TRAVEL: AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER

Most family reunions mean cheek pinches from Aunt Ethel, feuds with your siblings and stale stories about how awkward you looked as a teen. But today's elaborate gatherings make it all worthwhile. Really. Take Coleen and Rupe Ricksen's 50th-wedding anniversary last spring. Twenty far-flung relatives of the Oakland, Calif., couple met up at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix (arizonabiltmore.com; from $340 per night) for a weekend tribute. After sipping icy Margaritas at a pool cabana, the five adult children, with help from the hotel's staff, devised a treasure hunt, which used family heirlooms and souvenirs as clues. "Each item sparked a story," says Jane Jackson, one of the Ricksens' daughters. "Even my siblings and I discovered things about our parents and grandparents that we never knew."

Savvy reunion planners are forsaking the backyard barbecue in favor of upscale affairs. With families more scattered and busier than ever, more relatives are willing to pay a premium for that rare scrap of quality time. "It's all about getting together with those you love most, and people put a high price tag on that," says Michelle Heston of the Sonoma Mission Inn (fairmont.com/sonoma) in California, which has seen a 10 percent uptick in family bookings over the past year. In response, hotels are offering increasingly elaborate services, like gourmet chefs to cook family recipes, photographers to snap every golf swing and rafting wipeout, and experts to help you trace your genealogy.

Leaving the planning to a hotel may sound simple, but there are plenty of nuances to catch you by surprise. The YMCA's Camp of the Rockies Family Reunion University hosts weekend classes (ymcarockies.org; $50 per person for two nights) that teach participants how to pull off the ideal gathering. The Camp's Jerry Donner suggests booking three months to a year in advance (depending on your ambitions), marketing the event to relatives by sending frequent updates and delegating responsibilities like invites, money collection and event planning among several participants.

Before booking, you'll want to poll your relatives on which kinds of activities they'd like. Amanda Waitt was seeking the warmth of a cozy home when she booked her family's summer reunion at the Simpson House Inn (simpsonhouseinn.com; $15,000 to rent the 15-room inn for two nights), a restored Victorian estate in Santa Barbara, Calif. "The best part was a Gatsby-esque dinner out on the lawn with incredible service," she says. "We wanted a place where we could take over the whole inn and treat it like a family home."

Winter-sports fans can head for the Fairmont Chateau Whistler in British Columbia, at the base of the Blackcomb ski area (fairmont.com/whistler; from $368 per night). There, a chef will prepare a special dinner consisting entirely of old family recipes (from $75 per person). Just remember not to blurt, "Oh, so that's how it's supposed to taste," in front of Granny. For wine lovers, there's the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn near Lake Tahoe, Calif. (plumpjack.com; from $119 per night), which will create a personalized family label for wines you'll drink during your stay. And it has a photographer who will follow your family and then present each reunion participant with a leatherbound album filled with pictures of your trip.

If you're out to explore your family history, book a weekend at Boston's Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro (beaconhillhotel .com; from $245). The chic 13-room town house offers a reunion package that includes a private lecture by a member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society to help you navigate town records and trace a family tree. Hey, if that doesn't convince you you're all related, nothing will.

TRAVEL: AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER | News