Redefining The Family Vacation, Adult Style

THE hotel is modest. The flights - one from Los Angeles, the other from Boston - were long, and the stay in London will be short: just five days.

But never mind. To the trio occupying Room 301 - two empty-nest parents and their post-college daughter - such details are inconsequential. On this impromptu vacation, spurred by bargain-basement air fares and an anniversary celebration, what matters is the chance to revisit the city outside their window and catch up on the conversations that never get shared when communication depends on cross-country phone calls, e-mail missives, and answering-machine messages.

In recent years, a different kind of family trip - travel with very young children - has become a high-visibility activity. Working parents yearning for more time with preschoolers increasingly take them on business trips. More than 43 million business trips last year included children, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

Other couples, determined not to let babies deter them from vacations-as-usual, pack Pampers and passports and head for the airport. In Sunday travel sections, parents with a flair for writing and a penchant for exotic destinations regularly outdo one another in recounting adventures with infants and toddlers in tow.

No destination is too far, no trip too rugged, to daunt them, as their stories attest:

Spend 22 hours on a plane to New Zealand with 11-month-old twins? Tour Thailand and Burma for a month with a toddler son? Cross the Yukon by horse and by sleigh for eight months with an 18-month-old daughter, when temperatures sometimes to 30 below?

Sure, why not?

But by the time these pint-sized world explorers graduate from college and become truly companionable, no-hassle travel mates, parents and offspring usually find themselves with separate itineraries. Vacations en famille become the stuff of distant memories. Writing from faraway hotels, each generation must settle for the postcard cliche: "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here."

That's enough to make a case for an adult-style family rendezvous. Free from the constraints of weekday alarm clocks and weekend errands - free even from the pleasant busyness of holiday get-togethers - two generations find that conversation flows. So does laughter.

To travel with an adult child is to observe maturity and independence in action. The 10-year-old who on a previous visit to London wanted to eat at McDonald's and visit Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum has metamorphosed into a twenty-something who prefers British restaurants and the Tate Gallery. Roles frequently reverse as family members alternately play tour guide and map reader.

Two years ago a friend in California, seeking to regain equilibrium after a divorce, headed to Malaysia on vacation.

On a whim, her college-graduate daughter, who was then "between jobs and between boyfriends," accompanied her. Traveling on low-cost courier tickets, they spent several weeks sightseeing, walking beaches, and smoothing a few frayed edges in their relationship. Ever since, the mother says, "We've been great friends, and we have all these wonderful memories."

In a career-oriented age, where work predominates and leisure is too often a postponed hope, new approaches to family travel offer a chance to bridge distances and generations. From tours and camps operated exclusively for grandparents and grandchildren, to cruises featuring activities for everyone in an extended family, the message from the road is changing.

Whatever the vacation setting, instead of sending postcards across the miles, family members can deliver a revised greeting in person across a shared dinner table after a day of sightseeing:

"Having a wonderful time. Glad you're here."

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