The Riedlbauer’s Effect: Our Low Vacation Expectations

What does this little guy have to do with our family vacation?

What does this little guy have to do with our family vacation? Read on!

For many Americans, and famously for much of Western Europe, August is vacation season. Everyone who’s anyone decamps for mountains, lakes, beaches, theme parks, the family cabin, the campground… you get the idea. We’re not going anywhere; in fact, we haven’t gone on vacation in any real sense (that is, for more than a few days; to somewhere that doesn’t involve visiting a relative; or to a place that has bought new sheets for the beds in the last four decades–more on that later) for, um, ever? I, personally, haven’t been on vacation For Real since my honeymoon.

I’m not kvetching, really, just stating a fact as a way of introduction to my somewhat accidental vacation stance when it comes to my children.

When I was a kid, we went on usually one vacation per year, nearly always in the summer, and nearly always to the Catskill Mountains, about a four hour drive north of us in New York State. Back then (as now, I guess), the mountains were studded with resorts, from tiny, pokey, inexpensive places with cabins and a bell that called guests to family-style meals, to higher-end places with indoor and outdoor pools, skating rinks, and evening entertainment. Guess which kind we went to? Yep, the first kind. And we LOVED it. From when I was tiny, we went to a place in Round Top, NY, called Riedlbauer’s, which as you can see from the name was (and still is) owned and run by Germans. Why an extended family of Italian-Americans fell in love with this meat-and-potatoes (literally) place, with nonstop German music emanating from hidden speakers and Alpine-village gingerbread trim on the buildings, I’ll never know. I’m going to assume it had to do with the price. Which was cheap. REALLY cheap.

But it was fun — and we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know there were Caribbean resorts, or even nice hotels on beaches in Florida (we did go to Florida when we were a bit older, during February break, but that was only after our grandparents had become snowbirds and had winter dwellings there. Nothing like spending a winter vacation in a retirement village. Whatever: there was a pool!).

But back to Riedlbauer’s. As kids, we’d spend a July or August week there, eating our three square meals (plus dessert!) a day, swimming in the pool, hiking through the woods, splashing in the cool mountain creeks and waterfalls. My kids have now been to Riedlbauer’s a couple of times, for long weekends in October. It’s become something of a tradition, with my parents, my brother and sister in law, and my sister and her three nearly-grown kids. We don’t care for the food, as abundant as it is (they’re nice, warm, welcoming people, the family who runs the place, but they wouldn’t know a salad or a fresh vegetable if it was dumped over their heads, though it’s a great place if you like meat, with side dishes of potates, and perhaps more meat); the rooms have not been redecorated since an “upgrade” sometime in the mid-seventies; the sheets are scratchy; that German music never stops; and the entertainment involves the owner, Henry, on his electric keyboard, accompanied by an accordionist, and every so often some German folk dancing.

But it’s a total blast. We all sit around these 1970s Formica tables in the main room at night, getting pitchers of beer from the bar and doing the Chicken Dance with the kids. Days, we hike the same trails we hiked as kids, to the same sites: Polly’s Rock, with its views over the gentle mountains, and the wide pool with the waterfall you can walk behind. Watching my boys toss flat, smooth rocks into the same pools my father once did is, you know, priceless.

A sight to see, generation after generation.

A sight to see, generation after generation.

Daniel and James learning to skip creek-smooth stones.

Daniel and James learning to skip creek-smooth stones.

I don’t have any photos of the food, possibly because goulash doesn’t really photograph that well, but suffice to say we get a lot of laughs out of dinner (and the boys end up making up most meals from the bread and butter, and the peanut butter and snacks I tote from home). But I have to show you the beds, with the acid-yellow spreads:

The furniture and bedding is distinctly 1970 (or even earlier).

The furniture and bedding is distinctly 1970 (or even earlier).

One major thing going to Riedlbauer’s has done for my boys — and for me — is to cement the idea that an extended family, ranging in age from 4 to 72, can all have fun doing the same things at the same time. And another thing it’s done just for my children is to give them wildly low expectations of what a family vacation can be.

There are kids in my son’s class who go on an annual cruise, routinely hit Disney World, and have been to the kind of posh all-inclusive island resort I didn’t even know existed until I was fully grown. That’s fine; I’m not dissing those parents. If could have afforded a way cooler vacation, with way better food and sheets with a much higher thread count, I’d have done it, and I will, someday, when our finances allow. I want to treat my kids, give them things I didn’t have, all that stuff that’s natural for parents.

But I’m actually kind of gratified that a pokey spot like Riedlbauer’s makes my kids happy. Crazy happy, in fact. I’m gratified that this is what Daniel asked me a few months ago, when it suddenly occurred to him that other people had other types of vacations:

“Mom? Is there someplace besides Riedlbauer’s?”

See. Low expectations. Next vacation stop: probably my parents’ Florida condo come February. If they see a fancy hotel room before they’re 10, they just may explode with happiness. And that’s just fine with me.