Elderhostel experience is a class act Program: 'Camp for grown-ups' proves to be a thing of beauty, from the locale to the company and even the learning.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In early morning, Hessian Lake in the Hudson River Valley is as still as glass. Trees, banked up against Bear Mountain like tiers of colored lollipops, paint their picture on the smooth surface in autumn shades of gold and crimson. Then, as a little breeze makes ripples in the water, the foliage shifts from mirror image to impressionistic color swatches.

Jacketed against the late October chill, we snap some photos, disappointed because we can't get the whole picture without a panoramic camera. Then we move on, walking briskly to complete the 1.1-mile circuit in under half an hour. Breakfast is at 8 a.m., and classes start at 9, and we don't want to be late.

Elderhostel is not for slackers.

This is our first Elderhostel experience. From the hundreds of travel-and-education programs available to seniors at the worldwide network of colleges, universities, arts, science and community centers, we've chosen a pop-culture, Jewish-oriented program located in New York's Bear Mountain State Park and sponsored by the Educational Alliance, a New York City settlement house.

Our family is skeptical when we explain how and where we're vacationing. Classes are for audit, not credit, and there are no exams, but to our children and grandchildren, it doesn't seem to promise as much fun as, say, Disney World. "Sounds like summer camp for grown-ups," says my mother, who doesn't much like the idea that her daughter is old enough for elder-anything. In fact, you only have to be 55, or have a traveling companion who is 55, to join a program.

Go to class, or leave

Costs are relatively low -- about $400 per person at most programs in the continental United States for five or six nights' accommodations, plus meals, plus classes. Barbara Bonaventure, coordinator of the Education Alliance's 20 Elderhostels a year, says she is required, by Elderhostel rules, to provide 22 1/2 hours of college-level classes per program. Participants are required to attend; people who sign on, presumably for cheap accommodations in desirable locations, and then skip classes, are asked to leave.

The fall U.S. catalog arrived last spring; and with our own desire for a late-October time frame, an East Coast locale and liberal-arts studies, we considered courses as varied as Genesis, the Civil War, "The Great Gatsby," Edgar Allan Poe and musical theater, on campuses from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Stockbridge, Mass.

In the end, we picked the Bear Mountain program because it's far enough from home to qualify as "away" but near enough to drive (4 1/2 hours, all expressway), and because the courses are lighthearted enough to qualify as vacation. Jewish pop-music composers (Berlin, Gershwin, Rodgers and Arlen), Jewish humor, Yiddish theater: What's not to like?

The site, on the west bank of the Hudson River, is gorgeous. Bear Mountain, named for its resemblance to the outline of a sleeping bear, is a gently rounded hump looming over the lake and grounds. Administered by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, the park boasts 5,500 acres, many crisscrossed by paved walkways -- including the original section of the Appalachian Trail, which opened here in 1923.

The park itself was established in 1910 by wealthy landowners faced with the threat that the state would otherwise relocate Sing Sing prison to the area. West Point overlooks the Hudson six miles to the north; New York City is about an hour south; grand houses, historic sites, art-viewing opportunities are scattered through the region.

Proximity to the city makes the park a prime getaway locale, and even on the cold, overcast last Sunday in October there's a crowd. They're picnicking, playing, skating or walking the trails; skating at the outdoor rink; visiting the zoo -- a half-dozen cages that hold a couple of foxes, an osprey, a coyote and a bobcat. In each cage there's a pumpkin for Halloween, and in the bear enclosure there are carved jack-o'-lanterns, though we see no bears. A notice assures us that the zoo animals are injured or orphaned and unable to live in the wild.

Lodged in comfort

We are housed at Overlook Lodge, a motel across the lake from the 1915 inn. Rooms feature two double beds, a bathroom, a color TV -- pretty fancy by Elderhostel standards, some of the more experienced participants tell us. Towels are changed on Wednesday; we can make our own beds -- or not.

Classes and meals are in Overlook, too. The lobby holds card tables, with Scrabble and rummy-tile games, as well as sofas in conversational groupings, a huge fireplace and a balcony overlooking a wooded hillside and the lake. For some members of our 48-person group, there's no reason to leave the lodge for the duration of the Sunday-to-Friday program.

Bonaventure has assembled a dynamic faculty whose informal, interactive style is well-suited to our age and life experiences. Laura Wetzler, a professional singer specializing in ethnic music, entertains as well as teaches. Seth Glassman, who directs plays for the Educational Alliance and teaches acting at New York University, makes a good case for the influence of Yiddish theater's down-to-earth topics and from-the-heart emotionalism on modern American acting; he also puts his students through some improvisational paces.

Joseph Dorinson, chairman of the history department at Long Island University, not only talks about Jewish humor, he also illustrates with jokes. And sets us up for an improvisation that leads to a spontaneous, laugh-through-our-tears punch line.

At 60 and 63, we are, we think, the youngest people here. Among the oldest is an 84-year-old Seattle widow, traveling alone. We are also among the handful of people who have never Elderhosteled before; the winners have 30 or more behind them. Many have gone on foreign tours as well, and one couple has been to intergenerational Elderhostels with their grandchildren, learning how animal exhibits are put together and maintained in a zoo, rappelling down cliffs, hot-air ballooning, studying the techniques of clowning.

We are not, however, without Elderhostel status. The name and hometown tags we all wear bring us immediate attention from people who have Elderhosteled at Peabody Institute, at the International Culinary College, Towson University, Baltimore Hebrew University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Salisbury State College in Ocean City.

This is the stuff of table talk -- where we've been and what we've studied, the Internet, the gyrating stock market, the best time (before breakfast or after) to take our calcium pills. There's a remarkable absence of kvetching, though one man can barely walk, one woman has Alzheimer's, the bad backs have some of us pacing the back of the room when more than an hour of sitting gets painful, and the hard of hearing routinely take front-row seats.

We're on our own for extracurricular sightseeing after classes end in mid-afternoon. On Monday, we visit West Point, arriving near 4 p.m., as the museum there is closing. But we're in time for one of the academy's dramatic moments: At 5, three MPs lower the flag, a bugler plays retreat and a cannoneer shoots a noisy blank over the Hudson. The deer playing in the cannon-barrel display scatter, traffic stops dead and uniformed drivers get out and salute. So do joggers and the Army football and soccer teams, which have been practicing nearby.

Playing hooky

Two days later, feeling like naughty children, we play hooky, missing Seth Glassman's afternoon session to visit the West Point Museum. It is all interesting, but the history of warfare wing is particularly so. There, behind glass, are dioramas showing great ancient battles. In one, tiny toy soldiers with spears, cavalry troops and even elephants represent the Macedonian-Roman Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 B.C.

At the academy visitors center, we get directions to important places like Hyde Park and Newark and LaGuardia airports -- and the Brotherhood Winery 22 miles away in Washingtonville. The oldest continuously operating winery in the United States, it offers tours and tastings; we have arrived too late for the former, but the latter is too tempting to miss. For $2 I sample 10 wines, five white and five red; the $2 is deducted from the $7.99 cost of a bottle of Johannisberg Riesling, which, according to a winery sign, won a gold medal at a 1997 wine festival.

I am more than a little embarrassed at returning to Overlook with a bottle under my arm. Our conscientious colleagues have been engaged in study that afternoon, watching as the theater teacher takes two of them through an improvised spat between Willy Loman and his Linda, from Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

There's only a day and a half left, and we decide to cut no more PTC classes. The program ends with lunch on Friday, and many of us are reluctant to leave. We hug and exchange e-mail addresses. We say we'll be in touch, and we hope to meet again at other Elderhostels. It was, as my mother had said, just like sleep-away camp for grown-ups.

When you go

* Elderhostel catalog: For a free catalog, write to Elderhostel Inc., 75 Federal St., Boston, Mass. 02110-1941, or visit the Web site at www.elderhostel.org to see U.S. and Canada catalogs. The international and service catalogs are not yet online. Catalogs also are available at public libraries.

* Bear Mountain State Park: Part of the Palisades Interstate Park system, it is located on Route 9W, off Palisades Parkway. Visit its Web site at www.hudsonriver .com/bearmtn.htm.

* Accommodations: For the Bear Mountain Inn, Overlook Lodge or cabins overlooking the lake, call 914-786-2731.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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