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--- A N N E T T E   C .  E A R L I N G

I'm planning a vacation. With a boy. This is significant for two reasons. First, and most obvious, there's that whole "first vacation with the new boyfriend" angst. After six or seven days of being in the same hotel room will we still be gazing lovingly at each other as we sip rum from the same coconut shell, or will I be chasing him down the beach, trying to wallop him over the head with a mahimahi? (Cue Keystone Kops music in the background.)

But this isn't of primary concern. My main worry here is the enormous responsibility involved in making the right decisions for my first real grown-up vacation.

When I was a kid my family used to rent my uncle's house in Seaside Heights. We had one blissful week every summer. Seven days of sand and Sea 'n' Ski. Seven nights of skeeball and Solarcaine. And the best part was that my brother, my sister and I were allowed to eat sugar-coated cereal, for that week and that week alone. (The rest of the year it was Corn Flakes and Cheerios.)

And that's what I want for this upcoming vacation - the sheer joy that envelops you as your mom smears sunscreen on your shoulders and you can't keep your feet still in your flip-flops because all those gorgeous waves are calling you, and you can smell the salt and the blue rubber raft, and you can still taste the Crunchberries between your teeth.

The first dilemma in planning a grown-up vacation strikes when you must decide exactly what "kind" of vacation you would like to take. Recently, while running the billboard gauntlet on I-95, I turned to the Boy and said, "I want a Parliament vacation," as my hand gestured toward an enormous billboard for Parliament cigarettes. Two people stood beneath a blindingly white canopy, looking out over the bluest of blue seas imaginable. Mediterranean breezes stirred their hair, with nary a Post-it note in sight.

"Yeah. Parliament vacation," he replied. The Boy is not known for his garrulousness, but he knew what I meant. We began classifying vacations according to cigarette billboards. There's the Marlboro vacation, which requires a sleeping bag and something called a mess kit. You could take your dog on a Marlboro vacation. There's the Newport vacation, which is a package deal, best done with a group of friends somewhere like Cancun. During the course of a Newport vacation you'll probably be dragged out on a "booze cruise," during which the crew's sole purpose is to ply you with so much liquor that you'll be chucking up tequila worms for a week. There's the Camel vacation, which, until the demise of Joe Camel, took place in Disneyland. There's the Kool vacation, where you travel to distant, exotic lands and use your overwhelming koolness to get laid. And finally, there's the Merit vacation, which, judging from the billboard, takes place at the Jersey shore

We were stunned to realize that, for the first time in our lives, we could afford something more than the Merit.

highest ratio of blue water on their covers. We were directed to our own personal travel coordinator and attempted to express to him the type of vacation we were looking for.

Within two hours we were convinced that what we really wanted was a package deal to a mega-hotel about 30 minutes south of Cancun. Perilously close to Newport territory. But our agent's sighs of appreciation over the hotel's luxe accommodations and its "ridiculously low" price tag convinced us that we were getting away with murder. Forget that we're not the type of people who would feel comfortable in a landlocked Love Boat. Forget that we would feel just stupid going to a "swim-up bar." And please forget that the very idea of paying $185 a night for a hotel room, without so much as a morning cup of coffee included in the price, is anathema to my tight-wad soul.

Basking in the warm glow of our agent's smile, it all seemed perfectly reasonable. So we had him hold a room for us and promised to come back within two days to make full payment (no refunds, of course). At that time we learned about travel insurance. Guess what. For a mere $16 you can get your money back if your mom buys the farm the day before your flight. Thanks Mr. Travel Agent Man.

But then, back at my house, the calculator came out. And we realized that, yes, we are both gainfully employed and deserve to splurge occasionally, but that this was really above and beyond any vision that we had of ourselves as mature, financially independent adults. And besides-- wasn't this Mexico we were talking about? A near-third world country with a favorable rate of exchange?

We fired up the modem and did some digging on-line and immediately found a Web site about the town we wanted to go to-- an old fishing town on the Caribbean, close to Mayan ruins and national parks. The site listed at least 40 small family-owned hotels in the town, with information on the rates and features of each one.

Get this. We're going to the Casablanca Hotel-- a tiny confection of white-washed adobe trimmed with blue. It has a pool. It's close to the beach. It has hammocks swaying in its tropical garden. It costs $53 a night. In my head, I'm already there.

Almost as good, we found discounted airline tickets on "A Ticket to Fly's" Web site. In fact, we did everything-- hotel reservations, ticket purchases, even rental car information, on-line.

Then, just for fun, I checked out the Quaker Web site. Because it's never too soon to start picking out your cereal.

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