It was the age range that almost did us in. For the fifth year in a row, my husband and I were planning an extended-family holiday. But through marriage, mating and the passage of time, our British (his) and American (mine) combined family of Baxters and Slades was 19 strong, ranging from 8- and 10-week-old cousins and adolescent nieces to Granddad, my father-in-law, age 80.
“You’re not alone,” said Andrew Norman, with classic British understatement. “Your numbers and ages may, er, present a bit of a challenge.” (A bit?) “But lots of intergenerational families are currently taking holidays together. And with the proper arrangements, they do rather well.”
Ah, yes, arrangements. Norman was familiar with those. When we met up with him, he was the director of Portledge Estate, a collection of seven rental cottages on 1,900 acres on England’s North Devon coast. “Children-of-Merlin” is what we christened his staff after they conjured up 25 bath towels and a second hair dryer (remember the nieces?) within minutes of our arrival.
He was right about both the family phenomenon and the prerequisite for success. In the United States and in Britain, families have taken to the notion of multigenerational gatherings with zest. “Often, grandparents will rent an easily accessible house and have different children and grandchildren staying for a week at a time,” said Jenni L. Blower, the estate’s new administrator.
The variations are many, but certain planning and operational rules can be established — that is, if you want to minimize what Blower calls “aggro” and end your vacation with everyone on good speaking terms. Every time we bring our family together, we’ve been taught new lessons while modifying the old. Here’s what we’ve learned thus far:
Rule 1: The priority is seeing one another, not the countryside or tourist sites. Only those who are like-minded should come. Willingness to compromise makes planning a family gathering possible. While each person’s essential — even idiosyncratic — needs must be met, the obligation to accommodate individuals ends there.
My teenaged nieces, Jenna and Ashley, were positively eloquent regarding Rule 1. True, they said, gathering as a family means never fully experiencing a country’s cultural offerings. (Translation: You can’t shop ’til you drop or pretend that you are independently wealthy orphans and hang with friends.) Breakfast and supper are generally eaten at home, and your free time is circumscribed by an unwritten commitment to be with family.
But you get to see literally distant relatives. Because our family members come from around the world — three brothers-in-law are in the British army — my nieces felt that a geography, current events and history lesson was served at every meal. And though high culture may be beyond reach, everyday activities, like food shopping, become adventures.
Rule 2: Someone must be in charge, and that someone must delegate tasks. In charge does not mean dictator — as if you could dictate to grown children or parents. We think of the job as combination coordinator, clearinghouse, interlocutor and gentle goad. This is the person who conducts an initial poll to determine who is interested in vacationing together, when the best times are, how far people can travel and how much they can spend. This person then assigns to others the task of finding the place to stay, and of tracking and insuring payment of expenses. But it is the person in charge who will seal the deal on the house or hotel, and will be the keeper of information regarding arrival and departure dates, telephone numbers and contact names, rental spaces, rental cars and the like.
My brother-in-law, Philip, and I co-managed the first gathering five years ago: Philip, because we were assembling in Cyprus, where he was stationed; me, because the American contingent would arrive and leave in waves. Since then, others have volunteered.
Rule 3: Be honest about what you can afford in time and expenses. Calling the clan together means selecting a date and place that can accommodate the largest number for the smallest budget. Our poll requires family members to list three possible vacation dates along with travel time limitations: no more than five hours’ driving, for example, or six hours by air. As two separate amounts, they note how much they can spend getting and staying there, wherever “there” is. Embarrassment has no place if you want a vacation that is well attended and resentment-free. Cyprus, for example, was too far, too hot and too pricey for my sister and her brood.
In pinpointing dates, consider these field-tested findings: Two weeks is the maximum vacation time that members of our family can afford; not every family unit or member will be able to stay the full two weeks. The goal, then, is to pick the two-week period during which the majority can stay for a time that overlaps with others.
Rule 4: In choosing the destination, let geography and finances be your guide, but let common ground be your goal. The balance of geographic power shifts from year to year in our family. When all three brothers-in-law were stationed in Germany, Europe became the theater of operation. More discussion, with an eye on a map of France, yielded several alternatives accessible from international airports and through wine country. All offered hiking, biking and swimming, with reasonably priced lodging and campsites.
Annecy and its neighbor, Bluffy, 40 miles from Switzerland on the eastern edge of the Haute Savoie, won when my father-in-law (Rule 2: Delegate) found Auberge des Dents de Lanfon (the teeth being that of a local mountain). Its seven double rooms cost $26 to $29 a night at the time, and there was an area nearby where we could park a camper and pitch a tent. We’d shop in local markets and picnic, or grab simple restaurant meals. The grandparents, who’ve stayed in better and stumbled on worse, judged the auberge, with owners Daniele Durey on reception and her husband Jean-Marc as chef, a delight.
When Jonathan, my youngest brother-in-law, and his family were stationed in Canada, they tipped the scales to North America — specifically, to Prince Edward Island. Jonathan scouted for rental cottages, the perfect arrangement for families with children who need the freedom that hotels cannot provide. The local tourist authority yielded Dunstaffnage Heights, an old house with six bedrooms a few miles from the beach. The total cost — $612 for a week (now up to $750, with the current exchange rate).
The next year, the geographic balance shifted to Britain, with all my brothers-in-law based in Wiltshire, near Salisbury, or London. Everything hinged on the American contingent, since we would have the longest trip at the greatest expense. We thought Cornwall. A talk with our travel agent and friends sent us up the coast to less crowded, and equally beautiful, North Devon.
We could take a direct flight ($400 round trip) to Gatwick or Heathrow. We could get a terrific two-week rental car deal ($394, including tax and unlimited mileage), and the 150-mile trip is simple: highways for speed, byways for scenic stops, like Stonehenge.
Rule 5: In selecting a home base, try to meet each family member’s minimal needs. Privacy is the priority for the Baxter grandparents, who need a refuge from very active grandchildren. The Slade grandparents want places to visit within an hour’s drive, a time and distance they can manage by themselves. My sister wants a pool (she’s a serious lap swimmer), a computer and a comfortable place to sit and read. But then she’s the single parent of teenagers; enough said.
The teenagers want to shop. Oh, and it’s nice if they can “like, uh, do something, like, without, like uh, grown-ups.”
We parents of young children need:
• A house relatively easy to childproof.
• Access to a doctor in an emergency.
• A secure yard where children can play when they awaken at 6:30 a.m.
• Amusements within a 20-minute walk or drive.
• Rainy day activities reasonably close.
Of all the places we have assembled, Port-ledge Estate remains the best fit. First, there is the location — four miles from Bideford, a working riverside community with a small fishing fleet (guaranteed entertainment for children). On its outskirts are a supermarket, a garage and a gas station, and what the British call a “leisure center,” with a heated indoor swimming pool, toddler pool, exercise rooms and machines.
Within easy travel distance of the estate is the larger town of Barnstaple and several worth-a-detour sites, like Exeter and the cliff-side fishing village of Clovelly. Portledge itself offers tennis (one court), hiking, fishing and a working farm with enough sheep and cattle to entrance children for hours. True, the drive to town includes a stunningly narrow lane. But shortcomings are more than compensated for by the likes of Bideford’s brass band, whose members serenade passersby at night.
Rule 6: The house must be inviting and a good base of operations. For all our walking, swimming, sunning or sightseeing, everyone in the family spends time at the house. We’ve tried hotels, but our numbers mean that we virtually overrun any place that dares to take us in. A rental gives everyone the freedom to roam, raise a racket or raid the icebox.
The rental should be attractive, with central heating, hot water for our small army, a telephone, a washing machine and bedrooms enough for children (who are grouped by age) and grown-ups (who are not).
On Portledge Estate, we rented Glendale Farmhouse (with four bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, a sitting room, dining room and kitchen/breakfast room) and Glendale Cottage (with a bedroom for the toddlers and one for each of two couples with infants, one bathroom, a sitting room, dining room and kitchen) next door. We brought linens, towels and kitchen extras. Pillows, duvets, spare blankets and, yes, extra towels were provided. The cost may sound high: $1,170 for each of two weeks for the farmhouse; $826 for the cottage for one week. (Prices include electricity, oil and value added tax.) But divided on a pro-rated basis, it was low: $546.25 for our foursome’s two weeks.
Rule 7: Appoint a chief accountant, who will record family-wide purchases (food or equipment everyone will use) and insure equitable reimbursements. We divide the week’s total by the number of adults and reimburse the shoppers. It’s best to arrange payment for rental houses and rental cars beforehand; this guarantees that no one is stressed or slighted.
Rule 8: As goes food preparation, so goes the holiday. More friction is generated over food shopping and cooking than almost anything else. It need not be that way. In reality, a handful of people want to do the shopping: in our case, the two grandmothers and my husband, who is a caterer. Let them. At the house, we post a pad of paper, pencil attached, on which the rest of us list what needs to be bought. Everyone goes on the first foray, so that we all know where to find the supermarket, wine shop and outdoor market.
Couples take turns preparing supper. Washing up is grandmothers’ work — or so the senior women of our clan let us know when they shooed us out of the kitchen.
Rule 9: Don’t try to plan anyone’s vacation time other than your own. Establish a central drop-off point — like a hall table — for car keys and house keys. That is where family members can place brochures about sites to see and notes about special events they’ve discovered. Breakfast is when people announce their plans for the day. Anyone who wants to can join in. Never try to cajole others into participating. In anything.
The evening meal gives people an opportunity to compare notes and to regale listeners with accounts of their adventures. It is the sweetest of moments. This is, after all, a family vacation.