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Have family, will travel

There are as many fun summer vacations as there are families. The key is deciding what fits yours best, and planning accordingly.

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
Published April 2, 2006


Unless you're Carol and Mike Brady, planning a summer vacation for your family is daunting. How can it not be? You have to come up with something that is both relaxing and interesting and that will please kids of varying ages and the adults, too. You want to avoid the crowds but don't want to end up at each other's throats because you've got cabin fever in the middle of nowhere.

Then there's money. No matter how carefully you plan and bargain shop, a vacation always costs more than you expect. Throw in the fact that family vacations are supposed to be a time for bonding and creating memories to be treasured for a lifetime, and the pressure is really on. Unless the family is happily singing show tunes as you drive hour after hour or you end up around a campfire learning ancient Indian traditions a la the Bradys at the Grand Canyon, you guilt yourself into thinking you've blown the whole trip.

So perhaps one of the best tips for planning a trip is to remember it won't be the only one you take. One single destination may not please everybody every moment, but you can try different trips every few summers. That said, there are plenty of vacations that offer something for all ages and budgets.

First, you need to decide what your family is looking for. Do you want the relaxation of a week at the beach? Or a historical or educational trip to Colonial Williamsburg or Washington, D.C.? If you want the great outdoors, do you drive to the North Carolina mountains or head west to Yosemite or Yellowstone? Then there's the big-city vacation with museums, parks and landmark restaurants. And if the budget affords it, cruises make great family vacations, and some families even rent villas in Europe.

Some travel experts say children should have some say in the vacation planning. I agree, but their input should be solicited carefully. You don't want brother and sister pitted against each other, with one wanting to go camping and the other on a cruise. Someone will be unhappy with the decision. I suggest the adults pick the destination, make sure the kids like it and then let them help plan what you'll do once you're there.

For families that go to the same place every year, the decisionmaking is done.

Deann Coop of St. Petersburg shares her favorite vacation spot with her husband and three sons every summer. They go to New Smyrna Beach and stay in her parents' condo.

"From the time I was 6, I've been going to this condo. I look forward to it every single year," she said. "You can't beat the beach. It's great for little kids, teenagers and adults."

Coop likes the Old Florida feel of New Smyrna. The places she loved as a kid - the French bakery, Manny's Beachside Pizza and JB's Fish Camp, with newsprint for tablecloths on the picnic tables - are the same places she takes her family now. And even cooking isn't a chore, she said, because she has more time to do it, tries new recipes and figures out every possible way to prepare fish.

How do we get there?

One of the first decisions to help you narrow, but certainly not limit, your options is to determine whether you're flying or driving. If you have your heart set on a destination such as Yosemite or New York City, you're most likely going to fly. If you want to save money, then consider a car trip. There are great beaches and mountain retreats in the Carolinas and Georgia within a day's drive from the Tampa Bay area.

If you're flying, book as soon as possible to get the best rates on nonstop flights. Some of the lowest-priced seats in July are already sold out. If you're driving, be sure to have the car checked before you leave. Plan to make several stops on the way to let the kids stretch their legs. You can get children's books on tape or CDs to help the miles pass.

Where will we stay?

Once you determine your mode of transportation and destination, think about whether you want to stay in a hotel, rent a condo or house, or crash with friends or relatives.

Some parents say they don't feel like they are on vacation if they are still fixing the meals three times a day in a condo, cabin or house. But if you're away for a week, seven nights in a hotel and 21 meals out can eat up your vacation budget, leaving little or no money for flying, shopping or other excursions. And if you have kids who still have plenty to learn about restaurant etiquette, eating out can be stressful.

With three children, ages 3 to 9, I opt for the space and freedom of renting a house if we're going to be away for more than a long weekend. As a friend of mine once said: "You may still be sweeping dried-up macaroni and cheese from under the table, but at least it's a different broom, a different table and the view is better.''

We rented a tiny cottage in Nantucket, Mass., last summer and devised a stress-free meal plan. Each morning, my husband or I picked up muffins or freshly baked bread from the nearby bakery on our way back from a run or walk. We had that with fruit for breakfast. We bought hot dogs at the beach or fixed sandwiches at the cottage for lunch. Then, all but one dinner we ate out at restaurants or pizza places, or picnicked on the beach. We used paper plates at the cottage and ran the dishwasher only twice.

Staying with friends and relatives certainly saves money, but it also means that family vacation involves more than just your family. In many cases, the more the merrier. But if you really want to have some one-on-one time hiking with your son or think maneuvering a crowd of nine people through the crowded streets of New York City sounds like a nightmare, then you need extra planning and diplomacy. Explain to your host and your kids that you would like a certain day or outing to be just for your immediate family.

Danielle Haggar of St. Petersburg does some balancing every other year, when she takes her son and daughter to the Northwest to see family and friends in and around Portland, Ore.

"We go from family to family and stay with different people. The big mistake one year was staying at my sister's for two weeks," she said. They have fun with relatives, camping in the back yard and going to the acclaimed Portland Zoo. But Haggar likes to break away and take just her kids to visit Mount St. Helens, which still spews steam at times.

"I lived there the year it exploded, so I like to share that experience with them," she said.

What is there to do?

Okay. Now that you know where you're going, how you'll get there and where you'll stay, you need to plan what you'll do. The Internet makes it easy to plug in a location and instantly have Web sites and articles about things to do there. The Internet is also full of discount sites to purchase cruises, hotel rooms and flights for less than what you might pay directly. You can also get information on lodging and activities the old-fashioned way by calling the visitors' bureau or chamber of commerce for your destination.

And it helps to talk to someone who has been there or chat with locals when you arrive. That's how you find out about the hole-in-the-wall restaurant with the best soft-shell crab sandwiches, the waterfall that's the perfect backdrop for a picnic or the folk art gallery that will captivate you and your kids.

Still, remember when you're planning your activities not to plan too much. No matter where you go, your family should not have to keep to a tight schedule. We took our girls to New York City one summer when they were 4 and 6. We opted not to spend hours going to the Statue of Liberty when they would only get a few minutes' excitement out of it.

Instead, we spent less than two hours at the Museum of Natural History so that we could have almost three hours for the girls to explore Central Park. And instead of a long lunch at the landmark Tavern on the Green that would have bored them, we took the subway down to Chinatown, where they loved the rice at a casual but authentic Chinese restaurant, the street merchants and the slice of life they'd never seen.

St. Petersburg lawyer Peter Wallace and his wife showed their teenage son and daughter a different view when they went on a nine-day, 200-mile rafting trip through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. They were on a pontoon boat that held 15 people and a week's worth of food. Along with moving down the river, each day they left the boat to take short hikes to waterfalls or swimming holes. They all helped two guides unload the boat each night and set up camp.

"Everybody has tents, but after the first night or two nobody sleeps in a tent. We slept right on the beach every night,'' Wallace said. And the food was far from pork and beans on a campfire. Meals included Southwestern wraps with avocado, grilled chicken and grilled salmon.

"It was without a doubt one of our most enjoyable family trips," Wallace said. "You cover 200 river miles, the view constantly changes as you go deeper and deeper into the canyon and the walls rise higher and higher. What was great for us was we were together the entire time."

At the other end of the geographic spectrum, Robin Glenn, her husband and three sons went to Washington, D.C., for four days a couple of summers ago, when her boys were 5, 7 and 10. She and her husband were excited about showing their kids their old neighborhood and the house they lived in when their eldest son was born, before they moved to Florida.

"But going down memory lane was really boring to them. They couldn't relate to it because they had no recollection of it," she said. But Mom and Dad made up for it by taking the boys to a Baltimore Orioles game, which they loved. (Buy tickets early, even before you leave home, for any game you hope to catch in your travels.) They also enjoyed the Air and Space Museum and the rest of the Smithsonian Institution and a private tour of the Capitol, which Glenn arranged through Sen. Bill Nelson's office beforehand. The boys rode the underground train through the complex and got their picture taken in the senator's chair. (Most congressional offices are happy to host families touring the Capitol, but again, call early.)

Glenn said fighting the crowd to climb to the top of the Washington Monument wasn't worth the time it took to get up there, and there's just as good a view of the city atop the old Post Office building, which also has restaurants.

Sometimes you just don't know these things until you go, family-style.

Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg. She writes the "Rookie Mom" column that appears in a regional section of the St. Petersburg Times.

Memorable family trips

Five of our favorite family vacations:

Nantucket Island, Mass.

I worked there one summer in college, and my husband went there as a kid, so we really wanted to share this 300-year-old island with our children last summer. We flew to Boston, took a bus to Hyannis Port, then the ferry to the island. We rented a two-bedroom cottage in walking distance to town. (The girls took turns sleeping in the window seat in the kitchen.) We spent mornings and evenings on the beach, usually with picnics. We crabbed, biked, shopped and explored lighthouses and a working windmill. The highlight for our girls was being able to walk, sometimes on their own, along the cobblestone streets into town each day to buy a pack of gum or comic book. It's crowded and expensive but still has so much history and small village charm. For information, go to www.nantucket chamber.org.

Blowing Rock, N.C.

We rented a cabin on a stream a few summers back for four nights. We spent a day at Tweetsie Railroad, the Wild West theme park that opened in 1957 and hasn't changed a whole lot since then. There was no roller coaster, but our girls were thrilled with the fake jail, can-can dancers, county fair with a few rides, clogging show, sky lift ride and, of course, the train that slithers through the mountains past cowboy and Indian hideouts. We also did a few short hikes in the parks, picnicked off the Blue Ridge Parkway and panned for gemstones. For information, go to www.visitblowingrock.com.

Fripp Island, S.C.

About eight hours from St. Petersburg, this 3-mile-long island is just over the South Carolina state line at the end of Highway 21, which is flanked by tall oaks dripping Spanish moss. Fripp has 300 houses, 1,000 condos, two golf courses, a day camp and three restaurants. Deer run wild on the island, much of which is undeveloped woods. You can take a tranquil walk across boardwalks through the marsh or enjoy the screams of children and whirring of a blender mixing frozen drinks at the Cabana Club, which has three pools with slides, caves and a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean. Fripp offers plenty of activity as well as total serenity. You choose what you want as each day progresses. For information, go to www.sciway.net/city/frippisland.html.

New York City

We are lucky to have family near New York City so we could take the train into the city with our kids for just two days. We booked tickets online for the Empire State Building, then got there when it opened and beat the line that mounts with each hour. We ate and shopped in Chinatown, showed them the mummies and other great works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, saw dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History and explored Central Park for hours. They loved climbing on the giant statue of Alice in Wonderland and all her cohorts. Dylan's Candy Bar, a two-story dream-come-true candy store, was also a big hit. For information, go to www.nycvisit.com.

The Disney Cruise, departing from Port Canaveral

We took a three-night Disney Cruise with my parents a few summers back and loved it. There was so much to do on the boat for all ages. One afternoon, my dad watched a newly released movie, my mom read on the deck, my husband and I sat by the pool and the girls were in "camp" having a tea party with Snow White and the dwarfs. Then we all came together for a Pictionary game in the lounge, ate dinner and saw a play. The ship docks at Disney's private island, which was hot and crowded but still fun. There are plenty of sports for teens on the island as well as a teen-only coffee shop onboard. The food was great and always available. Rates vary greatly week to week, and there are some bargains to be found for these cruises. Go to disneycruise.disney.go.com.