When Gina Zembetti got the assignment to write an essay about her favorite place, the high school freshman didn't have to think twice. She picked the spot where she's transformed into a famous and elegant young lady from another era.
"One feels like a princess or movie star in the most elaborate of settings,'' the Northridge, Calif., teen wrote in her essay, voted the best in the class. Gina was describing the famed 692-room Hotel del Coronado, that grand Victorian landmark just over the bridge from San Diego and a fixture on the Pacific Coast since 1888.
Thousands of celebrities -- including the Duke of Windsor (who, legend has it, met Wallis Simpson in the ballroom) to Marilyn Monroe (``Some Like It Hot'' was filmed here) to 14 presidents -- have stayed there. But, Gina wrote in her essay, ``This hotel is a place which makes any person feel so important.''
These days, many vacationing families around the country seem to be seeking that same ambience. Despite a tab that can run several hundred dollars a night, resort managers report that families are flocking to these sprawling historic resorts -- from California's ``Del'' to Colorado's Broadmoor to Georgia's Jekyll Island, West Virginia's Greenbriar, New York's Sagamore and New Hampshire's Balsams and Mount Washington.
``More people are bringing their kids to business meetings too,'' says Patty Henning, a spokesman for Jekyll Island. ``There are just so many times you can go to Club Med or Disney World,'' suggests Tony Guthrie, assistant general manager at the circa-1914 Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod. (Call 800-527-4884).
Parents and grandparents want something more than just a different vacation experience, though. They're taking the children to historic sites in huge numbers, the Travel Industry Association reports, and a stay at a historic hotel is part of that history lesson, explains Mary Billingsley, a spokesman for the Historic Hotels of America division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (For information about the hotels and resorts designated Historic Hotels of America, call 800-678-8946.)
But our busy lives may be what's driving this trend most. ``The baby boomers want to take their kids and step back into a kinder, gentler time,'' says Billingsley.
Gina's stepfather, Los Angeles Fire Captain Steve Ruda, certainly does, even paying upwards of $200 a night. ``When you cross that bridge to the `Del,' you enter a time when families spent a lot of time together doing simple things -- flying kites and riding bikes, just having fun. You don't get that same feeling from Las Vegas or a big theme park.'' (Call the Del at 1-800-HOTEL-DEL.)
For many parents and grandparents, these places also conjure up happy memories of their own childhood vacations. ``I wanted my children and grandchildren to have those same memories too,'' explains Shirley Floyd, a Texan who has been coming to the Broadmoor for the past 50 years. The Broadmoor was so important a part of their family history that for their parents' 60th anniversary, Floyd and her sister wrote a self-published book about their adventures there. These days, Floyd jokes, there's no better place for her grandchildren to practice their manners than at a hotel where they must dress up for dinner.
There's no better place for a mother to relax, even to be pampered a little, I decided after our recent visit to the Mount Washington Hotel and Resort in New Hampshire. The setting, as at all of these resorts, is spectacular: The huge white hotel sits at the top of a hill with vistas of the White Mountains in every direction; the wrap-around verandas are made for watching sunsets from a wicker rocker.
I didn't have to cook a meal or make a bed. And though I worried that my crew wouldn't like getting spiffed up for dinner, they loved every bit of it -- their fancy duds, the elaborate table settings, the leisurely meal, the waiters who fussed over them and even the old-fashioned dance band.
Six-year-old Melanie, who opted to join the kids' program for an early dinner and movie, happily joined us for dessert and dancing. The services at these places are what you'd hope to get at any fancy resort: ever-solicitous staff who can't do enough for you, the chance to unwind with a massage, a round of golf or two sets of tennis, knowing the kids are happily occupied elsewhere.
There are a lot of cheaper places to take the children. We spent nearly $400 a night for our weekend at the Mount Washington, including breakfast and dinner and accommodations in a ``Family Chamber,'' a two-room, one-bath configuration of rooms. But despite the cramped bathroom (our suite was scheduled for renovation, I later learned), we got more than our money's worth. (The Mount Washington is open from mid-May to mid October. The moderately priced Bretton Woods Motor Inn, across the road, includes access to all resort facilities. Call 800-258-0330.) Even the kids were impressed by the sheer natural beauty of the place.
And there was so much to do. My gang stayed too busy horseback riding and making old-fashioned jewelry (the girls), playing golf (my son and husband) swimming (everyone) and exploring the nooks and crannies of the huge place to even fight.
There's the history, of course: The Mount Washington provided fodder for a little economics lesson because in 1944, financiers from around the world came here to the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference, setting the gold standard.
Corny as it sounds, I almost expected to hear a swish of satin as a well-born lady swept into the conservatory and sat down under the crystal chandelier at the grand piano. I imagined all stories these old walls could tell from the early days of this century, when wealthy families arrived for the entire summer, bringing their servants with them.
Today's families may not even spend a week. Some on a tight budget visit one of these resorts for one night or even just for a meal; others simply don't have the time for more than a long weekend getaway.
``Sure, it's a splurge, but we all work hard. Vacations should be a splurge,'' said Steve Ruda, Gina Zembetti's stepfather. ``When the kids look back, they'll remember how much fun they had with Mom and Dad.''
Here are some other wonderful places to time-travel with the kids (all offer children's activities and baby-sitting for the diaper crowd) and get pampered along the way:
-- The Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., surrounded by wilderness, was built in 1869 and is still owned by the same family. Ask about summer children-free packages. Call 800-772-6646.
-- The Sagamore in Bolton Landing, N.Y., is on Lake George in the Adirondacks and was a gathering place for the wealthy millionaires who had mansions nearby. Call 800-678-8946.
-- Jekyll Island Club Hotel is on a barrier island owned by the state of Georgia halfway between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla. Rates here are among the most affordable of these old hotels; fall packages, including breakfast, can be under $150 a night for a family of four. Call 800-841-6586.
-- Skytop Lodge in Skytop, Penn., a stone manor in the Poconos, is set amid the largest wildlife area in the region. There's a resident naturalist. Call 717-595-7401, and ask about the November Edgar Allan Poe weekends and December Charles Dickens weekends.
-- The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., has 700 rooms, 3,000 acres and its own zoo. Call 800-634-7711.
-- The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., is on 6,500 acres in the Allegheny Mountains. The Greenbrier served as a hospital for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Call 304-536-7899.
-- The big pink Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa in St. Pete Beach, Fla., is on seven miles of Gulf of Mexico beach. Teach the kids to sail where F. Scott Fitzgerald partied. Call 800-282-1116.
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate