At the dude ranch

By Vidya Pradhan
Global warming, shlobal warming! I refuse to be despondent about the future of a species that can be crammed into progressively smaller and smaller spaces over longer and longer periods of time and still be able to smile at the end of it. I am referring of course to our 7 hour flight to Newark, New Jersey on a trip to the Rocking Horse Ranch(RHR).
RHR is what is known as a ‘dude ranch’, a resort patterned after a Western ranch with plenty of activities added on to the basic camping and horseriding. It is located in the Catskill Mountains northwest of New York City. We stumbled across its website on an internet search fuelled by the terms ‘kid fun’ and ‘kids activity’. On paper, it almost sounded too good to be true. An enormous list of activities fills up a page on the site and the pictures are full of energetic and enthusiastic kids.

We discounted for hype and decided it was still worth a try. The deal clincher was a line on the site promising to accommodate for special needs. A call to the hotel and its dining room reassured us that our son’s dairy allergies would be taken into consideration. “Why, we even have soy milk in our fridge,” cooed the chef and we were ready to book our tickets and pack our bags.

The closest major airport to the resort is Newark, NJ which is still an hour and half away. We reached the resort tired and sleepy after a full day’s journey and were immediately whisked to the dining room. Even though the kitchen was about to close, the chef whipped up some pasta and veggies and some assorted stuff for the kids. We were also encouraged to sign up for horse riding and day camp for the kids the next day.

The room was a slight disappointment. Perhaps it is a conscious decision on the part of the resort to make it seem like we’re roughing it, or maybe it’s just cheap, but the rooms are very sparsely furnished. Still, both a fridge and a hairdryer were sent over at our request at no extra charge within minutes.

The next day we packed our 4 year old off to day camp within the premises and set out to explore the ranch. As we suspected, the hype factor was pretty high, but every activity promised on the site was available and functional, if not as pretty. Our pre-teen tried out the laser rifle action and the table tennis (played with wooden, non-padded bats) and the rock wall. In the afternoon we went for our first horse ride in the freezing cold, having blundered into the coldest April in New York since heaven knows when.

The horse riding is the best part of the resort. Everyone is allotted one riding slot per day and can be on standby for the others. There are 3 levels, beginner, intermediate and advanced and the last one allows you to canter on the trails. There are even lessons at the stable on how to groom, saddle, and care for the horses. For the younger ones there are unlimited pony rides.

Inside, there are little games organized to keep the tempo going throughout the day. In the 3 days we were there, we played Jeopardy, trivia, word hunts and versions of other popular game shows. There were art contests for the kids and adults and live music every evening. The indoor heated pool was the venue of a treasure diving game. At night we toasted marshmallows at the bonfire to the accompaniment of a sing-along.

 While the kids had a lot of fun, it got a little boring for us adults and we headed off to explore the area. Supposedly, the antiquing is pretty good, but we were in no mood to spend any more on the local economy. Instead we drove about half an hour to the Minnewaska State Park Preserve and hiked to Awosting Falls, less than a mile from the entrance. One good thing that came out of the cold wave was that there was still snow on the ground and in many places we could see little frozen waterfalls. We took the kids with us the next day and they had a snowball fight and tried to make shapes with broken off icicles and packed snow.

RHR is a strange mix of frugal décor and superlative service. The dining staff, in particular, is excellent. I must have driven them crazy going up and down to get warmed milk for each kid couple of times a day but they were smiling and courteous to the end. Why they could not provide a microwave in the room is something they must be wondering about too by now.  The food is ok if you don’t mind pasta, meat and cheese three times a day. For vegetarians it does get monotonous though there is a vegetarian entrée every evening and plenty of variety at breakfast. We were frantically dialing the number for the local Indian restaurant( there are two) by the second day. The kids don’t complain though because they can get macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets for every meal.

It is not for the budget conscious though. Because all activities and all meals for kids and two meals per day for adults are included in the price, it can come as a sticker shock. There’s much more value to be had in the peak of summer, when all the outdoor activities are operational, or the peak of winter when you can ski and go snow tubing within the premises.

But first and foremost, this is a place for kids between the ages of 4 and 12. Our 4 year old had a blast at her day camp which always ended with a swim in the indoor heated pool and the older one enjoyed the rock climbing and the horse riding. Most of the other guests were having some kind of family reunion with cousins racing down the hallways and creating bedlam. For many it was their 4th or 5th visit. It was heartwarming to see the older kids teaching the younger ones chess and checkers. Would I go back? Maybe with a large group of family or friends. The friendly smiles, the excellent service and the variety of activities certainly make the trip worthwhile.

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