WASHINGTON -- As adult Washington works this summer, its children, the more affluent ones at least, will be sipping yak butter tea with Chinese nomads, sailing the Caribbean on million-dollar schooners, scuba diving in Hawaii and studying for the SAT -- in Australia.
And that's after the middle school class trip to Costa Rica.
Travel and camp options for youths have grown astonishingly exotic, leaving parents a little jealous and their children, well, sated. "I don't know if anything can top the Galapagos," 18-year-old Danny Feuer, of Bethesda, Md., said before heading off on his fourth teen trip.
"Parents used to just think, 'Come home with the same 10 fingers and 10 toes we sent you with,' " said Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association, which refers families to programs. "Today, summer camp really reflects that parents are more and more driven to get their kids ahead and enrich them with various activities."
Camp consultants and directors figure that given the difficulty of getting into top colleges, young people are more pressed to build extraordinary resumes. They also attribute the proliferation of summer adventures to the combination of travel savvy upper-middle-class parents with growing chunks of disposable income and children with shrinking attention spans and a corresponding need for stimulation.
Children start camp earlier in life, too, meaning they tire of it earlier and in some cases swap tie-dyeing for whale watching by age 11.
Day camp was too much like school for Lizzie Bunnen, of Bethesda -- every day the same routine. As for sleep-away camp, "it was just a little boring," she said.
The summer before ninth grade, "I wanted to get out of the country and see what was there," said Bunnen, now 17. So on a month-long trip during which she lived with a family in Costa Rica, she built mountain trails, relaxed at the beach and explored the markets of San Jose. The following summer she went to Idaho, where the kids tore down barbed-wire fences that were "killing some animal. I forget which." The summer after that was Spain, touring cities and clubbing, painting buildings and climbing another mountain.
"No one got in fights," she said about Spain, her best trip, "and it was just beautiful there."
Community service programs are hot, directors say, partly because of some schools' volunteer requirements. Adventure sports travel is big, as is cultural and language immersion, particularly in Spanish-speaking countries.
Waiting lists are long for Hawaii and Alaska, for anything in Australia and anything college prep. (Musiker Discovery Programs, a Long Island, N.Y.-based company, combined the latter two in a $7,000 month of travel and SAT classes. Why study at your dining room table when you can do it Down Under?)
Among the travel and camp options for young adults:
$7,499, 34 days
Alaskan cruise, skiing in British Columbia, West Coast tour, three-island Hawaii trip. Grades 9-11.
$6,599, 27 days
Golf throughout Nevada, Oregon and California; six days of lessons; college visits; Los Angeles and Las Vegas sights. Grades 7-12.
$5,950, 42 days
Trekking, camping and family stays in the Himalayas, Gobi Desert and northern plains of China; visit to Beijing and service project in Tibet. Ages 15-18.
$2,295, 15 days
Whale study, rock climbing, sea kayaking and rafting in Maine. Ages 11-12.
NOTE: Most prices exclude airfare to and from tour.
The itineraries are enough to dazzle even well-traveled parents. "I look at these ridiculous camp excursions and say, 'Where are the ones for the moms?' " said Bunnen's mom, Meg Crowlie.
The number of children attending camp grew from 5 million in 2001 to 6.2 million last summer, according to the National Camp Association. Although the popularity of traditional bug-juice camps endures, specialty programs make up a growing share of summer offerings, as much as 30 percent. The programs include not just expensive travel but also camps targeting an increasingly broad range of special interests, including disc-jockeying, modeling and video game design.
In response, traditional camps are offering far more than the usual fare. Many day camps have morphed into a series of field trips -- to ballgames, skating rinks and amusement park after amusement park. Whereas once you might have left sleep-away camp one night for sundaes at Friendly's, now you get a week watching Broadway shows or white-water rafting.
And schools have begun taking students on far-flung class trips at much younger ages. "It used to be you went abroad as a high school graduation present," said Carey Rivers, a Washington consultant with Tips on Trips and Camps, a referral service. "Now for spring break, the sixth grade goes to Honduras."
Although many youth travel programs provide basic accommodations, others are surprisingly extravagant. One $6,500, four-week tour of U.S. golf courses includes a stay at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. When Binjal Patel, a 16-year-old from Salisbury, Md., took a Weissman Teen Tour to several European countries last summer, she said, the food was rich and the hotels fantastic.
"Some of them were, like, huge," Patel said. "The only one that was small was London, but their rooms are usually small anyway."
Some companies make sure prospective travelers know they won't ever be without cable TV and Jacuzzis. Weissman advertises on its Web site that all its European hotels are "SUPERIOR 4 and 5 STAR."
Founder Ronee Weissman said she chooses hotels primarily based on security, and besides, she said, "I find that the kids are very appreciative." When the teen-agers visit an "unbelievable" villa in Tuscany where vineyards can be seen for miles and the owner proudly brings out six courses for dinner, "they go over to the manager and say, 'This is a wonderful meal. Thank you,' " Weissman said.
Whether the kids fully appreciate the opportunities -- whether the camaraderie is more memorable than the setting -- is perhaps an unanswerable question. A testimonial on one teen tour Web site reflects the theme of many others: "This summer was amazing because I was with my friends 24/7." One seventh-grader raved in her instant-message profile after a middle school trip to Italy, "HOTT guys rode on buses. HOTTER guys were in the army. HOTTEST guys drive the mopeds!!"
Travis Yates, operational director for the Florida-based tour company ActionQuest, said "the vast majority of students know how lucky they are" to be traveling on the best boats that can be chartered. He loves to see teen-agers grow independent over the summer, eventually sailing the boats themselves.
"They get away from Instant Messenger now, and they're almost useless," Yates said. "I have shipmates who turn their cell phones on, even though they don't work."
Independence is a big reason Crowlie has urged teen trips on her children. "Certainly, as your economic status grows, you see it as an opportunity to learn skills and experiences you can't get in Bethesda for 16 years, with your parents doing everything for you," she said.
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