Travel

Kiss Zoom Holidays Goodbye-It’s Time for the Revenge Family Reunion

So many wonderfully awkward hugs in store.

Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist | Photos courtesy of the Arty and Frost families
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist | Photos courtesy of the Arty and Frost families
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist | Photos courtesy of the Arty and Frost families

The Canceled Family Reunions of the Pandemic™ were painful. Fire halls and picnic shelters across the country sat empty, just waiting to witness an awkward conversation between Boomer relatives and their Gen Z descendants. Deposits were lost. Casseroles went unbaked. And, devastatingly, loved ones passed away without a chance to see their extended relatives again. The pandemic took many things from us, but time with family was one of the most poignant losses.

Enter the revenge family reunion.

Once able to gather again, families have taken things up a notch. They were stuck at home, apart, and they are over it-and they’re going all out to make up for the lost time. Blowout cruises, swanky hotels, and luxe all-inclusive resorts are taking centre stage for rescheduled family reunions now that most families feel safe travelling again.

That’s what motivated the Arty family of Long Island to plan not one, but two destination family reunions. Frantz and Jamie Arty weathered the height of the pandemic at home with their three kids and Frantz’s parents, who live with them. They lost their grandfather when Fratnz’s dad died of COVID in the spring of 2020. The loss forced them to reevaluate the time they spend together and how they make memories. Once it felt safe, they booked large, lavish multi-generational family trips to both Jamaica and Disney World. “I think before the pandemic, we would’ve never spent the amount of money we did,” says Jamie, “but because we did lose a family member to COVID, it kind of was like, ‘You know, if you don’t enjoy it now, you might not ever.'”

Photo courtesy of the Arty family
Photo courtesy of the Arty family
Photo courtesy of the Arty family

While other families did not personally experience a death due to COVID, the highly possible fear was a driving force that made many wonder about future chances to convene again. For the Frost family of Cincinnati, the pause in travel felt like a race against time for aging relatives. Uncertainty about travel and differing views about the pandemic made getting their extended family together tricky, but things finally felt better to everyone by the summer of 2022. The entire family gathered from two countries across thousands of miles in British Columbia for their matriarch’s 90th birthday.

“I honestly wasn’t sure, during the pandemic, that a get-together like this would ever happen again, especially not during my grandmother’s lifetime,” says Alexandra Frost. “She met two of my four children she’d never seen before, folded beach towels with me, and reminisced about decades past, and had the time of her life.” For Frost, the trip felt like the unofficial conclusion to the worst parts of the pandemic. “We were able to get back to normal in so many ways, making everyone appreciate it much more than we would have five years ago.”

These splashy reunions aren’t an anomaly-in fact, they are fast becoming the norm. Travel industry experts have been inundated with booking requests for multigenerational events. While data is still emerging, the evidence is clear. At the Kimpton Banneker Hotel in Washington, D.C., Dennis Hernandez is navigating a slew of events that highlight this trend. As the director of marketing and sales, he hears guests express a pent-up demand for togetherness and celebration that seems unlikely to ebb soon, if ever. “Without leaning into that almighty crystal ball, I’d say based on my conversations-and given what the world experienced over the past 36-plus months-family reunions are healing,” says Hernandez. “It’s a great celebratory way to reconnect with everyone, make memories, and an opportunity to share family cultures and traditions while exploring new destinations.”

His guests are requesting the Banneker’s boardroom as a hospitality space for shared meals, as multiple generations reserve blocks of hotel rooms. They’re springing for the suites, too. The Banneker provides kid scooters and adult bikes, freezers that can be delivered to guest rooms that maintain breast milk at the correct temperature (which a regular mini-fridge can’t do), and is walkable to all the history the capital has to offer. Adapting their corporate meeting areas for elaborate family reunions fits their ethos, says Hernandez.

Photo courtesy of Hawk's Cay Resort
Photo courtesy of Hawk’s Cay Resort
Photo courtesy of Hawk’s Cay Resort

It’s not just metropolitan hotels that are adapting to the rise in multigenerational travel. At Hawk’s Cay resort in the Florida Keys, families are booking up to eight townhouses at the seaside resort for large multigenerational gatherings, says vice president and managing director Sheldon Suga. Large family trips were rescheduled along with a large crop of new family bookings-and most of those include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. These large groups love all a resort setting has to offer without ever leaving the premises.

“The appeal of Hawks Cay for family reunion groups is that the resort offers a variety of activities and experiences for everyone right on property,” says Sheldon Suga, VP managing director of the resort. “So these groups tend to engage in general resort activities without requesting anything out of the ordinary.” There are a handful of restaurants at Hawk’s Cay, boxed lunches for excursions, and Publix delivers directly to guests’ doorsteps. The want for a major “do over” is obvious not just from the hotel perspective. Travel agents Jennifer Novotny and Elizabeth Henn have decades of experience booking family trips at the travel agencies they run. After all, families have always loved to travel together-but it’s now taken on new meaning for their clients in a post-pandemic world. This growing trend has created a few unique challenges, though the industry is ready to meet these changes.

Novotny says she has had to work harder to ensure a family’s trip is a magical experience. “It does require that we handle the booking a bit differently,” she explains. “It takes a bit more legwork to triple check things on the backend.” Securing rooms near each other or finding spaces able to accommodate such large groups can be tricky, but her clients are undeterred. “One family had a long weekend reunion cancelled,” Novotny continues. “They rescheduled an entire week at a theme park.” She has long-standing relationships with many clients and is overjoyed to see them finally able to gather again.

When Henn looks at her data for theme park bookings in 2022, the rise in lavish trips is clear to her. Prior to 2020, a family of four at Walt Disney World cost around $4,000 for a four-day trip including tickets, meals, and lodging. That same trip now costs about $6,000, which Henn describes as a good value at a moderately priced resort. She’s finding that’s not what families want for their multigenerational trips in 2022 and beyond, though. “Our agency is predominantly booking deluxe resorts, where the rooms alone are averaging $700 to $900 per night, many times even more,” she says.”If anything positive can come from it, it would be that we all cherish time with our loved ones,” says Henn. “That’s why I think even with the recession, travel will still be a priority. People may start scaling back a bit with the added amenities, top accommodations, and VIP experiences, but they still are going to want to vacation and make memories together.”

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Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. Find more of her work at www.megstesprit.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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