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On Tour: A Quest for the Perfect Sleepaway Camp

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From rural Maine to the Berkshires, the Adirondacks to the Poconos, at summer's peak you can spot them -- swarms of SUV's pulling out of roadside motels and quaint B&B's -- packed with parents toting their 7, 8 and 9-year-olds. But these families aren't on vacation; they are on a quest. It's the Sleepaway Camp Tour. The mission: find the perfect place to ship their little camper. With hundreds of sleepaway camps in the Northeast to choose from, the camp tour and "rookie day" have become rites of passage among a certain element of the cult-like camp parent population.

"Camp ladies" are there to help -- those so-called experts in the industry who can help navigate parents through the smorgasbord of camp options, encourage parents to feel the vibe, inspect the bunk potties, interview the camp directors and tour the fields, waterfront and dining hall before committing their kid-camper for the following summer. And it's a big commitment. Choosing a camp may be even more life-changing than choosing a college. While college lasts 4 years (or at least it is supposed to), kids who enter camp at age 7 or 8 can stay there for double that time and may make life-long friends in the process.

Then there's the money. Because camps today cost more than my college tuition in the early 1990s, it makes sense to get a close-up look at your investment.

Two summers ago, my family and I embarked on our 11-camp, multi-state, New England pilgrimage. Waxing nostalgic and pumped to re-live my youth, I had gauzy, romantic memories of camp in Maine -- particularly the summer when I fell madly in love with a gorgeous Dutch counselor (I was a counselor too).

But not everyone was on board. My son, then 9, had zero interest in leaving home for camp -- he was perfectly content with his day camp. My 7-year-old daughter was much more enthusiastic. My husband, who had never been to camp and had no frame of reference beyond the flick Meatballs, wanted someplace spirited.

Nearly six million kids go to sleepaway camps each summer and the majority are clearly not road tripping to size up the grounds or spend time consulting camp experts on the minutiae of various camps. But for those parents who send their children to 4-week or full summer session sleepaway camps, they often embrace the camp touring experience in its all-consuming and neurotic energy.

Parents can agonize in excruciating detail over just about everything. Who clips the kids' nails? What's the peanut policy? How often do you post pictures of the kids? Are the sports competitive enough or too intense? Are the kids snotty or friendly? Is the place too fancy or too dumpy? And the director is he/she too old? Too out of touch? What about the food? Too fattening? Too fried? Is the lake too small? Too choppy? Too cold? Where is the closest hospital? Why is no one cheering? Singing? Waterskiing? Seriously, what are those girls wearing?

And then there is the chatter from other camp parents who can quickly color your own impressions. An off-hand remark that they know of some child who had a miserable experience at the camp you just loved can easily strike an already jacked-up nerve. Or that they heard that the charming camp director who just golf-carted you around for two hours is actually a meanie who makes kids cry.

Eight hundred miles later, we had toured co-ed Jewish camps touting livestock and fresh Challah and single sex camps with impressive ropes courses and batting cages. We saw camps with separate islands and camps that looked like kibbutzim. We saw bunks that were pimped out in peace signs and Justin Bieber posters and bunks that were on wooden platforms with tents. The kids got swag wherever we traveled, monogrammed water bottles, t-shirts, teddy bears, cookies, brownies and even a Polaroid commemorative photo.

But camp is not just canoes and Color Wars -- it's serious business. They are competitive with one another. Beyond the fields and waterfront, how does one camp stand out from another on a tour?

Jeff Hacker at Camp Cedar takes a low-key approach -- there's no chest thumping on his tour about how his 60-year-old, family-run camp outshines other boys' camps in Maine. Still, if you probe a bit, he will tell you proudly that Camp Cedar often wins the prestigious inter-camp lacrosse and basketball tournaments. Usually, though, Jeff keeps his message chill.

"I just like to tell people that at Cedar the directors literally live in the middle of camp. Our house is in the center of the action. And I really believe in the importance of play. Here everyone plays."

He says this as we tool around on his golf cart and Jeff tries to engage my shy son, who is simply exhausted from all of the golf cart rides and climbing walls he's done over the past four days. Wherever we go, Jeff seems to know each boy's name and where they all hail from.

For parents, it's these little things. And for me, after our journey to nearly a dozen camps, Jeff's low-key homespun message wins me over. We are in Maine. We are done. But not quite. I follow up with two more panicked phone calls from home before I mail in the deposit.

In our highly competitive, uber high-tech age where helicopter parents are tethered to their kids and kids are tethered to technology, sleepaway camp is the last refuge for children to get off the grid and just go play. We camp parents know that this is a good thing -- but before we let them go and play, we need to go on tour.