Thursday, 24 January 2013

Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp on California's Catalina Island: Reality is the Best Theme Park

The High Ropes Course
It's the end of January, the days are getting longer and the sun is getting warmer. The time of year when the Canadian brain lets itself look forward to summer and think about where to go for vacation. In our family, one of my patented Dad's Adventure Vacations is a given. In the past these have included white water rafting on the Kicking Horse River and Toby Creek, heli-hiking in the Cline River area, and the Columbia Ice Fields. Last summer, we also went to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp on California's Catalina Island. The kids liked it so much we're thinking of going back this summer.

Before last summer, we'd never been to a family camp. I'd never even considered going to one. But when I started planning last February, I heard about the family camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and told the boys about it. The decision to go was easy. Who can resist digging for dinosaurs? Then I heard about the Jean-Michel Cousteau family camp that was happening a couple weeks after the Royal Tyrrell camp. The reception from the boys was lukewarm. Although I grew up watching Jean-Michel's dad, Jacques, on TV, they'd never heard of him. Or Catalina Island. Or actually been to a family camp. So we packaged Catalina Island at the end of a family vacation to California: SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Catalina Island. Little did we know that the camp would be everyone's favorite.

Learning to stand up paddle board
Don't get me wrong, the theme parks were fun (full disclosure: although we live in Canada, we've had season passes to Disneyland twice in the past, and the boys have been there at least 10 times...judge not lest ye be judged yourself), but their engineered rides and structured excitement paled in comparison to the real-life experience of the camp. Where the animals and people at SeaWorld are separated by plexiglass, the boys were able to snorkel among the fish and kelp from the camp's beach. Where the kids at Disneyland rushed past each other on the way to the next ride, at the camp they interacted with each other on a very personal, basic level. And where Universal Studios reveals the magic that happens behind the scenes to bring stories alive onscreen, on Catalina the parents and kids created their own magic. It didn't hurt—for me at least—that Jean-Michel Cousteau sat with just the four of us for a few meals and talked about his adventures growing up on the Calypso.

It's fast. It's fun. It's ga-ga.
Getting ready to snorkel through a kelp forest
The snorkeling, paddle boarding and kayaking (Michael and I followed a playful sea lion across the bay one morning) were amazing, but the best part was the freedom. Although there were daily planned activities like archery, the high ropes course, stand up paddle boarding and guided snorkeling, you could also do your own thing. Want to go snorkeling? Walk into the dive shack, grab some gear and go. Want to go stand up paddle boarding? Grab a board and paddle. Tide pooling? Take a walk to the rocks at the end of beach.

The time we spent playing as a family was golden. So was the time Mack and Michael spent off with their new friends. There was always a game of ga-ga for them to join or kids on the water trampoline who were more than happy to push them off and be pushed off. Kids could be kids, and parents could be...relaxed.

Tide pooling
Will we be one of the families who go to Catalina every summer, some for over a decade? Probably not. There's a whole world out there to explore. But we'll definitely go back. If not this summer, then next.

Interested in other family camps? Read this post:
Family camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum
The camp at sunrise

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