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Catering to families with children

Child psychologist Vicki Lavigne felt like she'd died and gone to heaven. But she was in Jamaica, with her family.

It wasn't the sunsets or the balmy weather, though they certainly helped. What made Lavigne's vacation the best she'd ever had was the Franklyn D. Resort's expert planning for families.

Lavigne's two sons loved the morning-'til-night children's activities and special children's menus. Lavigne and her husband loved the "Girl Friday" who was assigned to do their bidding for their stay _ babysitting, stocking the fridge in the suite, cleaning up after messy kids.

"You and the kids could be together and apart as much as you liked," recalled Lavigne. "And because everything was all-inclusive, the decisions about what to do and where to eat were taken away. That made it a real vacation."

Even better, since because most of the other guests seemed to have brought kids, the Lavignes didn't have to worry about theirs offending anyone. "Even if a kid threw a tantrum, nobody cared," said Lavigne.

Too often, parents traveling with kids come back from vacation more frazzled than when they've left, feeling as if they've just spent hard-earned dollars for more stress than they get at the office. But now, if you're heading to the Caribbean, that doesn't need to be the case. More resorts than ever _ from chains such as Club Med (phone 800-CLUBMED) and Hyatt (800 233-1234) to individual properties such as the Bitter End Yacht Club (800 872-2392) in the British Virgin Islands _ offer children's programing, babysitting and family rates.

Take your pick: Tennis? Endless beach? Golf? Scuba Diving? Sailing? Camping?

Yes, even camping. Consider Maho Bay (800 392-9004) or Cinnamon Bay (800 223-7637) on St. John, within the boundaries of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. It's beautiful, relatively inexpensive and the park rangers offer some programs for children.

"Every family has different requirements," observes Deborah Baretta. Her San Francisco-based travel agency Rascals in Paradise (800-URASCAL) offers a variety of Caribbean and Mexico trips designed specifically for families _ including Divers with Kids weeks organized so there will be plenty of supervision and children's activities while the parents are off scuba diving.

The Berkeley, Calif., agency Traveling With Children (415 848-0929) can also help customize a family trip.

The Bitter End Yacht Club, known for its sailing operation, offers an extensive youth sailing program and a special Thanksgiving-week package geared to families. Several of the family Club Meds have circus-act training for children. And many groups head to Club Meds for family reunions, or with grandchildren in tow. Chris Murphy-Sargent, for example, traveled with her 8-year-old granddaughter to the Club Med on Eleuthera. While the child was on the trapeze, Chicago resident Murphy-Sargent relaxed on the beach and, "We both had a wonderful time."

All-inclusives, prevalent in the Caribbean, tend to be easy on the checkbook. For instance, you won't pay every time your 8-year-old places an order with a cook, or your teen downs two burgers in the middle of the afternoon, or the 12-year-old wants to take out a sailboat.

Make sure to ask your travel agent to check the deals aimed at families. Club Meds, for example, have lowered their packages 30 percent from last year and are offering many weeks at their family villages, including St. Lucia, Ixtapa and Eleuthera, during which kids under 6 are free and prices are reduced for older children.

At the Franklyn D., (800-654-1FDR), kids under 16 are free. Other Jamaican resorts letting children stay free are the Trelawny Beach Hotel (800 336-1435) and the well-regarded Boscobel Beach (800 858-8009).

Don't underestimate the benefits of this extensive children's programing, even for the preschool set. "The kids won't be happy just staying with a new babysitter. They'll want to be with you unless they can do something really fun, and if it's an organized program, you'll feel better leaving them," explains C. Wayne Jones, a psychologist at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center. He has vacationed in Barbados with his family.

But remember, you know your kids best. They may not want to hit every activity offered. They may want to spend time with you. They may want to do nothing on the beach.

Let them. After all, it's their vacation too.

Today, the Travel section begins a monthly feature devoted to easing one of life's worries: How to travel with children so that everyone enjoys the trip. Eileen Ogintz, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, writes from experience: She takes her three youngsters with her so often that two of them have their own frequent-flyer accounts.