Getting the family vacation right

Getting the family vacation right

Wikimedia commons
Wikimedia commons

Two years ago, I saw a charming country resort featured in a Twitter post, and immediately fantasized about gathering my far-flung family there.

Something about window boxes blooming with cheery geraniums, wood-hewn balconies, and a grape arbor terrace felt like the perfect getaway for three generations of city-dwelling Danailovas. It was set in the Balkan Mountain Range, which divides the sunbaked fields of Bulgarian Thrace from the muddy Danubian Plain.

I pictured our children — Zelda, 4, and her cousins Sophia, also 4, and 8-year-old Henry — frolicking on the resort’s wide green lawn, surrounded by the apple orchards I saw online.

I envisioned us all splashing in and out of the pools — one of which looked perfect for floatie-wearing almost-swimmers — and lounging on the terrace, shaded by grapevines hanging with late-summer fruit. I imagined the morning view from those balconies over the snow-capped peaks of what Bulgarians call the Stara Planina, the ancient mountain.

This past August, I made it happen. We all had a wonderful time: The children improvised games of tag and ball and chased butterflies, while the grown-ups savored beer and fresh salads, cooled by the alpine breeze. It felt, honestly, like a miracle.

“The best holiday ever,” was Henry’s verdict, to my immense pleasure.

As we start a new year, my resolution for 5779 is to learn from what we got right in 5778 — a family vacation everyone truly, miraculously enjoyed — and to share some tips so other families can travel better together, too.

Money is a huge issue, so budget is necessarily the starting point. Our solution was to stick with a part of the world where everyone’s currency (euros, dollars, pounds) went a long way. Rooms at the resort, which was as lovely in person as in the Twitter photo, cost just $50 a night; food and drink were correspondingly cheap by Western standards.

It sounds self-evident, but you’d be amazed how relaxed families get when nobody’s worrying about the bill. Lake Como is arguably more spectacular than the Balkan Range, but parents have more fun when everyone gets his or her own room…and when a round of drinks doesn’t cost as much as a tank of gas.

Of course, nobody goes anywhere unless someone takes charge; in my clan, unsurprisingly, I’m the one who makes reservations. A half-dozen grown-ups will never spontaneously arrive at the same inspiration for how to use those precious vacation days and dollars.

And each faction has certain inclinations — as well as outright deal-breakers. Sporty families coalesce around a destination with tennis courts, bike trails, and kayaks. Campgrounds are terrific only if everyone’s on the same page about the Great Outdoors. Cities work best when nobody’s age is in single (or triple) digits.

We’re all writers, artists, and professors, so the family gets plenty of culture; Oggi and I knew our city kids would relish the novelty of lawns, pools, and mountains. And while my Eastern European in-laws are less enchanted by rusticity than the London and New York contingent, they can be persuaded to overlook folkloric décor for fluffy beds and good plumbing.

Indeed, scaling back ambition in favor of comfort was key. We did a quick calculation: Driving to an Aegean or Black Sea beach would require many hot, cramped hours in a car from our collective base in Sofia, plus coastal hotels would cost three times as much as mountain resorts. And beaches might get too sunny for small fry, trapping us in an air-conditioned

So while we’d all separately prefer the shore, the best choice for a three-car caravan was the Bulgarian town of Apriltsi — a two-hour traffic-free drive through wild mountain roads dotted with plum trees and wild roses in bloom.

The rest of the summer was for sizzling-hot beaches, art museums, boutique shopping, and all the other things you can’t easily do with a 70-year spread between oldest and youngest.

In Apriltsi, our entertainment was watching a herd of cattle stroll down the street, peeping at the apiary one field over, drinking cold wine to the peals of laughter as Zelda raced Sophia past a 19th-century well.

There was a leisurely excursion to an art gallery, a revolutionary landmark and a souvenir shop for ceramics, with ice-cream bribery for the youngsters. After dinner, grown-ups took turns upstairs in the children’s bedroom, as our party lingered on the terrace well past dusk.

Will this magical alchemy work again next summer? Who knows? Until then, I’ll remember the crowd-pleasing value of simplicity — and keep an eye out on Twitter.

Hilary Danailova is the travel writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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