The Crane Family
A week at the Lane Guest Ranch, Estes Park, Colo.
For the far-flung Crane family, get-togethers can be hectic. Grandparents Sally and Ben divide their time between New York City and Santa Fe; children Susan, Michael, and Betsy live with their broods in London and Denver. The Christmas gathering has everyone trying to pack a year’s worth of bonding into a couple of days—while chasing after six grandkids, all under eight. The 2005 summer reunion at Sally and Ben’s Santa Fe house, with forays into Lamy on the Santa Fe Southern Railway, while fun, was too much work.
So last year Sally decided to try something a whole lot simpler: a stay at a dude ranch. She wanted a locale that was reasonably priced (she and Ben would pick up the tab), easy to get to, and authentically cowboy—"not the kind of place where you dress up for dinner." Most important, the ranch had to have a kids’ program. "We love our children, but you can’t have a conversation when they’re around," says Susan, who has a five-year-old daughter, Lily.
After a fruitless Internet search, Sally turned to adventure outfitter Off the Beaten Path, which is how the Cranes ended up at the Lane Guest Ranch, a family-owned spot surrounded by mountains, alpine lakes, and pine and aspen groves—but only 70 miles from Denver. While the grandchildren rode, fished for trout, and cannonballed into the pool, the eight adults were free to consult the ranch’s roster of activities. One afternoon they climbed into rafts and floated down the Class-2 rapids on the Cache la Poudre River. And every day they went for trail rides—all except Sally, who by her own admission "has no rear end" and preferred to read.
Back at the ranch the Cranes met up for meals—hamburgers and steaks dished out in the woodsy dining room or on patios—and mingled with the staff. Many employees wear several hats, including Jennie, the wrangler who doubles as the masseuse. And then there’s Frederick, the waiter, ice cream–sundae maker, and, as the Cranes discovered on a nighttime ride and cookout, championship crooner. Sitting around the campfire, Frederick serenaded the Cranes until the city slickers joined in. While they didn’t know many cowboy songs, "House of the Rising Sun" sounded just right on the range.
Lane Guest Ranch (303/747-2493; laneguestranch.com); adults $215 a day; children 8 to 11 $175; children 3 to 7 $110; children under 3 free, including meals and most activities; minimum three-night stay. For help planning a ranch or adventure reunion, contact Off the Beaten Path (800/445-2995; offthebeatenpath.com; consultations from $250).
The Bell Familiy
A weekend in Baltimore
The Bells have been staging reunions every year since 1967. This commitment to kin had an early examplar in Wesley Bell, a slave who, after gaining his freedom, bought 200 acres in Johnston County, North Carolina, as a legacy for his children. The rolling tobacco farms and pine forests—today known as Belltown—became not just the clan’s ancestral home (some 200 Bells still live there) but also a springboard to success for the family, most of whom now reside on the East Coast.
The early Bell reunions tended toward cookouts in a park. But over the years, participants wanted to piggyback a vacation onto the get-together, so the do’s became more elaborate. Much.
Take last year’s event in Baltimore. A planning committee of D.C. relatives picked a Mardi Gras theme and the hotel, SpringHill Suites BWI Airport, which offered them a group discount as well as the use of two meeting rooms that the Bells decor-ated with homemade welcome signs, a computer-generated family tree, baseball pennants, and a hot-dog machine. The committee also scheduled activities: an Orioles-Yankees game at red-brick Camden Yards and a bus tour of downtown Baltimore that stopped at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. At the Saturday-night banquet aboard a chartered paddleboat, a procession of kids wearing sequined masks, feather boas, and purple and green beads kicked off the festivities, which included the ritual singing of the Bells’s reunion anthem ("Now we’ll sing, we’ll eat, we’ll talk and play....Today is Reunion Day") to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The anthem isn’t the only Bell reunion tradition. At every gathering the year’s commemorative T-shirts are handed all around. And there’s always a silent auction of quilts and tote bags, stitched by the oldest participants, to raise scholarship money that’s distributed among family members about to head to college. A church service provides the final note. Last year’s was led by a relative whose sermon touched on how far the Bells had come. Says William Watson, a software developer and great-grandnephew of Wesley Bell, "It really is remarkable how well this story has turned out."
SpringHill Suites (BWI Airport 410/694-0555; marriott.com); doubles from $199, including breakfast; inquire about group rates. If you’re planning a city reunion, tap the convention-and-visitors bureau for assistance and deals.
The Nguyen family
A five-day Baja, Mexico, cruise
Tien Van Nguyen and his wife, Thuy Thanh, needed a break. Tailors since moving from Vietnam to southern California three decades ago, the couple raised 10 children and are now spending their "retirement" babysitting the seven grandchildren—a hat trick involving afternoon pickups at three Orange County schools. On Saturdays the extended family—all 39 of them—descend on the Nguyen’s sprawling ranch house in Westminister for Vietnamese noodle soup and shrimp over rice or, when exhaustion finally kicks in, pizza delivered to their door.
When the Nguyens’ daughter, Van, took a cruise with her husband and two children last year, she thought that an open-seas voyage might be just the vacation for her parents. Emphasis on might: the last time the family had all been on a vessel was in 1975, when they were part of the first wave of post–Vietnam War "boat people" to arrive in the States. Tien had been seasick the whole way. "We told my dad how big the cruise ship was, how different it was from the small boat we came over on," says Van, who booked a five-day Baja sail from Los Angeles to Ensenada on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas for 18 members of the clan. "And we said he could take a pill for motion sickness."
Any worries about Tien vanished the minute he and Thuy stepped into the ship’s neon-lit casino. Although they’d never done much gambling, the pair spent every possible minute at the slots, where they lost so much money (several hundred dollars’ worth of tokens, in Tien’s case) that Thuy says, "They should give us a discount next time." When the casino was shuttered, the high rollers joined their children for walks on deck and poolside lounging. The younger grandchildren examined sea fossils in the kids’ program, while the older ones tried out the ship’s climbing wall and karaoke at the teen club.
The family convened for meals at the buffet in a café with views of the sea. One night they sat around two long tables in the formal dining room, feasting on escargot, grilled prawns, and beef tenderloin—a high point for everyone, but especially Thuy. "The man and the woman, they came and served us," she said reverently. "Next year, I come with my whole family."
Royal Caribbean International
866/562-7625; royalcaribbean.com; Monarch of the Seas five-day Baja sail out of Los Angeles, $269 per person, including meals and onboard activities; inquire about special packages. If your group is large, a travel agent can be indispensable in handling bookings, negotiating discounts, and coordinating flights. Carol Vaugn of World Voyager Vacations (877/836-1949; worldvoyager vacations.com) assisted the Nguyens.
How to assemble your gang and go!
For maximum attendance, nail down the dates and destination a year ahead—and consider your crew’s tastes. Are they set on room service, or would they rather a cabin in the woods?If pleasing everyone gets too tricky, hire a planner.
With large groups and advance planning come bargains, especially from cruise lines (see cruisecompete.com) and resorts. Most convention-and-visitors bureaus (browse them by state at reuniontraveldirectory.com) have reunion specialists who will send your specs to local hotels, restaurants, and attractions, and present you with their offers. At groople.com you can book rooms, rental cars, and flights—and set up a system that lets everyone pay on their own at a discounted group rate.
Reunionsmag.com, the online component of a magazine devoted to planning family gatherings, has an archive of stories, a by-state resource guide, and a forum so you can gab with other reunion planners. In preparation for next year’s bash, download comment cards at family-reunion.com—and find out what the brood really thinks of those goofy name tags.
Create a Home Page
On arrival, hand out a cell phone list so that no one goes missing. Designate meals as gathering time. And if you’re heading off on a cruise, consider bringing walkie-talkies for free and easy communication.
Number the Days
The purpose of a reunion is to be together without destroying convivial kinship, so no need to overdo it. A weekend might feel just right.
Keep Them Busy
If togetherness is the priority, come up with activities that both 7- and 75-year-olds can enjoy. Pack board games—Apples to Apples ($25 at amazon.com) is great for groups— and rediscover charades. Who will ever forget the time Grandma got down on all fours and pretended to be a pig?
Save the Memories
After the festivities, get snap-happy relatives to post images on a photo-sharing site, such as shutterfly.com, from which everyone can order prints. And for the ultimate souvenir, assemble standout shots into printed and bound photo flip books, available at mac.com and snapfish.com for about $5 each. Mail them to all the relatives, and you’ll be the hero of your reunion.