Can an inexpensive, hassle-free week at home be a 'real' vacation?

On the first day of our vacation, we awoke to find honeysuckle-scented soaps, crisply folded guest towels, a box of fancy facial tissues, and printed toilet paper in the bathroom. By our bedsides were gold-wrapped chocolate mints on paper doilies.

No, we weren't staying in a luxury hotel - we had opted to spend our only week of summer vacation at home. The night before, I had traded my usual frantic packing for a different role - transforming the ordinary with touches of elegance.

It had been a particularly hectic spring, and the summer promised little respite. My husband, daughter, and I yearned for some completely hassle-free time to renew our spirits together - to think, laugh, read, and dream. This, we reasoned, could be done as pleasantly at home as in a distant city.

Still, we felt that the absence of new places to experience would be a major disadvantage. As veterans of three trips to Europe as a family, we knew the magnetic allure of a change of scene. What would we do for a week at home?

We knew what we wouldn't do! Our daughter, now 12, emphatically said, ''No lessons, no bedmaking!'' Her father and I added, ''No contacts with the office, no cooking, no meetings, no yardwork!

But would we feel cheated of a ''real'' vacation when the first day of school came? After planning our at-home ''escape'' as carefully as a trip abroad (including some of each person's favorite vacation indulgences), our family answered with a resounding ''No!''

We had private rooms and baths in a quiet ''hotel'' nestled in a woods. (Hadn't we bought this house because we'd first fallen in love with its woods?) This ''inn'' boasted friendly pets, a piano (for fun playing only), beds with no surprises, perfect pillows, and a private screened porch we longed to enjoy. And all this came at a price that couldn't be beat.

Although we wouldn't set foot outside the city limits, there was still that delicious pre-vacation frenzy. The grass had to be mowed for the last time, the house stocked with cat food, the vacation clothes washed and pressed, and the car rushed in for its final bath.

Once the vacation began, we scheduled nothing except restaurants we'd scouted in the weeks before as places we'd like to try. (One of those new restaurants has become a family favorite, bringing back memories of our leisurely vacation each time we enter.)

Most days started with a long walk or bike ride around the neighborhood before it became too hot. We would stop to watch duck families on a nearby lake and pat friendly dogs and cats. Then we'd choose what to do from our ''wish list ,'' drawn up in those hectic days in spring.

Sometimes we spent long hours in the water, swimming and playing with no concern for the time. One day we went to the zoo. A couple of days we went out to my daughter's favorite ice cream shop and chose whatever struck our fancy. We went shopping for ''souvenirs'' - little frivolities our frugal natures don't permit except on vacation - and picked up post cards of local attractions so we could send some surprising ''Wish you were here . . .'' messages to our friends. When our roamings took us past a French pastry shop, we splurged on croissants, French bread, fine jams, and real butter for breakfast on our porch the next morning.

Our family's test of a good vacation is whether it leaves us with a strong resolve to do it again. We found our at-home experience so satisfying - and so affordable - that we're planning a weekend in-town getaway later in the year.

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