Family Reunion Travel Is Great—but It’s Still Your Family
Sure, there were the usual ups and downs, but the fact it wasn’t over FaceTime meant everything.
I’m not usually one for travel trends. I recently tried a staycation in New York City at a nearby hotel, but ended up checking out a few hours later. It only dawned on me ex post: Why did I want to be 100 blocks from my more comfortable apartment in a small hotel room with two young kids and paying a small fortune?
Full disclosure: For me, travel tied to lifecycle events—having a baby, getting married—always has fallen in the same “forced fun” category as amusement parks, school reunions, New Year’s festivities, and bachelorette parties. The social pressure to enjoy oneself reliably kills the vibe.
If you had asked me pre-COVID about a family-moon, i.e., reunion travel with relatives beyond the nuclear family for the cliché-sounding purpose of “reconnecting,” the verdict would have been a hard pass. But that was before a phase in my life when I didn’t see my mom and stepfather in six months, the longest we’ve ever been apart. But for my kids, who are 3 years and 13 months, it was more like a lifetime. For my son, it was literally half his life. As the months passed, the anticipation built. We planned at least three—maybe four, I lost count—trips for them to come visit us but canceled all of them because it seemed silly for those in an at-risk demographic to travel with the vaccine so clearly coming soon. (The CDC has now greenlit travel for the fully vaccinated and says the risk is low for those in this category.)
By the time my parents’ full vaccination was in sight, the question became: Who wants to reunite in cold, dreary New York City at the end of March?
Sure, the party line is that all that matters is that that we are together, but the reality is more along the lines of, “It’s better to all be together in a warm, sunny destination at a fabulous hotel.” Plus, I wanted my parents to remember why they missed us—a feeling I thought might be harder to conjure in the confines of a Manhattan apartment and where outdoor activities are not as plentiful as they are in places where it’s 80 degrees in late winter.
And if I was going to drag my 83-year-old stepfather on a plane, it had to be someplace worth traveling to during a global pandemic. That is to say: guaranteed good weather, crystal clear water, and top-notch accommodations. Oh, and it needed to be a non-stop flight from both New York City and Washington, D.C. Our choices were limited to one destination: Saint Martin (or Sint Maarten as it’s known on the Dutch side of this Solomonically split island). We decided on the French side, where La Samanna, a breathtaking, extremely family-friendly beachfront hotel, is located.
When my mom got off the plane she whispered: “Don’t talk about the trip here with Allan.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“We had to walk a mile and a half through Dulles airport.” And then I got the sense, reading between the lines, that he almost turned around halfway to the gate. (We are very happy he didn’t.)
But we were reunited and that’s all that mattered, right? Yes, more or less.
In comparison, my one-week beach vacation is quite modest to what others are planning. A group of four women in their seventies are going all in with a three-week safari in Eastern and Southern Africa planned by the travel advisory Scott Dunn USA. John Spence, the agency’s president, said the friends “are going to take a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara, helicopter over one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and sleep under the stars.” According to a customer survey by Virtuoso, a consortium of 400 luxury travel agents, 46 percent reported that they are using travel to reconnect with loved ones.
These hopeful travelers are banking on the fact that absence makes the heart grow fonder and that we all actually do enjoy each other’s presence. My hope for the week was that we would all end the trip still speaking to each other and no one would say something like: “I came all this way for this?!”
With the benefit of hindsight, I’m confident no guest at La Samanna has ever said that. On that note, let me say this about reunion travel: A beautiful setting goes a long way towards creating the right ambiance for reunion. We were all just so grateful to not be looking at the same four walls all day. It didn’t hurt that we had our own pool and a view of the Caribbean.
The first few days were blissful. We immediately all got back into the swing of being together. My mom essentially ran a kids’ club for my 3-year-old, paying endless amounts of beach pong and spending hours and hours in various bodies of water. There wasn’t a lot of extolling how much we had missed each other, but the unspoken sometimes speaks loudest. We were genuinely happy to be back together.
Don’t worry, though, things got real.
Then came an evening where one member of the group declared the repast “the worst dinner I’ve ever been to.” Said person was not referring to the meal we’d eaten at L’Oursin, La Samanna’s gourmet restaurant, rather referencing the emotional squall that had blown in. My mom and I had one of our recurring tiffs, the staple of any close relationship. This was a particularly colorful dustup. In a bizarre, perhaps twisted way, it’s almost comforting to know you can always return to the same fight, even at a luxury hotel on a tropical island. But a fellow family member did not take the same comfort.
The evening ended with said combatants licking their wounds, but what departed from the norm was that the resentment or anger that might have lingered for days dissipated in 12 hours. And the family member who made the “worst dinner” comment later proclaimed it was “the best trip ever” and “the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at.” And this, in a way, is what made COVID reunion travel different from, say, a typical family vacation. After being apart for all these months, there is a yearning and desperation to see loved ones, making grudges and anger less appealing to hang onto. Even if I wanted to be petty, the overriding feeling was that I was too grateful to be with my parents, the center of my world in so many ways. Knowing how easily it is for the people we love and cherish to be taken away from us, even if it’s temporary, was able to tip the scales in favor of gratitude and good will.
And this, perhaps, is why families all over the country are so eager to take these kinds of trips.
Misty Belles, managing director of communications at Virtuoso, told me that one of the agency’s home rental partners, Villas of Distinction, can’t add villas quickly enough because of the demand from large groups of families and friends seeking post-pandemic getaways. (Grandparents, she says, are spearheading a lot of the travel because they are the first people to receive the vaccines.) In a nod to the powerful lure of multigenerational family reunion trips, the Carlisle Bay resort in Antigua is offering a “bring the kids for free” promotion over next winter’s festive season.
So, what gives a reunion travel party the feeling of being happily reunited? For us, it was the less scripted, more improvised moments that brought us back together. I honestly can’t tell you how I accounted for the majority of my hours that week. While we had activities—a hike, a wine tasting, a cooking class for my daughter, some time on the tennis court—the point was to do nothing together. In practice that meant watching my one-year-old son twerk in the pool or having impromptu conversations about World War II. You know, the kind of things that you can’t do over FaceTime, nor would you want to.
While we called it a family-moon, it wasn’t a week of mandatory family bonding. We weren’t all in lockstep all the time. There were no T-shirts. Not everyone came to every meal. We didn’t always rein in what we thought or felt. My kids screamed and cried at inopportune times. When someone asked my mom about the trip, she replied, “It was perfect.” And it really was.