As a travel agent, I handle a ton of family travel: traditional families, extended families and, more recently, single-parent families. I'm not sure how I developed the niche, but I suspect it came as a result of being a single dad with three young kids of my own. Sure, we can all head to the amusement parks and theme parks and have a great time — that is a given. But when you dig a bit deeper, there are some fantastic destinations just screaming for families to explore. This week, I offer the down-and-dirty scoop on six family- and kid-friendly destinations that may not have crossed your mind.
There's a lot to like in San Diego. Nature, beaches, wildlife — San Diego has it all.
Call of the wild: The San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park is a favorite of adults and kids alike. The animals are probably some of the best-treated anywhere, and in the animal park, they are free to roam in their (manmade) natural habitats.
Surfs up, dude: Pack your tote bag and spend a day or two on the beaches. Southern California is known for the laid-back life and the beaches at La Jolla are no exception. La Jolla Shores Beach has plenty of public grills for an impromptu barbecue, and the calm waters and warm sand are enough to make anyone happy. Not far is the smaller beach of La Jolla Cove, which offers some of the best snorkeling in Southern California.
LegoLand: OK, so I have dissed amusement parks and theme parks before, but this one is different (how is that for some kid logic?). Located about 30 miles north of San Diego in Carlsbad, it makes a great day trip. The lines are not too bad, the kids can ride the rides, and the adults can admire the artistry of the creations. Can you imagine a city built of Legos?
Most parents shy away from big cities for family vacations, but hold on a sec. Chicago is a compact, easy-to-navigate city, and it has a lot to offer families, including some of the best pizza in the world (OK, the U.S.).
Slideshow: Going for the gold
Beaches:Yes, this is Chicago, not San Diego, but in the summer, you can find throngs of people (and thongs, too) on the shores of Lake Michigan. Not as warm as Southern California, but just as much fun.
Millennium Park.This park is a tribute to all that is Chicago — the art, the food, Wrigley Field, the music and more. It is the center of the Chicago cultural scene and one of the world's largest outdoor art venues. It even has ice skating. Of particular note is Cloud Gate, a huge polished orb that reflects the city and passers-by in a fun-house kind of way. If you are up for a little splashing, check out the Crown Fountain, a modern creation featuring video images of Chicagoans who sometimes spew water at you (remember it is a fountain).
The L: The L (short for "elevated train") is an easy and inexpensive way to explore the city and get around. My kids love that at some points it runs so close to the adjacent apartments, you can see people brushing their teeth! Take the L out to Lincoln Park and see the Lincoln Park Zoo — it's free.
Once you get over the flight time (bad from the West Coast and worse from the East), Maui is a great place and one of my favorites for both kids and adults. It has a good balance of adventure, nature and, of course, water everywhere you look.
Slideshow: Polynesian paradise
Swimming:The ocean, the hotel pool and the island's many roadside waterfalls offer abundant opportunities to get wet. I recommend that you rent a four-wheel drive and find a place of your own. Snorkeling? Try Makena State Park, but avoid Little Beach if you are offended by a clothing-optional experience (or would rather not explain it to the kids!).
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Whales: The whale-watching season is late December to April; outside that window, sightings are very hit or miss, and you may waste your money on a mere boat ride if you are looking for a whale of a time (sorry, couldn't resist). Humpback whales are incredible creatures; you will be amazed at their agility when you see them seemingly leap from the water. Your hotel hospitality desk can arrange a tour for you.
Biking: Hey, even I can do this one! The trip down (key word, "down") from Haleakala Crater is a breathtaking experience. I recommend a trip that takes you to the summit (just over 10,000 feet, cold and hard to breathe) in time to see the sun rise. It feels like you are on top of the world — and you are pretty close. Bike down the mountain at your own pace, stopping at the Kula Lodge for breakfast. The lodge is reasonably priced and offers spectacular views of the island.
4. Vancouver, British Columbia
There is a strange phenomenon that I have encountered many times when traveling outside the U.S. — most foreigners are infatuated with children, and they are typically very accommodating and friendly to children, families and particularly single parents. Vancouver is no exception.
The city: Vancouver is a thriving city filled with parks and activities for the kids. Stanley Park, one of the oldest urban parks in the world, has a 150-year-old forest, and the Bloedel Conservatory has tropical plants and exotic birds flying free. The city also has many interesting ethnic neighborhoods. Its Chinatown, which is slightly smaller than the one in San Francisco, offers the sights, sounds, smells and cuisine of Shanghai. The Gastown neighborhood is the one of the oldest in the city and has some of the best restaurants. The cobblestone streets are home to some great jazz and, believe it or not, some decent Spanish food — tapas and sangria.
The water: While not a mecca for swimming, Vancouver is surrounded by water. Cruise ships are in port regularly during the summer, and the harbor is teeming with ferries and water taxis. A fun trip is a ferry ride to Granville Island, a renovated industrial district that is now home to many very nice shops.
The Kids Market:The Kids Market in the center of Granville Island is loaded with toy stores (hold on to your wallets, Mom and Dad) and offers plenty to entertain the kids all day. There is even a water park next door!
Confections: Also on Granville Island is a terrific bakery called "Cupcakes." While there are plenty of other goodies, the specialty is — you guessed it — cupcakes. There are little bite-sized ones which are perfect for the kids, and the array of flavors puts Baskin-Robbins to shame!
5. Steamboat, Colorado
I am not a skier. I'm the guy hanging out by the fireplace with a hot toddy. This recommendation comes from my best friend, who is an enthusiastic skier.
Ski school: Need to learn to ski? Steamboat offers both half- and full-day classes to gear you up for your trail trips. It also gives Mom and Dad some quality time to escape on their own.
Convenience: Many hotels are what they call "ski in/ski out," which means you can literally ski up to the door. In the morning, getting to the slopes is easy. Want to head back to your hotel or resort for lunch? Ski in. Tuckered out? Ski in. Broke a leg? Sled in.
Hot springs: Steamboat is just 45 minutes away from the therapeutic Strawberry Park Hot Springs, where 150-degree water spews from the earth and cascades down into four pools of varying temperature. Heaven.
Mountain eating: Steamboat has a gondola that you can take up the mountain to dine at more than 15 slopeside restaurants. With varied menus and fun names like "Café Diva" and "Brunch on the Mountain," you are sure to find something to whet your appetite.
The first time I took the kids on a cruise, all my friends thought I was nuts. Take the kids miles out to sea with no easy means of escape? Crazy. But they were wrong. Today's cruise ships offer so much more for kids than the ships of yesteryear.
Kids programs: Every major cruise line has them. Some begin at age 2 and others at age 3. The kids love the age-appropriate activities, including crafts, video games, destination education and the ever-popular shipwide scavenger hunt. And while the kids are occupied, Mom and/or Dad can have some adult fun on their own. There is no charge for kids programs. The only drawback is that you will likely have a tough time getting the kids to leave.
Amazing food: Yes, there is a lot of food on a cruise. "A lot" doesn't begin to describe it. Kids love the buffets, and even the pickiest eaters will find more than enough to enjoy.
Cool ports: On a cruise, you get to see a lot of places in a little time. My kids think of the port calls as snapshots of the world, each from a unique perspective. Me, I think of port calls as tryouts. If the destination passes muster, it goes on my list of places to explore at some later date — when not on a cruise.
Inclusive: Notice I don't say "all-inclusive." Cruises are not all-inclusive. Mostly inclusive, yes. Expect to pay for your booze and sodas (buy a soda card for about $45 a week if you want unlimited soda) and any activities and expenses off the ship. Tipping is additional ($10 per person, per day is a good rule of thumb), as are some specialty restaurants and any shipboard gambling or shopping you may do. When I disembark, my shipboard tab for a family of four usually runs about $1,000. We are not extravagant, but we are not misers, either.
The next time a vacation comes up with the usual suspects, why not haul out this list and consider a new destination? I guarantee that you and your kids will be pleasantly surprised.