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Leimkuhler: Family fun while the nest is full

When our kids were little, my husband and I often sought opportunities for weekend getaways and mini-vacations for “just us.”

This quality couple time was essential to the well-being of our relationship as we fought to balance the demands of work and family life after having three daughters in the space of four years.

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Fast forward a decade and our oldest was suddenly 15 and a sophomore in high school. That year, when my husband and I talked about planning a vacation for “just us,” the phrase struck me very differently — in three short years, our oldest would leave the nest and, before long, it would be “just us.”

All the time.

Over the years, we’d enjoyed many vacations together — annual extended family trips to the beach, the seemingly prerequisite jaunt to Walt Disney World, a few weekend ski outings to local resorts, and once — when our oldest was in sixth grade — a splurge trip to Jamaica.

But before our daughters were born, my husband and I sought to get away and explore the world as often as we could, visiting far-flung places such as New Zealand, Thailand, and Japan.

With the realization that “just us” would soon become a permanent status and not just a desired respite, we made the decision to share our passion for travel with our daughters as often as we could, and to make as many memories as possible before the nest begins to empty.

To that end, in addition to our annual beach trip, we have upped the travel ante and — over the past three years — have taken our girls to Spain; Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Punta Cana; and, most recently, Mexico. And while we realize how extremely fortunate we are to be able to do this, we have also worked very hard to earn it: saving, spending wisely, and passing on material indulgences such as luxury vehicles, shopping sprees, and the latest and greatest in cable and cell phone technology.

This year, we’d offered the girls the choice of a skiing in the Rockies, hiking the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, returning to Punta Cana, or exploring Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

For our younger two, it was a toss-up between skiing and beach bumming, but our oldest was definitely in the “let’s-get-out-of-frozen-dodge-and-go-somewhere-warm” camp. As she is the oldest, a high school senior, and this could possibly be our last mid-year family vacation with her, we all rallied behind her choice and opted for Mexico.

We spent the first five days of February in Playa del Carmen, gazing at the turquoise waters and lounging under warm, sunny skies. Green Globe certified, our hotel grounds had been converted into a natural habitat for countless species of monkeys, birds, fish and turtles. On our daily walk to the beach, it was not unusual to spy preening peacocks and sunning iguanas. At night, we were routinely serenaded by the deep, territorial roars of male howler monkeys and, in the mornings, we awakened to the sight of their younger, more playful counterparts leaping across the thick, green treetops as they munched canopy leaves and buds.

Breakfast at the resort was a leisurely, ocean-view feast of made-to-order omelets; fresh, exotic fruits, pastries, breads and cheese, mimosas, and lattes from the coffee bar. And, unlike last year’s chilly winds and rain in Punta Cana, the weather in Playa del Carmen was picture-perfect. Every day we walked along the edge of the Caribbean sea — our toes sinking into the soft, white sand — and spent hours bobbing on the clear turquoise sea in one of the resort’s many Hobie Cats or kayaks.

Lunch was a casual affair at the oceanfront grill or salad bar — though our favorite midday meal was the seaside paella and sangria — and we enjoyed reading in the shade of thatch of umbrellas, playing volleyball, and daily beach Zumba at 4 o’clock.

Relaxing afternoons melted into festive happy hours poolside or on the cooling sand of the beach, before retiring to our room to shower and dress for dinner. Though the resort only guaranteed one a la carte dining experience for stays of four nights or less, we were able to book a specialty restaurant each night: Asian, Mediterranean, Tex-Mex and Italian.

Dinner was followed by a show in the main theater — typically musicals, dancing, or games — and though the entertainment was slightly lacking in comparison to what we’d experienced in Punta Cana, we still enjoyed the nightly antics.

Mostly, it was the family time we treasured. Though we realize it’s possible for these experiences to continue as our children grow older, there is no guarantee. Once our daughters have embarked on their college careers — and their adult lives — their mid-year, spring break, and summer vacations may not align with ours, and travel abroad, internships and employment opportunities may also hinder our ability to be together, all five of us, in the coming years.

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Sooner than my husband and I would like, we’re going to blink and — once again — it will be “just us.”

But, for now, we are cherishing every moment we have as a Party of Five and hope to make as many memories as possible while the nest is still exhaustingly, wonderfully full.

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