By Tim Johnson
For some, the words “family vacation” conjure up some exhausting images: a minivan piled high with luggage, shoes worn thin from pounding the white-hot theme-park pavement, strollers filled with zonked-out kids. And while a busy and bustling holiday can be great, a number of families are heading south to enjoy the type of stylish, relaxing vacation previously reserved for the young and childless. “High-end, all-inclusive resorts that cater to families are a growing trend, and one that’s intensified in the past few years,” says Mike Foster, owner of Uniglobe Instant Travel in London, Ont. For example, Foster notes that Club Med resorts, which originally offered plenty of activities but very few frills, have matured with their clientele, and now feature upscale amenities and a rich assortment of services for kids and parents alike. And Sandals, a brand famous for couples-only Caribbean luxury, created the Beaches chain to provide posh accommodations tailored to the needs of families. “At a family resort, you don’t have to be afraid of your kids bothering the honeymooning couple next to you. Almost everyone has kids, and the pool, the beach and all of the services are focused on families,” says Foster, who travelled to Beaches Negril, in Jamaica, with his wife, Cristina, and two kids, Alexander, 12, and Nicole, 10, a couple of years ago.
For the kids, family all-inclusives feature everything from children’s menus and pools (and even water parks) built with little swimmers in mind, to programs and clubs that your child can attend for some or all of the days you’re there. And parents will appreciate the high-end comforts — gourmet dining, luxe spa facilities, beach cabanas with king-sized beds and oversized pillows. If Mom and Dad desire a romantic evening out, they can head to a restaurant set aside for adults, while a babysitter (for a small extra charge, usually around 10 bucks an hour) comes to the room to take care of the kids. Or you can opt for some quality time together in family-sized rooms that (from fully stocked fridges to DVD players) are specially outfitted for this purpose. And depending on the property you choose, all of this can come at a cost comparable to a classic Disney vacation.
While Disney World has its advantages, a week at an all-inclusive resort is more likely to leave you feeling rested and recharged. “We just wanted a place where we didn’t have to worry about anything,” says Toronto photographer Michael Alberstat. He visited the Azul Beach Hotel on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera this past February with his wife, Chareen, and daughter, Lauren, who was just 19 months old at the time. During the day, they enjoyed watching Lauren splash in the warm sea water, search for seashells and play in the kiddie pool. “And after we put her to bed, we would just relax on the veranda, look out on the ocean and share a bottle of wine,” he says.
Sometimes it’s the small touches that make the biggest difference. “At Club Med, you get your keys en route to the hotel. There’s no waiting, exhausted and grumpy, in your winter clothes at the check-in desk,” says Bonnie Hinschberger, manager at Uniglobe who has visited Club Med properties in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and Ixtapa, Mexico, with her husband, Dennis, and kids, MacKenzie, 13, and Craig, 11. “When you arrive they give you a welcome cocktail and a big greeting, and then you’re escorted directly to your room. It’s so simple but it’s amazing.”
Azul Beach Hotel
Mayan Riviera, Mexico
Estimated price, one week for a family of four: $9,000
A stylish boutique hotel with just 96 rooms, the Azul Beach Hotel offers an intimate feel and the distinct advantage of having the beach, three pools and each one of its bars and restaurants within a few steps of your room. But they don’t sacrifice services for style — there’s plenty to do. For those who want to relax, the resort features deluxe cabanas, spa treatments and beach butlers who deliver soft towels, beverages and mineral water vaporizers. And when you’re all rested up, take advantage of the kayaks, snorkeling, yoga — and tequila-tasting classes.
Club Med Punta Cana
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Estimated price, one week for a family of four: $8,500
Complete with a 400-metre beach lined with coconut palms, a blue lagoon and a coral reef, this place really feels like paradise. They’ve got your kids covered, between Petit Club Med (2 – 3), Mini Club Med (4 – 10), and Club Med Passworld (11 – 17), and there’s even a children’s circus school plus a flying trapeze for all ages. And Club Med hasn’t abandoned its original raison d’etre of activity and adventure. Take advantage of 14 tennis courts, dance classes, beach volleyball, archery, sailing and windsurfing. Then cap off a busy day with a sumptuous sunset dinner at their seaside restaurant.
Estimated price, one week for a family of four: $10,000
Set amidst 20 jasmine-scented acres of tropical gardens alongside the aquamarine Caribbean, Beaches Negril offers a dizzying array of options. When it comes to accommodations, you have nine different choices, from deluxe rooms to three-bedroom suites, appointed with mahogany and marble. Parents and kids can play together at the 18,000 square foot water park (which includes two waterslides and a lazy river) and the Xbox Game Oasis, and your littlest ones will love the Sesame Street stage shows and character breakfasts. Stay on site and enjoy the three pools, mini golf, water skiing and hydro bikes, or venture out on an excursion — options range from a jeep safari, to a jungle river tubing ride, to a rum tour (for those who are so inclined).
Contributing editor Tim Johnson’s sole visit to Mexico was a quick day trip from Texas to a dusty border town, and the last time he was in the Caribbean, he was working as a busy volunteer in Belize. He hopes for a more relaxing time on his next trip south.
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