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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Finding a Suitable Vacation Spot for a Large Family

Guest Author: Don Dick

Editor's note:  This story was written in 2012 and given to me to use as I see fit.  Don has since passed away. Since travelling for family reunions is a popular activity, I believe there are some good tips he has to offer.  I appreciate his generosity in sharing these tips and allowing me to continue to use his story.

With 6 children, their 5 spouses, and 8 grandchildren, planning and organizing family vacations for all 21 of us has always been a challenge. After trying a number of approaches and venues, we finally found the perfect place: a family-owned resort on Couchiching Lake near Orillia, ON, Canada, about an hour and a half drive north from Toronto. Fern Resort has been our gathering place for 5 days of fun and togetherness each August for the past 7 years and will host us again in 2011. However, we've had some interesting experiences trying different venues along the way. Much of the narrative that follows describes the circuitous path we took in getting to Fern.

When our children were young we'd drive from our home in Rochester, NY to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire where my wife's parents co-owned a small cottage with her dad's brother. Accommodations there were spartan: two small bedrooms, septic facilities which always seemed to malfunction with extra guests, and drinking and cooking water having to be hauled in jugs from the town of Meredith, 5 miles away (bath and wash water were pumped from the lake).

However, the view was great and we had a dock for swimming and sunning and a boat for water-skiing and touring the 25-mile-long lake dotted with islands and channels. There were also lots of things to do in the area - most for a fee. This arrangement was doable when the kids were very young and cribs could be set up, but sleeping on a couch, porch swing, or air mattresses on the floor was no longer satisfactory as they grew older. Also, camp, summer jobs, and finally marriage and families of their own, complicated things, as did two of our children relocating to the Pittsburgh and Chicago areas. For a while the sub-families joined us individually for shorter periods when able, but we finally concluded that the family cottage was no longer suitable if we wanted to promote family togetherness. But what to do?

The first new venue we tried was closer to Rochester; viz., renting a larger 3-bedroom cottage for a week on Keuka Lake, one of New York State's finger lakes. One of the bedrooms had 2 bunk beds plus a cot, which accommodated 5 of the grandkids. A large dining room also had a double hide-a-bed couch. That facility was a was a step up, but still could not accommodate all of us so a daughter and her husband camped out at a nearby state park, and another pair drove down from Rochester to join the group each evening. We rented a boat from a local marina for greater access to the lake, so compared to New Hampshire, we thought the facilities were a definite upgrade. A downside was the time spent in the kitchen and shopping for food, a load which fell mostly upon my good wife.

The following year we had an entirely different experience, renting an 8-bedroom ocean-front home for a week on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City. This was a showplace, valued then at $3,000,000. It had a second floor dining room with a fantastic view of the ocean, only a stone's throw away, and a living room large enough so all of us could gather to watch a giant TV or do whatever.

It was a huge place, and so convenient to just walk out a back door, up over the protective sand dune, and onto what was like our own private sand beach. We felt like royalty staying there. The downside, besides the expense, was that we still had to do our own meal preparation and clean-up. Learning from the previous year, we organized chores so my wife and I prepared breakfasts and lunches, each sub-family was responsible for one evening dinner, and everyone pitched in for meal clean-ups. Great as it was, however, the family concluded that one vacation at the New Jersey shore was enough for a while.

Our next year's adventure was truly different. We arranged a 6-day package deal at the Water's Edge Inn and Conference Center across from the water park (Enchanted Forest/Water Safari) in Old Forge, NY. The package included rooms, 3 meals/day, plus the use of one of their conference rooms for family get-togethers and rainy day activities. We were on our own for things to do but that was not a problem in Old Forge. Water's Edge was on Old Forge Pond (like a small lake) which is at the SE end of the Fulton Chain of 8 lakes (Water's Edge is left center in picture at right). A son-in-law was able to bring his fishing boat and keep it at one of the motel docks. In addition to the Inn's indoor swimming pool, there was a very nice, municipal sandy beach for the little ones just across the outlet bridge. The water park was the big attraction though every day seemed packed with activities. That 6-day stay rated a thumbs-up from all in the family, though leading us to conclude that we definitely didn't want to go back to preparing our own meals.

The following year we decided to try an "American Plan" resort," meaning rooms, things to do, and 3 meals/day included. To our surprise, more "American Plans" seemed to be offered in Ontario, Canada than in our area of the U.S. (which we think of as America). We settled on a family-owned resort called Severn Lodge on Gloucester Pond, a part of the Trent-Severn Waterway near the Georgian Bay end. About a 2-hour drive north of Toronto, it seemed like Severn was in the wilderness; no towns of any significance nearby. The setting was beautiful, however, in a cove, with two docks, one for larger boats and adult swimming and diving, and another for rental boats, including pesky personal watercraft.

Severn also had a swimming pool, hot tub, and sandy beach. We were housed mostly in small air-conditioned cabins, all with porches and waterfront views, although one family of 5 stayed in a 10-room, 2-story motel-like building. The dining room was in the lower level of the main lodge. Breakfasts were cafeteria-style, and dinners served in two shifts. The food was excellent. Lunches were mostly barbecues near the main dock although sandwich and other orders could be placed at a pass-through counter window of the dining room. At lunch time staff members also roamed the premises taking food and drink orders and bringing the food to wherever guests were assembled, which for us was a clan gathering on adjacent porches of a duplex cabin.

Severn also had an outdoor pool and hot tub, 2 tennis courts, 2 shuffleboard courts, several horseshoe courts and a separate recreation building for indoor activities and evening entertainment. Being a pilot, I was impressed that guests could even sign up for airplane rides. At the appointed time, the float-plane landed in the water nearby, taxiing up to the rental dock for passenger boarding and disembarking, repeating this for as many flights as needed to accommodate the guests who had signed up.

Perhaps the most memorable event occurred on the afternoon before our leaving day when the whole eastern grid's electrical power was lost. The dining room staff put forth a Herculean effort, with candles on the tables for lighting and bottled water to drink. Fortunately, kitchen cooking was with gas, so the main menu was not affected. However, the air-conditioning was off making it very warm in the dining room and beastly hot in the kitchen. Power was restored in the wee hours of the morning and everything was back to normal for breakfast, but on the drive home we could see that many areas were still without power, including many gas stations.

Overall, our crew gave Severn unanimous thumbs-up. A major negative for one family with a son subject to asthma attacks was being a 3/4-hour drive from the nearest hospital. Others, while having a great time, felt they had done about all there was to do at Severn and preferred trying something else the following year.

That something else was Fern Resort in Orillia, ON. We had considered Fern the previous year, passing on it in favor of Servern because Fern seemed a bit large and impersonal for our group and somewhat more expensive. Now it seemed a logical upgrade from Severn, having many more things to do on site. A big selling point also was an excellent hospital ten minutes away in Orillia. Although Fern had various types of accommodations, we lucked out in being able to get a block of rooms, including two 2-room suites, on the 2nd floor of a 2-story motel-type building overlooking the water and yet only a short walk to the pool area and dining room.

Our stays at Fern have been for 5 days, arriving Sunday afternoon and leaving the following Friday morning. We've found the entire complex surprisingly compact, including the 5-hole golf course and hiking/biking trails of varying lengths.

There are two heated swimming pools, one quite large with surrounding deck chairs, a 2nd smaller one with a diving board, plus a small kiddie wading pool and a hot tub. A poolside bar makes great "smoothies," popular with our group on warm days. We make good use of the tennis, badminton, and basketball courts, the golf course, miniature golf, trampolines, bocce, shuffleboard, climbing wall and high challenge area, bicycles, pedal carts, etc. There is an indoor pool and exercise room which we haven't used much because we've been blessed with unbelievably good weather during our August stays.

On the waterfront, our group has made daily use of kayaks, canoes, pedal boats, and small sailboats. All of the foregoing facilities are free, the only activities with an extra charge being water-skiing and "banana tube" rides, and massage parlor treatments. Our son-in-law brings his boat, which he launches and recovers at a Fern Resort boat launch and can keep tied up at the dock area. Besides his frequent fishing trips, he provides boat rides and water-skiing for our group. Lake Couching is on the Trent-Severn Waterway and is connected to a larger lake, Simcoe (on which the larger City of Barrie is located), by a channel through a narrow isthmus.

Fern Resort offers organized and supervised daytime programs for the younger children and for teenagers, in which some of our young-uns have participated. A list of special activities is published each day covering a wide variety of interests, be it cooking, crafts, contests, or whatever, which are available that day. The morning bingo game is especially popular with our gang. Fern's recreation building has computers & electronic games and pool and table tennis for young people, and there is a tiered auditorium with a stage which is used for entertainment by professionals brought in by the resort each evening . One of the annual highlights each year has been our family softball game, where we take over the baseball field for part of an afternoon. Our group is assigned two adjacent tables in the large dining room. Breakfast and dinner are our primary "togetherness" times, with different seating for each meal as we fill up the tables in the order we arrive. There is a lunch option either to be served in the dining room or to eat at the poolside barbecue. The food at Fern is great, usually with 4 choices of main course items, and/or to serve yourself from a more limited buffet which always includes kid's favorites. It is truly amazing how they can serve 300+ guests at a single sitting. Maid service every day is another plus, not having to make our own beds. A brother and sister are the present owners, the 4th generation of the family to be owners. They live adjacent to the resort property and are on site every day directing activities, supported by a large staff augmented by college students working there for the summer. We've also found the reservations staff to be thorough, responsive, and a pleasure to deal with. For guests wanting additional non-resort activities, there is a huge Indian gambling casino up the highway a few miles, there are many fine golf courses in the area, Orillia has a beautiful park and shoreline biking/hiking/roller-blading trail, and the nearby Orillia airport is a must for me to check out every year, with its paved and grass runways, and a seaplane base. We have a plethora of Fern photos, mostly of family members involved in activities, pictures I prefer not to have published. Fern Resort has all the information anyone would want, so my suggestion is to go to their website for pictures. Photos and contact information may be found at:

Fern Resort
4432 Fern Resort Road
R.R. #5
Orillia, ON, Canada L3V 6H5
Tel.: 1-800-567-3376
Fax: (705) 327-5647

I previously mentioned that our primary initial concerns about Fern Resort had to do with the added expense, the size of the facility, and that things might seem crowded with the relatively large number of guests. None of these concerns were problems for us. We've found Fern to be a good value; i.e., what we receive for the cost. The size of the property similarly is no obstacle as the way facilities are located, it is only a short walk from our rooms to any place or activity on the campus. What has amazed us most is how 300+ guests are so diverse in interests and what they want to do that there has never been any waiting or delay to do what we want to do. As a fringe benefit, it has been a positive thing to mingle with Canadians, getting to know some of them quite well, as about three quarters of the guests are Canadian.

However, to raise our initial comfort level and to provide advance information to the family before our first stay in 2004, my wife and I made a preliminary trip to Fern for an overnight stay in order to check it out. We could tell, even when registering, that Fern would be a good match for our family. A fringe benefit of our early trip was taking a then new Rochester/Toronto fast (car) ferry which eliminated about three and a half hours of driving each way, including the dreaded QEW highway. The ferry made the trip so much easier, a number of us from Rochester used it that year and the following year - after which that ferry service was deemed not financially viable and the ferry sold. We miss it.

There may come a time when the family will want to try something else. So far, the vote at the end of each stay has been enthusiastically in favor of returning to Fern the following year. There are advantages to being repeat guests. Those who return for 3 of the previous 5 years become V.I.P.'s, qualifying for a price discount and an invitation to a V.I.P. wine and hors d'oeuvres party each year. We get to keep the same group of rooms. We also get a 10% price discount for payment in full by February 15th, which has been a bargain compared to low interest rates these days. We also save a bit by having Fern Resort make charges against our CapitalOne credit card which has no foreign exchange fee (most charge 3%). We used to save additionally because of a favorable exchange rate for Canadian currency but that now is about an even exchange.

Before closing, I'd like to put in a plug for Ontario's Trent-Severn Waterway - an amazing interconnection of lakes and rivers and canals, which, by means of 45 sets of locks, including a gigantic hydraulic lift lock at Peterborough and a unique marine railway at Big Chute, permit small boat travel in either direction between Lake Ontario and the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. If I were younger, I think I would like to rent a pontoon houseboat and transit the entire waterway. A couple from our church took a waterway cruise on the Kawartha Voyageur (Ontario Waterway Cruises) from Trent to the marine railway, returning by bus, and enjoyed the scenery and small group camaraderie immensely. The Trent-Severn Waterway is a treasure of which I was completely unaware prior to our vacationing at Severn and Fern resorts.

The bottom line of this dissertation is that Fern Resort seems ideal for our family vacations and has our full and sincere endorsement. There's even a spot where this 85-year-old can find peace and contentment, watching water-skiing activities and the Trent-Severn Waterway boats passing by.

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