The Tao of Family Travel

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A new mother shares the lessons learned from traveling with multiple generations of her family.

Sometime between the Occitane poem and the lute-and-recorder serenade, my father began listing in his seat, like a palm tree in a hurricane. As his snores became audible and my mother looked on in horror, my daughter’s eyes also began to flutter shut.

It was the eighth straight day of rain on our Martha’s Vineyard vacation. Desperate for distraction, I had schlepped them all through a morning of shopping before landing at a concert of 13th-century French troubadour romances. I did so with some trepidation about whether this arcane entertainment would be stimulating or stultifying for Zelda, who, at 5 months old, finds the 13th century and the 20th equally remote. But as it turns out, my father was the one we had to worry about.

“I think he may topple over,” my mother fretted. “How embarrassing would that be? Oh, and how’s Zelda holding up?”

Zelda was fine. But with one eye on my teetering parent and another on my sleepy child, the laments of long-dead troubadours flew past me unheeded.

French art songs were as close as I would get this year to the Mediterranean, where — in my carefree, childless days — I whiled away two decades of summers in a style best described as aleatory. I am wont to detour unexpectedly because a place name captivates me; how can you not visit a Greek city called Drama? Along the Apulian coast, I blew into Gallipoli at dusk and found lodging by flirting with the bored-looking cop, whose brother happened to rent rooms in a local palazzo.

But I am not so bohemian as to think this strategy would be a good idea with Zelda, let alone my kvetchy Jewish mother. With the arrival of the family’s first grandchild, I came to three realizations: One, that this was the year for a multigenerational family vacation, since her grandparents live far away and time together is precious. Two, that the destination ought not to be overly ambitious. And three, that as the generation in the middle — free of the exigencies of extreme youth or age — I would be the one to compromise on everything from beach timing (no high sun) to food (no cholesterol for Dad; no solids for Zelda) to nights on the town (nonexistent).

Martha’s Vineyard, where my family has spent 40 straight summers, seemed the safest bet. Beach resorts are a classic choice for families, offering a low-key, breezy setting for lazy summer days. But as the Internet attests, travel options are today so multifarious that there is virtually no destination and no activity — from safaris to Disney cruises, glaciers to megacities — that cannot be fashioned into a family vacation.

When I turned to experts for advice, I found that Zelda and I have plenty of company. Fueled by long-distance families like mine, multigenerational travel “is one of the most active parts of our business today,” according to Susan Brenner, vice president of sales for Cherry Hill-based Rosenbluth Vacations.

The diversity of modern families — in terms of ages, activity levels and geography — means there is no single niche for this type of travel. While younger seniors and teenaged grandchildren might all rock-climb together, Brenner is a big fan of cruises, which offer myriad activities tailored by age. “The youngsters can climb the walls and zipline onboard, while there’s an elevator for the older people who aren’t as mobile. They can still enjoy the family time together, sitting around the pool,” she explained. An added bonus: With families having fewer kids these days, cruises offer a ship full of potential playmates to ward off boredom.

Motion sickness runs in the family, so cruises were out for us. And the Vineyard, which seemed humdrum to me as a singleton, suddenly appealed for the very reasons I had found it dull before: no nightlife to tempt, stroller-friendly small towns and daytime activities with broad appeal — farmer’s markets, gallery openings and, of course, French troubadour concerts.

Iris Hami, who owns Philadelphia-based Gil Travel and has organized multigenerational tours of Israel and Europe for 40 years, confirmed that beach destinations are popular for a reason. “A combination of beach and sightseeing is conducive to little kids,” she said. Having somewhere to cool off — be it beach or pool — is also key because summer is prime time for travel, and “heat makes people cranky.” In addition to Israel, Hami said, Greece, Spain and Turkey have become very popular, offering spectacular coastlines alongside historical sights.

What about Paris or Rome? The consensus is that cities are fun — but tricky — for mixed-age travelers. “You don’t need a specialist to tell you that you don’t want to take a 3-year-old through the museums of Florence,” noted Richard Rosenblum, who has advised private clients through his New York-based agency, Premier Travel, since the 1970s.

Jean Krasnow, who has nearly a dozen grandchildren, learned this the hard way on a family museum trip to Washington, D.C. “We were walking along in D.C., and I was just thinking it was the coolest thing,” she recalled. But nobody had noticed that a 9-year-old was exhausted by all the walking — “until he just sat down on the curb and announced, ‘I’m done.’ He refused to budge.”

Mental note: No vacations without a car, at least for now.

It wasn’t her infant son, but her septuagenarian mother who complicated the Montreal vacation for Anna Love, who has both a 2-year-old and a taste for nightlife. All parties had agreed beforehand that after days filled with sightseeing, Grandma and baby would retire to the hotel suite while the parents caroused. But the bright lights of a big foreign city whetted Grandma’s appetite for adventure, and she announced that she, too, wanted to go out at night.

“Montreal just had too many things to do,” reflected Love. “And six days was too much.” Lesson learned. This year, they whittled the trip to three days in Spring Lake, a pretty town on the Jersey shore with no bars and not much to do except lounge on the sand.

A rental house near a beach works well for a small family — but if we were a larger group, we might opt for an organized tour. “With a lot of people, you need a guide and an itinerary,” said Brenner. “Otherwise, you debate what to do all day, every day — unless it’s a cruise or an all-inclusive, where people do what they want and plan on having dinner together.”

The latter is a strategy that works for Phyllis Recine, the mother of three married daughters, who organizes an annual winter beach vacation in Rincón, Puerto Rico. “We rent three cars,” she said, explaining that one daughter takes off for the urban wine bars, while another goes to the mall with her husband. They all meet on the beach and at dinner, which is scheduled according to the needs of the youngest child.

Thirty years ago, Recine’s mother organized family weekends at the Nevele, the Borscht Belt resort. The girls bunked with their cousins, everyone ice-skated and stayed up late to watch the shows and “dressing” for dinner was mandatory, Recine recalled. “I would never go to the Jewish Catskills, but it was my mother’s choice, her pleasure,” she explained. “My mother invited us into her world, and now I invite people into my world.”

In Rincón — a laid-back surf town with a family vibe — “you can go out to dinner in something over your bathing suit, which is much more ‘me,’ ” Recine said. But though the ambiance is different, the experience of family bonding through annual ritual remains intact. “You have the time together to really share your values, to tell the family stories,” she explained.

Ultimately, those distilled moments together are the point of a family getaway. The Vineyard’s languid summer rhythm suits my relatives perfectly — and I’ve discovered that having a baby is a full-time activity in itself, filling up days that would otherwise have felt oppressively slow. Seeing the world anew through a child’s eyes is a cliché for a reason, I thought, dangling Zelda’s feet in the lapping waters of Vineyard Sound, warmed by the sun and beaming grandparental gazes.

And next summer? I’m still hoping for Italy.

Hilary Danailova is a freelance writer specializing in travel. This is her first piece for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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