Last year, thanks to Zika and several family members trying to get pregnant, the Thanksgiving vacation my extended family had been taking to Mexico for a decade required a new location. We needed warm weather, nonstop flights (for 16 people, from both coasts), and no mosquitoes. Our options were thin. But my mom had an idea: Rent a house in Scottsdale, Arizona, where we four kids grew up. Since my parents abandoned my hometown for San Francisco 12 years ago, I’d been back only once, for a day. Scottsdale held zero interest for me. But a consensus among family is hard to achieve, so while a broker friend found us a five-bedroom with a pool, I packed my hiking boots and kept expectations low.
Oh, I was so wrong. A multigenerational trip with lots of competing goals can actually work pretty well when you’re all under one roof in a place you know by heart. We could explore all together, like when we schlepped up to Saguaro Lake to motor through the narrow reservoir—the ideal moment to retell the story of the day I skipped class, stole a boat, and accidentally sank it. We could split up; one day, half of us peeled off to hike some stunningly desolate canyon with my older sister’s high school besties. And we could have a Tuesday-night dance party in the huge living room, with my 11-year-old son DJ’ing. Having a kitchen was key; my brother-in- law made huevos rancheros daily for breakfast (and manhattans for grown-ups at 5 p.m.). My mom brilliantly sourced a catering com- pany that grocery-shopped, then came one day and prepared three reheatable dinners, taking some of the pressure off cooking a zillion meals in one week (or arguing about where to go out).
Rather than being bored in the site of their parents’ awful suburban youth, our kids were hypnotized by the ancient cacti, the cave-size holes in the rocks of Papago Park, and the vast emptiness of the desert, so dramatically different from any- thing they’d experienced anywhere— even Mexico. Neighbors I hadn’t seen since graduation popped by. Unlikely groups organically formed and ventured out to grab cocktails at the historic Biltmore hotel, climb towering Pinnacle Peak (you go, Dad!), or visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West studio. There was no schedule, no required attendance, and, bizarrely, no reverting to our horrible teenage selves—perhaps since very little was asked of us other than to have a good time and be home for dinner.
I have 192 photos from that week on my iPhone, more than from any of our past full-family trips. Viewed together, they reframe the lackluster setting of my childhood as a place filled with adven- ture and serendipity. Revisiting a town I know so well relieved the urge to cram every attraction into one week. Staying together in a house, rather than scattered across a resort, somehow made me feel like I had the luxury of space and time. To go for a beer run with my brother, to play games with my nephew, or to just read by the pool with my new sister-in-law. Months later, I still have the glowing texts from my dad: “Out now with boys doing nature. No obligation. I love every second.”
Trip Tips for Large Groups
Outsource Some Meals
Heidi Mitchell’s family called a local caterer—more economical than hiring a private chef—who cooked and stored several meals in one go. If everyone is too tired to deal with a restaurant reservation, there’s a prepped meal ready to heat.
Consider Two Houses
If your family is gigantic, renting two small-to-medium homes or condos might be easier than finding one with eight bedrooms. Separate spaces are also helpful if, for example, one side of the family has babies who need quiet during nap time.
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So you’re in Kansas City and not Paris? Trust us: Your kids will think the roller rink where you held your ninth birthday (or your elementary school) is super cool.