My husband Neal and I bickered as we drove to "the Land of Love." Our romantic weekend getaway was supposed to be revitalizing and relaxing, but so far it was only putting me on edge. Stuck in New Jersey traffic, I felt a surge of anxiety at being away from our son, who was with his grandparents for the weekend, and fearful that we had made a terrible mistake choosing to go to an all-inclusive honeymoon-style resort in the Pocono Mountains. It suddenly seemed expensive, and cheesy, and forced. I worried it would be a waste of both time and babysitting. But more than anything, I was scared it wouldn't be the paradise I'd been imagining for the past 30 years.
As a kid, a commercial about one of these Poconos resorts crafted my entire concept of married adulthood. The ad was for Mount Airy Lodge: a magical place with heated, in-room swimming pools, crackling fireplaces, elevated Jacuzzis shaped like champagne glasses, and endless low-impact activities.
"Now's the perfect time…" the song begins, "when the season is just right…"
The jingle is seared into my brain, along with every accompanying image: couples in white clothing riding a golf cart, in jewel-toned formal wear swaying on the dance floor, in their bathing suits enjoying a poolside dinner. "All you have to bring is your love of everything," the jingle cooed. When I should have spent that time absorbed by Benson or Scooby-Doo, I worked to decode the lyrics to the Mount Airy Lodge song. By "love of everything," did they mean you would have to bring your love of volleyball and horseback riding and billiards? That seemed like a lot. Or did you just need to bring your husband, who was your "love of everything"—meaning that, of all the things, he was the one you loved above all?
Today I realize that this ad bears a striking resemblance to a Cialis commercial. But as a pre-sexual child, I assumed that after a long day of activities and nuzzling by the fireplace, everyone cuddled up on their round beds and went to sleep. These ads signified all I wanted out of a sidekick: companionship and adventure. When I'm an adult, I thought, I will wear white sleeveless sweaters and jewel tone dresses. I will eat fancy meals with my future husband while wearing a bikini.
A 30-second commercial, watched a thousand times. The result: at age 40, in the second decade of my marriage to my second husband, my life contains no fireplaces, no in-room swimming pools, and not a single article of white outerwear. And so I feel disappointed every single day.
Adulthood, it turns out, involves cleaning and cooking and money stress, dentist appointments and deadlines. Recently there has been a double dose of erotic kryptonite: middle school applications and the election. Neal and I feel so worn down that we decide the only cure is to take a bath together seven feet in the air.
Mount Airy was never the only resort in the Pocono Mountains, just the best-advertised. This Pennsylvania mountain region, a gentile answer to the Jewish Catskills, has been a tourism destination since the nineteenth century; starting in the 1940s, it began branding itself as the "Honeymoon Capital of the World." But fashions changed, airline fares dropped, and most of the ten or so honeymoon resorts closed. "In the end," the New York Times proclaimed in 2001, "love was no match for the mildew."
The original Mount Airy was demolished that same year after a long slide into decrepitude, insolvency, and a tragic end for the owner. Broke and desperate, he killed himself in 1999 rather than see the court take away possession of Mount Airy. New owners built a casino and hotel on the site, now called Mount Airy Casino. Since then, hotels and resorts in the Pocono Mountains have deemphasized the romance angle and played up family travel and outdoor sports.
But while the Mount Airy of the ad is gone, the romantic Poconos retreat lives on: Out of the ten or so honeymoon lodges that once stood here, three endure. One of those, Cove Haven, was built in 1958, the same year as Mount Airy, and introduced both the heart-shaped "Sweetheart Tub" (in 1963) and the seven-foot-tall Champagne Glass Whirlpool Bath-for-Two (in 1984). While the resort has changed hands a few times over the years—most recently in January 2016, when it was bought by the McSam Hotel Group—it has kept, in choice suites, the champagne-glass Jacuzzi, heart-shaped swimming pool, and round, mirror-encircled bed.
These days, Pocono Mountains romance does not come cheap. The post-tax nightly rate for rooms (inclusive of breakfast, dinner, and activities), varies from about (as of press time) $380 for a Club Lodge room to $590 for one of the four Roman Towers. Our Champagne Tower Suite was the second-most-expensive option; it has a champagne-glass Jacuzzi and a heated in-room, heart-shaped swimming pool. There are plenty of optional add-ons, too, like logs for the fireplace or a box of Cove Haven Truffles, for which they bill you upon booking.
Neal predicted we would observe two kinds of couples at Cove Haven:
1) Men in trouble. (As Neal put it: "Roses won't cut it this time, Carl.")
"Remember I was right that Hawaii was full of divorced dads who haven't talked to their kids in a long time?" Neal said. "Well, I think I know what this will be like, too. It will either smell like a stale motel or like potpourri."
It smelled like potpourri. We walked into our suite and were hit with a sandalwood scent that permeated every article of clothing and lingered for days after our return home. The carpet was strewn with rose petals. There were tea light candles everywhere. The champagne-glass bathtub loomed. The walls bore an inexplicable Egyptian motif. There were mirrors on the ceiling over the bed and over the bathtub, and the mirrors were dotted with little lights that could be controlled with a dimmer switch to give a night-sky effect.
While I settled in, locating the pre-ordered Asti Spumante in the mini-fridge and figuring out the purpose of each of the many, many light switches (Jacuzzi, steam shower, "celestial" ceiling lights, flattering pink lights pointed at the tub), Neal went to the main lodge to ask the front desk something. Alone in the room, as I lit the Duraflame log, I heard the muffled cries of a woman screaming in ecstasy through the wall.
I told Neal about the sex sounds when he returned. He appeared crushed, like a birder who arrives just after a rare bird has flown away, and spent the rest of the weekend trying to guess the screamer's identity. Every time he spied a seemingly mild-mannered woman in the parking lot, he'd whisper, "I bet it's her!"
On our first morning, we went to the front desk after breakfast and said we were interested in the catch-and-release fishing at Echo Lake, located behind the main lodge. We were handed two rod-and-reels and a Styrofoam cup containing dirt and a dozen dead worms. We were told that some of the fish in the lake were tagged, and that if we caught one of those, we should bring the tag to the front desk and claim our prize. "There's a fish tagged with a thousand dollars in cash still in there," the front desk clerk said.
We went down to the end of the dock and fumbled through casting. One of the reels didn't seem to be working, so Neal went back to exchange it. While he was gone, I sat on the bench and looked out at the water. We'd had visually impressive sex in the mirrored bedroom the night before without having to worry about being loud or rushed. We'd slept well, and then eaten our fill at the breakfast buffet. The day was cold but sunny. I began to feel an unfamiliar feeling: hope.
Suddenly, I felt a tug on my line. I started to turn the handle and my rod began to bend. I reeled faster and soon I was hauling a giant trout out of the water. No thousand-dollar tag, but it was magnificent. Neal had been walking back toward the lake, and when he saw what was happening he began to run. For a moment, we stared in astonishment at the fish, which appeared relatively calm, as if it knew the drill. Neal held the fish while I gently removed the hook.
Fishing, Bocce, laser tag, and other summer-camp activities aside, Cove Haven conspires to abet you in having sex. There are no children anywhere. Stress is kept to a minimum. Dinner is served early (last seating at 8 p.m.), breakfast late (first seating at 8:30 a.m.). The gift shop stocks everything from various genres of porn DVD to an enormous double-ended dildo. The snack stand is called Spooner's Café. The place is coyly flirtatious and grotesquely blunt—simultaneously Prince Charming and drunk frat boy. Whichever your preference, it is difficult to forget that the reason you go to Pocono Palace is to "reconnect."
The writer Lisa Carver has a classic essay on the topic of sexualists vs. sensualists. Sensualists, she says, "are into eroticism: stuff that isn't sex but involves the suggestion of sex." They like romance, and mood-setting, and a lot of foreplay. Sexualists just like sex, without the trappings. A sexualist partisan, I have never enjoyed the supposed sensualism of whipped cream, flowers, or Valentine's Day. I prefer the sexual potential of old cars with bench seats.
Pocono Palace certainly caters to the scented-candle sensualist, with the fireplaces and bubble baths, but it also courts the sexualist with the gift-shop porn and far-from-subtle cocktail names, like "The Boner." Some nights a star like Howie Mandel or noted J.Lo collaborator Ja Rule perform at the onsite venues, but generally it's road comics and cover bands. One night, the cover band Daddy Pop performed a reverent cover of Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
The resort's signature event is the heteronormative game show Sexual Feud—"Guys against the ladies!" This naughty version of Family Feud is played with a white board at the bar area after dinner. The host provides clues like, "Most embarrassing thing that happens in the bedroom," and contestants attempt to guess the top survey answers ("premature ejaculation," "farting") with the assistance of guys or ladies in the audience. "Things men like to see women wear in the bedroom"? "Nothing," "lingerie," "high heels," "his shirt."
We were hanging back, but at one point there was a question about most commonly owned sex toys. Feeling like I should participate, I called out, "vibrator," only to be informed by a couple next to us, "They said dildo already."
"I said vibrator," I said.
"Same thing," they said.
"They are not th-," I began. Then I recognized the absurdity of starting a fight about sex toy classification, so I ordered another drink and went back to being an observer.
The host asked contestants what they were celebrating, and if the answer wasn't a honeymoon or anniversary, he said, "Just sex in the Poconos, right? Poke her in the Poconos!" Thrice he attempted the same joke about how if a woman isn't in the mood the man can "wait for her to fall asleep and then take it." No one laughed. In another awkward moment, at "How to get her to stop talking during sex," one of the contestants said, "Choke her," causing his new wife to say, "Excuse me?"
Sitting around the bar for Sexual Feud, I saw couples aged 25 to 75 yelling out answers: "Balls!" "Blindfold!" "PMS!" The breakdown between white and African-American guests was about 50-50, and I tried to remember the last time I saw such a diverse group—an older white woman with long gray hair and big glasses, a middle-aged white man with the manner and attire of a duck hunter, and a stylish young black couple with matching cherry-red high-tops—laughing together. There were even people in their twenties and thirties who seemed to be there without irony.
Here the Northeastern middle class, with everyone smelling like bubble bath and sandalwood, was united by its knowledge of popular erogenous zones—"the neck!"—and its stoic refusal to ever laugh at the host's rape-y "take it" joke. And this may just have been the three glasses of Barefoot pinot grigio talking, but as I looked at the scene I felt genuinely optimistic about America for the first time since the election.
I looked over at Neal. He, too, seemed to be happily watching the couples around us. I wondered if he might also be reflecting on our nation, perhaps having a similar epiphany—that there could be some way to unify the country under a banner of booze and R-rated game shows.
"What are you thinking?" I asked him.
"Oh, this will be fun!" he said to me, turning away from Sexual Feud. "Write down your guess and I'll write down what I'm thinking and we can see if you're right. It will be like The Newlywed Game."
Upon reading my answer, something about who in the room would make the most wonderful new best friends, he shook his head and handed me his piece of paper. I unfolded it to read: "Who's the screamer?"
I am not saying Pocono Palace is elegant. The archery range, for example, is just a wrecked-up little wooden structure. When the lights in our suite were turned up, we could see that the table was scuffed and the tub had overflowed a couple of times, marring the wallpaper. There were some ants in the vanity area. And no amount of Asti Spumante can keep you from un-seeing someone else's spilled massage oil on a bed frame.
During my second champagne-tower Jacuzzi bath, I grew maudlin. I don't know why. Maybe it was too much wine or not enough alone time. Or maybe, after 24 hours anywhere, you realize the truth of the cliché "wherever you go, there you are." And in this case, that reality contained sticky champagne glasses, wilting rose petals, and Duraflame dust. You can't escape yourself in a sex lodge, I realized with mounting dread, any more than you can in a marriage.
I found myself thinking of those couples in the 1980s commercial. I imagined the golf cart riders glaring angrily across the green after she told him she'd let him win. I imagined a woman bonking her head on the diving board and her husband reflexively laughing, and her holding that against him for the rest of the weekend. I thought of all the fights my husband and I have had in the past 16 years, and how many more we will probably have in the next 30, assuming we hang in there. It made me tired.
The hypersexual locale, if anything, enhanced my torpor: If I could experience ennui in the Land of Love, what hope was there? If, in the glow of the flattering pink lights, I could look at my husband and not want to have sex with him a second time that day—even though considerable effort had been made to make us want to have sex a million times—were we doomed? I gazed up at the celestial ceiling over the tub and felt glum.
Sulking in the seven-foot-tall bathtub, I eventually came around to a nice thought about marriage: it lets you ride out lousy moods. In my single days, I broke up with boyfriends for less than an underwhelming second Jacuzzi bath. But now I'm married, so I can't just towel off the bubbles and walk out. Feeling one way or another on any given night, in any given week, just doesn't matter that much in the scheme of things. The pressure is off. There's something comforting, and ultimately sort of sexy, in that.
"People talk like marriage is going to end your sex life," a married male friend of mine once told me. "Maybe for some people it does, or for everyone it does for periods of time, but what no one talks about is the freedom that comes with being married. You can try new things. You can trust the person. You can go through phases. You can relax. I have much better sex now as a married person than I did as a single person. And in the long run, a lot more sex, too."
Both nights in the Poconos, Neal and I slept nine hours straight, lulled into slumber by the burbling of the heated in-room pool, beneath the glow of the celestial ceiling lights. By day, we played one-on-one basketball. He crushed me at mini-golf, and I smoked him at air hockey. We both did terribly at a hunting arcade game. We spent two full days doing nothing but hanging out together. We enjoyed it more than we thought we would, so much so that when Sunday came we were sad to leave. As we locked the door behind us, I said, "Oh no! I just realized we never fooled around on the massage table. Or the sectional couch."
"Next time," said Neal.
On the drive home, we detoured to the site of the original Mount Airy Lodge, now Mount Airy Casino. We wandered around the smoky casino floor, admired the indoor waterfall, got coffee at the lobby Starbucks, and bought souvenirs from the gift shop, including a slot-machine bank souvenir for our son. Before getting back in the car, I looked out over the lake, where, from the 1950s through the 1990s, married couples went boating and fishing, where they fought and made out, where they brought their love of everything. That commercial, I think, was shot right here.
"What, is this Gettysburg for you?" Neal said, mocking my serious gaze.
I laughed, but to me the land of Mount Airy and Pocono Palace remain sacred: hallowed pilgrimage sites that haunted my dreams and grossly inflated my expectations. Sites that I have now experienced, and found to be not a complete disappointment.
On one hand, that Mount Airy commercial has a lot to answer for: Marriage is not a glorious processional of fruity cocktails and outdoor sports. And yet, it's kind of better, the way it really is, part celestial lighting, part archery range. The Poconos proved both better and worse than I expected. Just like marriage.
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Ada Calhoun is the author of the forthcoming Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, which can be preordered here.
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