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Weekending with the Kids: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Farmington, Pennsylvania

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

“It's not summer if you're not spending time at the Paradise Pool,” a friend tells me, referring to the heartbeat of the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pennsylvania.

Spread over 3,000 acres in the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, Nemacolin is many things to many people:  intimate weekend, company meeting, wedding location, family destination.  It's also filled with a multitude of activities:  golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, biking and that's before you get into really exciting things like target shooting and off-road driving.  I choose to ease into our family weekend and direct Fen and our son, Steven, to the Paradise Pool.  It's not long before Steven discovers the pool's slide, a modestly-sized ride where he manages to slide feet first, head first, tummy, back...it all works.  A conga-line of pint-sized kids runs the circuit from slide to pool to stairs and then waits to do it all over again.  Steven doesn't seem to tire of this so we call time for lunch.  Our poolside burgers are juicy and flavorful and a large side of sweet potato fries is gone in a New York minute.  The setting is also splendid:  free-form pool and plump chaises held in the embrace of majestic trees.  I want for nothing more.

Mid-afternoon, we head out for the Fatbird Carriage Safari.  Our ride is a six-person horse-drawn carriage and our guide one of the resorts' animal trainers.  Nemacolin has its own Wildlife Academy, a passel of animals ranging from lions and tigers to bison, moose and sheep and on our 90-minute adventure, we'll get to meet, greet and interact with these fascinating animals.  Passing the tennis courts on the left, we soon see a rise populated by mountain goats and Dall sheep.  Next up is the black bears' den, where we stand behind a fence and take turns feeding grapes to four frisky bears.  Steven is fascinated by our trainer's ability to feed the bears a bunch of grapes dangling from her teeth (!) and shares a giggle about it with his newfound friend, Joey, another seven-year-old boy along for the ride.  Both boys have brought cameras and they happily snap away.  We encounter bison next, including a rare white one, and then proceed to meet a tiger named Tigger whom we all get a chance to feed via a small hole in an inch-thick slab of bulletproof glass.  Tigger isn't particularly hungry on this afternoon so we make our way over to Sybil and Giggles, the resorts' spotted hyenas.  We learn that hyenas have the strongest jaw of any mammal in the world, which may explain why this twosome is  happy to play a game of tug-of-war with the boys.  Our guide inserts a rope though a chain link fence and Sybil pulls at her end while Steven and Joey tug at theirs.  The boys fall back laughing and don't even bother to keep score.  Moose are next (they shed their antlers every year for the first seven years) and are followed by boy and girl white lions, who live to sleep (21 hours a day!) but can beat a tiger in a fight on any given day.  Fen and I marvel at how relaxing this excursion is and I surmise that the only thing missing is an elephant ride at the end.  Maybe next year.

Steven says his goodbyes to Joey and we're onto a leisurely stroll through Nemacolin's woodlands.  Our destination is the miniature golf course, an eighteen-hole layout which we passed while on safari.  Nemacolin is known for its two championship golf courses, The Links and Mystic Rock, but we soon find out that the mini-golf course is no slouch.  There are water hazards, sand traps and numerous multi-level holes.  I score a hole-in-one on hole #2 while Fen manages to six-putt.  Steven's only concern is speed and he still manages to tally a respectable score.  Fen pronounces me the winner at the end of the game and Steven asks to do it all over again, as he usually does when something is too much fun.

“Mom, this place is more family-friendly than Disney!” Steven blurts out.  I'm tempted to agree.

*     *     *     *     *

The Chateau Lafayette is one of three hotels at Nemacolin and arguably its grandest.  It is, after all, modeled after the Ritz in Paris.  I've chosen the Chateau as it's at the center of the resort and, well, I did have tea at the Ritz once so it's time to step things up.  The ample lobby is adorned with the most amazing chandelier and Steven and I are instantly mesmerized.  The bellman is all smiles and tells us that there are chandeliers in every corridor and every room.  Our king suite is palatial and Steven can't wait to turn on the chandeliers – there are three of them in our room.  They are controlled by dimmer switches and my tech-brained son is instantly hep to all the settings.  The prismatic quality of the dangling glass also fascinates Steven, to the point where he and his father get into a spirited conversation about the nature of prisms, their light, angles, colors...  I'm struck by the fact that we could roll in an armada of rollaway beds and still have enough room for a pas de deux.  The whole of the suite is done in green, red and gold and the bathroom is crowned by a Jacuzzi tub while our floor-to-ceiling windows afford a view to the resorts' airstrip.

“I wish we could move this whole Nemacolin room into our house!” says Steven.

“Maybe the other way around,” muses Fen.

*     *     *     *     *

Fen and I drop Steven off at the resort's Kidz Klub (a camp-like environment for ages 4-12) so that we can have a morning to ourselves – as in I go to the spa and Fen takes a tennis lesson.  The resorts' Woodlands Spa is a tri-level space where the soothing woodsiness marries the delicacy of a Japanese temple (bamboo, running water) with the warmth of a mountain lodge (fireplaces, sink-into-me couches, low lighting).  My “Red Flower Hammam Body Ritual” begins with an exfoliation atop the heated massage table.  The therapist, Melissa, then applies a white clay body mask and bubble-wraps me before piling on several warm blankets.  She segues into a face and scalp massage as the white clay sinks in.  After fifteen minutes of sheer bliss, Melissa asks me to step into a shower steps away and I rinse myself off, in the process discovering silky skin the likes of which I've never lived.  Once back on the table, I am misted and oiled, the better to seal in my silky new skin.  The puddle that is me is then escorted to a sitting room where I consider the possibility of doing it all over again.

After a quick visit to the spa's wet rooms, I get dressed and head over to the tennis courts.  Fen is wrapping up his lesson with Fritz Schunk, the resort pro who once went three sets with Arthur Ashe, Fen's childhood hero.  My normally soft-spoken husband is positively gushing as he greets me.

“He gave me tips that made sense to me immediately and I could see the difference in when I did things right and when I didn't.  His ability to see what I could do to improve my game and describe it in a way that I can put into practice was amazing!  No pro in a long time provided the value that he did.”

We collect our things and walk to the nearby Kidz Klub to pick up Steven.  Our son tells us he has spent much of the morning in the Hardy Girls Gym, an Olympic-caliber facility named after the daughters of the resorts' founder, Joe Hardy.  I find myself grateful that the wise young counselors have run my boy like a racehorse.  We choose to revisit the Paradise Pool, because it's what you do at Nemacolin in the good ol' summertime.

*     *     *     *     *

Rarely do resorts offer superb cuisine across all of their dining outlets.  Nemacolin does, and it's one of the best reasons for coming here.  At Autumn, both breakfast and dinner are served.  Shades of honey, rust and gold envelop the room and the Italian-inspired dinner menu is meant to be savored as a four-course joust.  We steer Steven away from the kid's menu since we spot a number of appetizers that are to his liking.  The veal meatballs are draped in a luscious tomato sauce while the potato and parmesan soup is creamy goodness.  Steven lingers over his main, a light pasta dish, while I revel in mine, scallops dappled with prosciutto and dried cherries and served alongside sweet corn risotto.  We return to Autumn the next morning and Steven orders up Frosted Flakes while Fen digs into the salmon eggs Benedict and I sing the praises of a lighter-than-air omelette that is serving as a repository for homemade guacamole.  At The Tavern later that evening, the many TVs vie for the eye with two antique Brunswick pool tables and the players who lord over them.  We share a pile of perfectly-dressed Buffalo chicken wings and my pork chops with dried cherries and apple mash are the kind of dish that my boy would ordinarily want if the burger here wasn't sublime.  A fudge brownie sundae and a slice of key lime pie cap off our night.  We have similar experiences at Aqueous (a beautiful room with elegant food yet something for kids) and Elements Cafe (delectable wraps and salads adjacent to the Spa) and never even make it to Lautrec, the resorts' AAA Five Diamond-rated fine dining table where parents holding a reservation are smart to drop off young ones at the Kidz Night Out program (pizza, movies, games).  It's a feast for the senses at Nemacolin.

*     *     *     *     *

Fen and Steven mull over the possibilities for guy activities at Nemacolin:  climbing wall, paint ball, ropes course, shooting academy, off-road driving academy.  The last one bites, probably because the possibility of driving someone else's vehicle on a gonzo off-road driving course is almost surreal.  We sign up and Steven and I position ourselves in the back seat of the Toyota FJ Cruiser while the instructor, Tim, sits next to driver Fen.

“Place your thumbs on the outside of the steering wheel so you don't break them,” says Tim.  I quickly buckle Steven's seat belt and fasten mine.

We start at The Rock, where Fen learns the basics of off-road driving.  Fen has gone off roading before but quickly realizes the need to pay attention – this course is intense.  After about twenty minutes of practice, Tim pronounces Fen ready and we drive over to The Crater, where the 10 m.p.h. speed limit makes immediate sense.  Fen is surprisingly smooth in his driving, sidling up steep hills, dodging ruts and prompting props of “very good” and “that was perfect” from Tim.  After nearly 30 minutes, we are directed to another set of rugged trails that prove even more challenging.  Tim stops us while fording two feet of water to show Steven the frogs hopping all around.  The amiable instructor asks me if I'd like to take a turn at the wheel and I decline, happy to go along for the ride.

*     *     *     *     *

Our last activity of the weekend is renting a canoe on Lake Paige, one of several smallish lakes that dot the resort.  Steven has never been in a canoe yet he's more than willing to give it a try.  We hop on board and load three oars.  Fen is at the rear and doing the steering while I follow his lead.  We encounter swans, among them elegant black-necked swans, and navigate our way through a thicket of lily pads.  Stately private homes peek through tall pines and dot the scenery.  We take our time, the better to soak up the views and warm our bodies in the late-morning sun.  Steven picks up his oar our second time around and gets into the rhythm quickly.  After almost an hour, we turn in our boat.

“Mom, that was my favorite thing of the weekend!” Steven beams.  I have to agree.

*     *     *     *     *

On our way out of Nemacolin, we stop at Ohiopyle State Park, less than ten miles away and a haven for bicyclists and white-water rafters.  The Great Allegheny Passage, a bike path that helps connect Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., cuts through Ohiopyle and hugs the Youghiogheny River (known simply as “the Yawk”).  We rent bikes from one of the many local outfitters and do a flat ten-mile loop.  Our reward is Hershey's ice cream from a whitewashed cafe at the end of the trail.  We cool off even more with a visit to SoakZone, a water park located in Ligonier, one of many quaint towns comprising the Laurel Highlands.  Our never-say-die son runs, jumps and swims, a gleeful grin plastered to his face.  This is one long weekend he won't soon forget.

Additional information on Nemacolin Woodlands Resort can be obtained at nemacolin.com or by calling (800) 422-2736.  Recreational opportunities at Ohiopyle State Park are explored in detail at http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/; rates and dates for Idlewild and SoakZone amusement parks are available at idlewild.com.

Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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