When Judi Silverman's children were young, she used to take them to Half Moon Resort in Jamaica's Montego Bay on holiday.
Forty years later, the New Jersey-based travel agent happily sends young families there because, she says, she knows firsthand that "when they say they are a family resort, they mean it. A lot of times resorts will call themselves 'family friendly' but you can tell right away if it's just in the brochures but not in the attitude of the staff."
At Half Moon, for example, kids are welcome in all of the restaurants, yet there is also a restaurant with special children's menus should parents prefer that option. There's a reasonably priced Kid's Club for younger children ages 3 to 12 — and one for 'tweens and teens — that the resort offers, as well as tennis clinics, a riding stable and a game room, in addition to myriad water sports. The resort even recently added a Dolphin Experience in which kids can nuzzle up to a dolphin and even ride its dorsal fin.
What's in it for Mom and Dad? The largest spa in the Caribbean, for starters. And the elegant resort now offers all-inclusive packages, which is helpful in a time when even luxury travelers are tightening the belts on their terrycloth robes.
According to the Travel Industry Association, leisure travel is expected to decline only slightly in 2009 (by 1.3 percent), despite the economic downturn. However, people surveyed by the TIA say they will vacation differently, with 76 percent expecting to book a packaged vacation to save money.
"All-inclusive used to get a bad rap because it meant a lesser experience,'' says Edmundo Roa, manager of Let's Take the Kids Travel Agency in Ottawa, Canada, which specializes in booking family travel.
But now that luxury resorts have gotten into the family-travel niche, "It just means you're getting more for your money," says Roa. "It also means an easy, no-brainer vacation, which, sometimes, is exactly what's needed."
To find 10 great family-friendly beach destinations, we asked a panel of family-travel experts to name their favorite vacation spots where kids will have a ball and parents can get some much-needed respite and relaxation. But there's even more to it than that when it comes to finding the perfect vacation spot, experts say.
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor of the tell-it-like-it-is family travel Web site WeJustGotBack.com, says so many resorts have gotten into the family act, it's important to "find the resort that's right for your particular family." She therefore shies away from the broad term "family resort" on her Web site because, she says, "what's right for a couple with a baby (great nanny service, for example) may not be right for a family with 'tweens or teens."
One resort that seems to have all the bases covered, our travel experts agree, is Club Med's Ixtapa resort in Mexico. Between the Baby Med program — which means your room will be stocked with everything from a stylish crib to bottle warmers and diapers — and the Circus Camp where older children learn to juggle and swing on a flying trapeze, the resort caters to every member of the family. From January through April 2009, the resort is offering seven nights for the price of three, starting at $965 a person, all-inclusive.
"It's really great when your children can come home from a beach vacation having done something they've never done before — like flying through the air or canopy climbing," says Kelleher.
Canopy climbing, literally gliding through the treetops, is one of the activities offered at the Los Suenos Marriott in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, another resort that made our list. Family packages there start at $339 to $579 per night, all inclusive, for a family of two adults and two children under six.
Kelleher says while many "family resorts" tout kids' clubs where parents can drop off their kids for the day, then play a round of golf or learn to hula or surf, it behooves parents to inquire about the activities offered at these clubs. Many of tem are more appropriate for toddlers and are nothing more than glorified — and pricey — baby-sitting centers, she says.
"The real litmus test is whether or not your kids want to go the next day," says Kelleher. "You're not going to get much hammock time in if your kid is bored with the club activities."
No boredom is likely at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki, where creative club activities also teach about Hawaiian culture. Alternatively, take the family to the newly revamped Ritz-Carlton Naples, for budding marine biologists.
The resort boasts 11 aquariums, including touch tanks where kids can get up close and personal with turtles and starfish. Older children can hang out in the hotel's laboratory, playing with Petri dishes and microscopes.
"The hotel really gives kids a sense of place because they learn all about the Floridian eco-system," says Kelleher. And because it's a Ritz-Carlton property, parents know their needs will be met, too.
Oh, and there's that postcard-perfect beach. All this will set you back about $675 a night for a coastal room that would accommodate two adults and two children.
In safe hands
When evaluating kid-friendly resorts, Kelleher says, there's always a concern about the staff that will be looking after your children, what Kelleher refers to as "the X factor."
In that department, it's hard to top The Winnetu Inn & Resort on Martha's Vineyard, where kids' camp comes free with the room, and activities include combing for seashells, agility ladder courses and putting contests. The young and eager counselors — 22 for 100 children — are, for the most part, college students and aspiring teachers who grew up on the Vineyard and know what a special place it is, says Kelleher, so they have a great rapport with the kids.
"They're the kind of counselors who'll take the time to hold a child's hand or dust the sand off their toes," says Kelleher.
That, she says, is priceless. But whatever resort you choose, Kelleher says it's important to sit down with your kids and talk about things they'd like to do before you board the plane. The ideal vacation is when both parents and children come home having done exactly what they wanted to do.
"This ensures that, come the next family vacation, they'll definitely want to come along."