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Adventure: Exotic Dream Lands: Sleep in a Tree House or Restored Rail Car

A few years ago, suffering from winter cabin fever, we booked an impromptu Christmas break at a place called Negril Cabins in Jamaica. I pictured small island huts on the beach, waves lapping at the shore. Imagine our surprise when the “cabins” turned out to be tree houses on stilts! No water in sight—the dwellings hovered over lush vegetation. Instead of wave-induced lullabies, we fell asleep to the raucous sounds of crickets, tree frogs and other creatures who seemed to squawk even louder as bedtime approached.

Nevertheless, the adventuresome sleeping arrangements turned out to be one of the best things about our holiday. Kids love sleepovers. And what better than a tree house looking out onto the banana plants for an imaginative Swiss Family Robinson-like adventure?

Today, there seems to be a trend towards family sleepovers in strange and unusual places. Train cabooses and Voyageur forts offer bunks for extended families. Moms, dads and kids can sleep by the whale tank at the Vancouver Aquarium or under Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Model B airplane at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. We loved our stay at a knight’s castle in Ireland, although the stern portraits of the ancestors lining the walls terrified our young son.

Families can join up with a tent camp along the Oregon Trail, plod along the byways of Ireland in a gypsy caravan (after you’ve caught your horse and hitched him up for the day) or sail out onto the Great Lakes in a Tall Ship for special family weekends. There are teepees in northern Québec, Mongolian-style yurts in Ontario parks, roomy if cantankerous houseboats in Temagami, British Columbia or Utah and thatched “chickees” built around a swamp in the Florida Everglades. For families making the annual drive to Florida, here are a few you might check out en route:

ALL ABOARD: In the family-friendly city of Chattanooga, Tennessee (world’s largest freshwater aquarium, Creative Discovery Children’s Museum and an underground waterfall aglow in colored lights), kids can overnight in converted railroad cars at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn. The old 1909 Terminal station, restored in 1972, is now the lobby of the hotel. On site, 48 restored Victorian railroad cars provide sleeping accommodation; a vintage locomotive and, at 174-feet-long, the world’s largest model railroad are added attractions. For real train buffs young and old, be sure to catch the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, take a trip on a steam or diesel train into Georgia, ride a 1924 electric trolley and hear the servers sing Chattanooga Choo Choo in one of the on-site restaurants.

This weekend, the city’s annual “Winter Days and Lights” illuminates the 24-acre complex with more than 100,000 white lights, a 60-foot lighted wreath and Christmas silhouettes. Between November 21 and January 4, special overnight packages feature free cider for mom and dad; elf tuck-in service for kids, surely an unusual holiday fantasy. Normally, a night in a railcar starts at $125 U.S. Call 1-800-TRACK-29 or the Visitors Bureau at 1-800-322-3344.

Only three hours drive from Niagara Falls is the Goodrich Motel in Avoca, New York, where families of five or six can bunk down together in an authentic train caboose. Owner Sean O’Keefe, a former bank manager, bought five of them in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he’s outfitted them with showers, bunks, train sounds and log books. Open between May and October, the cabooses rent for $70 U.S. per night per couple, $7 U.S. extra for each child. The only problem? “Kids don’t want to leave,” says O’Keefe, who also offers a heated pool and playground. Call 607-566-2216.

MUSEUM SLEEPOVER: When one mom told her son that they were going to sleep overnight at the science museum, he enthusiastically enquired, “Will they arrest us?” But at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, kids between six and thirteen and at least one parent are encouraged to stay over for an Overnight Camp-In. Participants arrive with sleeping bags, pillows, toothbrushes and a foam pad (the floor is not thickly carpeted) at 6 p.m. on designated nights, roll out the bedding in Bioscience or Aviation, and then set out for science demonstrations, hands-on workshops, pizza supper, walks through the Giant Heart and so on before viewing the evening IMAX film. Finally, at 12:15 p.m., it’s lights out until 6:30 a.m., when breakfast and more science fun resumes. Thankfully, the morning Planetarium show lets parents lie back for a few more winks until 9:30 a.m. when it’s time to go home. To book the $34 U.S. each experience, call 215-448-1114 (an extra $2 charge using credit card) or fax the Special Programs Registrar at 215-448-1219.

EVERGLADES EXPERIENCE: At the Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari and Camping Village, set up by the natives from the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades, adventurers can sleep in a screened, native-style “chickee” cabin after feasting on catfish and Indian fried bread, listening to a native tale or hunting for alligators and other creatures on a swamp tour. One night in a two-person thatched hut costs $35 U.S. per night; a group of up to eight or ten people pays $65 per night for dormitory-style “chickee” accommodation. Two-day packages start at $119 U.S. Call 1-305-257-2134.





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