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It's All Relative
Grandma likes tennis. Uncle Ed wants to ski. Where to go for your family reunion? Start here.

By Elise Hartman Ford
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 3, 1999; Page E01
   


Everybody talks about the disintegrating American family, but don't tell that to the people who plan family reunions. Big family reunions. Sure, the basic, one-day, picnic-at-the-house-of-the-relative-with-the-big-yard is still alive and well. But many extended families are making their get-togethers much grander, multi-day family festivals organized as a group getaway.

"Families are now adding on vacations" to their reunions, says Edith Wagner, editor of the quarterly Reunions magazine, whose very existence proves the point. "The most common reunion now is a three-day affair." Often, she says, they are held at a hotel, lodge, resort or other vacation property accessible to all family members.

And they can incorporate all sorts of, um, interesting activities, as a way for relatives to learn about one another and their heritage. "One family went back to the town of their ancestors and had family members stand outside the houses where the ancestors once lived and re-enact their lives: 'I'm Uncle Joe and this is my story,' and so on," says Wagner, who adds, "Naturally, this type of thing takes a lot of planning." Another reunion she was invited to last summer drew 2,500 people (the family hopes to win recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records for that one).

Whether they're wacky or sweet, large-scale or intimate, Wagner sees the trend toward big-deal reunions as another baby-boomer phenomenon: "This segment is getting older, and becoming interested in genealogy, in connecting with family." With family members scattered all over the country, she says, it's only natural for them to extend a reunion to make the occasion worth the trip for everyone.

Of course, all of this only begs the question of where to hold one of these ambitious family wingdings. It's a question that gets begged of the Travel section constantly. Carol Sottili, author of our Travel Q&A column, reports that questions about family reunions are one of the most common she receives.

The problem is, no one answer is right for all families; much depends on the geographic, financial, schedule and lifestyle preferences of the family members. Wagner suggests that you start planning a reunion not around a particular place, but by trying to find "a general consensus of where your family wants to go, what kinds of things you want to do, how much money you want to spend." Once you know these things, you begin various locations that may fit the bill.

To make this process easier, we've offered a dozen options below, which speak to a range of needs, preferences and family styles. Most are in the mid-Atlantic region, or along the East Coast. Most will accommodate the wide range of needs and preferences a big extended family usually has, from tribal elders down to newborns. Although some of these places are far afield, Wagner insists that it's vital to visit a place personally before booking for a couple of dozen people. After all, you want this to be your best family get-together, not your last.

When You Mostly Want to Hang Out Together

Think of this as the un-resort reunion: a pretty location that's affordable and offers plenty to do, but where the only structured activities are those that your family organizes. Rental houses and certain inns are often good choices in this category.

* Bavarian Inn and Lodge, Shepherdstown, W.Va. This inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains keeps getting bigger and bigger. Having started in 1976 with a few guest rooms and a small restaurant, the inn now holds 73 rooms spread throughout a lodge and four pseudo-Alpine chalets, a restaurant that can seat more than 200, and a rathskeller. Some rooms overlook the Potomac River; nearby are the C&O Canal towpath, Harpers Ferry, outlet shopping, golf and Antietam Battlefield. But after downing the Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel, you may just want to stay put, swim in the (outdoor) pool or play tennis, and get to know your family. Room rates range from $85 to $250 per night, with discounts for groups booking more than 15 rooms (available only Sunday through Thursday, November through August). Entrees average $13 to $22. The inn will help you organize a family dinner or luncheon, outings and activities, although no special children's programs are offered.

Bavarian Inn and Lodge, 304-876-2551, http://wvweb.com/www/bavarian_inn. Shepherdstown is about 90 miles from Washington.

* Bayside, Maine. This 48-acre community situated on Penobscot Bay, halfway up the Maine coast, is a simple, picturesque enclave of summer homes. For reunions of fewer than 50 who want to get together for a week of quality time between June and September, Bayside is ideal. It started as a Methodist camp in the early 1800s; where tents once stood are now cottages, Victorian houses and more modern structures, all of them charming. Most are used as summer homes by families who have been coming here for generations; when they are not using their homes, they rent them through the Blair Agency (207-338-2257, e-mail blair@acadia.net). A newsletter mailed in late January describes what's available for the summer: from a tiny cottage with combined living/dining/kitchen area and one bedroom, for about $400 weekly, to a secluded waterfront house with three bedrooms, front deck and lots of lawn, and a guest cottage that sleeps eight, for $1,200. All rentals are weekly through the season (June through September).

Bayside centers on the hillside common, a large slope of green that includes a playground and shaded benches, before it descends to the pier, where you can take sailing lessons, swim in the cold waters and go fishing. You can reserve the old-fashioned community center if you need a party space for 100. Nearby attractions include the town of Camden, a thriving arts community with quaint inns, good restaurants and Windjammer cruises out of its picturesque harbor; Camden Hills State Park, where you can hike; and Acadia National Park, 90 minutes away.

Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, 207-338-5900, www.acadia.net/belfast/. Bayside is a 12- to 14-hour drive from Washington. The closest airport is in Bangor, 45 minutes away.

* Chincoteague, Va. Consider Chincoteague if your clan is full of wildlife and nature lovers. This 7-by-1.5-mile island off Virginia's Eastern Shore offers bird-watching, clamming, crabbing, biking, hiking, fishing, swimming and canoeing. (Just so you know: Locals pronounce it "Shincoteague.") Though parts of the island are not exactly memorable, Chincoteague's essential character remains as a fishing village, but with enough restaurants, art galleries and boutiques to please visitors. What draws people here is Assateague Island National Seashore and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Assateague is home to deer, 260 species of birds and, most famously, the wild ponies that swim to Chincoteague Island each July to be auctioned off.

Lodging choices on Chincoteague include campgrounds, motels, inns, B&Bs and rental homes and cottages. Some motels, like the 72-room Refuge Motor Inn (1-800-544-8469, www.refugeinn.com; rates from $60 off-season for a double to $215 in-season for a suite), offer fitness centers and pools. Rental homes and cottages often provide boat rentals and piers for fishing and crabbing. The most luxurious accommodations are three secluded, newly built "Wildcat on the Bay" houses (1-800-346-2559), each overlooking the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge's Wildcat Cove; the Bay Life house seems especially prime for family reunions, with its two separate wings that come together at the "Great Room," amenities and room for 12, large decks, screened porches and modern kitchen. Rates range from $2,400 for a week in summer to $1,080 for a three-day weekend off-season. (The other two houses charge less.) Most Chincoteague rentals operate year-round. Other reunion options: Memorial Park (757-336-6519), which holds hundreds of people and has a pavilion, playground and boat ramp; or the Chincoteague Community Center (757-336-0614), with banquet space for 45 to 500 people.

Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, 757-336-6161, www.chincoteaguechamber.com. Chincoteague is 172 miles from Washington.

When the Emphasis Is on the Great Outdoors

This is the reunion for those who believe that families who play together stay together. Ski and golf resorts are good choices, as are mountain locations, where scenery and outdoor recreational possibilities are the main attractions.

* Western Maryland. Western Maryland's Allegany and Garrett counties, respectively two and three hours northwest of Washington, are loaded with outdoor opportunities for families, from skiing to fly fishing. Maryland state parks pepper this part of the world, and one of them, Rocky Gap, is home to the new Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, which offers a picturesque setting and ample activities for a family reunion. The 220-room hotel sits on a 243-acre lake, with mountains rising across the lake. You can play golf, cross-country ski, hike or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the park. Several areas may be reserved for private functions, including nine meeting rooms accommodating 15 to 550 people, and a lakeside pool area for evening events. The place has a business-conference ambiance, but can be enjoyed by families, too. Room rates range from $52 (current winter promotion) and start at $90 per night the rest of the year.

For more intimate reunions of 50 or fewer, go farther west, toward Deep Creek Lake, and consider the Savage River Lodge. Scheduled to open next summer, the lodge lies on 42 private acres in the middle of 700 acres of the Savage River State Forest. Each of 18 cabins scattered within the woods sleeps up to four people and has a whirlpool tub, shower, sitting room, gas fireplace, ceiling fan, bedroom and separate sleeping loft. The main lodge serves three meals a day; in addition to the dining room, there's a wraparound porch, common room, bar, library and TV room. Hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, biking and hunting are available on-site, while downhill skiing, white-water rafting, golf and other sports are available nearby. Call for rates, which are still being determined. At both Rocky Gap Resort and the Savage River Lodge, staff will help you plan your reunion.

Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, 1-800-724-0828, www.rockygapresort.com; Savage River Lodge, 301-790-1037, www.savageriverlodge.com; Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 301-334-1948, www.garrettchamber.com;, Allegany County Tourism, www .mdmountainside.com.

* Wintergreen Resort, Virginia. This 11,000-acre, four-season resort perched atop the Blue Ridge Mountains wins kudos for its golf course, tennis center, ski trails and nature programs. There's also horseback riding, pool and lake swimming, fishing, biking and hiking on 30 miles of trails.

Although Wintergreen does not offer a specific "family reunion" package, the resort is a favorite reunion site, and its staff is adept at helping reunioneers, including reserving rental homes and condos, arranging meeting space and organizing activities. Lodging ranges from studios to seven-bedroom villas. Rates are determined by the season, length of stay and time of week. For instance: two-bedroom condos range from $94 to $179 per person; a seven-bedroom home rents for $675 per night in summer. Packages, such as those for individual families and groups of more than 20, may be available. Lodging includes use of the pools and fitness center, and free use of the tennis courts midweek. Wintergreen's children's programs, offered on a daily or weekly basis in summer, and on some weekends in spring and fall, also receive high marks; activities are organized by ages, from 2 1/2 to 17. Other things to consider: You have the option to fix your own meals or to dine at one of Wintergreen's five restaurants; the resort also has five lounges and a spa.

Wintergreen reservations, 1-800-266-2444; information, 804-325-2200, www.wintergreenresort .com. Wintergreen is 145 miles southwest of Washington.

* Smugglers' Notch Resort, Vermont. Since it opened as a ski resort in 1956, Smugglers' Notch has been pegged a favorite, most recently by Family Fun magazine, whose readers named Smugglers' tops in the family ski resort category. But the Green Mountain-side village is open year-round, offering accommodations in condos, from studios to five-bedroom town houses, each with kitchens, living and dining rooms. The resort can handle as many as 500 and offers discounts to groups of 20 or more. Family reunions are common enough here that the place calls itself "America's Reunion Resort," featuring full-day reunion retreat programs for all ages and a choice of a complimentary group mixer with hot and cold hors d'oeuvres or a mountainside barbecue (for reunions of 20 or more). "We'll help you plan your reunion, lodge families together in the same building, arrange for photographers and organize entertainment, like family karaoke nights or guided hikes during the day," says public relations director Barbara Thomke, adding that families can choose to eat together in one of the restaurants or cook their own meals. Likewise, families can sign up their children for organized programs or do their own thing. Among the many amenities: five heated pools, water slides, ponds for trout fishing, playgrounds, a driving range and tennis courts. You may book any length of stay; for groups of 12 or more, rates start at $59 per person per night. In summer, this includes lodging, use of facilities, and the kids' camp; in winter, it includes lodging, use of facilities and the ski lift, but not ski rentals, lessons, or the kids' camp.

Smuggler's Notch Resort, 1-800-451-8752, www.smuggs.com. The resort is 560 miles from Washington; the closest airport is Burlington International Airport, 28 miles away.

When You Seek Sun and Sea

If your crowd is comprised of sun-worshipers, check out beach resorts and cruises. This category tends to cover the most expensive reunion options, with pampering and luxury usually part of the deal.

* Club Med. Once the preserve of adult vacationers, Club Med now welcomes children at some of its resorts. One of these "family villages," Sandpiper Beach, Fla., is especially recommended as a family reunion site -- not just because of its activities for kids (ages 2 to 11), but because it's easy to get to: One of only two Club Meds in the United States, Sandpiper is a 45-minute drive from West Palm Beach Airport. It offers golfing at two 18-hole courses, a golf academy, tennis and a variety of other sports, from sailing to soccer; there's also a conference room and two restaurants, good for a grand reunion party. You stay in double rooms (some connecting) in three-story lodges set within landscaped gardens. Rates start at $1,299 per adult, based on a seven-night stay and double occupancy, and include air fare from Washington; three meals a day with unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner; access to sports and organized activities; live nightly entertainment; children's programs; and nightclub dancing. Discounts are also available. No minimum stay required.

Club Med: 1-800-Club-Med, www.clubmed.com.

* Cruises. While many cruise lines provide family entertainment and programs for kids and teens, Miami-based Premier Cruises goes one better by tailoring reunion packages to include a family reunion cake and champagne toasts, a free family photo and discounted shore excursions. The staff will work with you to customize a reunion; your extended family will receive group rates, and there are reduced rates and other deals for groups (including one free cruise fare for every 15 booked). Rates range from $599 per adult (double occupancy in a standard room) aboard the Big Red Boat's three-night Bahamas Cruise, to $2,998 per adult (double occupancy in a deluxe suite) aboard the Rembrandt's seven-night Mediterranean cruise. Rates cover all expenses (but not air fare to the port), from meals to entertainment, which can include casinos, cabaret revues, dancing, seminars and cooking lessons. You can reserve a room for a private party at an additional cost. Children's programs take place on all the line's ships, but the Big Red Boat's packages are probably most family-friendly.

Premier Cruises' family reunion coordinator: 1-800-327-9766, www.premiercruises.com.

* Kiawah Island, S.C. The 10,000-acre barrier island 21 miles south of Charleston has 10 miles of sandy beaches, centuries-old pine, palmetto and live oak forests, 170 different species of birds, 30 species of reptiles and amphibians (including loggerhead turtles and alligators) and 18 species of mammals, from deer to dolphins. The Kiawah Island Golf and Tennis Resort, the island's sole resort, offers five championship golf courses and award-winning tennis and nature programs. Families who come here can stay at the 150-room inn or at one of the privately owned resort homes or villas; in any case, you book your stay through the resort, which manages the properties. Rates vary, from $95 to $275 a night per hotel room, $155 to $710 per day for villas and $250 to $1,500 per day for a house. (Fees for golfing, tennis, and other recreational services are not included in rental costs.)

Villas range in size from one to four bedrooms, and houses from three to seven bedrooms, with the largest accommodating up to 17 people. Group rates are available when you have 20 or more people, with discounts based on time of year. (Kiawah's off-season is short, Jan. 1 through early March, and summer rates are highest.) The Kiawah Resort staff will customize a family reunion stay to include outings to Charleston, boating, children's activities, private dinners and the like. If you book a reservation now for a stay between May 29 and Sept. 4, you receive a $150 credit per reservation, to apply to any of Kiawah's dining, recreation, shopping and other attractions.

Kiawah Island Resort, 1-800-654-2924, www.kiawah-island .com. Kiawah is 605 miles from Washington.

When You Want to Tour Till You Drop

You can have this kind of reunion in a city, a historic attraction, a theme park -- wherever the location offers touring options as a framework for your celebration. Contact the convention and visitors bureau or chamber of commerce for the city or area you are considering. Most hotels in cities and tourist spots are experienced in hosting family reunions, and often have staff who specialize in helping families plan the gatherings.

* Colonial Williamsburg. For a truly historic reunion, gather your troops in Williamsburg. Since 1997, Colonial Williamsburg has made available more than 77 rooms in 21 Colonial guest houses and small inns, including the Market Square Tavern, where Thomas Jefferson once rented rooms. The rooms are furnished with period reproductions and modern conveniences, some including adjoining sitting rooms and small efficiency kitchens. The guest houses and inns are scattered within three blocks of one another inside the 173-acre Historic Area, alongside cobbled courtyards and historic gardens. Rates range $100 for one room off-peak, to $515 for a four-bedroom house during peak season, per night. And because the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation owns and operates these houses, you are eligible for services provided at the foundation's other properties, including the Williamsburg Inn's golf courses, swimming pools, tennis courts, fitness centers and children's programs; you may also reserve rooms for your family's reunion party at one of the historic taverns or within the Williamsburg Inn or Lodge. When you book 11 or more rooms, you pay less for the pass that allows you to tour the historic section: $22 per adult, rather than $26, good for your length of stay.

Each of two of the small inns, the 16-bedroom Brick House Tavern and the Market Square Tavern, has a good-size common room, which your group may use for $50 a day if it has reserved all of the in the inn. Some of Colonial are handicapped-accessible, but be sure to request those houses when you make your reservation -- which you should do way ahead of time, at least a year. A Family Reunions Helpful Hints and Guidelines list informs you of complimentary offerings, such a copy of the Official Guide Book to Colonial Williamsburg, and warns you to avoid planning a reunion between June 15 and Sept. 5, the resort's busiest season.

Colonial Williamsburg has other, sometimes less expensive, lodging available if needed, including the inn, the Williamsburg Woodlands and the Governor's Inn.

Colonial Williamsburg, 1-800-HISTORY (1-800-447-8679), www .colonialwilliamsburg.org. Williamsburg is 160 miles from Washington.

* Orlando. Orlando is often mentioned as a favorite destination for "grand travel," the term coined to identify the phenomenon of inter-generational travel, specifically grandparents traveling with their grandkids. Orlando is also a favorite group sales site, its hotels drawing business and leisure travelers from all over the world, who come here because the presence of Disney World ensures plenty of amusements. Put those two facts together and you've got a good site for a family reunion.

The Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau declines to single out one hotel as better than any other for hosting a family reunion -- they are all so practiced at it. So I point you to Westgate Lakes Resort, 15 minutes from Walt Disney World, on 97 acres bordering Big Sand Lake. Within a tropical setting, the resort offers fully equipped villas, some of which can sleep up to 16. The complex has four pools, a fitness center, bike rentals, tennis and volleyball courts, water sports, an on-site restaurant and an event tent you can reserve for functions. A food and beverage department will help you plan the reunion, from special menus to tent rentals, to entertainment, to organized activities. Rates range from $230 per night off-season for a two-bedroom villa that sleeps eight, to $650 per night in holiday season for a four-bedroom villa that sleeps 14 to 16. Call for special group rates.

Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-551-0181, www.goflorida.com; Westgate Lakes Resort, 407-345-0000 or 1-800-818-1244, www.westgateresorts.com. Orlando International Airport is 15 minutes from the resort.

When You Just Want to Stay Home

We're serious! Washington, D.C., is a great destination for a family reunion, notes Mark Palmer, director of sales and marketing at the Henley Park Hotel. "It's centrally located, easy to get to, and there are so many free museums and attractions here to please family members of all ages," he points out helpfully.

Well, yes, of course he'd say that. But still, you could do a lot worse than Our Nation's Capital when planning a reunion. For starters, every hotel in town has experience in hosting them. A few options:

* The Henley Park's 96-room property allows "families to take over the hotel," says Palmer. If you book during slow times in Washington, such as Labor Day or Memorial Day weekends, you'll receive the lowest rate. (Doubles range from $99 to $175 per night.) Staff put the family in rooms on the same floors. When a group books 10 or more rooms, the hotel offers complimentary use of a hospitality suite with some refreshments, "a place where people can come and sit during the day for a break," says Palmer. Babysitting services, use of a meeting room for a dinner (families pay food and beverage charges, but no room fee), the on-site restaurant, weekend jazz, exercise room privileges at the Morrison-Clark Inn across the street, and pool privileges in summer at the Washington Plaza Hotel are among the amenities a group might appreciate. Oh, and a "Family Reunion Survivor's Kit," which might contain "toothpaste and toothbrush, a city map, a Metro farecard, name tags, aspirin and a schedule of tour buses," says Palmer.

* If your group numbers in the hundreds or more, check out the big hotels, such as the 11-acre, 836-room Omni Shoreham, with its prime location on Rock Creek Park and near the zoo. "If you book 100 sleeping rooms, you get the use of a ballroom," says Ted Hibler, Omni's director of marketing. (Meeting space also is available for smaller groups.) The Omni's specialist will help you plan your reunion, from meals to entertainment. Room rates range from $89 to $289 a night, with the cheapest rates usually available "in the dead heat of summer." The Omni has two outdoor pools, a fitness center, restaurants and shops.

* Looking for something more affordable? The Embassy Inn and its sister property, the Windsor Inn up the street, have rates starting at $59 for a double on weekends (based on availability), and $79 to $125 double on weekdays. The Windsor also has several suites ($129 to $159) and a conference room you can use gratis. The inns, within a short walk of each other, have 83 rooms in all. Susan Stiles, general manager for both properties, says she can "set up a special breakfast in the breakfast room, which holds 20 comfortably, put the elderly family members in rooms on the main level, so they don't have to climb any stairs -- just take care of any special requests."

Washington, D.C., Convention & Visitors Association, 202-789-7000, www.washington.org; Henley Park Hotel, 926 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202-638-5200; Omni Shoreham, 2500 Calvert St. NW, 202-234-0700, www.omnihotels .com; Embassy Inn, 1627 16th St. NW, 202-234-7800; Windsor Inn, 1842 16th St. NW, 202-667-0300.

Resources

* Reunions Magazine, P.O. Box 11727, Milwaukee, Wis. 53212, 414-263-4567, www.reunionsmag .com. A quarterly magazine available by subscription ($17 a year), reporting on reunion planning. A workbook and catalogue are available for an additional $10.

* Condominium Travel Associates, CTA 33 Union City Rd., Suite 2B Prospect, CT 06712, 1-800-492-6636, www.condotravel.com. A countrywide network of travel agencies specializing in condo and villa rentals at family resorts.

* Family Travel Forum, 891 Amsterdam Ave., New York, N.Y. 10025, 212-665-6124. www.familytravelforum.com. Publishes a monthly newsletter (also on its Web site) featuring news and information on family travel destinations, outfitters, accommodations and publications.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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