There's something special about teaching your seven year-old to snorkel and then sharing the underwater wonders of rainbow-colored fish and delicate coral with her. In the Caribbean and the Bahamas, depending on the resort you choose, you and your children can snorkel and dive, search for monkeys in the rainforest, zoom down waterslides, swim with dolphins, get wicked good at tennis and golf and also enjoy such time-honored pleasures as sunning, swimming and sand castle-building. It all depends on the resort you choose. Here are ten top properties to consider.
The expanded, 45,000-square-foot Pirate's Island Waterpark and the two-bedroom family suites, part of a 2009 $125 million renovation, are just some of the reasons families enjoy this 615-room, all-inclusive resort. Beaches, long known for programs for younger kids, offers complimentary care and play for children, from infants to 2-year-olds, as well as supervised activities for those 3 years old and older. Pre-schoolers and gradeschoolers delight in twirling with Zoe, baking cookies with Cookie Monster and parading with the Sesame Street characters. T'weens and teens mingle while learning to spin discs at the Scratch D.J. Academy; dancing at Liquid, an under-21 nightclub; and playing computer games at the Xbox 360 Game Garage.
Best for: families with tots, toddlers and 'tweens who like budget-friendly, mega-sized all-inclusives.
Babies through teens keep busy at this all-inclusive, recently upgraded to add oceanfront, two-bedroom family suites with televisions and room service. New bedspreads and decor brighten the regular rooms. Children — broken into 4 to 5, 6 to 7 and 8 to 10 age groups — try flying on a trapeze, play tennis and basketball and splash though the fountains, sprays and pools at the Club's own waterpark. At Passworld, teens hang out, go rollerblading and learn the latest hip-hop moves. Caregivers play with tots (4 months to 23 months) and kids 2 to 3 years for an additional fee. Go snorkeling, swimming or strolling along the three miles of white, sandy beach with your kids.
Best for: active families with kids, ages 4 through teens , who like budget-friendly all-inclusives.
At this water-themed mega-resort, which boasts more than 2,500 rooms, get your thrills by zooming down waterslides, floating on a faux river with rapids and swimming with dolphins or meeting sea lions. Young kids like the rope bridges and cannon sprays at Splashers, and everyone finds a favorite among the property's 11 pools. Encounter more marine critters by walking through an acrylic tunnel, where toothy sharks zig-zag above you, and by viewing piranhas, lionfish, giant rays and schools of tropical fish at the resort's aquarium. Teens congregate at Club Rush for dancing and Nintendo Wii games. In December 2009, a new Atlantis Kids Club facility for ages 3 to 12 will debut. Parents can indulge at the spa, shop the boutiques in the Village and try their luck at the casino.
Best for: families craving big, boisterous resorts with nightlife and a casino.
The Ritz-Carlton's legendary service and the Ambassadors of the Environment Program (AOTE), developed by Jean-Michel Cousteau for ages 4 and older, make this resort special. Each three-hour AOTE module turns childcare into environmental "edutainment." Young children bake cookies in a solar oven and track Murph, a tagged green sea turtle. Older kids paddle the mangroves, snorkel the reef and meet stingrays at the island's famed Stingray City. The resort encourages parents to come along on any outing. With Eric Ripert's Blue restaurant and a La Prairie spa, the AAA Five diamond resort treats parents well, too.
Best for: gradeschoolers interested in the environment and parents wanting plush accommodations and a pampering spa.
Windjammer Landing's 161 villas and suites sweep up a lushly landscaped hill that surrounds a 1,000-foot-long beach. Come here for lodging that offers the space and comforts of home, as well as resort services, from room service to five restaurants. The new Hibiscus Suites, which clock in at 1570 square feet, each offer two bedrooms, a sitting area, a kitchen and an oversized deck. At the complimentary Jacquot Fun Club, children from ages 4 to 12 go on nature hikes and boat rides, cook with a chef and enjoy disco and pizza nights. Windsurfing, kayaking, snorkeling and sailing are free. Pay a la carte for meals, or opt for an all-inclusive package.
Best for: families wanting the comforts of home, resort amenities and a children's program on an off-the-beaten-path island.
Located on 47 beachfront acres on laid-back St. John, the Westin offers a choice of upmarket rooms and suites or one- to three-bedroom villas with kitchens that are great for multi-generational trips. Families meet during kayak, paddleboat and volleyball challenges, as well as at poolside movies. Ages 6 to 12 can sign up for tennis clinics. Teens engage in their own tennis games, Salsa lessons, para-sailing and kayaking outings. At the day-long, Westin Kids Club, ages 3 to 12 go sailing, splash in the pool, visit the resort kitchen and make crafts. Families can snorkel and hike in the nearby Virgin Islands National Park, and if they volunteer at the park during March and April 2010, the resort will award them a $100 credit.
Best for: families wanting upscale accommodations on a laid-back island, as well as a volunteer opportunity.
One of the best places in the Caribbean for families to learn sailing, the Bitter End Yacht Club offers an extensive program of hands-on classes. Sign up for family lessons, or vacation during February break, Easter, Christmas or Thanksgiving, when the Bitter End operates special kids' sailing camps for ages 3 to 12. Use your new-found skills to sail to snorkel spots, or go out on the resort's guided, twice-daily trips to nearby reefs. Choose either a simple beachfront room with a hammock and deck or an air-conditioned, hillside suite that overlooks the North Sound.
Best for: sailing families and those who want to learn.
Enjoy classic Ritz-Carlton service and style at this 180-room luxury property on St. Thomas' eastern end. The resort — far enough from Charlotte Amalie's harbor to be tranquil, even if cruise ships line the port — spoils you with beautifully decorated, oversized rooms that are a minimum 450 square feet, as well as a spa and four restaurants. Kayak, sail on a Hobie Cat, or try windsurfing and snorkeling from the beach with your kids. All of those are activities covered by the resort fee. At the Ritz-Kids program, ages 5 to 12 play pool and lawn games, create crafts and watch movies. For pampering, kids and teens can try facials and massages (clothed, with a parent present) at the spa.
Best for: deep-pocketed families with young gradeschoolers who want to be on easy-to-get-to St. Thomas.
Located in Placencia, where the rainforest meets the Caribbean, the resort, named a top Belizean hotel, offers guided snorkel and dive excursions to Belize's extraordinary reef, plus kayak outings on the lagoon and inland trips to view Maya ruins and monkey habitats. Live an island fantasy by staying on Robert's Caye, a one-acre island with four basic cabins that are surrounded by the sea. Even with no children's program, kids keep busy swimming, swinging in the hammocks strung along the beach and talking about their next exciting excursion. The resort serves good food, and the upmarket lodging includes rooms and suites, some with two bedrooms and a kitchenette.
Best for: families with gradeschoolers and teens seeking eco-adventures, including diving and snorkeling outings.
After a $20 million renovation, this formerly adult Club Med re-opened in November 2006 as a family-friendly property with day-long activities for ages 4 to 10 and 11 to 13, plus a Passworld Teen Club, cleverly themed like a car wash, for ages 14 to 17. Teens box, play Nintendo Wii and learn hip-hop, as well as kayak, windsurf and sail. All ages can fly on the trapeze. Younger kids practice their serves at tennis clinics and their kicks at soccer clinics. Because Club Med was the first resort in the now-bustling Hotel Zone, it claimed the best beach, a mile-long swath with water that's often calm enough for swimming.
Best for: families with gradeschoolers and 'tweens who want an all-inclusive beach oasis in the midst of bustling Cancun.