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FAMILY VACATIONS: SINGLE PARENTS

Journeys Without Partners

Tips on how to plan --and enjoy-- a family getaway when only mom or dad makes the trip.

May 23, 1999|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time, in my strong woman period, I thought to travel alone with my daughter like any two-parent family. I returned from these forays frustrated, exhausted and humbled.

How was I to know mornings in Ski Bear School would make a 5-year-old cranky? So cranky, in fact, that one evening I found myself on a snowy balcony in Snowmass, Colo., locked out of our hotel room, forced to climb down, tromp back to the front desk and ask for another key to get back in.

When she was 7, we went to Maui. While I wanted to snorkel and go out to gourmet restaurants, she preferred room service, TV and the hotel pool.

Later, in New York and Paris, we were targets of lechers and con men.

No matter where we went, the intensity of 24-hour, 7-day-a-week vigilance, negotiation and responsibility took its toll.

Finally I turned to groups and places with lots of support: dude ranches, camping, river trips and Club Med. Sometimes I brought along her friends and my friends, or I hooked up with other single- parent families. If not, I got a lot of reading done.

Now, thankfully, the travel industry is awakening to what I learned through years of trial and error: Single parents can go almost anywhere with their children--as long as they have enough support and accept the imperative of balancing the children's needs with their own.

"Single parents have a completely different set of problems," says Roe Gruber, owner of Escapes Unlimited in Tustin. The intrepid who go it alone can feel vulnerable and overwhelmed with responsibility. The cautious who opt for all-inclusive cruises or destination resorts can be bored. Even the more social who join like-minded groups, she says, can sometimes feel like fifth wheels among the crowd of two-parent families.

Based on her own experiences as a single mother, Gruber two years ago created one of the first adventure tour groups exclusively for single parents. In her groups, dozens of single mothers and fathers have taken their children (age 7 and older) to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Bali and Borneo. The children quickly gravitate to one another, usually eating together and spending some days and evenings with trusted local care providers. Parents get to relax, share meals and have other single parents to talk to. Together they visit rain forests, temples or ruins. During each trip to developing countries, they visit a local village school, bringing school supplies and clothing.

Sometimes single parents actually feel safer in countries such as Bali, where children are revered, she says. Their similar lifestyles often strengthen the travelers' bonds. By the time the trip is over, Gruber says parents and children have not only shared an adventure, "they feel as if they've acquired a family."

Most single-parent travelers tend to be one of two types: custodial (usually divorced, adoptive or single-by-choice mothers) or noncustodial (usually fathers). Each needs to consider what type of vacation they're looking for, travel agents say. Typically, noncustodial parents have the children for only a week or two in the summer or winter and want some intense adventures. Custodial parents often just want a break.

Lori Dahlberg, 43, an outgoing and hard-working realtor from Calgary, Alberta, found she could relax with her 4-year-old daughter at Club Med, where all activities and meals were provided. They returned once to their first destination, Ixtapa, on Mexico's Pacific coast north of Acapulco (which offers a "mini club" for young children), and twice to Huatulco, on Mexico's extreme southern Pacific coast (which has more activities for older children and teens). She likes that the staff provides evening entertainment and group dining where "you never end up sitting with the same people."

She also found that parents support each other, single and otherwise. One couple watched her daughter when she took a day trip from Huatulco to Oaxaca. She and others helped a single mother and her daughter get home when the mother became too sick to function. The only problem, she says, was that anyone who wanted to eat in Club Med's specialty restaurants had to sign up early in the morning, and she couldn't leave her daughter alone in the room to do it. "We whined and got in," she says.

(Single parents traveling to Mexico should know that the country requires a notarized permission letter from the other parent.)

In deciding where to go, experts say it helps to ascertain how much support there will be, how well the operator knows how to deal with children, whether there will be children the same age as yours, and whether you will be expected to share responsibility for other people's children.

Sierra Club outings are popular among single parents who don't mind pitching in, cooking and cleaning up on their vacations.

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