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Tips from the Country's Best Family Travel Agents

Summer 2004's Featured Agent: Samantha McClure of Small World Travel, Austin, Texas; 512/495-9495; sam@smallworldtraveler.com.

Ever since her parents got her a passport, when she was one month old, Samantha McClure has been out seeing the world. Stateside, she's lived in Seattle, Miami, Boston, New York, and Houston; she's also hung her hat in Belgium, the Philippines, and London. Travel, not surprisingly, has figured prominently in her personal life: she met her future husband, Tim, on a business trip to Florida when she was an advertising executive for a Manhattan firm. The couple now live in Austin, Texas, where Samantha runs Small World Travel and Tim is a partner in an ad agency. Wanderlust is clearly an inheritable trait: their two children, Madison, nine, and Ian, eight, hope to visit all seven continents before turning 12, and they're each more than halfway there-their life lists already include a cycling tour of France, a South African safari, a visit to the Gal√°pagos Islands, and a Christmas cruise through Antarctica. Of course, it helps to have a mother in the travel business. Samantha's now five-year-old agency developed from her hobby of planning elaborate vacations for family and friends. Small World deals exclusively in custom multi-generational outings, from ancestral-heritage journeys to safaris. "I push families to travel beyond their borders and experience how other people live," she says. "We orchestrate the details, and someone in my office is always on call so that families can contact us all along the way."
Here, Samantha's tips, top spots, and her own family travel nightmare:

Favorite Hawaiian Resort "I love the Manele Bay Hotel on Lanai. The beach on Hulopoe Bay is considered one of the most beautiful in the world, and the island itself is still very remote-accessible only by two local airlines or by ferry from Maui. Along with fantastic golfing, fishing, and spa amenities for adults, the hotel offers a children's program with terrific outdoor activities-kids use handmade bamboo rods to fish in tide pools, or collect exotic flowers and create their own leis. Families can settle in for ten days assured that they'll never be bored." (www.manelebayhotel.com)

Family Reunion "Dude ranches are perfect for family gatherings: they're all-inclusive and have so many outdoor activities that you don't even have to ride a horse if you don't want to. Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana has an outstanding children's program with something for every age group-hiking, riding, fishing, canoeing. Lots of people have reunions on cruises, but I like ranches-there's less potential for claustrophobia. (www.averills.com)

Orlando Alternatives "I think the Disney hotels are all great, but staying at Universal Studios is a little more manageable. Portofino Bay Hotel is one of the best properties; it provides transportation to Universal's parks and offers a pass that allows families to skip to the front of the line. I also encourage people to visit Discovery Cove, a separate part of Sea World where you can snorkel in lagoons stocked with tropical fish and swim with dolphins. It's a great way to teach your children how to snorkel before taking an island vacation. Note that reservations are required and that this is more expensive than most Orlando options, but worth it." (www.loewshotels.com/hotels/orlando_portofino_bay; www.discoverycove.com)

The Best Christmas Trip "Fiji is a great place for the holidays. The locals welcome guests to their holiday feasts-they prepare roast pig and seafood dishes in an earth oven called a lovo, and there's elaborate singing and dancing. The Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort is well set up for families. The resort's two-bedroom thatched bungalows sleep five; there's a kids'-only swimming pool, and nannies are on call throughout the day. My own kids loved the Bula Club, where children snorkel, kayak, watch crab races, and learn Fijian arts and crafts, such as fish painting. (www.fijiresort.com)

Undiscovered-Beach Vacation: "Belize is still one of the more unknown and unexpected seaside destinations that's great for families with slightly older children. It offers fabulous snorkeling and an extremely laid-back (and English-speaking) culture. The Victoria House is a beautiful small hotel that is very accommodating to families. Many of its 35 rooms are adjoining, and all have a view of the Caribbean. From there you can take a day trip inland to explore the jungle and some Mayan temple ruins, so you get a nice mixture of history and sun." (www.victoria-house.com)

A Great Winter Getaway "Because they live in the South, a lot of my clients look for a weather change to put them in the winter spirit. I love sending them to London; it is not a touristy time of year there, so there aren't the crowds, and airfare rates are lower. Kids love the London Eye, the enclosed Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebration. And they can see more Egyptian art in the British Museum than in Egypt."

The Caribbean for Teens "Teens love the freedom they get at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. They can cruise around in golf carts, play volleyball on the beach, and charge snacks and activities to their hotel ID card. The resort also has excellent tween, children's, and toddler programs and terrific family activities, such as merengue dancing, donkey polo, and scavenger hunts." (www.casadcampo.com)

Together Again "I'm seeing a trend away from family vacations in which parents and children have their own programs. These days people want to spend time with each other. The top three tour companies I work with are Backroads, Abercrombie & Kent, and Lindblad Expeditions. All three offer active trips that include an ideal mix of adult- and child-style fun and quality time together." (www.backroadsvacationguide.com; www.abercrombiekent.com; www.lindblad.com)

The Annual Mother-Daughter Outing "Every year Madison and I travel to a new city with four other mothers and their daughters. The group took its first trip when the girls were in first grade, and we all had so much fun that we decided to make it a yearly event. So far we've visited New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago, and this year we're heading to Washington, D.C. I plan everything in advance-the shows we'll see, the restaurants we'll want to hit. We always stay at a Ritz-Carlton (yes, our girls are completely spoiled, and now so are we). And I always book suites for us on the club floor, which gives us a common meeting place where we can have snacks and tea at all hours. It's really interesting to watch the girls grow over time. Now I have to incorporate shopping excursions into our trips." (www.ritzcarlton.com)

It Happens, Even to the Pros One spring break, we rented a castle in Ballymore, Ireland, for two weeks. Heavenly, you might think, but within the first few days we all came down with a horrible twenty-four-hour bug. When we heard that the previous guests had also been sick, we realized that the castle hadn't been properly cleaned before our arrival. So we got out a map and began a new trip, staying at bed-and-breakfasts throughout the countryside. We started in Shannon and moved on to the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry, Kinsale, Dublin, and Cork. It wasn't the trip we had planned (we certainly hadn't intended to cover the whole country) but a huge part of traveling is learning to be flexible."

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