Family enchantment at high-cost hotels Elegance: Children learn to appreciate the finer things at historic, luxury resorts.

Taking the Kids

October 19, 1997|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

When Gina Zembetti got the assignment to write an essay about her favorite place, the high-school freshman picked the spot where she's transformed into an elegant young lady from another era.

"One feels like a princess or movie star in the most elaborate of settings," the Northridge, Calif., teen wrote in her essay, voted the best in the class. Gina was describing the famed 692-room Hotel del Coronado, a grand Victorian landmark just over the bridge from San Diego and a fixture on the Pacific Coast since 1888.

Thousands of celebrities -- including the Duke of Windsor (who, legend has it, met Wallis Simpson in the ballroom) to Marilyn Monroe ("Some Like It Hot" was filmed there) to 14 presidents -- have stayed there. But, Gina wrote in her essay, "This hotel is a place which makes any person feel so important."

Despite a tab that can run several hundred dollars a night, resort managers report that families are flocking to these sprawling historic resorts -- from California's "Del" to Colorado's Broadmoor to Georgia's Jekyll Island, West Virginia's Greenbrier, New York's Sagamore and New Hampshire's Balsams and Mount Washington.

"There are just so many times you can go to Club Med or Disney World," suggests Tony Guthrie, assistant general manager at the circa-1914 Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod. (Call 800-527-4884).

Parents and grandparents want something more than just a different vacation experience, though. They're taking the children to historic sites in huge numbers, the Travel Industry Association reports, and a stay at a historic hotel is part of that history lesson, explains Mary Billings-ley, a spokeswoman for the Historic Hotels of America division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (For information about the Historic Hotels of America, call 800-678-8946.)

"The baby boomers want to take their kids and step back into a kinder, gentler time," says Billingsley.

Gina's stepfather, Los Angeles fire Capt. Steve Ruda, certainly does, even paying upward of $200 a night. "When you cross that bridge to the 'Del,' you enter a time when families spent a lot of time together doing simple things -- flying kites and riding bikes, just having fun. You don't get that same feeling from Las Vegas or a big theme park." (Call the Del at 800-HOTEL-DEL.)

There's no better place for a mother to relax, even to be pampered a little, I decided after our recent visit to the Mount Washington Hotel and Resort in New Hampshire. The huge white hotel sits at the top of a hill with vistas of the White Mountains in every direction; the verandas are made for watching sunsets from a wicker rocker.

And though I worried that my crew wouldn't like getting spiffed up for dinner, they loved every bit of it -- their fancy duds, the elaborate table settings, the leisurely meal, the waiters who fussed over them and even the old-fashioned dance band.

Six-year-old Melanie, who opted to join the kids' program for an early dinner and movie, happily joined us for dessert and dancing. The services at these places are what you'd hope to get at any fancy resort: ever-solicitous staff who can't do enough for you, the chance to unwind with a massage, a round of golf or two sets of tennis, knowing the kids are happily occupied elsewhere.

There are a lot of cheaper places to take the children. We spent nearly $400 a night for our weekend at the Mount Washington, including breakfast and dinner and accommodations in a "Family Chamber," a two-room, one-bath configuration of rooms. But despite the cramped bathroom (our suite was scheduled for renovation, I later learned), we got more than our money's worth. (The Mount Washington is open from mid-May to mid-October. The moderately priced Bretton Woods Motor Inn, across the road, includes access to all resort facilities. Call 800-258-0330.)

And there was so much to do. My gang stayed busy horseback riding and making old-fashioned jewelry (the girls), playing golf (my son and husband) swimming (everyone) and exploring the nooks and crannies of the huge place.

Corny as it sounds, I almost expected to hear a swish of satin as a well-born lady swept into the conservatory and sat down under the crystal chandelier at the grand piano. I imagined stories these old walls could tell from the early days of this century, when wealthy families arrived for the entire summer, bringing their servants with them.

"Sure, it's a splurge, but we all work hard. Vacations should be a splurge," said Steve Ruda, Gina Zembetti's stepfather. "When the kids look back, they'll remember how much fun they had with Mom and Dad."

When you go

Here are some other wonderful places to time-travel with the kids (all offer children's activities and baby-sitting for the diaper crowd) and get pampered along the way:

* The Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., surrounded by wilderness, was built in 1869 and is still owned by the same family. Ask about summer children-free packages. Call 800-772-6646.

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