This is a column I wrote after a vacation we took as a family a few years ago. I was inspired to post it because even when things aren’t going well, there are still happy memories back there somewhere. It’s a shame the turmoil can overwhelm them sometimes…
In February, the Washington Post printed a timely review of indoor water parks in the central-north state of Wisconsin (State Sport: “Shivering”). The web-site for one of these resorts had a heavily-discounted rate on 2-bedroom villas. Northwestern Airlines delivered an astonishingly cheap set of flights and, again, the family was set for a flying vacation.
As we took off from Washington National airport on a gray and dreary morning, I turned to my companion and was reminded not of the joy of family togetherness when on vacation, but of Northwestern’s peculiar insistence on liberally spreading families with young children in random seats around an airplane. My large and hairy seatmate (no relation), satisfied that he had fully blocked any access to the aisle, fell immediately into a loud and agitated sleep.
With rain and blooms left behind in the spring of Washington, we touched down into a Madison airport that was lit by a pale blue sky. Freezing lunchtime temperatures reminded us that spring had not yet arrived in this part of the country. Our unlocked hire car had the keys inside. It was parked with others in an unattended row in an airport car park with no secured exit. Fortunately this small town believed in being careful – the vehicles were carefully guarded by a firmly-worded sign.
Wisconsin Dells is not a region, but the name of the town, and apparently something of a Mecca for travelers in search of large water parks. Originally named by the French for flagstones (in French “dalles”), the town probably began when the horses’ hooves froze to the aforementioned flagstones, grounding the French there for many months. They had much to say about this (“merde”). Mind you, if they were in Wisconsin (“très froid”), they were already seriously lost. A resort destination since the 1850s with an average low in winter of 4F (-15C), its nippy climate was limiting. The town did not blossom as a major resort until very recently when someone, in the American way, had the bright out-of-the-box idea to cover and heat a water park, converting an 80-day summer season (“vacances merde”) into a 365-day tourist season (“vacances fantastiques!”).
The water park and hotel complex was huge – around 4/5 mile from one end to the other! There were hundreds of rooms, with balconies overlooking a vast car park on one side and the construction site of a mammoth expansion on the other. Based on the local climate, it seemed likely the balconies would be used for sunbathing in July/August, keeping soda cool during May/June and September/October, and storing ice cream products for the rest of the year.
Our 2-bedroom villa was in a block with a small number of similar accommodations. In a back corner, isolated and quiet, it was nestled amongst bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment that was prettily arranged using feng shui techniques. More a small house than a villa, it was an amazing deal.
Famished after the airplane lunch of a small glass of apple juice, we aimed to maximize the value of a free buffet dinner. (How we got this is a story in itself). Now that I think of it, I’ve never been served a good buffet dinner, but I never remember this when I am offered one. It’s like a small yapping dog chasing a car – what’s the plan if it ever catches one? I have realized that buffets are always the same: apparently endless variety, but few things actually served well enough to select when wandering around. Worse, in this case, the meals weren’t hot enough. The only plus for us was the well-made bread-and-butter pudding, and the opportunity for the kids to bring a half-dozen cookies (roughly equivalent to 47 airplane meals) back to the room for supper.
Stocking our kitchen to avoid an expensive breakfast and/or a return to the buffet required a trip to the grocery store before bed-time. The local at the front desk could only suggest Wal-Mart for this. When I asked whether if there were any other alternatives, she indicated that perhaps she had missed some doses of important medication by providing me only with a different route to the store.
Whether swimming wildly, falling off a single tube, or clinging to a double tube with a companion, a wave pool is a Lot Of Fun. Roaring down and around water slides in complete darkness with small screaming girls leads to euphoria as well as temporary deafness. Doing the same thing with a screaming wife mainly just leads to deafness. Trying to keep all three girls in sight and under control is as pointless as expecting American drivers to grasp the European freeway concept of a fast lane and a slow lane.
Such fun was being had that there were no whining “When are we having lunch?” queries until well after the usual start of lunchtime (which is normally eaten about two hours after the normal start of the incessant queries…I hope you’re keeping up).
As part of a tour of the facilities, it was explained that the excellent wave pool we had been using (kept to about 85F or 30C indoors) had in fact only been opened that very day, and that it had a special roof that allowed us to tan. In my personal case, it merely allowed me to burn. Despite liberal use of suntan lotion, I managed to get sunburned. Upon discovering this, and notwithstanding almost 18 years of experience with me in this regard, my wife pronounced firmly, “You’re pathetic”. The kids nodded sagely and agreed, then asked in unison, “When are we having lunch?”
The wave pool itself was a people study in diversity:
- Young men not yet old enough to drink strutted around in a studly manner trying to telegraph to ladies of almost any age the subtle thought, “I could be ready in moments if you’re even slightly interested.”
- Young ladies ambled around, expressing the simple message, “I’m a young country girl, I’m sexy, and frankly I’m bulging out of this bikini in all the right places”.
- Older ladies were split. Some clearly conveyed, “These good genes, fresh country air, and some cosmetic surgery still have me bulging in the right places.” For others, alas, it was, “I remember being young and sexy, but now I weigh more than an elephant.”
- Older men tried hard but not very successfully to display true honesty when sending the subtle message, “Really, I’m NOT looking at all these bosoms on display. No sirree, not me.”
- Really old ladies generally expressed the thought, “I might look scary now – wait until the water washes off this multi-layer make-up!”
- Really old men looked stern and telegraphed the message, “I might or might not look old, but I’m definitely brittle, so don’t sneeze near me.”
Adventure golf, or mini-golf, or crazy golf, was fun and something of a tradition in the family. It gives adults the chance to practice putting and bemoan the unfair laws of Vacation Gravity that allow golf balls to curve and miss without logical explanation. Kids get the chance to wallop each others’ lower limbs with clubs while the adults are distracted by the ongoing putting tragedies.
Back in Washington, Brigitte needed a bloated knee examined (possibly a lingering crazy golf injury — those putters are hard), so it was back to the usual tedium. You know how it is … three Secret Service SUVs outside the doctor’s building, two agents posted in the waiting room looking very serious, just because someone ‘interesting’ is also there … the usual boring day-to-day suburban Washington stuff …