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Luxury family resorts

The Harvard College Admissions Office claims that selecting applicants for each incoming freshman class is "more art than science." Choosing an excellent family resort--one that accommodates babies, teenagers and parents alike--is much the same thing.
Hilton Waikoloa Village on The Big Island, Hawaii
Hilton Waikoloa Village on The Big Island,
/ Source: Forbes

The Harvard College Admissions Office claims that selecting applicants for each incoming freshman class is "more art than science." Choosing an excellent family resort--one that accommodates babies, teenagers and parents alike--is much the same thing.

A family vacation spot has to meet several basic criteria--that's the scientific part. Parents want lots of outdoor space, usually of the sandy or snowy variety, in which to turn the kids loose. For younger guests, a formal children's program should exist, as should an attentive and well-trained staff to run it. Opportunities for mom and dad to reconnect alone should also be plentiful, whether it's over a quiet aperitif or an afternoon of golf. Most important, there should be ways for the family to come back and do something together. After all, that's why you took a family vacation in the first place, instead of shipping the kids off to a camp in Maine or ditching them with their grandparents while you spend a romantic holiday in the tropics.

Once those fundamentals are established, most family-phobic resorts are automatically eliminated. Doesn't have a kid's program? Pass. Strict couples-only policy? No way. Small boutique hotel with no room service or swimming pool? Next.

But then the choices really get tough. Do you want to spend two weeks skiing in the mountains, perfecting your mogul-jumps and drinking hot chocolate? Or should you get a tan, build sand castles and ride horses on the beach en famille? It's like deciding between two candidates, one with straight A's and another with a perfect SAT score; they both have a lot going for them, so how can one be technically better than the other?

Don't worry. Even though kids grow up quickly, there is still enough time to spend one spring vacation in the Rockies and another on the beach.

One thing worth bearing in mind is that many resorts that once may have eschewed family-related programs have lived to regret it and, seeing the light, have introduced or upgraded their kiddie-friendly services.

"Family travel is booming right now," says Edmundo Roa, manager of Let's Take the Kids Travel Agency in Ottawa, Canada, a family concern specializing in booking family travel. "When my parents first started the agency 16 years ago, no one wanted to do it. Now everyone is, and all the resorts are trying to get in on the family-travel niche." Roa says that upscale resorts throughout the Caribbean and Europe are launching new programs, directed specifically at kids and families, and it's no mystery why.

"Most families who travel have money," says Roa. "Families who don't have money don't travel, because it's too expensive. Usually, the niche family resorts are the most expensive. When each child has to pay, in addition to two adults, there's more opportunity for the resort to profit."

Roa recently booked a two-family vacation at a villa at , a luxury resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, for this March--a popular and very expensive (from December through April, double rooms start at $410 per night) time for family travel, since it coincides with many schools' vacations. The five-bedroom villa with a private pool costs $18,550 for seven nights. That includes a butler, maid and villa "helper," so the familys' own staff can stay at home, and they save on airfare. But they still have to buy their own roundtrip tickets to Jamaica, which Roa estimates could cost anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per person, as well as all of their meals upon arrival.

Apparently, Half Moon's kid-friendly facilities made the trip for this family more than worth the cost. Attractions include an on-site equestrian center and natural ocean lagoon with dolphins, as well as the Anancy Children's Village (named after Anancy the spider, a Jamaican children's character), where there are daily puppet shows, arts and crafts activities, a separate wading pool and a sandbox--in addition to the beach, of course.

The Walt Disney Co. (nyse: DIS - news - people ) has always know that little kids can equal big bucks. But as major hospitality chains, like Fairmont (nyse: FHR - news - people ) and the Four Seasons (nyse: FS - news - people ), catch on, introducing luxurious kids' amenities at many of their properties, Disney has had to innovate. Last year, the company introduced a "The longer you play, the less you pay per day" plan, where nightly room rates go down the longer you stay on-property. Another factor in Disney's favor is that Fairmont and the Four Seasons haven't introduced family programs at all of their locations.

"So many people now are traveling with their families," says Janey Frost, the manager of the Kids' Club at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona. "We get business guests that want to bring everyone along with them. We want our guests to enjoy their free time at the resort and know that the kids are well-taken care of--but at the end of the day, they're a family again."

The Fairmont Princess opened their Kids Club in 1995 as an added benefit during holidays or periods with heavy family traffic. In April of 2003, however, the hotel launched a new Kids' Club with hourly activities like craft-making and organized sports. There's even a restaurant where parents can enjoy champagne cocktails over dinner, while kids eat chicken fingers and watch movies--within eyesight of the grownups. Frost says the hotel's family business has increased considerably since then.

With March almost here and summer break just a few months away, has compiled a list of Luxury Family Resorts. Our criteria were simple: The resorts are primarily beach or ski properties, with supervised children's programs (rather than just a game room) and plenty of ways for parents to get some alone-time. There is one city hotel on our list, the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, where little ones can take classes at the Ritz-Escoffier cooking school or make chocolate Easter eggs at the Easter Sunday brunch.