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Mom turns 80, kids play well together

Investigating a shipwreck on a scuba dive off Curaçao.
Investigating a shipwreck on a scuba dive off Curaçao. (Stephen Frink/Getty Images)
October 19, 2008
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Light from the table tennis room splashed on to the outdoor shuffleboard court and showed my niece that her team was losing - badly - to her parents' team.

"Mom, how come you're only good at a game for old people?" groused the college student.

My sisters swayed to a steel-drum band playing poolside as my brother launched into an imitation of our late grandfather, who used to ply the shuffleboard courts of Miami Beach. "Don't vorry about it," he said, adding a simulated cigar chomp. "I'm just playing with 'da boys."

Mom shook her head at her goofy clan of middle-aged baby boomers. Then she smiled and whispered, as if fearing a jinx, "It's working out very well."

The last time we all vacationed together, my sisters and brother raced to the station wagon, calling "shotgun." In the decades since, passenger-side airbags are just one of the changes that reconfigured family travel.

So when Mom said she wanted to take us all on a trip to celebrate her 80th birthday, it was a gift that challenged us to agree on a destination and accommodations.

We thought we were unique in juggling the needs and desires of multiple ages and interests in one vaca tion package. But it turns out that travel agents increasingly are trying to please clients like us.

"I'm seeing couples who instead of putting money into a reception or open house are choosing to take the grandkids on a trip for their 50th anniversary," said Chris Seddelmeyer, of Travel Concepts in Lima, Ohio.

A poll by the 500-office Carlson Wagonlit Travel agency found that two-thirds of its 110 responding offices are seeing a significant increase in multigenerational travel. Most of the groups are choosing cruises or all-inclusive resorts, said Maggie Blehert of Carlson.

John Clifford of International Travel Management in San Diego said families are focusing on their time together. "Things come and go, but collecting experiences is irreplaceable."

My family, spread far afield in Arizona, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, connects often by cellphone and e-mail, but rarely in person. So we had to plan well. We started by agreeing we did not want a cruise.

A Caribbean all-inclusive resort rose to top the list. Mom had friends who had gone to Aruba. I recommended neighboring Curaçao, where I had a great scuba-diving vacation in the 1980s, while my brother suggested the Dominican Republic. My lawyer sister hit the phone and Internet, comparing everything from price, street crime, and non-beach attractions to hurricane frequency.

Curaçao won out for its vibrant capital city, Willemstad (capital, too, of the Netherlands Antilles, comprising Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Saba, and Sint Eustatius as an autonomous country within the Netherlands), with its pretty pastel Dutch Colonial buildings, low crime, underwater attractions, and historic sites, including the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. It also doesn't get much rain. The resort Breezes, with packages that included windsurfing, shore scuba dives, air-conditioned rooms with satellite TV, and nightly live music and entertainment, cost thousands less than an all-inclusive resort in Aruba.

It sounded great. But we were wary that all those activities might come with chirpy staffers exhorting tourists to join hokey classes or contests. When we arrived, we were drawn past the mimosa station in the lobby toward the turquoise Caribbean. As we eyed the swimming pools, hot tub, game room, and restaurants, a booming baritone said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Breezes Curaçao invites you to turn your attention to the trapeze for a demonstration by the lovely and talented Sarah." A twinge of alarm hit my brain, but hunger and thirst sped me toward the beachfront grill.

By flashing the right colored plastic bracelet, we had unlimited access to drinks or food from any of the five restaurants. It was the same for wind-surfing, sailboat rides, scuba shore dives, kayaks, and snorkeling equipment. No checks. No tipping.

We acclimated quickly. Within a few hours of arrival, my family had reverted to seven individuals doing exactly what each of us felt like.

I was dying to go scuba diving, but as the only diver, I didn't want to leave the group for long stretches. But my family adapted so fast that by the second day, I was spying on a spotted eel under a coral-encrusted tugboat.

Mom made friends with members of the traveling women's US softball team and soon was consoling them like daughters when they returned from a game with long faces. My brother, Mike, a Spanish speaker, thrived in the multicultural atmosphere. He chatted up tourists and workers alike and tried to instantly master the local tongue, Papamiento, a mélange of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, with some Arawak Indian and African influences.

My sister Renee coped with the daily quandary of whether to dip first in the sea or one of the pools. She too made fast friends: One afternoon while I was 100 feet underwater at a shipwreck she was singing Motown tunes at the swim-up pool bar and sipping a drink called a Yellow Bird.

Between workouts at the 24-hour gym, massages at the spa, and dozing on the beach, everyone managed a rigorous schedule, interrupted by at-will trips for food and drink.

We gathered for dinner each night at the Japanese or Italian restaurant - reservations but no payment required - and hung out afterward for shuffleboard, table tennis, and entertainment.

We soon learned to tune out the DJ-voiced staffers. But when my niece walked up, my brother would mock: "Please give a warm Breezes Curaçao welcome to the lovely lady Liza." Actually, the staff was too laid-back to lasso anyone into corny activities. If they tried, we just moved down the beach to the grill and bar that was less traveled.

We did leave our cocoon to explore the island; a ride downtown was a short $12 cab ride or $4 bus trip. We shopped, toured the synagogue, and lunched at waterfront cafes watching the "swinging old lady," the nickname for a wooden swing bridge that opened for passing ships and boats, temporarily marooning pedestrians crossing from Punda, downtown, to Otrobanda, the other side.

On a tour, we learned some of the rich local history. The island was settled in 1634 by the Dutch, who built military strongholds to defend the deep channel and harbor in what became Willemstad. Dutch and Jewish merchants built a flourishing shipping economy. Starting in the 1660s, slaves were brought in to learn skills before they were shipped out to British and Spanish colonies. With the abolition of slavery in 1863, the island economy foundered. It rebounded after oil was discovered in Venezuela in 1914. A year later, Royal Dutch Shell Oil built one of the world's largest refineries on the island, and until the 1980s ran the refinery that Venezuela now leases.

Tourism came later to Curaçao than most of the Caribbean. It has a good Sea Aquarium - complete with dolphin dives - and a vast underwater preserve on the island's southwest side. There is the distraction of flames from the refinery in the night sky, just a hint of what might be happening to the environment.

On our last day as my sister Connie and I played pool volleyball we joked about the missed opportunity to try the trapeze. We were half-listening to questions over the loudspeaker for the Breezes Curaçao trivia game. To our surprise, we started blurting out correct answers. We turned to each other and said almost in unison: "Time to go home."

Judy Rakowsky can be reached at judy.rakowsky@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Breezes Curaçao

800-467-8737

breezescuracao.com

$129 a night includes all meals, drinks, and recreation. No tipping.

Lion's Dive & Beach Resort

011-599-9434-8889

lionsdive.com

Three-night dive and room packages start at $600 per person, non-dive at $384.

Lodge Kura Hulanda & Beach Club

011-599-9839-3600

kurahulanda.com

Luxury accommodations set on a coral cliff. $145-$310.

Where to eat

Iguana Café

011-599-9465-1056

Waterfront spot by the swinging bridge. Casual lunch and dinner $11-$20.

De Gouverneur

011-599-9462-5999

Great sunset view from upstairs veranda. $31-$40.

Fort Nassau

011-599-9461-3081

Located in an 18th-century fort with great views of the city and harbor. Fresh fish, steaks, and cream of mustard soup. Reservations required. $24-$29.

What to do

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel

snoa.com

A Sephardic synagogue founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Adults $5, children under age 15 free.

Curaçao Sea Aquarium

curacao-sea-aquarium.com

Four tours a day, and a feeding show. Adults $15, children under 12 $7.50. Dolphin petting $79, dolphin swim $159, scuba dive $300.

Kura Hulanda Museum

011-599-9434-7765

kurahulanda.com

The museum chronicles the slave trade.

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