Vacations for lesbian, gay families

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Gays and lesbians may be integrating into the mainstream like never before, but when it comes to travel, they may want to seek a place where they can relax and "be gay," fearlessly and with unbridled enthusiasm.

That becomes even more challenging if children are involved.

While unbridled gay enthusiasm might not be appreciated at vacation spots traditionally catering to straight clientele, noisy youngsters aren't always appreciated at gay resort destinations where partying does not mean an appearance by Barney.

About 2.6 million lesbian and gay households in the U.S. now include children, but the growing legion of alternative families may still feel displaced from the gay and straight worlds.

Now a spate of upstart and reinvigorated travel outfits are tailoring vacations to this new niche-within-a-niche.

"It's a human impulse to want to associate yourself with folks who are like you," Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, based in San Francisco, said in a poolside interview during a weeklong gay family gathering last fall at a Club Med Sandpiper in Florida.

Having gay parents in a heterosexual habitat "can be anxiety-provoking for older children," said Amy Erret, chief executive of Olivia Cruises and Resorts, an Oakland-based lesbian travel company.

"They're afraid of kids in the pool asking, 'Where is your dad?' Or 'Why do you have two dads? That's weird!'

"They don't really want to get into a heavy conversation at 5 years old," said Erret, who brought her partner, Claire, and their then 8-month-old daughter to Club Med. "They just want to play and have a good time and be accepted for who they are."

The "gaby boom" has meant the birth of a brand new marketing sector. The travel industry has already discovered that American gays and lesbians are big spenders, representing a $54.1-billion travel market. Now they're discovering that where there's a gay parent, there's very likely a grandparent or two who want to spend quality time with their grandkids.

Two companies are competing for those families. Olivia Cruises and Resorts, founded in the '70s as a women's music label, has recently introduced Kids & Family, its brand for gay women and men with kids. Its Florida Club Med vacation was the first of its kind.

The company plans to offer this week annually, calling it "Club Olivia." The next will be Oct. 9-16, again at the Sandpiper, Port Saint Lucie, Fla. Room rates begin at $1,199 for adults plus $99 and up for the kids, depending on the age.

For information: (800) 631-6277 or (510) 655-0364, http://www.olivia.com/family/index.html .

In the other corner, Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter-O'Donnell are launching their new venture, R Family Vacations, which is scheduled to have its inaugural cruise in June aboard the Norwegian Dawn, chartered for exclusive use by R Family. This 2,224-passenger cruise ship is to sail on a seven-day trip from New York to the Bahamas on July 11.

Prices begin at $999 per person for a double-occupancy inside stateroom.

For information: (866) R-FAM-VAC (732-6822), http://www.rfamilyvacations.com .

Both companies also plan shorter trips with destinations that will appeal to active, outdoorsy families.

Olivia has partnered with Backroads, a tour group that takes the "roughing it" out of camping and wilderness expeditions. Trips include a camping trip to Yellowstone (good for those with older kids). Parents with younger children might gravitate toward scenic days at Bryce, Zion and the Grand canyons and evenings enhanced by the pampered living of plush inns and resorts.

R Family Vacations intends to build a menu of products including a family ski weekend, summer trips to Europe with teachers as tour guides and cruises to Alaska and New England. Watch its website or call for forthcoming information.

What began as a youth group for kids of gays and lesbians 18 years ago became Camp Lavender Hill in 1992. Situated near Nevada City, Nev., this summer camp is for 7- to 13-year-olds and is led by counselors who were raised by gay parents. The dates this year are July 10-17 and the cost is $495 per person.

For information: (707) 544-8150, http://www.camplavenderhill.org .

For families who prefer outdoor living to living large, there are also a few California camps for kids and their grown-ups.

Camp It Up, which has been entertaining young and old campers for 15 summers, will offer three-, four- and seven-night options Aug. 8 to 15 at the Oakland Feather River Camp in the Sierra Gold Country.

Activities include music, drama, arts and crafts, sports, Afro-Cuban drumming and splashing about in Spanish Creek. The sliding scale fee includes dining services that offer vegan options and after-dinner activities for kids so parents can eat in peace. Nightly rates for adults are $61-$81, with rates descending according to a child's age.

For information: Jill Rose, (510) 336-0383.

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Family Services Program holds a March 26-28 event called Rainbow Family Camp in conjunction with Camp de Benneville Pines, owned and operated by the Pacific Southwest District of the Unitarian-Universalist Assn.

Gay parents, their kids and their "allies" bed down in rustic cabins in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The cost is $110 for adults, $75 for teens, $30 for kids over 2.

For information: (323) 860-7397, http://www.uucamp.org/rainbowfamily/rfcrevised0401.pdf .

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