I NEVER really understood fairy tales. Even as a child, I knew that wolves and princes were not what they appeared to be: Their true meaning was always hidden, veiled, just beyond my grasp. But now, curled up on a window seat in a white room filled with wicker furniture, I am finally getting the straight scoop on the symbolism of stories.

Chautauqua, N.Y., the little town that time forgot, is that kind of place -- where adults can listen to stories in the middle of the day, children can safely ride their bicycles in the middle of the street, and middle-aged executives can delve into a myriad of courses including marketing, mediation, modern Mexico, massage and music of the Middle Ages.

My family and I discovered Chautauqua by accident, but return by design. The Victorian lake-side town is about eight hours and 100 years away from Washington: It is one of New York state's best-kept secrets. While about 400 people live in the gated community all year, the town really comes alive for a nine-week summer season that includes lectures, concerts, adult classes, children's camp and religious programs.

About 7,500 people come for each of the themed weeks. We chose a week called "The Boundaries of Life," and for me the highlights included a morning yoga class, an afternoon storytelling class and evening performances by Free Flight (jazz), the Capitol Steps (political satire) and Victor Borge.

My husband came the same week, but in typical Chautauqua fashion chose a completely different track. He attended all the morning amphitheater lectures (which covered the thorniest issues of biomedical ethics), and for light fare he took a class on the development of the American economy and a philosophy seminar focusing on modern morality.

Our 7-year-old son, meanwhile, was enrolled in the Boys' and Girls' Club, where he went swimming and canoeing, played team sports and created some beautiful crafts projects. None of us found time to attend the poetry readings, piano recitals, book discussion groups, writing workshops, nature walks or other activities that round out a Chautauqua day.

Our week began with a Saturday night performance of "A Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keillor. Most of the audience was acutely aware of the parallels between Chautauqua-on-the-Lake and Lake Wobegon, so when Keillor stepped onto the Amphitheater stage the wooden structure literally shuddered from the sheer kinetic energy of recognition.

True, Chautauqua was founded by Methodist ministers rather than Lutherans, and people here are avid gardeners rather than farmers. But these are minor details. Chautauqua, like Keillor's fictionalized home town, is fiercely loved by its residents, many of whom have been coming here for generations. Conversation is still a major form of recreation, and a great value is placed upon tolerance. All the children here are safe, all the men are good listeners, and all the women are above average.

Chautauqua started in 1874 as a summer institute for Sunday school teachers, but was soon flooded by ordinary families hungry for further learning. This was the Progressive era, when a middle class was emerging, but few could afford a college education. The modern concept of adult education had not yet been invented, nor had radio or television.

The camp by Lake Chautauqua, which began as a two-week tent affair, had tapped into a hole in the nation's soul: It was soon attracting hundreds of families. In fact, quicker than you can say Xerox, "chautauqua" had become a generic term for both permanent and tent assemblies that sprang up across the country. (Our own Glen Echo Park was originally developed as a chautauqua site.) By the early 1920s, it is estimated that one out of every three Americans attended a chautauqua.

As might be imagined, the town is proud of its traditions, and some modern contraptions are unabashedly banned. Horseless carriages, for example. Guests may drive in to load and unload their belongings, but then the cars are exiled to parking lots just outside the grounds. Without cars, the streets are full of people and strollers and tricycles.

Since Chautauqua is a compact town, one can walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. But like Little Red Riding Hood, I had a tendency to get distracted: I would take in the impromptu performances of street musicians, watch boys lazily launch wooden airplanes across Bestor Plaza, and talk to artists whose bright palettes revealed all the joy that is hidden in ordinary life.

And then, more often than not, I would run into someone I met at last night's performance, or at one of my classes. So I would stop and talk, and then one of our teachers might spot us from a nearby porch, and invite us in for tea and further discussion.

Chautauqua, which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, has its feet firmly planted in the turn-of-the-century. Strangers regularly greet and smile at each other on the street. The town's architecture plays a large role in this: There are about 600 original Victorian buildings, and about 1,200 porches. We are talking active porches here, full of wicker furniture, cut flowers and people.

It is the porches, I think, that really define Chautauqua. People with porches are too busy to watch television. (I am told there are televisions here, but I have never actually seen one.) You can sit on a porch all day here and never get bored. There is a constant parade of people, and without the roar of traffic, conversations carry well.

You can hear a dozen reviews of the lecture that just ended, or a heated critique of last night's violin solo. If you pick the right guest house, you can even hear the guest speaker from your rocking chair, since most of the lecture halls are open-air.

All these porches inevitably create a sense of community. If you have school-age children, you can allow them to roam the grounds with their new-found friends and feel confident that they will return unharmed. Chautauqua is a place where people routinely leave their doors unlocked, their bikes unchained and their minds open.

Maybe that's why it's easy to understand stories and metaphors here. It suddenly becomes clear how the outer world reflects the inner world. You begin to intuit the meaning of those dark and threatening fairy-tale forests, and you realize that to get out of the woods it is essential to go on a journey.

For my family, that journey begins in Chautauqua. CAPTION: WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Chautauqua is an eight-hour drive from Washington. From the Beltway, take Route 270 North to 70 West, and then get on Route 76 West (the Pennsylvania Turnpike). Take the turnpike north of Pittsburgh to Route 79 North to I-90 North. Get off at Route 17 East to 394 North, which leads right to the Chautauqua Institution.

USAir flies from Washington to Jamestown, N.Y., for $331 round trip, or to Erie, Pa., for $286 round trip, both with restrictions. Many Chautauqua visitors also fly into Buffalo, which is 90 minutes away. Limousine service to and from Chautauqua is available from Jamestown and Buffalo (800-695-5515).

WHERE TO STAY: There is a wide assortment of accommodations, but many of them fill up months in advance. Your best chance this year is Week 9, Aug. 20-27: The theme is War and Peace. For Week 9 only, there are three-, five-, and seven-day discounted vacation packages that include gate tickets, accommodations and parking. (This package is also available the first week of the season.) On the grounds, you can choose from hotels, guest houses, apartments and condos (with kitchens), and denominational houses (with group kitchens). Call the Accommodations Referral Service, 716-357-6204, to see what is available the week you want to visit.

If nothing in your price range is available on the grounds, call the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, 800-242-4569 or 716-753-4304; there are many wonderful inns and hotels in the area. You can get a gate ticket and participate in all the Chautauqua activities without actually staying in the town.

WHEN TO GO: The nine-week season begins the last week in June and continues through August. Saturdays are taken up with arrivals and departures, and Sundays are devoted to religious services, so most of the programming occurs Monday through Friday. Weekly gate tickets cost $155 for adults, and $60 for children aged 13-17 (free for younger children). The tickets include all the Amphitheater lectures, most activities and all the evening concerts. For general information, call 800-836-ARTS. Adult classes, the Children's School (for preschoolers) and Boys' and Girls' Club involve extra fees; call the Schools Office, 716-357-6255. Parking costs about $20 per week (depending on location).

For a directory of recent Escapes pages available free by fax from Post-Haste, call 202-334-9000 from any touch-tone phone and enter 2109.

Address any questions or comments about this page to Escapes editor Roger Piantadosi, The Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

E-mail: rogerp@washpost.com. CAPTION: In Chautauqua, N.Y., most of the stop signs are decorative, and all the porches are above average.