More and more families are setting a course for the Caribbean

January 08, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

All year long, the Fosters juggle two jobs and three busy children. The last thing they want on vacation is more schedules to keep.

"We need unstructured time together," explains Linda Foster, a suburban Chicago executive. "The kids need the break as much as we do."

Manhattan magazine editor Kathy Henderson, meanwhile, wanted a vacation that would allow for some couple time as well as family time. She looked for a place that offered organized children's activities to afford her and her husband the break from the children they wanted, as well as plenty of time with them.

Both families got exactly what they asked for and more by visiting a Caribbean Island -- without flattening the savings account. "I wish we could do it again soon," said Ms. Henderson.

"The ideal vacation," agreed Ms. Foster. "The kids didn't even miss TV." She and her family, in fact, had just returned from a trip to their fourth Caribbean island. They had planned their escape all year, calling tiny faraway hotels to determine their quotient of family-friendly amenities and weighing the pros and cons of various beaches and islands, all the while fantasizing about long sunny days, endless beaches and clear blue waters teeming with exotic fish. "Another plus is that the kids get exposed to a different culture and different kinds of people," she explained.

Even better, the Fosters' modest two-bedroom villa on the island of Grenada cost less than $80 a night. Ms. Foster's tip: Ask a lot of questions before booking to be sure the place has what you need. And plan the flights to arrive during the day. "It's less disorienting for everyone," she explains.

Whatever a family's budget or desires, they'll find more options than ever on the Caribbean Islands, as growing numbers of resorts and hotels beef up their children's programs to draw the ever-expanding family market.

There are sailing lessons for children at the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands or hikes designed to teach children about the environment and local culture at Hyatt's Caribbean Resorts. How about a visit to a turtle farm or lesson in the local Papiamento language of Aruba? For information, call the Bitter End Yacht Club at (800) 872-2392 and Hyatt at (800) 233-1234.

At Puerto Rico's posh Palmas Del Mar Resort, at 2,750 acres the island's largest, teens can learn to surf while younger children pick up some Spanish; call (800) 725-6270.

Other resorts offer everything from toddlers' arts and crafts to cooking lessons for children to teen discos -- all at a time when traveling families are seeking ever more exotic locales to explore together. Club Med, which has seen the number of children visiting its family villages jump 20 per cent in the past year, is expanding its offerings for teens. (Ask about new family reunion packages for family groups numbering 10 or more and weeks when children under 5 stay free. Call [800] 258-2633).

This winter, R & R Kosher Vacations, a New York travel agency, has joined forces with Club Med to offer several family weeks at the Club Med Huatulco in Mexico with meals prepared in accordance with the Jewish dietary laws. For details, call (212) 807-1171.

More independent-minded families can find plenty to amuse themselves on their own in the Caribbean, too -- snorkeling, fishing, playing tennis or just hanging out on the beach, or for those with older children, scuba diving.

"It's a lot easier to take kids to the Caribbean than it used to be now that hotels are going after the family market," says Deborah Baratta, co-owner of the family travel agency Rascals in Paradise, which books hundreds of family Caribbean holidays every year. Call (800) 872-7225.

She sees growing numbers of families looking toward more exotic locales for vacations wanting to introduce their children to new cultures and places while getting some much-needed R and R in safety and comfort.

Her tip for planning a Caribbean trip: First, look for a place that rTC offers what you like to do -- golf or scuba, tennis or miles of beach -- and then see if it will meet your children's needs.

Windjammer Landing Village Beach Resort on St. Lucia gets high marks for its spacious villa accommodations, free children's program and nanny services. (Ask about the family plan that includes some meals. Call [800] 743-9609.)

The Hendersons gave Sapphire Beach Resort on St. Thomas a thumbs up for its policy that allows children 12 and under to eat, stay and play free in organized activities.

The suite arrangement, Ms. Henderson reported, even allowed parents to have some privacy.

Even better, the rooms opened onto the beach "so the kids could walk right out and play in the sand with their friends." (Call [800] 524-2090 and ask about the new activities geared for parent and child to do together. A new teen program is in place this year. Those with toddlers should book George Washington's birthday or Easter week, when a "MiniGems Klub" of supervised activities will be offered.)

Those trying to keep to a tight budget might do well to consider a condo rather than a resort. It's possible to find a modest place to stay for less than $1,000 a week, suggests Mike Thiel.

His Hideaways International Travel Club now boasts more than 12,000 members, who pay $99 annually for the privilege of booking discounted vacations (call [800] 843-4433).

Mr. Thiel's tip: Gather the extended family at a rented villa for a week. It's spacious, affordable and private. "Everyone can be together in one place but go off on their own, too," he explained.

That's what the Fosters like best, wherever they stay in the Caribbean. They never seek out the night-life or the glitz, Ms. Foster explained. "We just want to focus on each other."

=1 And have plenty of adventures in the bargain.

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