AAH ... the blessed sunshine, the white sand beach that stretches for 12 miles, the happy parents and giggling kids building sandcastles and playing.
That's right. It may be mid-January but Turks and Caicos' famous Grace Bay Beach is packed with families, most with younger children, including many toddlers, babies and preschoolers, who especially enjoy the calm waters.
"When we were in Hawaii, the water was too rough for them to go in," said Shelly Chrenik, as she watched her two young kids and niece and nephew, all six and younger, happily play in the clear, blue water protected by the reef that surrounds the island, all of them glad to be out of the cold winter, at least for a few days.
Some families were staying at condo resorts that line the beach, like the 53-unit Somerset we'd chosen for a girlfriends' getaway (loved the yoga on the beach). Come in February and get 25 percent off a five-night stay. A tip: Book the one-bedroom Garden View Villa that has a "bonus" room, ideal for a kids' bedroom.
Most hotels here are condo-style and kid-friendly. The Somerset boasts oversized units, offers complimentary Wi-Fi, continental breakfast and kids' activities led by a certified teacher, even if there is only one child present, free sand toys and non-motorized water sports. At The Sands nearby kids love the lazy river and we loved the beach-front Hemingway's restaurant (their conch fritters, chowder and empanadas are famous here). Most visiting families, however, opt for the gargantuan, all-inclusive Beaches resort, one of Sandals' family resorts in the Caribbean.
During the post-holiday week I recently spent on the island, the 700-plus room Beaches resort was sold out, with more than 840 kids in house -- nearly a third of the resort's guests. They were flying down the waterslides at the Pirate's Island, doing crafts with recycled plastic bottles in the garden, floating in the resort's 10 pools, grabbing a hot dog from one of the roaming carts or a burger from Bobby D's diner, one of 19 restaurants.
"I'm not an all-inclusive kind of girl," said Kendra Schick, here from Canada with her husband, two young kids and his brother's family, as the four kids played on the beach. (Schick laughed that despite all the dining and drinking options all she'd had that day was an orange.) Nor was she planning to take advantage of the morning-till-night kids' activities, though Beaches is known for their first-rate facilities and programming starting with infant and toddler day care and including a 10-year partnership with "Sesame Street," which means daily "Sesame" parades, breakfast with Elmo and other Caribbean Adventures with "Sesame Street."
In fact, many parents I met who were paying a premium for those amenities said they didn't expect to use the organized programs at all -- this when a vacation for a family of four starts at nearly $6,000 a week and can easily cost considerably more: The resort's four-bedroom villas, complete with butler service and popular with multi-gen groups, start at nearly $27,000 a week for four adults and two kids.
"I just wouldn't be comfortable," said Marcy Kane, here from suburban Chicago with her husband, Mike, and 3-year-old daughter, Kelly. "We came to be here on vacation as a family; seeing her happy makes me happy."
The Vogels, from Baltimore, Md., opined that they had considered a condo as they were traveling with extended family and didn't plan to use the organized activities, but in the end opted for Beaches--for a second year in a row -- because they didn't want to think about organizing meals or activities. The butler did all that!
The food may not be five-star, Greg Vogel said, but by opting for a villa with butler service, "it is completely stress-free." And there are all the activities to choose from, from the nine waterslides to scuba to nightly entertainment.
I guess it all depends on your vacation style -- and your budget. Certainly a condo can be significantly cheaper. (Starting rates at the Sands in a one-bedroom unit is $475 a night.) Maybe your family is like mine, where cooking together is a fun vacation activity, after sailing, snorkeling or diving.
Maybe you don't want to pay for drinks you won't drink or food you won't eat, no matter how many choices you're given. "I don't want to be at a resort where you don't leave," explained Anna Greenberg, from Connecticut, who got married here on the island and now is back with her family. "Part of the experience is to explore," she said.
Maybe you don't like crowds, though even sold-out the expansive resort doesn't seem crowded. "It was overwhelming for me, like being on a big cruise ship on land," said Melinda George, who tried Beaches before opting to buy a condo here because she loved the island so much. George visits often from Memphis and this time returned with her daughters, daughter-in-law and three young grandchildren.
This was my third visit to Turks & Caicos, which is comprised of 40 islands and cays and located just 575 miles from Miami, Fla., and wherever you choose to stay, there are a lot of pluses, whether you're visiting with your family or with your girlfriends. Turks & Caicos is easy to reach. (We flew nonstop on Jet Blue, www.jetblue.com, from NYC, less than four hours.) It's safe; it's a British Crown Colony. No one bothers you on the beach. (Read my trip diaries about my visit here.).
Turks & Caicos is famous for its reef -- the third largest in the world -- diving, snorkeling, fishing (try bonefishing) and a growing kite-boarding scene. Walk up the beach to a protected marine sanctuary to snorkel, or just try a new restaurant. (We especially enjoyed the festive beach barbecue at the Somerset one night and Caribbean lobster at the year-old Beach House Turks & Caicos. Head out on a snorkeling trip or a sunset sail like we did with Ocean Vibes.
Adventurous families may find their way to the brand-new Blue Haven Resort and Marina on the leeward side of Providenciales for the weekly pig roast, the chance to kayak in the Mangroves (check out the turtles!) or to explore neighboring North and Middle Caicos.
That's if you can get the kids off the beach. Good luck!
Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando, LA and Chicago. Coming later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver.