Q. We have had good luck in the United States taking our children on ranch vacations where we can be with them but they also can be on their own. Are there comparable places in Eur- ope? I don't mean ranches per se, but places where families can experience the culture and the kids can have some independence.
A. Theme vacation resorts, so popular in the United States and the Caribbean, aren't common in Europe, but they are catching on. Two operations come to mind:
* Center Parcs (011-44-870-520-0300, www .centerparcs.com) is a Dutch company that operates 13 holiday villages in Europe--five in Holland, three in Great Britain, two in Belgium, two in France and one in Germany. Each village has about 650 one- to four-bedroom villas. Three million people, most Europeans, stayed at the resorts in 1997. The villages pride themselves on being environmentally friendly, and visitors are encouraged to rent bicycles to get around. Every facility has a water park, spa and sports, including tennis and golf. Expect to pay at least $600 a week for a standard two-bedroom villa; food and many activities are extra.
* Oasis Forest Holiday Villages (011-44-870-508-6000, www.oasishols.co.uk), in a 400-acre pine forest at the edge of England's Lake District near Penrith, is a family resort that urges guests to "refresh your body, mind and spirit in a natural environment." It offers a full menu of children's activities, plus a gym, indoor water park, spa and nightly floor shows for adults. Several camps for children are offered during the summer, including a soccer academy, tennis camp and a camp for ages 8 through 12 that offers sailing, windsurfing and kayaking. A two-bedroom cabin with kitchen rents for about $1,400 a week during high season in July and August; food and many activities cost extra.
We're going to visit our son in Kyoto in March and want to tour Japan. Do you have suggestions for a two-week tour, specifically in Tokyo, Kyoto and in the countryside at a ryokan?
There are literally hundreds of good travel companies offering tours to Japan. Much depends on your budget. In a few hours of research, I found tours ranging from a five-night, bare-bones trip to Tokyo/Kyoto for under $1,000 (including air fare from New York) offered by Japan Airlines-affiliated Pacifico Creative Service (1-888-727-8785, www.jalpak.com/English) to a luxury 12-night "Traditional Inns of Japan" tour including escorted visits to Tokyo, Hakone, Mount Fuji, Takayama, Kyoto and Kanazawa, and top-shelf hotel and ryokan accommodations, starting at $4,475 without air fare (Absolute Asia, 1-800-736-8187, www.absoluteasia.com).
Start by contacting the Japan National Tourist Office (212-757-5640, www. jnt o.go.jp), which lists 28 Japan-based travel agencies that handle overseas visitors and 22 travel agencies in the United States that can provide an array of organized tours throughout Japan. When comparing tours, make sure that the niceties of the trip, such as regional transportation and escorted visits to the various sites led by English-speaking guides, are included in the price.
If you're used to traveling on your own, Japan has a highly developed network of tourist information centers throughout the country that assist visitors with tour itineraries, maps, language help, etc. There are also a government-run reservations service to help foreign visitors find and book accommodations, and several licensed private guide companies. Contact the Japan National Tourist Office for details.
Our family would love to spend spring break skiing. But this year, spring break comes quite late, starting April 17. Any recommendations?
Steve and Suzanne Kariya
April 17 is pushing the envelope for spring skiing, but there are resorts that will remain open into May if snow cover is adequate.
Last year the Pacific Northwest and northern and central California were hammered by snow, and many resorts stayed open much later than usual. Mount Hood in Oregon, for example, had 350 inches of snow, breaking a century-old record. In late March we skied Lake Tahoe, where nearly two feet of snow fell during our stay. That same week, friends went to Colorado, which did not have good snowfall amounts last winter, and wound up skiing dirt. Even Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, which traditionally stays open for skiing until July 4, was forced to close early. That's why I wait to make my reservations until snowfall trends are clear.
The early read for this season? The Pacific Northwest is again getting pummeled. Mount Hood already has a base of 74 inches. Mount Baker, in Washington, has a base ranging from 107 to 131 inches. Canada's British Columbia is also looking good: Whistler/Blackcomb reports a base of 77 inches. California, Utah, Colorado, Idaho and the rest of the West are getting below average to average amounts of snow, with bases of two to three feet. West Virginia is the big surprise; both Canaan Valley and Snowshoe have more snow than most resorts in Colorado.
Just because a resort has plenty of snow, however, doesn't mean it's going to stay open. By the end of April, many resorts close their slopes to skiers because outdoor enthusiasts are turning their attention to hiking and mountain biking, which many mountains offer in the warmer months. Also, make sure before you book that the resort has more than one or two runs open.
Ski areas known for closing late include Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, with the highest skiable terrain in North America (1-888-ARAPAHOE, www.arapahoebasin.com); Timberline at Mount Hood in Oregon, which is the only U.S. resort open year-round for skiing (503-622-7979, www.timberlinelodge.com); and Mammoth Mountain in California, at 11,000 feet in the High Sierras (1-800-MAMMOTH, www.mammoth-mtn.com).
Readers Ken and Linda Schatz, who asked for recommendations on places to stay in Tuscany (Travel Q&A, Dec. 5), were thankful for the ideas, but were even more thrilled by a phone call they received after the column was published. "A man from Annandale called and gave me a tip on a farmhouse with a beautiful view where we can stay in Tuscany!" said Linda Schatz in an e-mail. It's good to have well-traveled readers willing to share information.
Send queries by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), fax (202-334-1069) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071).