A New-Style Caribbean Vacation

You need a vacation. Badly. Somewhere warm and sunny. Somewhere with a great beach.

The economy is booming, and, if you're part of it, why not treat the gang to some fun in the sun this winter?

A lot of families plan to do exactly that: 40 percent of winter vacations are expected to include kids this year, the Travel Industry Association says. And unless trends change dramatically, an equal number will opt for spring breaks.

But forget snoozing on the beach all day, a book in your hand and a pina colada at your side. Not with the kids along. You're going to be too busy building sandcastles, snorkeling , playing in the gargantuan pool. Your teens, who wouldn't be seen with you in public at home, will want to join you on the golf course, the tennis court or at a hip restaurant where they'll blithely order the most expensive meal on the menu.

Remind yourself at those moments that Family Togetherness is why you're spending those bucks. The overwhelming majority of kids polled around the country last spring for Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown's Portrait of Family Travel said they like family vacations and would welcome more of them. Parents said they wanted ``quality time'' with the kids.

Of course, just about any sun-drenched beach resort you choose will have organized children's activities. ``They've become standard in the last five years,'' said Laura Sutherland, author of the recently released ``Tropical Family Vacations'' (St. Martin's Griffin $16.95), who reviewed dozens of programs in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida for her very useful guide.

``Parents now expect a kids' club,'' Sutherland continued. ``It's insurance to them that the resort is family friendly.''

But parents aren't likely to check the kids in right after breakfast until dinner like they once did. ``Now families want to do more things together,'' observed Victor Lopez, the Hyatt divisional vice president who oversees the chain's 18 resorts. ``They don't want R&R. They want action.''

``With so many parents working, they feel guilty if they're not with the kids on vacation,'' added Janice Bird, Wyndham Resort's vice president for resort marketing.

Resorts are responding with more activities families can share, whether beach olympics or parent-child golf clinics, arts-and-crafts sessions, nature walks or evening barbecues complete with entertainment. Wyndham, for one, is unveiling an expanded family program this spring. Hyatt is tinkering with its offerings, too, as are smaller individually owned properties.

That's not to say parents shouldn't be able to steal a few hours for themselves each day on vacation. Especially when these resort camps are free and provide ever more creative programming. How can you tell if the resort has the right mix of kids and family activities for your gang?

Before booking, invest in a call to the resort. Ask about value-added family packages and what specific family and children's activities will be offered. Hyatt, for example, is offering a fifth night free at certain resorts and a day of Camp Hyatt. Complimentary snorkeling gear and beach toys also can save you significant bucks. So can a deal that includes breakfast, as at the Royal Resorts villas in Cancun.

A free children's program, as at St. Lucia's Windjammer and Wyndham's Rose Hall Resort on Jamaica, is a real plus, too. Your youngsters can opt to sample the whole program or just for certain activities, without you having to invest $40 or $50 per child. See if baby care is included.

Windjammer Landing throws in 35 hours of nanny care with its family packages. Talk directly to the person who runs the children's program, Sutherland suggested. Here's what you want to know:

-- A list of daily activities. You don't want lots of movie or TV time.

-- The minimum age required for kids to participate.

-- The average number of kids per group and the ratio of counselors to kids. The more kids, the happier yours will be. Anything just for teens? Will they cancel the program if only a few show up?

-- The counselors' training and background checks. Know CPR? Had child-development classes? Passed a criminal background check?

-- A schedule of kids' evening activities. Many are offered free or at a nominal price several nights a week.

Enjoy the sunsets.


-- Check Hyatt's ``Sunshine Sale,'' offering free nights at 800-55HYATT or www.hyatt.com

-- Rates at the all-inclusive Wyndham Rose Hall Resort in Montego Bay, complete with water park, start at $198 per night for a family with two kids 12 or under. Call 800-WYNDHAM or www.wyndham.com for deals here and at other Wyndham resorts.

-- Windjammer Landing boasts individual villas and complimentary teen activities as well as those for younger children. Family packages for those with two kids 12 and under start at just over $3,600 a week in March, less in April, under $3,000 in summer. Call 800-743-9609 or check the Web site at www.windjammer-landing.com.

-- The new soft adventure resort FDR Pebbles in Jamaica is offering rebates up to $200 per adult and its sister Franklyn D. Resort, more geared to younger families, is offering $300 off for seven-day stays. Call 800-654-1FDR or www.fdrholidays.com for rates. For information about the Meet the People program, visit www.jamaicatravel.com.

-- The Royal Resorts in Cancun, all suites and villas, encourage junior golfers with a one-time greens fee of $139 for two, free kids' activities for children as young as 2 and separate children's pools. College students on spring break are not permitted without their parents. Family packages start at $1,560 a week for a family of four. Call 800-221-8090 or www.royalresorts.com.

(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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