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Taking the Kids

Family Memories Are Forged on 'Soft Adventure' Vacations

March 03, 2002|EILEEN OGINTZ

Cleveland grandmother Beatrice Brill won't let anything--not airport hassles, not the economic slowdown, especially not fear--stand in the way of keeping a long-held promise to take her 10-year-old grandson Julian on a grand adventure complete with river rafting and wild monkeys.

They leave for Costa Rica later this month, accompanied by Julian's dad. Beatrice is continuing a tradition that the 76-year-old widow began more than a decade ago when she took her oldest grandson to Alaska. Since then she has made six trips (three of them to Africa) with grandchildren, and she's not going to stop now. "I've got two more grandchildren to go after this one," she says. "I'm not worried."

That let's-get-on-with-life's-adventures attitude has begun to translate into a spate of inquiries and bookings for upcoming family trips--hiking in the Canadian Rockies, checking out wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, safaris in Africa--according to adventure outfitters from Boston to California. Vigorous and presumably well-heeled grandparents like Brill are as likely to be initiating the planning as parents are.

"There's a perception that people will be safer in the wilderness," says Brian McCutcheon, a spokesman for O.A.R.S., a major California-based rafting company. "We're booming."

"People got through the holidays without incident, and the phones started ringing again Jan. 2," says Jim Kackley, director of Thomson Family Adventures in Boston.

For some, Sept. 11 was a reminder not to put dreams on hold. But one big change is that families are booking much closer to their departure dates, weeks rather than months in advance.

"You've got to get out and do what's important to you before the kids are too old," says Paula Dobrow, a nurse from suburban Boston whose family, joined by close friends in New York, has signed on for a trip to Africa that they have talked about for years. "You just can't live in a bubble."

So many families are seeking adventures closer to home that companies such as Abercrombie & Kent, (800) 323-7308, www.abercrombiekent.com; Austin-Lehman Adventures, (800) 575-1540, www.austinlehman.com; Backroads, (800) 462-2848, www.backroads.com; Thomson Family Adventures, (800) 262-6255, www.familyadventures.com; and O.A.R.S., (800) 346-6277, www.oars.com, are offering a growing number of guided family adventures in places ranging from Yellowstone National Park to Georgia's outer islands, with energetic counselors to amuse pint-size adventurers.

Costa Rica, Belize and the Galapagos are also proving popular because they are considered safe as well as pristine.

"January was better than [January 2001]," says Michael Kaye of Costa Rica Expeditions, 011-506-257-0755, www.costaricaexpeditions.com. "It surprised me. But I think we're all trying to find experiences where we can focus on each other, and being out in nature helps."

Thomson Family Adventures now offers a Costa Rica adventure designed for teens and their parents. Seattle-based Wildland Adventures, (800) 345-4453, www.wildland.com, touts a Belize trip that lets families get far off the tourist track and meet the locals.

There are many positives to any family adventure, whether a modest camping trip to a state park or an expensive bike trip to Europe. Children gain confidence knowing they can handle themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. They learn to be more tolerant of those whose customs and looks are different from theirs. Parents and kids gain a new perspective when they're away from the usual territory. Everyone gets some much-needed time together, forging lifelong memories in the process.

Adventure travel has been gaining in popularity, according to the Travel Industry Assn. It seems parents want vacations that involve more than just playing on the beach or touring historic sites. Grandparents want a memorable way to spend time with grandchildren who are growing up too fast.

That's why outfitters are offering such an array of family itineraries. Backroads, for example, has more than 200 bike and multi-sport family trips. Abercrombie & Kent got so many requests that it now offers 100 family holidays--everything from staffed Tuscan villas to American river-rafting trips.

Many so-called soft adventures don't come cheap; trips to Africa can cost upward of $20,000 for a family of four. But others won't dent a family budget much more than a cruise or a trip to Disney World. Snagging a bargain air fare helps keep costs down.

Outfitters say that despite the uncertain economy, adventurous families aren't deterred by cost. If anything, they're more willing to pay top dollar in order to leave all the logistics to experts.

"All you've got to do is show up with the kids," says Seattle dad Ben Slivka, who has signed on for a second family bike trip this summer. "There are no hassles."

And that, as any traveling parent knows, is priceless.

Next month, 80-year-old New England grandmother Cay Maxwell plans to join her five grandchildren, whose homes are scattered around the country, on a hiking adventure in the jungles of Belize. She can't wait.

"It's really too bad if people stop traveling," Maxwell says. "It's the best way to be together."

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Taking the Kids appears twice a month.

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