Family Reunion in the Poconos
By Karen Rubin

It's not too soon to start planning for your family reunion next summer. The process takes nine months to a year, especially if you want to block space at a popular venue. Such an event is always memorable, but making it come off without a hitch requires a lot of forethought and preparation.

Indeed, our family recently celebrated our "Third Ever Family Reunion." Here's a snapshot of our planning process:

About 15 months before the actual event, when the decision was made to have a reunion to mark a special anniversary and birthday, everyone was contacted to let them know a reunion was in the works and to get some sense of their availability. Then, when the date-in late August-was selected, we mailed out "Save the Date" cards so that people could block out vacation times or make airline reservations, if necessary.

Choosing the venue can be the hardest part of planning a reunion. Ideally-and if budgets permit-look for an all-inclusive or a place where you can pre-arrange at least some of the meals. Another consideration is location-unless the trip itself is the basis for the gathering, such as a cruise, a visit to DisneyWorld, an island resort or Europe--try for a place which is within five hours drive of most of the participants. Some of the best venues in summer are meeting and conference-oriented hotels or ski resorts, since this is their non-peak season but they are very well geared for groups. Cruises and dude ranches also make excellent reunion venues, but are pricier.

Choosing the venue for our reunion wasn't hard in this case, because the host had already made the selection based on a recommendation from a friend (in this case, the reunion was hosted; in most others, every family pays their own way). He selected The Resort at Split Rock, Harmony Lake (800-255-7625) an all-inclusive resort in Pennsylvania's Poconos, which was very convenient for most family members to reach.

All-inclusive resorts are ideal for family reunions because meals-the hardest part of planning-are taken care of, and in most cases, the entertainment and recreation are also included.

We got an idea of the number of participants and rooms, and blocked the space by making a reservation and paying a deposit a full year before the event (we utilized a family reunion specialist at Family Travel Center to assist in the logistics; for further info, e-mail FamTravLtr ). Take care to read and understand cancellation clauses, and the ability to change the number of rooms booked.

We mailed out a survey to also get an idea of what special activities our group might want, and to see what thoughts they had about ways to make the reunion event special. (Interestingly, we found that they didn't want too much structure or activities, but I knew that the resort was so large, people would like to have idea of where everyone else would be, so I insisted we put together an "itinerary".) Our group declined the proposal of a "Wacky Olympics" and the "Memorable Memories build-your-own-scrapbook" session. But they liked the idea of a round-robin tennis tournament and a softball game. (But, just in case of inclement weather or some lull in the action, I brought a huge batch of photos and all the scrapbook materials, so we would have an activity, but it never came to that.)

Pre-arranging for tee-shirts are a great idea to provide a sense of unity and belonging for the group. Our special event, my parents 55th wedding anniversary, provided the theme for the shirt: I converted their wedding photo to line art and we imprinted it on the tee-shirt (allow four to six weeks, $8 per t-shirt).

As a surprise, I had everyone prepare something special-I spent two months collecting old family photos, scanning them into a computer, and creating two photo montages; others prepared speeches, a video, my niece wrote a song. (This proved a better idea than everyone doing the same thing, which could be tiresome, and gave even the little kids an opportunity to express themselves). I also created a sign-in board, with photos of the wedding couple side-by-side with a recent photo.

We prearranged a VIP suite for the honored couple-which also provided our group with a venue for pre-dinner cocktail parties and a gathering place.

We arranged for our group to dine together in a private dining room, which really made a big difference. The kids were able to move about and we could have privacy to make our presentations to honor the special events. We completely surprised them with the photo montages, and then everything else seemed a spontaneous expression. I also prepared in advance by bringing up a CD/cassette player and bringing music of the 40s, 50s, etc., to create an atmosphere.

Other items to pre-arrange: a cake to mark the special occasion; a photographer (this could be one of the family members who can shoot candids, or the hotel can arrange for a photographer to shoot a family portrait). After the reunion, I prepared mini-albums for everyone as a memento.

A week before the event, we mailed an "itinerary" (even though people didn't want to be regimented, it gave them an idea of when they should plan to arrive, when the meal functions were, when the key activities were, and what was happening in the hotel). It also provided directions to the hotel, a note about dress and anything else to bring (tennis rackets, swim suits).

Split Rock Resort proved a wonderful venue for its facilities and location, but had some idiosyncrasies-to begin with, as entered, had to pay a 25c toll (it turns out, the resort is on a private road which is shared by private residences); no instructions as to where our group should check in (there were two separate places, so after standing on line for 45 minutes, we were told we were in the wrong place). The Galleria-the posh, new building-is actually built in three different stages so you actually have to take three separate elevators if you are on the third floor; they call the rooms "suites" but actually they are large hotel rooms with a sink and a small refrigerator.

There were other oddities which made you feel that instead of trying to serve guests, the management was out to get them: there were no towels at the lagoon (they expect guests to bring their own from home, this because most of the guests are time-share owners), which otherwise was absolutely lovely; we couldn't even get them at the indoor pool, where the lifeguard complained she was only provided with a few and couldn't keep up with the laundry; because we had 25 people in our group who wanted to eat together (obviously) we were not allowed to order off the regular menu, but had to use the "corporate" menu, and then walk the equivalent of a city block to the soup/salad bar (the best part of the meal, as it turns out); for breakfast, we had to walk back and forth to the buffet. At the lagoon, there was a diving section that was forever closed because the lifeguard would sit on the other side.

For lunch (not included in the "all-inclusive" rate), we were told by the waitress that we could not be served in less than one hour because 60 people were already seated for lunch (a major group was there, but they were served buffet-style)-so we bought pizza at the on-site pizza place.

Originally built in 1941 by Robert V. White, president of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, the lodge and five cottages were built as a hunting and fishing retreat for executives of his company. In 1946, it was opened to the public and became the Poconos' first ski resort-slopes were carved into a nearby mountain, which gave birth to Big Boulder Ski Area. It was purchased by the current owners, the Kalins family, in 1981, and expanded to offer a time-share vacations.

Split Rock has magnificent facilities, including a lovely lake and lagoon where there are row boats, pedal boats, sail boats ($5/half hour, $8/hour); waterskiing (extra fees), championship golf course, indoor tennis ($5/half hour, $10/hour) and outdoor tennis ($5 pp/singles, $4 pp/doubles), indoor and outdoor swimming pools, racquetball courts ($4/hr) eight-lane bowling alley ($3/game, shoes included), video game room, billiards (a$3/half hour, $5/hour) and ping pong, and a full-sized movie theater with first-run movies ($5/adult)-even an ice cream parlor.

There is a state-of-the-art fitness center, whirlpools, massage center, children's playground, shuffleboard, bocci ball, softball, volleyball, archery, croquet, badminton, bikes free for first hour, $2/each additional), and an 18-hole miniature golf course that proved extremely challenging ($3/adult, $2/child).

There is entertainment six nights a week in the Galleria and Wednesday through Saturday in the "Rock" Bar. The band, "Charmer" proved excellent, but excessively loud. However, this is not the place to come if you expect a Catskills-style nightclub act.

In winter, there is skiing: the resort is literally across the street from Jack Frost and Big Boulder ski areas.

Unfortunately, just about everything was pay-as-you-go; the resort did not provide our organizer with the ability to pre-pay for unlimited use of activities. The only inclusive recreation was swimming (pool open 10 a.m.-10 p.m.), use of the fitness center (7 a.m.-11 p.m., and til midnight on Friday and Saturday), volleyball, archery, basketball, bocce, shuffleboard, horseshoes, croquet, frisbee and softball-equipment provided.

During the day, there were scheduled activities if we had wanted: "hydro fitness", "Mystery Phrase," "Video Step Aerobics," family mini-golf challenge, teen basketball tournament, volleyball pick-up, family hike, Gameshow 2000, teen billiards, astrology readings ($25/half hour), horseracing ($1 per horse), indoor shuffleboard.

The original 50-room Lodge overlooks Lake Harmony; all rooms have two queen beds, beamed ceilings and brick walls; there are two-bedroom, 2 bath villas adjacent to the golf course, with sauna, whirlpool tub, fire place, kitchen and deck; there are the original rustic cottages, nestled in the woods near Lake Harmony, equipped with kitchens and fireplaces. The newest building, the Galleria, has slope side "suites" (not really true suites), and two-bedroom suites (which do have a full size kitchen, two baths, and a jacuzzi).

Even with the shortcomings, Split Rock proved a wonderful venue for our family reunion, with outstanding facilities that enabled us to enjoy activities-and each other--together. Which was the whole point.

Poconos: Great Venue for Reunions

The Poconos offers a potpourri of family-oriented attractions: white water river rafting, biking, fishing, waterparks (the newest is Camelbeach at Camelback; also, Shawnee Place Play & Water Park in Shawnee-on-Delaware and Carousel Water & Fun Park), go-karts; attractions like a candy-kitchen and a pretzel factory. Also, Bushkill Falls ("The Niagara of Pennsylvania"), a fantastic nature area with eight waterfalls, paddleboat rides, fishing, Native American exhibit, miles of nature trails (570-588-6682); a scenic boat tour on Lake Wallenpaupack, a 5,700-acre body of water surrounded by 52 miles of shoreline, and the Water Gap Trolley.

The Poconos is a very convenient area to reach-within 2 hours drive for family members coming from the New York metropolitan area, and convenient to airports for those who were flying in-and has a selection of wonderful, family-oriented, all-inclusive resorts, such as Woodloch (800-572-6658), Caesars Brookdale (800-233-4141), Fernwood (800-233-8103), Skytop Lodge (800-345-7759), Tamiment (800-233-8105), Pocmont (800-762-6668) and Pocono Manor (a 1902 registered National Historic District, 800-233-8150). (Though world-famous as the "Honeymoon Capital of the World" and for its couples-style hotels, actually only six of 30 major resort properties are couples; the rest are family-oriented.)

For information or lodgings reservations, contact the Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau, 1004 Main Street, Stroudsburg, PA 18360, 800-POCONOS (800-762-6667), 570-424-6050, or www.800poconos.com.

Have a travel question or comment? Contact us at FamTravLtr

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