Fun For The Kids

At Porto Pirata on Portugal's scenic coast, a disturbance threatened to destroy the peaceful holiday tableau. A British guy was trying to get behind the wheel of a big green truck parked outside. Two bigger fellows blocked his way. Forget it, they said; it's ours. The authorities rushed to the scene to settle the matter.

Another tale of holiday hooliganism in the Algarve? Not quite. The disputants in this particular incident were all under 5. The kid-size truck is a permanent fixture at the entrance to Porto Pirata, a lavish playground complete with swimming pool, auto racetrack, basketball court, miniature-golf course, climbing frames and a Lilliputian restaurant filled with checked tablecloths and tiny picnic tables. The truck-inspired conflict was quickly and calmly resolved by a squad of professional child minders. And the children's parents were none the worse for worry: they were sunning themselves on the beach or out hitting the links.

This is a holiday, family style, at Sheraton's Pine Cliffs Resort, a village like complex of hotel rooms, serviced apartments and villas overlooking an ocher beach and the Atlantic. "It's easy to get attached to this place," says Erick van Engeland, a stockbroker visiting from The Hague with his wife, Alick, a Dutch Foreign Ministry official, and two of their four children. Van Engeland enumerates its glories: "the beach, the pines, the cliffs, the weather." He might well add the family-friendly environment.

Families with young children have always vacationed together, but never quite like this. Business travel is down. At the same time, families are increasingly eager to spend quality time together in a relaxing, rejuvenating environment where there is something to suit every age and interest. At the intersection of these two trends sit places like Pine Cliffs. The five-star Sheraton property outside Albufeira is at the top end of a booming genre of holiday properties--luxury resorts and high-end hotels designed with families in mind.

Pine Cliffs was purpose-built as a family resort 11 years ago, but hotels that once specialized in business travel, corporate conferences or romantic getaways for two are also moving into this expanding niche. Around the globe, resorts and travel planners that used to focus on child-free environments have revamped their marketing strategies to entice the 0-to-12 set (and their parents). Hotel lobbies that were once filled with suits wearing plastic my name is... badges now are filled with the din of laughing (and sometimes howling) kids.

If the high seas once seemed an adults-only stomping ground, that, too, has changed. Major cruise lines like Princess, Carnival and Crystal have baby-sitting services and kids' special programs, as well as specially designated swimming pools and restaurants. Even luxury adventure-travel planners have gotten the picture: --they're pushing family vacation packages for everything from African safaris to hiking in Costa Rica's cloud forests. As school holidays approach, children watching Nick Jr. or other kids' cable networks can barely escape the ads for Disney or Club Med resorts. "Kids are picking out where the family will go for vacation, and if the kids are happy, so are the parents," says Caroline Fischer of Wentworth Travel in London.

The idea of families, lots of families, all gathered in one place may horrify parents and nonparents alike, but the mantra "kid-friendly" need not be a turnoff. The same four- and five-star luxuries--like spas and elegant dining--are available, but the attitude has changed. At resorts like Pine Cliffs, even cranky infants are considered special guests rather than annoying baggage. It's not just a matter of providing nannies to watch the kids while Mom and Dad play a round of golf. The better family resorts create separate but equal worlds for the parents and the kids--as well as offering activities where the young and old can mingle, such as nature hikes or bike tours. In some cases, staffers trained as teachers craft the programs and pediatricians are on call. The parents get their own range of facilities and activities--and peace of mind.

The Canadian firm Butterfield & Robinson started introducing family adventure travel to its luxury series in late 2001. This year the company is offering 24 family holiday packages tailored to children of different ages. For families with children over 5, there's biking in Ireland or kayaking in Quebec. For those with kids 8 and older, B&R recommends helicopter hiking in New Zealand or a learning adventure in the Galapagos Islands. The promotional material beckons families to "send the kids back to school with stories of scaling volcanoes and swimming with giant tortoises." The campaign has been almost too successful. "We've had such response [that] we've actually had to downplay the family trips because there is so much interest," says B&R spokeswoman Carrie Gray.

Club Med was among the first resorts to build kids' activities into luxury vacations, with the introduction of its Family Villages in the early 1990s. Today it has 28 such villages worldwide--some for kids as young as 4 months. Club Med's "GOs" (gentle organizers) feed, nap and entertain infants on up, for the whole day or just a few hours, depending on what activities the parents undertake.

This sort of thing works--most of the time. Last year Scott and Ruth Grove, Americans who live in Rome, took their three children, ages 3, 6 and 9, to the Club Med in Palmiye, Turkey. The parents were impressed with the level of luxury, but the kids weren't thrilled about being dumped with babysitters. Scott says he and Ruth ended up checking the children into child care only once. The minders "only spoke French, so my kids ended up finding other kids who spoke Italian to hang out with," --says Scott. His report card: he'd do a luxury family vacation again, but he'd thoroughly investigate language issues ahead of time.

Another thing to remember: luxury travel is not only luxurious (you hope) but also expensive (without fail). Resorts like Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas offer the utmost in everything, but you pay for it. Atlantis's suites look out on the ocean or harbor. You can meander underwater along enclosed streets. Kids 4 and older can spend the day at the Discovery Channel Camp. There's also an Aqua Tots program and a chaperoned "parent free" club for teens. The cost: suites run $1,000 and up per night in the Royal Towers--not including any of the extras.

At the Sheraton Algarve, the hotel at the Pine Cliffs Resort, the least expensive sea-view room costs ¤586 per night during the first half of August. That's room only, double occupancy. Count on paying extra for everything from child care to meals to mini golf. Those bragging rights promised by Butterfield & Robinson are expensive, too. The 12-day Galapagos trip starts at $7,950 per parent; kids' prices vary by age and family size. By comparison, Club Med begins to look almost reasonable: family accommodations cost about $2,000 for a week, depending on the number of children (kids under 2 are free).

And rich prices don't necessarily guarantee an enriching family experience. Child psychologist Ronnie Ginsberg, the author of a regular column on SmarterKids.com, says parents should "think very long and hard beforehand to decide how their time together should be spent." As long as families spend lots of "quality time" together during nonvacation life, "having separate experiences during part of a vacation could actually enrich their future time together," she says. But if the family is generally harried at home and kids have very little downtime with their parents, "more togetherness during a vacation might be in order." The moral? A good time will be had by all--if parents employ some common sense.

Fun For The Kids | News