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Come together, right now: Best places for group vacations in the U.S.
Short on time, long on people obligations? Here are some perfect spots for family vacations, reunions and general bonding get-togethers
You're in the United States for two weeks, with endless friends, family and colleague to meet and greet.
What to do? Instead of running around to try to make all your obligations, why not gather everyone in one great spot.
All you’ve got to do is agree on the destination.
Here are seven solid possibilities to get you started.
Sundance Resort, Utah
“In 1969, it started with an idea and $500; this is the place, the place where it all started.” That’s what Robert Redford says about the beautiful 20 square kilometers in the Wasatch Mountains outside Provo, Utah, where he bought a canyon and hung his eco-creative hat.
With the seed money, the Sundance Kid built a great four-season mountain getaway preserve dedicated to enjoying nature at her most spectacular, as well as to promoting environmental conservation and artistic experimentation.
The resort features much more than just fabulous powder in winter (though there’s plenty of that for mostly advanced downhill, cross-country, and snowboarding), and the now-famous Sundance Film Festival (held every January in nearby Salt Lake, Park City, and Ogden).
It’s a year-round mecca for all sorts of pursuits. When it’s not ski season, there’s fly-fishing, boat fishing and mountain biking.
There are activities for all ages, including kids' programs, a spa, the "Art Shack" and events that advance the long-live-storytelling aims of the Sundance Institute, including film series, author series, and full-on productions in an outdoor amphitheater.
We challenge you to name another place where you can throw a pot or learn to silversmith by day, then catch live entertainment in a restored 1890s bar once frequented by Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall gang.
Sundance Resort: Accommodations range from cozy rooms and intimate studios to luxe rustic five-bedroom mountain homes.
8841 North Alpine Loop Road, Sundance, Utah; +1 801 225 4107; www.sundanceresort.com
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a sublime mixture of mountains, rich culture and unhinged tourism.
Groups pursuing natural adventures can hike, fish, zipline through treetops, and raft on the Pigeon River or hit the tourist town.
Entertainment options include Ober Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s only ski resort amusement park (take the aerial tramway from downtown), country music shows, Dollywood and Dollywood Splash theme parks, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and museums dedicated to everything from the Titanic to Elvis.
Plus there's body flight at Flyaway Indoor Skydiving.
Minutes away at Elk Springs Resort, neat and clean cabins nestle for maximum views among four ridges and three valleys, smack-dab in the middle of Gatlinburg’s historic (established in 1937) Arts & Crafts Community.
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Along a historic 13-kilometer loop, artisans whittle, paint, sew, cast, weave, and carve original items, including everything from quilts and candles to baskets and brooms.
Too much to fit in, yes, but dig the shortlist: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (waterfalls and wildflowers, horseback riding and hiking) and Blue Ridge Parkway (the most visited National Scenic Byway, for good reason).
The porch swing offers great views of sunrises and sunsets while fires blaze away inside the cozy cabins.
Elk Springs Resort: 121 cabins sites (one to six bedroom cabins, and “home theater” cabins). Rates vary depending on season and size of cabin. High season (June-October and holidays): $150 to $500-$600 a night depending on cabin size. Low season (January-March); $100 to $400 depending on cabin size.
1088 Powdermill Road, Gatlinburg, Tenn.; +1 866 550 1795; www.elkspringsresort.com
Hocking Hills, Ohio
The Midwest is full of who’d-a-thunk-its, not least of which is Hocking Hills in Ohio’s Allegheny Plateau region.
The deer-rich countryside is beautiful with deep gorges, high cliffs, rock shelters, winding brooks and waterfalls, thanks to a formation called Blackhand Sandstone.
Most of the region’s scenic areas are under state ownership. There's a vast array of places to explore, including Hocking Hills State Park, Hocking State Forest, Conkle’s Hollow State Nature Preserve, Lake Logan State Park and Rockbridge State Nature Preserve.
Not surprisingly, this is prime territory for backpacking and hiking, rock climbing and rappelling, horseback riding, fishing, boating (on Lake Logan) and canoeing.
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What might come as a surprise are the Hocking Hills Gem Mine, Pencil Sharpener Museum, and the Columbus Washboard Factory (tour the place that’s been making washboards since 1895). In the summer, there’s outdoor drama -- Tecumseh!, a production about the legendary Shawnee leader -- at Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheater and historic train rides on the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway.
For an all-adult group, there’s the impeccable Cherry Ridge Retreat, where secluded full-kitchen cabins feature details such as steel barbecue gas grills, artist-designed furniture, boulder fireplaces and Aveda bath products.
Cherry Ridge Retreat: The retreat’s adjacent family-friendly Bourbon Ridge Lodge, which accommodates up to 24 people, is due to open on Memorial Day 2012. Prices range from $300 for cottages (weekend) to $515-$715 (weekend, depending on number of occupants) for the Lake House.
22097 Cherry Ridge Road, New Plymouth, Ohio; +1 740 380 7777; www.cherryridgeretreat.com
Grand Traverse Bay Region, Michigan
The Grand Traverse region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula deserves all the attention it’s finally getting. It's a foodie favorite thanks to chef Mario Batali’s enthusiasm for his adopted home of the Leelanau Peninsula; a movie-buff magnet thanks to Michigander Michael Moore’s July film festival in Traverse City; and a travel darling thanks to "Good Morning America" viewers, who voted Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the Most Beautiful Place in America.
To start a family tradition, make White Birch Lodge on Elk Lake in Elk Rapids your base. Part of the Northern Michigan Chain of Lakes, Elk Lake is scenic like Lake Michigan but much more manageable for watersports.
It’s a lot like summer camp here, with square dances, campfires, basketball, tennis, soccer, shuffleboard, ping-pong, and an enthralling staff watersports show. Shops and golf courses are also nearby.
Although hardly anybody leaves the hotel, there are days’ -- no, entire summers’ -- worth of discovery.
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Sleeping Bear Dunes (take Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive) is stunning, with sand dunes dropping down into Caribbean-colored waters and a viewing deck for front-row sunsets.
The Grand Traverse region's biggest draw is scenery, be it the Mackinac Bridge, tall-ship sailing, lighthouses, coastal villages, sandy swimming and boating lakes or the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Wineries, galleries and restaurants (you can get whitefish and cherry cobbler just about anywhere) abound, and the Old Mission General Store is almost a place of pilgrimage for regular visitors.
But if you do nothing but stay put all week with your posse at White Birch Lodge, you’ll also understand why one reviewer’s kids requested this place over Disney.
White Birch Lodge: Accommodations range from dormlike to basic cabins to well-appointed condos. Rates during summer are weekly, include all meals and activities, and range from $905 to $1,565 per adult; kids three-12 half off, under-three free. Off-summer rates are nightly (no meals or activities).
571 Meguzee Point Road, Elk Rapids, Mich.; +1 231 264 8271; www.whitebirchlodge.org
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Once a playground for the wealthy elite, the historic landmark Jekyll Island Club Hotel is the swanky turreted centerpiece of the Jekyll Island Club Historic District and a tremendously fun place for family and friends to enjoy this unspoiled barrier island off Georgia’s southeastern coast.
Formerly an exclusive hunting club for grand old heavyweights like J.P. Morgan and William Rockefeller and their families and friends, the place eventually hit hard times. It was then snapped up by the state of Georgia and turned into a public state park.
The old glory days are plenty in evidence and easy to imagine as you enjoy a carriage ride, a game of croquet, or a carefree afternoon by the seaside.
To really seize the day, take the kids to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (directly behind the hotel) and the Tidelands Nature Center, go out on a shrimp boat, arrange for a fishing charter, or take a dolphin cruise up the Jekyll River.
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There’s golf (63 holes on-site, including nine oceanside, plus miniature), 16 kilometers of pristine white-sand beach (the hotel has a private pavilion), historic tours (see the Horton House ruins), tennis, swimming, kayaking, strolls on the gorgeous grounds, horseback riding and bike riding (32 kilometers of paved beach and forest trails).
Pack a picnic hamper and head to St. Andrews Beach, favored by diving birds and surfacing dolphins. The bracing sea air will work up your appetite for an evening of dining on the island’s abundant shrimp and fish. There are three eateries at the hotel; elsewhere the Driftwood Bistro gets a thumbs-up.
The best memory-making of all might be a long group walk on the aptly named Driftwood Beach followed by a classic family hang at the Dairy Queen Chill & Grill. Wrap up your perfect day by watching the sunset at the historic Jekyll Wharf Marina.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel: From $199 to $459
371 Riverview Drive, Thalmann, Ga.; +1 912 635 2600; www.jekyllclub.com
Ludlow's Island Resort, Lake Vermillion, Minnesota
Not far from where the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness marks the border with Canada, guests can rent their own private island at Ludlow’s Island Resort.
This is “up North” family fun Minnesota-style: serious fishing, swimming, paddleboating, canoeing and kayaking, sailing, hydrobiking, walking in pine forests, marveling at the Northern Lights, and enjoying secluded handcrafted cabins that make the indoor time as memorable as the outdoor adventures.
Lake Vermilion is one of the country’s most scenic: it's wild, rocky and surrounded by national forest, some 1,931 kilometers of shoreline, and 162 square kilometers of navigable waters. And it delivers on drama by living up to its “vermilion” name — it’s also called “lake of the red sunsets.”
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The fishing is some of Minnesota’s very best, with numerous bays and points with great structure. The place is known for walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, crappie, panfish, and muskies. Ask about the “monster muskie” that was released back into this renowned muskie fishery.
The resort has professional fishing guides who will take you and your group on half- and full-day excursions (request the shore lunch), while kids’ fishing tournaments are held every week on the docks.
Land-based pursuits are none too shabby, either. Some of Minnesota’s best golf courses are nearby, including The Wilderness at Fortune Bay. No cabin fever here: tucked into northern pines, every cabin is nestled for privacy; our favorite might be the architect-designed “Dreamcatcher,” a four-story tree house with super panoramic views.
Unlike lots of Northwoods’ experiences, this isn’t about roughing it. Firewood is delivered to your front door and there are decks and screened porches -- and fluffy robes to wear while you’re sitting on them.
Ludlow’s Island Resort: Cabins range from one- to five-bedroom; daily rates from $250 to $500, weekly rates from $2,500 to $3,500. Fishing-guide fees from $250 to $375 per day, depending on time on the water and number of people.
8166 Ludlow Drive, Cook, Minn.; +1 877 583 5697; www.ludlowsresort.com
The Resort at Pelican Hill, Newport Beach, California
The Resort at Pelican Hill sits by the Pacific Ocean in Newport Beach, exuding all the Italian villa charm of a SoCal Amalfi.
But there’s more reason than its spectacular setting, service, golf (36 holes on two championship courses by Tom Fazio; classes and clinics for all levels) and wine (kudos from Wine Spectator) to gather here.
They’ve thought of everything, including all the wellness you could want (Five Diamond spa, yoga). We love Camp Pelican for the kids, where they’re not just putting on nametags and sitting in front of videogames.
For the younger ones (four-12), there’s everything from karaoke and art projects to digital microscopes and iPads -- all in a groovy beanbag-laden home away from home, with their own pool, ocean views, and movie nights. The teen program (13-17) is also age-appropriate, with off-site excursions that include surf lessons, kayaking and shopping.
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For group fun, you’re going to want a couple of extra memory cards for the camera. There are kilometers of hiking trails in Irvine Ranch Land Reserve, four-plus kilometers of prime coastline in Crystal Cove State Park across from the resort (complimentary transportation), surfing, boating, fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and whale watching.
Balboa Island and Newport Harbor (largest pleasure boat harbor in the world) offer deep-sea fishing, sailing, and dinner cruises, while Laguna Beach is home to art galleries, festivals and abundant shopping.
The Resort at Pelican Hill: Accommodations range from bungalows and bungalow suites to two-, three-, and four-bedroom villas; prices start at $395 for a garden-view bungalow guest room.
22701 Pelican Hill Road S., Newport Coast, Calif.; +1 949 467 6800, www.pelicanhill.com