It is often said that children today are too dependent on television, video games and other forms of mindless entertainment. What does not get discussed as much is how dependent parents themselves are on these distractions. I speak as one such shame-faced parent. My wife and I allow our two children, James and Ava, a fair amount of screen time and, pathetic as it is to admit, we would be sunk without SpongeBob, Wii, our DVD player, and all the other shows and gadgets that keep the kids busy when we no longer have the energy or patience to do so ourselves.
So it was with a degree of trepidation that we set off for the first-ever kids’ weekend at the Point, a celebrated resort located in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. An old Rockefeller family estate situated on a remote corner of Upper Saranac Lake and comprised of a series of luxury cabins, the Point has capacity for at most 22 guests and prides itself on offering complete sanctuary from the outside world, including almost zero connectivity. The rooms have no television sets or outside phone lines, nor is there any wireless service. The activities mainly consist of eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, walking in the woods, boating, getting amorous, and eating and drinking more. It is a place people go to decompress, to escape with people other than their significant others, and to have weekends away from their children.
The Point has long had a policy of not allowing children and is probably the most adult getaway this side of a nudist colony. Over the years, though, some guests had asked if the hotel might consider bending its no-children policy and, a few months ago, it decided to open its gate to kids for the first time. How would it keep young children entertained, and how would James, eight, and Ava, five, survive a long weekend without iCarly, Barbie Rapunzel and Wii bowling? More importantly, how would my wife and I survive?
It took some persuading to get James and Ava to agree to go. “What kind of hotel doesn’t have a TV?” James asked, his voice oozing contempt. His resistance began to melt only when I told him that Bill Gates had apparently been a guest at the Point (James is an ardent capitalist, and Gates and Warren Buffett are two of his heroes).
He and Ava began really warming to the idea when the hotel called to ask if any of us had dietary restrictions or special food requests. Ava, a fruit lover, said she wanted cherries, strawberries, watermelon, and pomegranate juice. James said that he wished to have foie gras, caviar and sashimi. When we told the kids that the Point prided itself on being able to prepare guests anything they wanted anytime of the day or night, their eyes lit up. The trip might turn out to be a success, after all.
Food is a big part of the attraction at The Point. Mark Levy, an amiable and ferociously gifted young Brit, has been the chef for the past two and a half years. He is not wildly inventive and has no interest in Adrià-esque flourishes. His cooking is quite classical but every dish that comes out of the kitchen is perfectly prepared and seasoned, and the flavours are hypnotically good. The same is true of the talented 25-year-old pastry chef, Charlene Smith.
We arrived midday on Friday and were greeted with juices for the kids and champagne for us. Lunch was held in the elegant Great Hall dining room (lunches and dinners are served family style, though guests can also have room service for any meal). We were joined by a couple from the New York area and their two children – the kids instantly hit it off, which augured well. Also with us was Megan Torrance, the Point’s manager who, along with her golden retriever Buddy, would be our guide for the weekend.
Following lunch, the kids went to the kitchen to make gingerbread houses, which Ava particularly loved. After that, we retreated to our cabin to rest. James and Ava quickly discovered that swank accommodations can be quite enjoyable even without a television set. The resort’s 11 rooms are done in a rustic motif, with Adirondack twig furnishings and stone fireplaces. But the bathrooms are modern and very luxurious, and no sooner were we in the room than the kids were taking leisurely bubble baths, followed by steam showers; by the time they emerged from the water, both had turned a deep shade of pink. They then threw on bathrobes, sat down in front of the roaring fireplace, and made the first of what would be many room service calls that weekend, ordering smoothies and a fresh fruit plate.
The next morning, James and Ava decided they wanted breakfast in bed, and when three waiters arrived at the door minutes later bearing small tray tables and platters of eggs, pancakes, oatmeal, fresh fruit, freshly baked muffins and croissants, juices and coffees, it occurred to me that going home might present a problem.
After the gluttonous start, we assembled in front of the Great Hall for a visit to a nearby nature centre. There we spent several entertaining hours laughing at the otters, enjoying a close encounter with a timber rattlesnake and eating a delicious picnic lunch prepared by the hotel.
That evening, the kids had a party in the pub, located across from the Great Hall. Levy and his kitchen crew prepared a feast – pigs in a blanket, hamburgers, pizza, macaroni and cheese, salad and ice-cream sundaes. The pub’s self-service bar, one of several scattered across the 74-acre property, had been stocked with sodas and juices, and one of the waitresses taught the kids how to prepare mocktails. Along with dinner, there was pool and darts, and the kids had the jukebox working the entire time. The night finished with a performance by a local magician who kept them spellbound for two hours.
While they played and ate, we just ate. The grown-ups’ dinner was in the Great Hall, and our group was joined by a couple from Washington, DC, who had come to the Point to celebrate their recent engagement. Levy and his crew served a sensational dinner. We started with a chilled beet soup, which was followed by butter poached squab with a marcona almond custard, morels, peas and fava beans, a roasted Wagyu ribeye with fondant potatoes, and a passion fruit soufflé with pineapple salad and fromage blanc lime sorbet. James had caught wind of the menu and made it known to Levy that it sounded very appealing to him, too, and the kitchen dispatched a plate to the pub so that our sybaritic son could have a generous taste.
The night finished up on a bluff overlooking the lake, where we toasted marshmallows in the bonfire that the hotel prepares every evening (even in the deep of winter, and winter is very deep in these parts – Saranac Lake is said to be one of the coldest spots in the continental US).
Sunday passed in a hedonistic blur. Another lavish breakfast in bed was followed by a falconry demonstration, which enthralled the kids. In the afternoon, we took a walk in the woods, played croquet on the lawn and read in front of the fire (with more smoothies and fresh fruit). If anyone missed television, they did not say so. The DVDs we brought along with the laptop computer went unused, too, as did James’s Nintendo DSI, which, only days earlier, had seemed surgically attached to his hands.
Late in the afternoon, James met up with his new friend Jack in the pub, where they fixed themselves mocktails, played pool and listened to the Rolling Stones and Talking Heads. It was clear that adult supervision was not wanted, and one of the many beauties of the Point was that it was not needed. For her part, Ava went over to the kitchen to visit her new best friend, pastry chef Charlene, who plied her with more goodies.
That night, after dinner, the kids had a s’mores contest, toasting the marshmallows in the Great Hall’s fireplace. Levy agreed to serve as the judge, which obliged him to taste numerous marshmallow, chocolate and graham cracker sandwiches. If he did not go into sugar shock on the drive home, it was a miracle.
We left the next morning. While packing up, James and Ava indicated their deep unhappiness at having to leave and demanded to know when we could return to the Point. The car was loaded and ready to go when we discovered that James was missing. I walked into our cabin and found him seated at the coffee table, devouring a second breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage. He said he had needed one more room service meal for the road.
The Point, Lake Saranac, NY 12983 (00 1 800 255 3530; www.thepointresort.com). Rates from $1,350 to $2,600 per night plus tax and service (all inclusive for two people). Children will be welcomed again from November 21 to 28 to coincide with Thanksgiving
City breaks for happy families
Resort hotels keen to court families have long provided kids’ clubs; now their city counterparts are finding ways to woo guests with children too, writes Claire Wrathall.
Perhaps the most extreme example is New York’s fabled Plaza (www.theplaza.com), setting of the 1950s Eloise books. In homage to the luxury-loving little girl whose home was a grand hotel, it offers a host of Eloise-themed packages, even a rather overwhelmingly feminine Eloise Suite (“Think pink!” as Kay Thompson, the books’ author and musical-comedy star sings in the film Funny Face), with scaled-down faux-rococo furniture but an adult-size rate (from $1,142). Less indulged daughters can inspect the suite with the dedicated children’s concierge.
Europe’s snootier grand hotels are homing in on this market too. In Paris, the palatial Bristol (www.lebristolparis.com) offers a complimentary “programme enfants”, essentially a rabbit-themed treasure hunt in its garden – the prizes are miniature gardening implements – along with a welcome pack of crayons, colouring books “with suggestions for fun-filled educational walking tours around Paris” and a soft-toy bunny whose image also adorns the Porthault linens on young guests’ beds.
Orient-Express’s Hotel Cipriani (www.hotelcipriani.com) in Venice has a Smile Club (too bad it operates only in summer) run by American “tutor” Linda Nelson, who supervises arts and crafts as well as opportunities to cook with the pastry chef. Its Casanova Wellness Centre also has a menu for treatments for young guests.
Even business hotels are finding ways to fill rooms with families at weekends. At the Kempinski Corvinus (www.kempinski.com/budapest) in Budapest, there’s not just a Junior Club for 5-12s, but a popular Sunday brunch that features a supervised play area within the restaurant itself, so parents can eat undisturbed. Children under 3.28ft tall eat free, and there’s a 50 per cent discount for those under 4ft.
But perhaps the most imaginative initiatives are those run by Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com). Having pioneered the concept of “teen concierges” in some of its US hotels to advise adolescent guests, its Canary Wharf outpost in London is offering one-night “Gen Y” weekend packages for 13- to 18-year-olds. These feature customised tours of “east London’s coolest shops” and markets. Guests also get use of a Flip camcorder, so they can upload videos to Facebook. The only downside is having to share with your parents (at £540, the package is based on three in a riverview deluxe).