Get A Feel For The Great Outdoors Without Pitching A Tent At This Florida 'Glamping' Retreat
When I wasn’t old enough to wear lipstick, but old enough to care what my friends thought of me, my parents would drop me off at camp each summer. We’d braid our hair, muddy our shoes and take bets on who would tally the most bug bites that week. We’d go to sleep when the sky lost its light, because there wasn’t much else you could do. Our sleeping bags would be sprawled along creaky twin beds in a cabin held shut by a tiny metal latch. We’d tell ghost stories through the dark until the last flashlight clicked off and the final voice turned to heavy breathing. If you woke in the middle of the night, you’d hear an orchestra of crickets and ticking from the aged wooden walls. You’d lie there and reflect on the day, feeling as if you were the only awake person in the world.
It wasn’t until I was in bed after my first day of “glamping” at Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo in central Florida that I drew a correlation between being a “glamper” and my past-life as a camper. “Glamping,” for those who don’t know, is glamorous camping. When pitched an opportunity to give it a try, I texted my friend something like, “Want to go ‘glamping’ with me? We’ll stay in luxury tepees and do outdoorsy things—like ride horses and shoot archery. You’ll probably get some great pictures, too.” She’s a social media savage (like most of us), so with that, she was in.
We arrived in the afternoon at Westgate where just last year 10 luxury tepees went up at a campsite named Takoda Village. “Takoda” is a Native American word meaning “friend to everyone,” so the space includes a communal pavilion topped with a palmetto thatch roof, a fire pit bordered by rocking chairs, and scattered hammocks meant for guests to share. Crossing over mulch and below cascading oak trees, we found our tepee called “Wild Bear.” Parked outside was our own golf cart to use when exploring the grounds, traveling to our activities planned for the next day, heading to the onsite restaurant, or browsing the Western-themed gift shop and general store. The intention at the resort is that once guests check in, they won’t need to leave the grounds for the duration of their stay.
Pulling back the flaps to our weekend home, I found it hard to believe we’d entered a tepee until I saw that the ceiling came to a point. The entry led to a living room, complete with a rustic leather couch and pillows in Native American prints below a chandelier made from antlers. A stonewall hosting an electric fireplace separated the entry from the kitchen and bedroom, which included a refrigerator and king bed. The bathroom featured a porcelain and cast-iron clawed bathtub with a waterfall shower head.
It was getting dark when we boarded our golf cart to head to the Saturday Night Rodeo. The outdoor arena can host up to 1,200 guests as cowboys from all over the state attempt to keep their bottoms on bucking bulls. We grabbed beers in plastic cups shaped like cowboy boots, and watched our favorite event—the “calf scramble,” when kids are invited into the arena to chase down a calf with a ribbon tied to its tail. The first to grab the ribbon wins a prize, but all participants exit looking like they took a nice mud bath.
After the rodeo, the River Ranch Saloon next door hosted a mismatched country band that played classics while couples took to the floor for line dancing. We headed back to our tepee where a campfire awaited, and we grabbed the s’more-making kit given to us during check-in so that we could roast marshmallows before heading to bed.
Now, perhaps I’d lost my sense of adventure, or I’d simply read too many news stories, but as I lied there waiting for sleep, I wasn’t hearing the chirping crickets or the ticking sounds from the tepee’s infrastructure like I had in my earlier camping days. And I didn’t feel I was the only person—or thing—awake in the world. I was instead staring through the dark, my eyes following every noise.
See, while our accommodations could have been plopped from a 5-star resort into the nature scene that surrounded it, only a strip of Velcro was separating us from the elements. This should have felt liberating—being so remote that a door and lock wasn’t necessary. But instead, after a somewhat sleepless night, I realized it would take some time to return to the trusting mindset that came so easily as a youth.
Making up for lack of rest was a pot of coffee that arrived on our porch the next morning, accompanied by a picnic basket containing Danishes, cereals and fruits. We started the day with a group horseback riding trip led by a cowgirl who was part of the flag ceremony during the rodeo the night before. She guided us on a trail that was said to have been traveled by some of America’s first cowboys in the early 1700s.
Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi. It wasn’t until four years ago that Westgate bought the property and gave it a multimillion-dollar renovation that included space for zip lining, a rock wall, ropes courses and more. The site even offers a nine-hole golf course. Next up for us was an airboat ride along the Kissimmee River, where we would spot white-tailed deer, alligators, bald eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, feral hogs and sandhill cranes.
That night, we reenacted the campfire and s’mores ditty from the night before and then headed inside to pack up for our departure the next day. Without a TV and with poor cell service, we resorted to a stack of board games left on the dresser for entertainment. We started with a game of Sorry! and before we knew it, it was past midnight and neither of us was close to winning Monopoly. More than a social media-savage, my friend is a money-savage (even if it’s Monopoly money); and eventually, she won.
After packing up the game and clicking off our bedside lamps, I thought about how often we pay for fabulous trips in order to escape our monotonous days in search of a feeling. We go to a spa to feel pampered. We go to dinner to feel indulgent. We take trips to far-off beaches to feel the sun beating on our backs. But the hands of a masseuse will stop. The taste of creme brulee will be washed down with wine. And the tan perfected from hours spent by the pool will fade.
So why were these fleeting moments so important? I considered the green pastures sprinkled with livestock; my interactions with locals donning cowboy hats striking up conversation about the bright, full moon; and when my friend shot an arrow toward a hay barrow and threw her arms in the air with the accomplishment of hitting a bull’s-eye.
I decided the answer to my question: to feel present. I closed my eyes and heard the ceiling fan chop the air while a light breeze outside rustled the grass. And then I dosed off—Velcro and all.