Family-friendly hotels offer added warmth Lodgings: When hostelry owners are raising their own children on the premises, they are more likely to understand what your kids need for a successful visit.

Taking the Kids

March 08, 1998|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Maya Ryan is having a blast, horseback riding in the surf with her mom and exploring coral reefs with her dad, an expert diver. She's even made friends with a local octupus.

But 7-year -old Maya isn't on vacation. Such adventures are part of her normal routine, along with school and dance lessons.

Flash back to before Maya was born. Kevin and Suzanne Ryan, in their early 30s, are exhausted. Suzanne works all night running an Irish pub in suburban New York, arriving home just as Kevin is leaving for his construction business.

They are doing well financially, but they aren't happy.

Like many couples, the Ryans start talking about a different life. Their dream: a small family-friendly hotel where Suzanne would cook, Kevin would oversee a dive program, and they could concentrate on family life.

"My uncle and aunt were in the hotel business, and they were always around with the kids," says Suzanne. "I thought it would be a wonderful way to raise a child."

It's a wonderful concept for traveling families, too: An informal, affordable hostelry where the owners understand what parents need because they're raising their own kids right there. Along with their room, visitors get local kids' perspective on the area, from the best burgers to the coolest stores.

"We see from our kids what 4-year-olds and 10-year-olds and teen-agers like," explains Jim O'Reilly. He is the father of eight and, with his wife, the owner of the 22-room Wildflower Inn in Vermont. The O'Reilly kids give visiting children a chance to see what their world would be like in a small Vermont town.

Visiting parents, in turn, can see up close what it takes to raise a family in paradise. It's not easy.

Just ask the Ryans. After five years of searching for the right spot, they fell in love with a modest 12-room oceanfront hotel on St. Croix, the largest and most remote of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The couple pooled their savings, borrowed what they didn't have and bought the Waves. Every guest could hear surf pound from his room-with-kitchenette. Children would learn to snorkel in their natural saltwater grotto. Just 100 yards offshore was some of the best diving on St. Croix.

Ten days later, Hurricane Hugo devastated the island. "We had insurance, but not for the emotional impact," says Kevin.

So much for leaving the rat race. They had never worked so hard. Their long-term renovation plans suddenly became immediate projects to salvage their investment. They housed and fed relief workers. They thought of leaving but didn't.

Nearly 10 years after Hurricane Hugo, Kevin and Suzanne Ryan are at last living the life they set out to find. There is Maya, of course, her name carved in the patio concrete. "She's my No. 1 priority," says her mother.

There's also Suzanne's popular seaside restaurant, her horses and Kevin's dive program. Suzanne thinks nothing of watching the guests' kids so Kevin can teach their parents to dive. Kevin, an accomplished musician, may entertain the kids at dinner. All this service for $130 a night, less in off-season. (Call 800-545-0603.)

The Ryans have moved up the hill from the inn. They've got more help. But they haven't strayed from their original concept. "We do everything," Suzanne says.

That's probably why more than half the guests return. Sure, there aren't the amenities of a full-service resort. Certainly the rooms aren't luxurious, though they're clean and comfortable. The biggest draw: the Ryans' enthusiasm.

"We've got a very high quality of life," says Kevin, "but we pay the price by having to work very hard. We happen to love what we do."

So do the O'Reillys at the Wildflower Inn in Vermont (call 800-627-8310); and the Ludlows, who live with their four children at Ludlow's Island Lodge in Minnesota (call 800-537-5308); and the Millers, who, with their two children, run the Lost Whale Inn in northern California (call 800-677-7859).

"We moved here because it's a great place for kids to grow up," explains Jim O'Reilly, who opened the Wildflower Inn 13 years ago.

Sometimes, that same spirit continues from one generation to the next. In California, the sixth generation of Rankins now lives at the Quarter Circle U Rankin cattle ranch in Caliente. A working ranch since 1863 and a guest ranch since the 1960s, the Rankin Ranch is known for its children's riding programs (call 800-867-2511).

Certainly having the owners' kids on site influence the way their parents do business. Wendy Locke recently started the Cruzan Kidz program at Chenay Bay Beach Resort, on the other side of TTC St. Croix from the Ryans' Waves. She wanted her young guests to have as much fun hunting for conch shells, identifying the tropical fish and learning to kayak as her own three kids (call 800-548-4457).

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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