend on the personalities of the guides to be successful. We've been on many excursions where the guides were either new or hung over or just burned out doing the same trip day after day, and the results were lame at best. At Ace, even late in the season, when you would imagine that the seasonal workers would be at their least animated, we encountered guides and staff who were almost preternaturally thrilled that we were there and were going to be joining them on yet another jaunt down the river or whoosh through the treetops.

Whoosh through the treetops? Yes, and there's nothing like it. We signed up for a half-day zip-line canopy tour that found us in the late morning deep -- really deep -- in the hardwood forest on a small A-frame deck looking over the edge at the forest floor 50 feet below. Luckily we were in the oversize hands of the aptly named Bear, the guide who would be fastening our harnesses to the steel cable that would transport us from this deck to the next one way over there, 200 feet away.

The trees got taller and the zip lines got longer -- the longest was 525 feet -- and the speeds we reached got faster -- up to 35 mph -- until we finally reached the finale: "the Plunge," so called because you sit on the edge of the deck and just . . . drop. It's a short freefall, but your stomach reacts just the same. And as you get closer to the finish tree in the distance, you realize that there's no opposite deck and no guide to catch you, and just as you think you are going to crash and be helicoptered out with broken legs, you start zipping the other way.

There was also a tandem deck, where two riders could race each other on different lines. I told Bear that no matter who came in first, Luke or Patrick, someone was going to cry foul. When Patrick landed on the deck saying, "You cheated," Bear high-fived me with his paw.

McClain is a DVD critic for Playboy magazine and editor of the marketing publication Selling to Seniors.

Staying there

Ace Adventure Resort

800-787-3982

http://www.aceraft.com

Three-bedroom Truman Lodge, $399 a night.

Three-bedroom cabins, $379 a night; smaller chalets, cabins and cottages, $269 to $129.

"Rustic lodging" includes cedar cabins, $79; Woodside Bunks, $20; "cabin tents" (a tent under a shelter), $49; "bath and bunk" houses, $17; ranch houses, $17; family and group tents, $15; RV sites, $39; and BYO tent, $15.

Eating there

Lakeside Dining Hall

Offers a buffet at breakfast ($10, ages 11-17 $8, ages 6-10 $4) and dinner ($25, $16 and $8); a vegetarian buffet is $22, $16 and $8.

The Lost Paddle Bar & Grill

Adjacent to the lake. Salads from $3.50, sandwiches from $6.50.

The Bear's Den

A window that opens to the lake, serving reasonably priced hot dogs and burgers.

Playing there

White-water rafting continues on the New River through November and the Gauley River until Oct. 16-17; call to check availability. Rates average about $120 depending on the trip, about twice that for an overnight trip. Half-day canopy tours on the zip line are $85, less for children; minimum age is 10.

GETTING THERE

Oak Hill, W.Va., is about 320 miles from the Beltway. Take I-66 west to I-81 south to Lexington; take I-64 west (toll) to US-19 north/Mountaineer Expressway. After 11 miles take the Main Street exit and go right, then left on Minden Road and follow the Ace signs to the entrance.

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