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Great Getaways - At Home

The most underrated family vacation spot is much closer than you might think. Surprise! It's your own home. But can you really reap the benefits of a "getaway" without leaving town, and will your kids actually have fun? The answer is unequivocally yes. A family trip is less about temporarily changing your address and more about temporarily changing your attitude. And let's face it: It's a whole lot cheaper and easier to arrange. How to do it:

Create a vacation home

Of course, it's not a true escape if you simply let life at home continue as normal. "You have to approach your holiday just like any other person getting ready for a trip," says Meghan Gurdon, a Washington, DC, mother of four children   -- ages 9, 7, 4, and 2  -- who decided, after a few trying journeys, that traveling with little ones could be more troublesome than relaxing. Gurdon, who works at home as a writer, says she "plans to do nothing" while she's "gone." Between shedding job responsibilities, having her husband home to help with the kids, and no mommy shuttle service to lessons, practices, or playdates, there's a "kind of tranquillity in the house," she says. "I love having the luxury of time that's unspoken for." With no other pressing demands on her, Gurdon even finds herself looking forward to doing some things she usually considers chores  -- like exercising.

Other ideas home-vacationers swear by:

? Eat out every night or bring in takeout.

? Serve all meals on picnic ware (no dishes to do!).

? Let the laundry pile up; it'll wait until you "return."

? Let the answering machine take your calls and hold the mail; pull the plug on the computer.

? Avoid running errands; stock the house with food and vacation supplies (DVDs, games, books, etc.) beforehand.

Plan To Be Tourists

Howard Rosenstein grew up in New Jersey, works in Manhattan, and lives about 30 minutes from the city. But he'd never visited the Bronx Zoo until his oldest son, then 6 (his other kids were 3 and 3 months at the time), put it on their itinerary for their New York City vacation three years ago. Just walking the streets with his family gave him a different view of the metropolis he sees every day. "It really made me pause and take it all in," he says.

Discovering the joys of your own neighborhood can be a lasting benefit of the hometown vacation. Leslie Garrison learned this by accident when Hurricane Isabel knocked out power and phone service to her Virginia Beach home for more than a week. She and her husband and their 1-year-old daughter stayed at a nearby seaside hotel and read tourist books and brochures. "We ended up doing all these things I either never knew existed or never thought to try, like dolphin watching, visiting little museums, and eating in restaurants off our usual radar." Her family's now planning another local vacation. "It took an unexpected clearing out of life's daily clutter to get us to appreciate the fun stuff to do right here," she says.

To become a savvy local tourist, tap into the same resources that an out-of-towner would:

? Visit your state's website to find out what's being marketed to tourists. Often, seasonal events are planned  -- things you can't do just any old day of the week.

? Search the Internet and phone book to find local activities or attractions your kids would enjoy: cave tours, carousel rides, hot springs, or horseback riding.

? Think outside the box. ask.

Remember that while vacationers often feel obligated to check off activities like items on a to-do list, you don't have to. If you avoid a we've-got-to-see-it mindset, you may appreciate the things you do even more.

Think Like a Child

During one day of their New York vacation, the Rosensteins skipped the city and spent a day at a local mall following their kids around, rather than vice versa. "We let them lead us into FAO Schwarz and other stores they liked," says Rosenstein. "Usually it's 'You just sit here while Mommy tries on shoes.' This was a big treat for them."

Scaling down activities to your kids' tastes, ages, and sense of time is what an at-home vacation is all about. If your children are at wildly different stages of development  -- say, a baby and a 4-year-old, or a toddler and a first-grader  -- an at-home adventure lets you customize your outings by age, much harder logistically on a traditional vacation or day to day. For instance, a baby can sit in the park with Dad and stare at the public fountain while your first-grader takes all the time in the world gazing at the dinosaur bones in the nearby museum with you. When it's naptime for your infant, your husband can sit outside with her while she snoozes in her stroller, or even take her home.

To get into a kid's frame of mind when you plan your vacation, ask yourself:

? What often gets pushed to the side by the demands of everyday life? Perhaps you can actually stop for longer than a second at all the things your preschooler wants to see, such as the lobsters in the tank at a seafood market.

? Where do you typically spend most of your time? If your family is usually at work, daycare, school, or lessons, devote large parts of the day simply to staying home. Kids love their house, their yard, and their toys but often lack the time to enjoy them.

? What can we do to spice up our surroundings? Buying a few fun items that you remember from your own childhood can add extra magic to your home: a hammock, an outdoor fire pit, an old-fashioned crank ice cream maker  -- or something silly like stilts or pogo sticks.

Have A Sleepover

For reasons understood only by them, kids love to sleep in different places. A night at a local motel or hotel, particularly if it has a pool, can be a great mini-vacation on its own or a wonderful addition to a weeklong home getaway. After all, how often do kids get to snuggle all together as a family under the covers, watch pay-per-view in bed, and order up room service?

An overnight can be a great break for you too: "We book adjoining rooms at a hotel with friends who have kids around the same age as ours," says Garrison. "Then we just stay put: There's no hassling with car seats, we don't have to worry about interrupting nap schedules, and there are always enough adults to take turns watching the kids in the pool or in the room."

Sleeping outside is another kid-size thrill with added benefits for Mom and Dad. "We set up a tent in the yard and cooked on a bonfire at night," says Wendy Wilkins, a mom of four  -- ages 10, 8, 3, and 10 months  -- in Ainsworth, Nebraska. "It kept our house mess-free, and the kids still talk about it."

Get real about your goals

Embark on a vacation at home with a clear idea of what you want out of your days off and what you'd really like your kids to remember after it's over. Your trip probably isn't going to give you bragging rights at the watercooler or the playground, but if you're looking to create warm and lasting memories, the vacation where your kids got to go to the local zoo and spend as long as they wanted watching the penguins, or the weekend when everyone simply read books in the hammock, may figure larger and longer than a trip to an amusement park. Says Howard Rosenstein: "We took the kids to Vermont for four days last Christmas, but all they talk about is the night we spent at the hotel ten minutes from home."

Barbara Rowley is the author of Baby Days and a contributing editor to Parenting.

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