Let's face it: Having no clear plans yet for what to do with yourself and your offspring this summer does not, existentially speaking, loom large during this historic period of a global pandemic and a reborn struggle for racial justice in America.
Still. You're working from home (if you're lucky); summer camps and programs are closed, so the kids are home, too; and a procession of days yawns before you, a sea of sameness and social distancing. And now the European Union—sensibly, given how poorly we have managed our coronavirus containment—is barring travelers from the United States from crossing its borders for at least the next two weeks and likely longer.
So there goes that fantasy—for those of us able to cling to such a thing—of a last-minute en famille hop across the pond.
And yet. It is almost July 4. There are at least two months of this suspended animation ahead—if not more. If you can afford to make a plan, and wish you had one, a ready-made solution has popped up.
It's called Camp Embark and it's the brainchild of Jack Ezon, founder and CEO of the travel agency Embark Beyond. A way for parents with means to keep their kids stimulated and safe in this era of continuing social distancing.
The camp is organized for either you and your family, or, if you prefer (and it is more fun) for two or three families who know each other, have been socially distancing and thus know one another to be "safe," and whose children are friends. (More if you like, depending on your comfort level.)
In the two weeks since the program launched, there have been more than 50 bookings, for camp durations of either one or two weeks.
"I came up with it talking to hotel companies [whose businesses were reeling] and to my wife, who was freaking out—no school! no camps! We have four children. Normally, you'd think, oh, let's just get some friends with kids together. But even if you have a pool, what are you going to do around the pool every day? And the kids are all different ages. There's only so much...."
Think of Camp Embark as summer-camp version of a fancy Covid-19-era take-out meal for a small dinner party. A la carte, all packaged, and tied up with a bow.
Inside the package is a destination, a camp director, a camp counselor, a schedule of age-appropriate camp activities, and all the requisite camp toys and accoutrements. All you have to do is drive or fly yourselves to the place you picked. (Prices vary depending on the property you pick. They start at around $4,600 per week for a family of four with basic activities and a private counselor at the Lodge at Woodloch in Pennsylvania to $150,000 at the McGee Homestead in Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming, which is a buy-out and has 10 suites sleeping upwards of 20.)
You can choose from a menu of some 35 hotels, resorts, or villas, largely in the United States, plus a few in the Caribbean (a handful of countries are already open) and Mexico (its borders never closed).
Some properties are available on a take-over basis; in the others, you will be housed in private cottages/villas on the grounds, or on separate floors or wings, and the facilities near them will be only yours to use—sanitation and social distancing all the way.
Fancy the East Coast? There are nine eastern resorts or hotels participating in the program: The Preserve at Boulder Hills Club & Residences in Rhode Island; Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod in Massachusetts; the Lodge at Woodloch in Pennsylvania; Watch Hill Inn in Rhode Island; Zero George in Charleston; Aquilina Resort & Spa in Miami; Albemarle Estate in Virginia; the Estate at Foxfire in Maryland; and Lake Kora in the Adirondacks, New York.
Want the Western U.S.? You can choose among 13 properties. In Arizona, there's the Villas at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort &Spa. In California: the Beach Village at the Del (in Coronado Beach), the Carmel Valley Ranch, and the Ranch at Malibu. In Colorado: Dunton Hot Springs, its stand-alone glamping enclave, Dunton River Camp, and Rawah Ranch. In Montana: the Resort at Paws Up. In Nevada: the newly reopened and renovated Mustang Monument. In Utah: the Amangiri, the Montage Deer Valley, and the Lodge at Blue Sky. And in Wyoming: the Lodge and Spa at Brush Creek Ranch.
In the Caribbean, there's the Beach Enclave and Grace Bay Private Villas, both in Turks & Caicos; Casa de Campo Resort & Villas in the Dominican Republic; and Ritz Carlton's Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico.
And five places in Mexico: In Los Cabos, choose between Las Ventanas Al Paraiso (Rosewood), One & Only Palmilla, and Villas del Mar. In Cancun, there's Nizuc Resort & Spa and in nearby Playa Del Carmen, the Rosewood Mayakoba. In San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico's Guanajuato region, there are the Private Residences of Rosewood San Miguel de Allende.
Not spoiled for choice enough? Take your group aboard a staffed Northrop & Johnson yacht. Itineraries include the New England coast (off of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and Newport), as well as Alaska and the Bahamas. Camp Embark can also orchestrate fully customizable itineraries through America's national parks in a luxury RV. (Don't want to drive? No problem, they'll supply a professional Covid-tested driver). And, lastly, a luxury houseboat on Arizona's Lake Powell, a.k.a., "America's playground," where countless private beaches and waterfront canyons await.
The Camp Director
A key part of planning your "camp," after you've chosen where you want to go, is a virtual meeting between you, your children, and your co-campers with Camp Embark's camp director, Lynda Levy (who, says Ezon, has more than 10 years of experience in camp programming and multi-generational entertainment planning).
"My job," Levy told me, "is to create a unique and customized experience and camp schedule for each family."
She has developed a boiler-plate menu—take it as is, or use it as a starting point. She will then ask you and yours to take her "fun survey," to drill down into the group's interests. Are you a sporty or an arts-and-crafts bunch? Or both? Are you competitive, and want lots of races, challenges, cook-offs, bake-offs, dance competitions, and the like? Or not so much? Do you like games of all sorts—i.e., should a hike also include a scavenger hunt along the way? And so on.
Based on all responses, she will create for your group a daily schedule (for your pre-departure approval of course), from 9 a.m. breakfast right through post-dinner activities. Essentially, it's the camp of your (and your kids') dreams, but with professional guidance thrown in to make sure it all comes off right. And yes, parents can "work from home" during camp hours if they wish—remote offices can be set up at your request—and pop in on the activities as often as they like.
The Camp Counselors
No, you are not on your own once you get to your destination. Camp Embark will either send a dedicated counselor with you, who will work with your family from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily. Or, they will enlist local camp counselors, who might be either talented but underutilized resort staff or professionals from local camps currently shuttered and under lockdown.
They will organize and oversee whatever is on your schedule, from basketball games to canoe races, birthday parties to painting projects, beach volleyball to Zumba classes, snorkeling to horseback riding.
The Camp Accoutrements
Fifty to 60% of each program is about embracing local experiences—such as mountain biking, surfing, hot-air ballooning, sailing, etc.—and embellishing them with more general camp activities based on kids' interests. So if you're going out West but have a budding artist in your family, the ranch's tack room will supply all things horseback riding and Camp Embark will make sure there are easles, canvases, brushes, and paints, too.
Although Levy wants kids to know that "all evening activities"—be they "S'mores under the stars" or "So you think you can dance?"—"can be done with or without parents!" Everyone's got a say here.
And this newsflash from Ezon. "People started asking for us to do these camps in their back yards, after they got home, to extend the experience. And that morphed into some people not even traveling. We send a counselor to your home and customize a summer camp program for up to 10 kids right there [$3,500 per week for the whole group]. We've just confirmed 40 Camp Embark @Home bookings, the first ones starting today, June 29. The requests have come mostly from the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami."
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