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PAMPERING PUTS COST IN PERSPECTIVE

A little pampering on a vacation can go a long way, especially when the uncertain economy has many of us worried about spending too much on frills. Especially when we're overworked and overtired. Especially when we're taking along a couple of less-than-angelic kids.

But these days, even paying big bucks won't always guarantee great service or that elusive we've-really-found-paradise-this-time euphoria. Plus, everyone's definition of pampering is different.

Here are some places we've visited that really have it right when it comes to knowing what families want and need. I wish all hoteliers would follow their lead.

If you can afford it, you and your kids will think you've died and gone to heaven at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, where your youngster will find his name spelled out in bath sponges in the tub, and where you can get a child-sized breakfast buffet in the dining room that includes silver-dollar pancakes and doughnut holes. Parents will love the free all-day kids' program (other Maui resorts charge as much as $60 for similar programs) and the "I'm not a kid" menu for those who have outgrown hot dogs. Packages start at $375 a night, including car and breakfast for two, until mid-December. (Call 800-334-MAUI, or visit www.fourseasons.com.)

Budget-minded families will give a well-deserved thumbs-up to Orlando's Holiday Inn Family Suites, where rates, including breakfast, start at $129 (less in early winter) for roomy two-bedroom suites that include a specially decorated kids' room with VCR, Nintendo and TV. There's a big playground and an interactive water area. Kids not only eat free, but they get to play free miniature golf. Karaoke and bingo also prove to be popular. Grandparents pay a sliding scale based on their age: Those 90 or older get a free three-night stay; those in their 70s pay just $69 a night. The 800-suite resort provides complimentary shuttles to Walt Disney World, which is just a mile away. (Call 877-387-KIDS, or visit www.hifamilysuites.com.)

We felt like part of the royal family when we bedded down in the Tower, a 15th century castle surrounded by gardens, in Wales. The kids loved the secret passageways, the ancient suits of armor and proprietor Wendy Wynne-Eyton's stories about the castle's history. Wynne-Eyton even invited my youngest child to spend the evening watching TV with her granddaughter while we went out for dinner. There are just three rooms, which go for about $140 a night, including breakfast for two, with a nominal fee for kids sharing a room with their parents. (Call 011-44-1352-700220.) You can find other special spots (we also stayed at a sheep farm) by visiting www.visitwales.com or www.travelbritain.org.

The kids will feel like they've arrived at a favorite aunt's house when they walk into the Franconia Inn in New Hampshire's White Mountains. This is no stuffy B & B. Kids can lounge at the pool in summer or play board games in the cozy living room in fall and winter. There's even a big-screen TV downstairs for cartoons. The food is terrific, too. Check out the fall colors, or come before the holidays and take home a fresh Christmas tree. Rates start at $110 per night for two, with a $20 charge for kids sharing rooms with their parents. (Call 800-473-5299, or visit www.franconiainn.com.)

Unlike many Caribbean resorts, The family-owned Buccaneer, located on 340 acres on the island of St. Croix, won't nickel and dime you or charge you $50 to feed the gang breakfast. Breakfast is complimentary, as is the all-day children's program. You'll feel at ease hiring a sitter, too -- many of the staff members have worked here for decades. The kids will love the three white-sand beaches, where kayaks and snorkels are free. Two-room cottages start at $270 a night until just before Christmas. (Call 800-255-3881, or visit www.thebuccaneer.com.)

e-mail: eogintz@aol.com.

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