By Karen Rubin

"Greetings from Florence! We're having an amazing time. Yesterday we experienced 'The David' at the Academy. Then we walked across the city and visited the Pitti Palace. After that, we strolled around the city, doing some shopping and sightseeing. My new favorite pastime is bargaining with street-venders. I'm really good at it--I've developed some concrete tactics.

"Wait, but that's just yesterday. I tried to relate some of our experiences in Rome in that song I sent you. It was awe-inspiring seeing the most historic sites in the world. I could feel the reverberations of Marc Antony's speech, and hear the crowd screaming at the Coliseum. St. Peter's Cathedral deserves an emphatic WOW!

"I really didn't time this well, because we are leaving in two minutes for San Gimignano. It is difficult for me to relate all that we've done. Signing off now. Ciao.-David."

Our son celebrated his 16th birthday in Bolzano, Italy, surrounded by his grandparents, cousin and a host of heretofore strangers, who, by virtue of their shared three-week adventure traveling through Italy, had become close friends.

He was taking part in the explosive growth phenomenon of travel: grandtravel, where grandparents squire their grandkids. Indeed, 18 million people last year took their grandchildren on trips.

Very often, such trips are focused on tracing heritage and ancestral roots-the grandparents providing a closer, living link to such places. Many times, the trips revolve around a shared interest or adventure (Costa Rica, Galapagos, Alaska and African safaris are popular) or may have a cultural focus (as in this case). My parents actually offered my son and my niece, who had already turned 16, a choice of visiting China (a chance to see it before the new dam floods many of its treasures) or Italy. For their first trip to a different continent they selected Italy, and the foursome had a blast.

I must admit to having some trepidation at first. Three weeks is a long time. My father snores (in anticipation, I provided our son with a CD player and earplugs). Would the teenagers become bored on a trip geared more to seniors? I was comforted by the fact we already had taken many marvelous multi-generational trips together (most recently, to Tampa, Florida) and were comfortable and genuinely enjoyed traveling together. What is more, my folks are fabulous globetrotters (they have been to every continent but Antarctica) and infused me with the passion for traveling. I learned early on the extraordinary benefits of the travel experience, in expanding understanding, the ability to adapt, to be more open to ideas and differences; the personal growth that comes from travel.

Indeed, with all the trips we have taken as a family, I knew the powerful quality of travel to forge special bonds, particularly among siblings, that comes from sharing unique experiences (even coping with the adversity when things don't turn out just right-these often become the best and most treasured memories).

Grandtravel is this and more. Traveling together gives the grandparents the vehicle to transmit the benefit of their own experience. At the same time, they see the world through a youth's eyes and (as an added benefit) are quite likely do things they might not have otherwise have done.

"Being able to sense their enjoyment and excitement made it that much more wonderful for us," my father said, beaming with happiness when we picked them up at Kennedy International Airport. "This trip opened up a whole new world to them… they were enjoying so much and learning so much." Avid travelers who have visited just about every country in the world, he said this trip was one of their favorites. "The added joy of having our grandchildren with us made it so much better for us."

My parents did things I know they would never have done on their own: my Mom found herself hiking 26 kilometers up along a cliff-side trail through Cinqua Terres (Five Villages)-she didn't want my son to miss out on the opportunity. My Dad and son biked on a trail at Bolzano. These became the most treasured experiences; when we get together, they inevitably get giggling about some shared memory that is special for them.

Similarly, my nephew, from the age of 8, has been lucky enough to travel in the company of his grandparents. At eight, they took him on an Alaska cruise expedition (not the big cruise boat, mind you, but a real expeditionary vessel on which he was one of only two young people and he was by far the youngest); at nine, he went to the Galapagos; at 10, they took him to Costa Rica. They have already made a booking to take him next year on an African safari.

"Seeing the excitement in the child's eyes-something you might be blasé about but he's not--is so special," said Rosilyn Cohn. "The wonder in a child's eyes is awesome. It made the experience more meaningful for us because of that." She too, found herself doing things-or sometimes not doing things-because of her young charge. Rafting in Costa Rica, she overcame her fear of jumping off a 12-foot cliff, because her grandson did it.

Deciding to take the grandchild may bring on trepidation, as well. "We were nervous as we could be the first time," said Gerald Cohn. At eight years old, Zachary had never been away from home before. "He really didn't want to go. He was frightened of the unknown, afraid he would be away from his family and that he would miss them. But, the moment we left the house, he changed totally." A child who would typically be cautious of new experiences, was the first to race onto a helicopter and the first to race off it, onto a glacier, during their expeditionary cruise to Alaska, where he was the youngest, by far, on the boat. "He looked forward to every adventure," Gerald said.

In the Galapagos, Zachary swam with the sea lions. "We could see the sharks circling. It was incredible. He had no fears. He gained confidence in himself."

Rosilyn added that the opportunity to be together, and away from parents, made possible a special bonding. "The trip made us closer in a way that cannot happen when the parents are around. When we are on the plane going there--the excitement and the proximity of the adventure--we hold on to each other.

The Cohns chose the Costa Rica tour (through Overseas Adventure Tours, 800-221-0814) this year because of a friendship that their grandson, Zachary, had made with a boy and his grandmother on their trip last year to the Galapagos, with Lindblad Special Expeditions (800-348-2358, www.specialexpeditions.com). "The two of them would sit together on the bus and keep each other occupied," Rosilyn said.

The explosive growth in "Grandtravel" does not surprise Helena Koenig. A Chevy Chase, Md. travel agent, she sensed a new trend 15 years ago when she was about to become a grandmother herself, and launched Grandtravel, a boutique tour operation catering exclusively to grandparents taking their grandkids. "The business has grown and grown," says Koenig, who describes herself as "founder and grandmother" of Grandtravel, and points to the expansion of tour offerings-the Australia, Kenya, Europe, London & Paris, as well as many more itineraries within the U.S.. One of the factors is that grandparents tend to live far away from their grandchildren, and regard travel as an opportunity to "transmit a cultural inheritance" to their grandchildren. "Grandparents have things, have traveled everywhere. What they want now is a memory; they want their grandchildren to have these memories. It's a shared experience."

While, early on, Grandtravel created itineraries that included supervised activities so grandparents can have an evening off, Koenig says they really don't want it. "They may want a break, at 4 p.m. or for coffee after dinner, but they don't want to have an evening away." As for pacing, it is the grandkids-particularly teenagers-who may need extra time in the morning to get out, but otherwise, the trips are not paced any differently. However, a great benefit in the way the trips are organized, utilizing motorcoach travel, is that both age groups, grandparents and grandkids, have peers of their own to be with.

The itineraries are structured to stimulate curiosity, encourage exploration and discovery and be fun, to provide private time together, as well as opportunities to relate to each other on an intergenerational level and to connect with the family's past. There are trips that are exotic as "Imperial Europe" (15 days in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic) or "Israel and Jordan", and as basic as eight days in Washington D.C., nine days in New York City, or nine days "Whaling and Sailing" in Massachusetts. Grandtravel, 800-247-7651, www.grandtrvl.com

But so popular has family travel and grandtravel become, that many of the prominent soft-adventure and group-travel companies have introduced family itineraries-if not specific activities and scheduling with younger travelers in mind, they at least afford the likelihood that there will be other youngsters in the group. Among them: National Geographic Expeditions, 888-966-8687, ngexpeditions@nationalgeographic.com

Thomson Family Adventures, 800-262-6255, www.FamilyAdventures.com

OARS, 800-346-6277, www.oars.com;

Abercrombie & Kent, 800-323-7308, www.abercrombiekent.com

Butterfield & Robinson, 800-678-1147, www.butterfield.com.

Backroads, 510-527-1555, www.backroads.com

GORP (www.gorp.com).

Wildlife Safari, for example, has created a special Family Safari for Christmas/holiday time. With a minimum of four passengers, any family can have their own private vehicle and driver/guide for the entire safari. The 15-day journey visits all three major game parks in Kenya, Amboseli, Samburu and Masai Mara Game Reserves. Special family activities include a "family bush dinner" under canvas with tribal dancing performed by Masai warriors as well as "breakfast with the hippo" by the Mara River. A trip to Ol Pejeta private game reserve to feed and pet "Morani," a tame black rhino and a visit to the Jane Goodall Foundation's chimpanzee sanctuary are also highlights. Families also visit a "manyatta" or tribal village to witness traditional dancing and have their children's faces painted in traditional Samburu style. Special holiday departures are Dec. 15 and 22, 2000; fully inclusive land prices range from $2,495 (for a child under 12) to $3,795 (adult) per person; special teenager (12-18) and senior (over 60) rates are also available. Special fares on Swissair are available of $1,750/adult, $1312.50/child roundtrip from New York (800-221-8118, www.wildlife-safari.com).

Interestingly enough, though, the trip my son took with my parents, through Grand Circle, was not a "family" or "grandtravel" trip, per se; indeed, the only other youngster was a 13-year old traveling with his grandparents (and most of the trips that my nephew took with his grandparents, were not specifically for grandparents or family travelers).

My parents were partial to Grand Circle because they had taken many of the company's trips before and liked the service, style and value the company afforded. The style of the trip was a real advantage, as it turned out, because, though the main sightseeing and most of the meals were included, there was a lot of free time which they could fill with a more active or adventurous activity (their tour escort was extremely helpful in making recommendations). And, though my parents had been to Italy many times before, this trip, consisting of 18 days visiting Rome, Florence, Rapallo, Bolzano and Venice, plus a three-day extension in Rome, visited off-the-beaten path places which proved to be the highlights. They saw some of the most famous sights to be sure-the fabled Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Ponte Vecchio of Florence, the Coliseum in Rome, but they also got to visit an ancient hillside town of Orvieto, the historic city of Siena, the picturesque San Gimignano, the charming resort town of Portofino, the dramatic Dolomite Mountains, and a Tyrolian mountain village (Grand Circle, 800-221-2610).

© 2000 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved.

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