JohnnyJet.com has a wide readership. Travelers of all shapes and sizes have long turned to this site for recommendations on just about every destination on earth – from trendy luxury to dependable wallet-friendly. When I began writing for JohnnyJet.com several years ago, I wrote almost exclusively about hot places that were full of beautiful people, free-flowing cocktails and five-star dining. I was a traveler – I’d find any excuse to get on a plane and would go anywhere. I hoarded mileage, which was more valuable to me than cash.
Then I got married to a wonderful man with a beautiful daughter and discovered a different side of travel. It’s called vacation. There’s a difference between travelers and vacationers and I soon realized that those of us who travel regularly with carefree abandon are in the minority. Vacationers save up – plan extensively – rarely take the trip for granted. Vacationers are most often families. And of course JohnnyJet.com has a massive arsenal of family travel resources, which you can access here.
When it comes to a western ski vacation where the snow is plentiful and the season is longer, we Southeastern families got the short end of the stick. Many factors make it impossible for us to participate in winter sports out west. First of all, you lose a day traveling each way which adds to the lodging cost and missed wages. School schedules and after-school activities limit the number of days kids can be absent. Parents often can’t take five days off (the ideal time for a ski trip out west), and still afford lodging, flights, and equipment rental, not to mention dining. For a family of four, that can run into the thousands of dollars.
In the quest to squeeze the last snowflake out of the 2013 winter vacation season, I came across a place called Massanutten, located in one of my favorite states, Virginia.
“Mass-a-what?” I said, when someone referred me to it for a family vacation spot. Then when they said I’d be staying in a condo, this hotel hound was worried it would be a Mass-a-No-No. I’m scarred from childhood memories of family vacations to time-shares in Myrtle Beach but upon discovering the massive hot tub in my bedroom, deck overlooking the mountain, fireplace, flat screen TVs, full kitchen my fears were assuaged.
Massanutten is a four season resort, however there is still a month left in ski season. Because Massanutten makes its own snow, the ski slopes and tubing park are always at the ready. Families along the Eastern Seaboard can still enjoy several snowy activities before Virginia gives way to spring temperatures and wildflowers in mid-March. (For great deals, including booking flights, click to JohnnyJet.com’s travel portal.)
When I queried a few families on site at Massanutten as to why they selected it for their vacations, the majority reported that not only do they return to Massanutten annually, for many of them, it is their only vacation for the entire year.
Huh? I can’t remember going on vacation to the same place twice. I was about to get schooled in the difference between vacationers and travelers.
“The reason we always come back is because it has become a family tradition and we have gotten the budget down to a science,” said Sally Nelson, a mother of two. One of Massanutten’s many concierges, Jordan Kratzer, says for families like the Nelsons one of the great things about Massanutten is always finding something new to do.
“You can come back year after year and always discover something new,” he says. Mrs. Nelson’s kids are teenagers and each is allowed to bring one friend.
“They really like doing things on their own so for part of the trip the kids have their own individual vacations, which gives them some perspective but then we all come together as a family too,” she says.
To Ski or Not to Ski – Just Get Outside
“We are one of the few places where part of the family can be skiing while other members are playing golf or swimming at the water park,” Massanutten Concierge Jase Clouse told me. He’s correct – for example, the Long family is split down the middle – half of the family skis and the other half doesn’t ski. Dad golfs the day away while his son and wife ski. His daughter doesn’t ski, so she spends the bulk of the day at Massanutten’s tubing park, dedicated only to plopping your buttocks in a rubber inner tube and careening down a mountain at breakneck speed.
Massanutten has a special park devoted just for tubing with several lanes and a moving belt so there’s no climbing back up the mountain to go again. Small children to grandparents can go tubing and it’s hilarious to see the smallest ones tethered to their parents’ tubes. It is fast – so if your child is prone to being fearful of high speeds or heights – this may not be for them. However, you can entice them to try it just by hanging out at the bottom and seeing the looks of sheer delight on people’s faces as they exit the slope.
Massanutten also has a huge ice skating rink at their LeClub Recreation Center. The skating rink is a 4,250 square-foot facility, so as many as 132 skaters can skate at a time. It closes March 17th for the season and a 90-minute session is only $10 for skaters older than Age 5. Kids under Age 5 can skate for $5 – rental skates are $3, and parents can sign a release to drop off the kids to skate on their own, or participate in a skate clinic.
Apart from skiing, snowboarding and tubing, one of the most popular activities at Massanutten is the resort’s mega zip line, which is 750 feet long. It is weight restricted with a range of between 70 and 290 pounds and the suggested minimum age is 7. The water park is open year round and has waterfalls, water cannons, pipeline, several coves for swimming and a frog pond for smaller kids. The outdoor park is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and also has several large-scale water features.
Animals are an important part of country life in Virginia and adjacent to the resort is an utterly adorable petting zoo with several animals visitors can feed and pet, as well as horseback riding along some of Virginia’s most beautiful trails. One of the best day trips off the mountain in this part of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is about 30 minutes from Massnutten at the White Oak Lavender Farm, one of the country’s loveliest collections of organic lavender. Everything that’s made from lavender here is house made and you cannot leave without a supply of lavender honey, bath salt and a lavender sachet. They also have a darling petting zoo with a habitat devoted only to enormous bunnies, including Nilla, a precious 19-pound giant Flemish rabbit. Two massive turkeys roam freely as well and there are ponies, goats and alpaca – all of whom will warm your heart.
The Less Stressed Wallet
What bowled me over most from my interviews of Massanutten families was something Sally Nelson told me. The Nelsons estimate
they save around $900 (YES – $900) on food costs because they shop at the local grocer and have most meals together in the condo at Massanutten, which has a full kitchen. As the author of a family budget travel book, I am well aware that making your own meals is a huge savings – but $900? When you think about it, calculating six people, three meals a day for five days – if they only spent $10 a person per meal that’s $900. Hmmm. As someone who allocates nearly half my travel budget to dining out, this was a revelation.
And because they drive to Massanutten, Mrs. Nelson and her husband bring their favorite wines and things like Humboldt Fog cheese and cured meats to Massanutten. They are major foodies and even the Nelson kids hate kid-friendly food. The family eats together most nights, but once or twice during the trip while the kids attend a magic show or hit the water park, Mrs. Nelson and her husband bundle up and indulge in their favorite Napa Cabernet and a charcuterie plate on their deck, which overlooks the mountain, by the way.
Okay, they’ve sold me on condo cooking. I ran out to the market that night and grabbed a tart New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and homemade quiche for our deck, and relished breathing in the cold air with each sip. The rest of the trip I ate mostly what I purchased at local places and brought back to the condo. I didn’t miss dining out and I saved a small fortune.
However – when families visiting Massanutten do go out to eat, meals are really casual and super tasty with lots of local Virginia flavor. There are a few favorite local eateries at the base of the mountain in the country town of McGaheysville, Virginia. To say the creamy delicious goodness of the Wade’s Mill grits at Thunderbird Café is worth a flight to Virginia – is an understatement. I have not been able to stop thinking about those grits since returning to Southwest Florida.
I’ll catch flack for saying this, but with a side of country ham, Thunderbird Café even put the grits from my home state of North Carolina to shame. And only in my beloved south would you hear this answer when you ask a server how in the heck a restaurant could get grits that good:
“They grind our grits for us.”
Enough said. Thunderbird Café also serves a stupid good fried green tomato appetizer, which I ordered repeatedly. Each batch was better than the last. I miss those, too. Everything is made in-house – even the buns for the burgers are baked on site, according to the staff.
Speaking of burgers, the single-wide location of Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint at the base of Massanutten Mountain is home to what could be Virginia’s best burger – actually, they might be able to claim more territory than that. If you’re there on a Tuesday, don’t miss the “Jack on a piggy back” with a split and griddled hot dog, cheddar cheese and pickled jalapeño peppers.
Vacationing families looking for a last-minute overnight trip to Massanutten can choose from packages that bundle lodging and winter sports which you can view on the resort’s website.
Young adults have a unique perspective. Most of it implies a desire to spend as little time with their family as possible, but at the end of the day, they do reap the benefits that families who vacation together enjoy. I asked several teenagers why they liked going back to the same place year after year and here’s what they said:
“It’s a safe place for kids, so your parents can let you sit at your own table for dinner. ”
“You can be dropped off to go and do your own thing, like tubing, skiing or snowboarding.”
“There’s more than one thing to do – if you don’t want to ski or snowboard, you can go tubing, or you can go to the water park or go horseback riding.”
“It’s a different view from what you’re used to at home but it’s still familiar.”
“There are a lot of different areas on the mountain so once you get there, you don’t have to drive anymore to go places.”
“The classes and activities are broken up by age, not just experience so you’re with other kids your age.”
“You can do things as a family or on your own and it’s fun when you can bring a friend.”
“There are events for parents too.”
“You can take a day trip to cool places like Luray Caverns or the lavender farm [White Oak Lavender Farm].
Kelly Merritt is the author of “The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel” (Adams Media, a division of F+W Media) available at www.KellyMerrittWrites.com.