Caribbean resorts boast family activities that remove the stress, leaving the best


Chicago psychologist Vicki Lavigne felt as though she'd died and gone to heaven. But she was in Jamaica -- with her family.

It wasn't the sunsets or the balmy weather, though they certainly helped. What made Ms. Lavigne's vacation her best ever was the Franklyn D. Resort's expert planning for families.

Ms. Lavigne's two sons loved the morning-till-night activities and children's menus. Ms. Lavigne and her husband loved the "Girl Friday" who was assigned to do their bidding for their stay -- baby-sitting, stocking the suite's refrigerator, cleaning up after messy children.

"You and the kids could be together and apart as much as you liked," said Ms. Lavigne. And because everything was all-inclusive, the decisions about what to do and where to eat were taken away. That made it a real vacation."

Even better, because everyone had children, the Lavignes didn't have to worry about theirs' offending anyone. "Even if a kid threw a tantrum, nobody cared," Ms. Lavigne said.

Too often, parents traveling with children come back from vacation more frazzled than when they left, feeling as if they've just spent hard-earned dollars for more stress than they get at the office. But now, if you're heading to the Caribbean, that doesn't need to be the case. More resorts than ever -- from Club Med ([800] CLUBMED) to Hyatt ([800] 233-1234) to individual properties like the Bitter End Yacht Club ([800] 872-2392) in the British Virgin Islands -- roll out the welcome mat with children's programming, baby-sitting and family getaway prices.

You can take your pick. Just consider what you want. Tennis? Golf? Scuba Diving? Sailing? Camping?

Yes, even camping. Consider Maho Bay ([800] 392-9004) or Cinnamon Bay ([800] 223-7637) on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, located within the boundaries of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. It's beautiful, relatively inexpensive, and the park rangers here offer some programs for children.

"Every family has different requirements," says Deborah Baretta, whose San Francisco-based travel agency Rascals in Paradise ([800] URASCAL) offers a variety of Caribbean and Mexico trips designed specifically for families -- including "Divers with Kids" weeks organized so there will be plenty of supervision and children's activities while the parents are off scuba diving.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based agency Traveling With Children ([415] can also help arrange a customized family trip.

The Bitter End Yacht Club, known for its sailing operation, offers an extensive youth sailing program and a Thanksgiving-week package geared to families. Several of the family Club Meds have circus training for the children.

Many families, in fact, head to Club Meds for family reunions or with grandchildren in tow. Chris Murphy-Sargent of Chicago, for example, traveled alone with her 8-year-old granddaughter to Eleuthera, one of the Bahama Islands. While her granddaughter was on the high trapeze, she relaxed on the beach. "We both had a wonderful time," said Ms. Murphy-Sargent.

You won't break the bank, either. The all-inclusive prices mean you won't pay every time your child places an order with a cook or wants to take out a sailboat or snorkel.

Make sure to ask your travel agent to check the latest deals aimed at families. Club Meds, for example, have lowered their packages 30 percent from last year and are offering many weeks at their family villages, including St. Lucia, Ixtapa and Eleuthera, during which children under 6 are free and prices are reduced for older ones.

At the FDR ([800] 654-1FDR), children under 16 are free. Also in Jamaica, Trelawny Beach Hotel ([800] 336-1435) offers children-stay-free deals, as does Boscobel Beach ([800] 858-8009).

Boscobel, much recommended by family travel experts, also gets raves from parents. In fact, guests lure resort staff away to work as nannys, a spokesman said. "They were all so gracious," said Deborah Pomeranz, who vacationed there with her husband and three children.

Don't underestimate the benefits of all this extensive children's programming -- even for the preschool set. "The kids won't be happy just staying with a new baby sitter. They'll want to be with you unless they can do something really fun, and if it's an organized program, you'll feel better leaving them," says C. Wayne Jones, a child psychologist at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center who has vacationed in Barbados with his family.

But remember, you know your children best. They may not want to hit every activity offered. They may want to spend time with you. They may want to do nothing on the beach.

Let them. After all, it's their vacation too.

Questions, comments or stories should be addressed to Taking the Kids, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 119, 2859 Central St., Evanston, Ill. 60201-1234.

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