A family rafting vacation

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

All of Martha Seaberg’s friends thought she was nuts to go on a whitewater rafting trip at age 76.


The rapids … the camping … the outhouses!


“But I didn’t care,” said the Long Island, N.Y., grandmother. “I had my whole family together and we had a wonderful time.”


The 16 of them — including her children, children’s spouses and grandchildren — spent a memorable week rafting the Snake River last summer with ROW Adventures (www.rowadventures.com/). “I could have taken them all to a resort,” said Seaberg. “But it wouldn’t have been the same. When the grandkids get older, you’ve got to up the adventure quotient to get them to come. This was exciting for everyone.”


Upping the adventure quotient is exactly what a growing number of well-heeled and fit grandparents are doing to gather their far-flung progeny. They’re sailing in the British Virgin Islands, hiking in Yellowstone, exploring Costa Rican rain forests, bird-watching in the Galapagos Islands, heading to Africa on safari, fishing in Alaska and even studying marine biology in Virginia, typically picking up most of the tab. “I’d rather do this than buy a new car,” said Irene Miller, who took her whole family on a guided trip to Yellowstone National Park last summer to celebrate her 75th birthday.


Some grandparents opt to leave their children behind so they can focus on the grandkids. Ellen and Everett Long take just their grandchildren on Elderhostel trips designed for grandparents and grandchildren (www.elderhostel.com). In one case, they studied marine science in Virginia and in another they toured San Diego. “You don’t usually get that one-on-one experience with them,” explained Ellen Long. “We had the opportunity to get to know our grandchildren much better.”


Despite the economy, Elderhostel (www.roadscholar.org) reports that its intergenerational trips — they now offer more than 200 — not only are among the organization’s most popular but they definitely have become more active.


Steve Markle, spokesman for the adventure company OARS (www.oars.com), said they’d hosted 100 multigenerational trips last year — a company record.


I’ve certainly met many multigenerational families on cruise ships, in Orlando’s theme parks, at beach and mountain resorts all seeking that all-to-elusive family time and the memories, hopefully, that will result. But it’s the number of active seniors opting to share bona fide adventures with their children and grandchildren that are changing the way we think of family vacations. Companies like Tauck Tours (http://family-travel.tauck.com) and Abercrombie and Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com) that once catered mostly to seniors now have entire divisions specializing in family trips that will keep everyone as active as they like.


“There’s a lot of pent-up desire from those who put off travel for a few years,” observes Abercrombie & Kent’s Suzanne Teng, who oversees their extensive family program for the North American market. She notes that the Galapagos Islands, Egypt and Africa are very popular with these groups, many of which are celebrating a special birthday or anniversary.


Other adventure outfitters like Austin-Lehman (www.austinlehman.com) and Thomson Family Adventures (www.familyadventures.com) report active grandparents spearheading trips that most of their parents would never have considered.


Ed Wilson, a Knoxville, Tenn., grandfather, spent Thanksgiving with his children and grandchildren sailing at the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands (www.beyc.com), which is known for its extensive fleet. He joked that grandparents need to grab that window of opportunity when, “You are old enough to be able to afford such trips and young enough to be able to enjoy them.” One day at the resort, he added proudly, they used five different boats.


An 80-year-old grandfather reported he “did everything the kids did,” on an adventure trip to Panama. And Al Newman, 69, who rafted the Salmon River with his grandchildren, is already thinking about where to take them rafting next.


“At my mom’s age, my grandmother was a little old lady,” laughed Martha Seaberg’s daughter Valerie who lives in Wyoming. “My mother isn’t a little old lady.”


She and her mom agree that these annual trips her mother funds keep the far-flung family much closer than they’d be otherwise. “We walk away feeling really tight,” after having shared an adventure, explained Valerie Seaberg.


That’s the idea, of course. “It’s so good for the kids to be together,” said Irene Miller, a Connecticut artist, whose children and grandchildren live far apart. Not everyone gets along all the time,” Miller acknowledges. “A trip like this pulls everyone together.” The grandparents happily hiked, kayaked and paddle boated, but left the cycling to their children and grandchildren. “It was a great way to celebrate,” she said.


But certainly not cheap — tens of thousands of dollars for an entire group — especially when families opt for guided trips so grandparents don’t have to sweat any of the details. “The idea is to get together and not have to make any decisions,” said Miller. Another plus: the guides not only help entertain the kids but can arrange activities to suit every age group.


The key to a successful multigenerational trip is planning smart. “Cater to the youngest and oldest,” suggests Suzanne Teng. Besides price, of course, you need to consider the mobility of the seniors, as well as the attention span and interests of the grandchildren. A tip if you are planning with tweens in mind: The more involved they are in the planning, the more vested they’ll be in the trip.


Grandparents like Martha Seaberg think its money well spent.


“My husband and I worked very hard all our lives,” she said. “I want my children to enjoy the fruits of our labor while I’m still here!”