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In the Heart of The Poconos

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You are entering the land of love," proclaimed a sign shaped like a big red heart as we pulled into the drive of what my husband instantly labeled "Caesar's own motor court."

I reminded him of something I had read on the about.com Web site -- it recommended visiting one of the Caesars couples resorts in the Poconos only if you are either a big fan of kitsch ... or don't know what kitsch is. The fear at that point was that we would fall somewhere in the middle. And for $450 -- the midwinter price for one night in a "Champagne Towers by Cleopatra" room, including dinner and breakfast -- you really don't want to emerge lukewarm.

The spacious lobby of Caesars Paradise Stream, one of four Poconos resorts in northeastern Pennsylvania owned by the chain, featured a massive statue of Diana the Huntress, many signed photographs of entertainers and a helpful clerk named Marilyn who was not, thankfully, wearing a toga. She explained all the details: how to get to our room, how much bubble bath to put in the hot tub, when to show up for happy hour and how to order breakfast.

Then we got back in the car, navigating past the "Roman" villas to find our spot. As we drove over a bridge that crossed a rushing stream to a pretty, wooded corner of the property, my husband conceded that this might be something more than a motor court.

And then we went into our room, and that's when lukewarm heated right up to red hot.

To backtrack a moment, in the days before we had our current complement of five children, ages 3 to 16, I traveled widely on business, sometimes quite luxuriously. I had the good fortune to stay in, or at least set eyes on, elegant, chic, stunningly situ-ated and ridiculously expensive hotel rooms in many countries. But I have never seen anything quite like this.

More than a hotel room, really, it's an adult playground, a mini Playboy Mansion. Decorated in deep red with terra-cotta and teal accents and King Tut wallpaper borders, the suite has several different areas, stacked on graduated levels. The first level is a high-ceilinged living room with couches, television and working fireplace. Beside the fireplace are Doric pillars that flank the 7-foot high champagne-glass-shaped tub, which you enter from the bathroom upstairs.

One side of the room is a glass wall overlooking a private, heart-shaped swimming pool with soft lighting and a mural depicting an Egyptian desert scene. Beside it, steps lead down to a nook with a sauna and a padded massage table warmed by a heat lamp.

Up a carpeted staircase, there's a spacious sleeping loft with a low, circular bed surrounded by mirrored panels. The ceiling is also covered with mirrors, but these have pinholes in them that make a starry sky when illuminated. Nearby is the bathroom, including a shower that doubles as a steam bath and a gateway to the champagne-glass whirlpool itself.

The clear acrylic tub is big enough that any size couple would have room to stretch out. (Really, you could fit your whole family in there. Too bad children aren't allowed. Too, too bad.) Like the bed, the tub is partially encircled by mirrors that reflect tiny twinkle lights in the ceiling -- a veritable Milky Way after I took out my contact lenses. Also, a red spotlight is positioned to tint your bubbles pink.

Should I say we were like two kids set loose in a toy store? Sounds a little more innocent than it actually was, but I'll leave it at that. There's not much more I can say about the Champagne Tower in a family newspaper except thank you, Cleopatra.

From Quakers to lovers

The earliest vacationers in the Poconos, according to Law-rence Squeri, a history professor at East Stroudsburg University who's written a history of the area called Better in the Poconos, (Penn State University Press, 2002) were early 19th-century Quakers from Philadelphia who traveled two days by stagecoach to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the area's mountains and woodland lakes.

The first tourist hotel was the Kittatinny, opened in 1829, and many of its early guests were hunters. They were followed by America's first middle-class vacationers -- the pioneers of "recreation," whose quest to dispose of their freshly minted leisure time was behind the growth of the Catskills and Atlantic City as well. Squeri sees creative entrepreneurship as the key to the Poconos' history and traces the various ways hoteliers reinvented the area's image to keep ahead of the cutthroat competition in the tourism industry.

One of the innovators was Morris Wilkins, a World War II veteran who saw his fledgling electrical business wiped out by a flood in 1955. Having done a bit of wiring work in area hotels, he had the notion to buy a lakeside inn and reposition it as a resort catering exclusively to honeymooners. For one week after he opened for business, Wilkins remembered in a 1999 interview, staffers answered the phone with the greeting, "Hotel Pocopaupack on Lake Wallenpaupack" -- and then he changed the name to Cove Haven.

In 1963, Wilkins "woke up in the middle of the night with the idea of the heart-shaped bathtub." Featured in a photo spread in Life magazine that year, his tub created a stampede to the hotel and became a still-current symbol of the Poconos' particular brand of hospitality.

In the 1970s, by which time Wilkins had sold Cove Haven to Caesars, in-room swimming pools were added. In the 1980s, Wilkins, who remained with the company, had another dream. And at first his drawing of a bathtub shaped like a tall champagne glass got blank stares at a Caesars board meeting.

But again, publicity about the tubs had the resort booked for a year in advance. Today, more than 200 of the 750 suites at the four Caesars locations feature the champagne-glass whirlpool tubs, so you won't have to plan that far in advance.

All inclusive

Though the price of the room at Caesar's includes activities, to be honest, we didn't try many of them. We looked at the archery range (called "Cain's String"), the mini-golf course and the snowmobiles, and we checked out the indoor pool and grotto-style hot tubs in the Carnivale Swim Club, where there's also billiards, video games, pinball, racquetball and a cafe.

We made a tour of the gift shop, which has quite an extensive adult section along with Poconos homemade candy and Caesars logo merchandise. I almost blew $20 on something called a Bodacious Ta-tas Kit, but in the end we settled for two kitschy coffee cups and a refrigerator magnet in the shape of a champagne-glass tub with a tiny couple floating in it.

We didn't manage to drive around to the Cove Haven, Pocono Palace or Brookdale resorts (the first two are couples-only; Brookdale is for families) where, as guests of Paradise Stream, we would have been welcome to use any facilities or join any activity. In better weather, this includes water-skiing, boating and golf.

It also would have been fun to further explore the semiotics of sin. The melange of symbols at Paradise Stream included Roman decadence, the Fall, carnival and the primordial jungle as visual code for "party on down." Where mythology falls short, Caesars extrapolates. For example, some rooms are called the Garden of Eden Apple, others the Garden of Eden Plum.

In any case, we would have needed more than one day to visit the other locations, and it would have seemed more tempting in a season other than dead of winter. However, we did manage to leave our little piece of Egypt in the evening to have a drink in the Apple Lounge.

We enjoyed long, intriguing tarot readings by a card reader named Cassandra, then went on to "dine as Caesar did" in the Huntress Room.

You might think it would be annoying to be seated with three other couples while on your romantic vacation, but we found it to be a palate cleanser, as it were, refreshing us and whetting our appetites for more time alone later. The other guests at Caesars were diverse in age, race and license plates, and the ones we met were very sweet, each with their own story of love.

Andy and Rhonda Hardee had driven up from Tabor City, N.C., and had the caramel-thick Southern drawls to prove it. Andy, a contractor, described the reason for their visit with disarming frankness. "After 17 years, we'd lost a little luster in our marriage," he said.

The Hardees had not taken a honeymoon after their wedding, had never traveled outside the South and had not taken a break from work in far too long. Now, having spent the first two of their five days in a Champagne Tower, these former high school sweethearts agreed, as Andy put it, "The lustah is doin' pretty good."

Stefanie and Brian Reep looked about the age of the Hardees' and our teen-age children, but in fact they were 21 and 22, newlyweds from a tiny town outside Cleveland. They seemed to be in heaven, though Brian did voice some concern that their time at Caesar's would result in a new addition to the family in the near future. Stefanie seemed unworried, to say the least, by this prospect.

Andy Hardee had some advice for Brian. "It doesn't matter what you think, son," he told him. "You don't get a vote."

The fourth pair at our table were from Queens, New York. The couple's three grown children had sent them to Caesars as a 25th-anniversary gift. She was from Saarbrucken, Germany, and he from Rome, where they had met, and it amused us to learn that their kids had felt that a stay in Caesars "Roman Villa" would give them a little walk down Memory Lane.

At our request, the couple regaled us with nostalgic descriptions of the Italian capital. These were particularly devoured by the Hardees who, having finally left North Carolina, seemed ready for the world.

The conversation, I must say, outshone the food, which I would put at about the level of a Bennigan's: acceptable. We were impressed with one thing, though. Caesar sure had a lot of toppings to put on his ice cream sundaes.

Perky entertainment

After dinner, we joined our table mates in the Red Apple Lounge for the night's entertainment. Though the autographed pictures on the wall indicated that the resort had been visited by a long list of well-known entertainers, this was not the case on a quiet Thursday in January.

A cover band played some Etta James and Eric Clapton for us to slow-dance to. Next, the resort's high-energy activity coordinator, Kristen, took all the women into a separate room to decorate "perky cupcakes" for their beaus. This involved two peaked cupcakes on a plate, some Hershey's Kisses, lots of frosting and sprinkles and Sweet Tarts with obscene messages, along with quite a bit of giggling.

Every night, Kristen runs games, karaoke or bingo, most famously a raunchy version of television's Newlywed Game that people seem to either love or hate. During the day, she offers a packed schedule of mini-golf tournaments, picture-frame decorating sessions and Skee-Ball contests.

After the perky cupcakes, a ventriloquist named Vince Dantona made a whole act out of learning people's names and hometowns, weaving in a few dusty Lorena Bobbit and E.T. jokes along the way. Amazingly, it was pretty funny. Vince and his fresh-mouthed friend George had clearly been making the rounds of the mountain resorts for quite a while, and they knew how to work a room in true borscht belt style.

Yet somehow we were able to tear ourselves away to return to our hot tub before the band came back for a second set.

In the morning we were a little sad to learn that Caesar drank such weak coffee and couldn't get an espresso or cappuccino to save his life. Maybe it was the coffee that threw us off, because midway through our breakfast in bed, we actually had a fight -- right in the middle of our 24-hour love fest! Can you believe it?

Fortunately, we were able to pull ourselves together and release our tension by giving each other long neck and back rubs on our lovely massage table. Reconciliation proved to be an excellent focus for the morning's activities, until I made the mistake of calling our friends Kay and John Curry, who had heroically volunteered to keep our 3-year-old overnight. It was then that I learned that she had begun screaming "Mommy!" piteously at 11: 30 p.m. and had continued until 4 am. Kay and John sounded a little frayed.

After apologizing profusely and assuring them that I would baby-sit their kids, their dog and anyone else they could think of if they decided to try a night at Caesars themselves sometime (I really should have bought them a gift certificate, shouldn't I?), I looked at my husband with resignation. Reality was beckoning in all its furious glory. And thus we bid our suite a sad farewell.

We stopped at the Jungle Cafe on our way out for a quick lunch, and my last conversation was with Christina and Kerry Carr, of South Jersey, visiting for the third time with several couples who come every year to celebrate the anniversary of their friends Kevin and Sally. They extolled the virtues of vacationing there with friends, and it did look like fun, as the group clustered companionably around the air-hockey tables.

I considered trying to make friends with Kevin and Sally, but there was a crying baby back home with my name on it. I guess we'll have to start a tradition of our own.

I just hope it's still $450 next year.

When you go

Getting there: Driving from Baltimore to Caesars Paradise Stream resort, take Interstate 95 north to I-476 north to Exit 95, marked "Poconos," to I-80 east to Exit 299, Tannersville. Turn right on Route 715 north. Go to the second traffic light and turn left on Route 611 north. Follow Route 611 to the fourth traffic light, at Mount Pocono. Turn right on Route 940, and it's 3 miles to Paradise Stream. Driving distance is about 200 miles.

Caesars Pocono Resorts:

Caesars has four properties in the Poconos: Cove Haven, the original and largest; Paradise Stream, the smallest and most intimate; Pocono Palace, built on a golf course; and Brookdale, for families.

800-233-4141

www.caesarspoconoresorts. com

* Depending on the quarters you select and the time of year you visit, all-inclusive nightly rates per couple range from $200 to $450, plus 15 percent service charge and 6 percent tax. Package prices include breakfast and dinner (not lunch or alcoholic beverages), all activities, use of all facilities and nightly entertainment.

* What to bring: You can buy in the gift shop all the things I wish I had taken with me, but why pay gift-shop prices? Pack bubble bath, candles, a bottle of champagne or anything else you'd like to have to drink in your room, which has a fridge. You may also want to pack massage oil, composition fire logs and bathrobes.

I brought a pretty dress for dinner and dancing, but very casual attire was widespread, so wear whatever you want.

For more information about visiting the Poconos, contact the Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau, which bills itself as the "Official Convention & Visitors Bureau of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains": 800-762-6667; www.800poconos.com.

-- Marion Winik

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