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Sea, Sand & Sitter Happy campers: Resort in Jamaica offers kids a 'Girl Friday' so parents can behave like adults.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The air was moist and the full moon hung large and low over the Caribbean. We sat on the veranda drinking wine and dipping grilled lobster tails into melted butter. A salty wind ruffled the pink tablecloth and made the candlelight flicker. The reggae band started a new song, and a murmur of recognition rippled through the crowd of diners. Could it really be . . . the theme from "Sesame Street"?

Indeed it was. And on this week in Jamaica, we were perhaps the only vacationing crowd on the island that would have noticed. We were at the Franklyn D. Resort, otherwise known as FDR, the family resort at Runaway Bay that assigns children their own nanny for the week and tells the parents to get lost, if they choose.

As our family happily discovered, the FDR nickname is the only incongruous thing about this cleverly conceived and caringly executed place. The resort consists of 76 one-, two- and three-bedroom suites, in several three-story pink stucco buildings surrounding pool, beachfront, tennis court and restaurant terrace. Because FDR was built for families, everything is close together -- virtually within a child's shouting distance.

The air-conditioned suites all have kitchenettes that the resort commissary will stock with milk, juice, snacks and whatever other staples you request, all at no extra cost. There are two playgrounds and a "kiddie center" where little children can hang around in a toy-filled room and bigger children gather for videos and Nintendo games (if their parents are more indulgent than we) as well as arts and crafts.

FDR's cleverest feature, however -- and the reason we chose the resort over its Jamaican rival Boscobel and any number of Club Meds -- is what the resort calls its "Girl Friday" program. Every family is assigned a Girl Friday upon arrival; she spends the week with you and your children, serving as a housekeeper, baby sitter and all-around facilitator.

We had some reservations about the whole Girl Friday thing before we got to FDR. We wouldn't, for instance, be caught dead calling anyone a "Girl Friday," a description we found condescending. Nor were we sure we wanted some stranger hanging around with us as we played with our children on the beach or floated around in the pool. But we liked the idea that our two daughters, who are barely 1 and almost 4, would have their own baby sitter when we wanted time to ourselves. We had visions of tennis and snorkeling by day and intimate dinners -- maybe even followed by dancing -- by night.

The reality of FDR wound up matching our expectations -- and in some ways exceeding them. But it did take some getting used to. Marjorie Austin, our baby sitter -- we flatly refused to refer to her as our you-know-what -- was quiet but friendly, and both of our children were playing comfortably with her within minutes of her arrival at our suite.

Marjorie told us she had been working at FDR since the resort opened five years ago. As it turned out, we liked to spend more time with the children than most vacationers in Marjorie's experience, which made for some occasionally awkward moments when we had to go searching for Marjorie and the girls and felt uncomfortable about pulling them away from her. Within a day or two, however, we had established a comfortable rhythm.

Anna, our older daughter, quickly fell in with a gang of 4- and 5-year-olds and spent hardly a minute unattached to at least one of them for the duration of the week, in a flurry of art projects and excursions, swimming and sand-castle building. In activities sponsored by the kiddie center, Anna assembled a flower collection, learned Jamaican folk dances, tie-dyed a T-shirt (Marjorie added fringe and beads), clowned around in the pool with her new friends and took a glass-bottomed-boat ride to a deserted beach for a shell hunt.

For whatever reason, maybe because we were all feeling so relaxed and happy, Anna felt inspired to try some things that we didn't expect from her, like eating Jamaican fried rice, running a relay race and swimming in the ocean. She was even the first member of our family to volunteer for the goat race, in which the object was to pull (or be pulled by) a goat across the finish line. She was shoved out of bounds by an errant goat and finished last in her heat, an achievement later heroically matched by her father.

Our younger daughter, Lily, took everything in stride, in a 1-year-old way. She played at the beach for hours each day, ingesting what must have been a quart of sand. Marjorie spent a lot of time with her at the playground, and we introduced her to baby-boat floats in the pool. This safely designed resort turned out to be a terrific place for our exploration-minded Lil, whose efforts to walk unassisted kept the resort's inhabitants amused all week.

As for me and my wife, Alison, we were having such a good time doing practically nothing that we did hardly any of the things that had sounded so good in the brochure -- sailing, snorkeling, scuba, tennis, windsurfing, bicycling, aerobics, weight training and various excursions away from the resort. We were so worn out from doing nothing every day that we never did make it to the late-night piano bar, the casino or the disco. Mostly we spent our time simply enjoying the freedom to be or not to be with our children.

The resort's laid-back atmosphere is nicely complemented by its all-inclusive rates. Unless you leave the compound, there's really no reason to touch your wallet. Anna was thrilled to stroll up to the pool-side bar and request a "strawberry daiquiri with no alcohol, please" whenever she wanted. In the early evening there was a children's buffet that served tried-and-true kid favorites like pasta and hamburgers. A little later, an elegant sit-down dinner -- children optional -- was served on the terrace. The cuisine was continental and Jamaican, and much better than we expected.

Just about the only reason to spend money at FDR is for nighttime baby-sitting. The nannies worked every day from about 9 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. and would stay later for a fee of $3 an hour. We ended up keeping Marjorie late for three of our six nights at FDR, which left Alison and me with a nice balance of quiet moonlit dinners and loud moonlit dinners.

My favorite moments from the week were the evenings with the children. The night of the beach buffet, Anna was our family's social ambassador, cruising from table to table, saying hi to children and encouraging grown-ups to talk. She and her gang -- with Lily in unsteady pursuit -- ran barefoot around the beach, cadging plastic cups from the bar for sand-castle molds and setting up residence in front of the steel band. The children played and danced and watched the performers until at least 10 that night. Lily fell asleep in Alison's arms, and Anna finally turned to me and said, "Daddy, I'm ready to go to bed."

2& Now that's what I call a vacation.

If you go . . .

* Getting there: Flights to Montego Bay are available from Baltimore-Washington International Airport via Air Jamaica, USAir and Continental. Air Jamaica's current off-season round-trip price is $344 for weekend travel, $314 weekday. The fare is subject to a 21-day advance purchase.

* Lodging: During peak season and holidays, rates can be as high as $1,910 per adult for a seven-night stay. One child (age 15 and under) per adult stays free. The off-season rate can go as low as $1,600.

* Documents: A passport or birth certificate is a must for every family member, even infants.

* Information: Call FDR at (800) 654-1337 or the Jamaica Tourist Board at (800) 233-4582.

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