There's never been a better time to take a family vacation in the Caribbean. Activity-packed resorts and cruise ships know how to entertain kids of all ages, villas are outfitted with families in mind, sailboats are bristling with toys, and eco-adventures like scuba diving await. Here are 21 tips for trips that — dare we say it? — are fun for the entire family.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked that “there’s no such thing as ‘fun for the whole family.’” It sounds like the Seinfelds never chartered a catamaran in the Grenadines, lived it up at an activity-packed resort on Curaçao or a beachfront villa on St. Thomas, sailed together on a Windjammer cruise or snorkeled en famille on a coral reef. While the Caribbean may be better known for its romantic retreats, the following slew of suggestions proves that there’s no need to leave the kids at home — the region is an ideal place for whole-family fun. Seriously.
THE RIGHT RESORT
When you’re traveling as a family, it’s hard to beat the simplicity of a resort vacation. Caribbean hoteliers have perfected a colorful menu of accommodations, amenities and activities to make everyone happy — including Mom and Dad, who can even grab some alone time thanks to kids’ programs.
But before packing up the resort wear, consider your particular needs. If you have very young children, a beachfront room can be worth the extra cost so that laid-back beach days don’t turn into pack-mule expeditions. With older kids, a less expensive pool-view room might suit everyone fine, and you can spend the balance on snorkeling trips or windsurfing lessons. Unless you’re going to an all-inclusive, investigate the property’s menus — meals can mount up — and the proximity of lower-cost off-site restaurants. And by all means schedule at least a couple of day trips away from the resort to introduce the kids to some local color and culture.
A division of the Sandals empire, Beaches operates four family-oriented all-inclusive resorts — three on Jamaica and one in the Turks and Caicos. Sesame Streeters can take nature walks with Grover and bake cookies with a certain cookie-loving monster. Console commandos will enjoy hanging out in the Xbox Oasis Game. And Pirates Island at Beaches Negril and Beaches Turks and Caicos is a kids-only water park, complete with swim-up soda bar and a game room.
The all-inclusive chain Breezes caters to families at the Curaçao Resort Spa & Casino. Camp Breezes (ages 2 to 17) gives kids the opportunity to learn trapeze flying, visit the Seaquarium and perform at a talent night. The older crowd has options like toga parties, rock climbing and ice-skating. Contact: 877-467-8737.
Built on an 18th-century sugar plantation, the Wyndham Rose Hall recently expanded to include a water park with three pools, a 280-foot slide and a “lazy river” that winds through a jungle garden. The Kid’s Klub (ages 4 to 12) offers complimentary events and outings: glass-bottom boat tours, lizard nature hikes and pirates’ treasure hunts. Contact: 800-WYNDHAM.
Family travel is made budget-friendly at the four Coral by Hilton all-inclusive properties in the Dominican Republic. Under the Very Important Children program, children under 5 stay free; there’s a $30 supplement per day for kids 5 to 12. Coralin Kidz Paradise provides sports clinics, mini-golf and eco-friendly programs that teach awareness of the local rhinoceros iguana. And get this: The resort throws in a one-day four-hour baby-sitting service gratis.
This group of eight hotels in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Mexican Caribbean caters to active families. Each hotel has a Kids Club (ages 4 to 12) with windsurfing, archery, kayaking, pool games and beach time. Each property also has a kiddie pool, play area and mini-disco.
BABIES ON BOARD
There was a time when cruise vacations were strictly for grown-ups, who would pack their sequined gowns and tuxedos and deposit the kids at grandma’s house for a week. These days, sea-borne vacations are definitely a family affair, with attractions for all ages — you’re more likely to bring grandma along than ask her to baby-sit.
The competition has become fierce among cruise lines to offer the coolest kids’ playground (climb to the top of Captain Hook’s ship at Disney’s Oceaneer Club), the most exciting sporting activities (try the 30-foot-high rock-climbing wall or go ice skating aboard Royal Caribbean’s Voyager class ships) and the most elegant “couples only” gourmet restaurants (Mom, drop the angels off at the kids’ club and you can still step out in that strapless gown).
Carnival doesn’t call their fleet the “Fun Ships” for nothing. Adults have casinos, spas and nightclubs, while the kids’ Camp Carnival has everything from dance parties to ping-pong tournaments. New activities that debuted on the Valor and will be available on other ships in the coming months include the WaterColors art program and SeaNotes music classes. All ships have dining options to suit a child’s palate: 24-hour pizza and ice cream stations, daily junior specials and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Contact: 888-CARNIVAL.
Nothing screams “family” louder than Disney. Both their ships are cartoon character-filled parties, with workshops and games in the Oceaneer Club (ages 3 to 7) and Oceaneer Lab (ages 8 to 12). Parents enjoy the ship with peace of mind — they’re given pagers so they can be contacted if necessary. The two teen-only areas have large-screen TVs, games and an Internet café. Grown-ups can take advantage of the Vista Spa and seminars on topics like wine tasting. Disney also offers family reunion cruises. Contact: 800-951-3532.
Cruising on Royal Caribbean is meant to be a fun-filled learning experience. When kids join the Adventure Ocean Youth Program (ages 3 to 17) they learn about the ports they visit, conduct science experiments and learn the physics of sailing. The Adventure Family lets the whole gang participate in games and activities. Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots, programs designed by Fisher-Price, allow parents to share learning/play time. Royal also features rock-climbing walls aboard every ship, and some have ice skating rinks and mini-golf courses. Contact: 800-398-9819.
Families are guaranteed some quality face time on Windjammer’s tall ships: The longest of their five vessels is 294 feet (an average cruise ship is three times that). The line hosts summer family programs (kids must be at least 6 years old) on select ships starting May 20. Children 11 and under cruise free on these sailings and can join the Junior Jammer club. Teen Jammers (12 to 17) get to go on kayak trips and take sailing classes, and they can sleep on deck for a night or two. Group dining creates a convivial atmosphere. Contact: 800-327-2601.
JUST ADD WATER SPORTS
Here’s the great thing about water sports: They make grown-ups feel like kids again and empower kids to feel a bit more grown-up. And with the Caribbean’s iconic warm, clear water, there’s no better place for the whole family to jump in.
With seven Caribbean bases filled with state-of-the-art charter boats, the Moorings provides plenty of options for families to create custom cruises. Experienced sailors can rent a bareboat, but a crewed yacht — complete with a captain and chef, private cabins, DVDs, air conditioning and snorkel gear, plus a kayak or sailboard — is the ideal way to experience the fun of sailing without all the work involved. The Moorings’ stable, spacious catamarans are especially family-friendly. Contact: 888-952-8420.
Sunsail specializes in bareboat and skippered charters, but if the whole gang doesn’t want to spend the entire vacation bedding down in a bunk, Sunsail’s Club Colonna on Antigua is a nice nautical alternative. The resort offers sailing courses for all levels along with a variety of other water sports, plenty of shore-based activity and a Kids’ Clubs (ages 4 months to 16 years). There’s even a 24-hour family kitchen with sterilizing equipment for baby bottles, a microwave and a refrigerator stocked with milk. Contact: 800-736-7244.
This “nautical village” on Virgin Gorda, B.V.I., was started as a family retreat in 1964. Nowadays, the Bitter End Yacht Club is an 85-room resort and marina with three restaurants, a bar, shops and, of course, water sports. Certain times of the year are designated Special Kids Weeks, with extended water-based programs and activities. The year-round Admiral’s Family Vacation Package (for two adults and two kids between the ages of 6 and 18) includes adjoining bedrooms, an introduction to sailing, unlimited use of nonmotorized watercraft and snorkeling trips. Contact: 800-872-2392.
This program was the brainchild of Margo Chornlesky, a travel agent who loves to scuba dive but was frustrated that she couldn’t find fun, educational aquatic programs for her kids to enjoy at top dive destinations. Her solution was a marine-oriented retreat for the whole family where parents dive as much as they want during the day while children (ages 4 to 15) learn about the ocean and proper snorkeling techniques; those old enough can even become PADI-certified divers. The camps run June through August on Curaçao, Bonaire, and Grand Cayman at select hotels that offer reduced rates and allow kids to stay free. Contact: 800-934-3483.
KEEP THE GANG GREEN
It’s not just a vacation from the work-school routine, it’s a time-out from nonstop media saturation. It’s a chance to do some serious bonding not only with Mom, but with Mother Nature, too. It’s active, educational, socially conscious, and best of all, fun. It’s the green vacation, an idea whose time has definitely come.
Travelers have been cozying up to nature at Maho Bay for more than 30 years. Today, the original camp and its three sister properties (Concordia Eco-Tents, Harmony Studios and Estate Concordia Studios) maintain their green standards — no TVs or phones. A vacation here is all about kayaking, hiking the national park, sailing and snorkeling. A kids’ arts and crafts program teaches paper-making, watercolor painting and clay-pot molding, all using recycled items; parents can join in, too. Contact: 800-392-9004.
Situated on a secluded, 20-acre plot in Guanicá on the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, the Copamarina offers resort comforts and easy access to nearby natural attractions, such as the Guanicá Reserve forest for short hikes and bird-watching, and famed Bioluminescent Bay, where thousands of dinoflagellates emit flashes of bluish light when agitated at night. The resort is surrounded by gardens, two of its four pools are for kids only, and there are plenty of water sports and land-based activities. Contact: 800-468-4553.
With accommodations spilling down a green hillside and onto a small private island in the lee of the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, Anthony’s Key Resort was built to complement its natural surroundings. For adults who want to head off to dive Roatan’s superb reefs, AKR offers daily activities for kids, including PADI dive programs. And starting this month, kids ages 5 to 14 can participate in dolphin scuba camp, where they feed and train the resort’s captive pod and learn diving and snorkeling skills. Contact: 800-227-3483.
Seven miles outside of Ocho Rios, the White River Valley is the place to take ’tweeners and teens for action-packed day trips. Explore the total ecosystem with a guided horseback trip through the hills, forests and waters (the horses walk chest-high in the ocean). If horses aren’t your favorite mode of transport, ride a mountain bike and then go tubing down the river. The horseback ride and river tube activities each cost $40. Contact: 876-917-3373.
VILLAS: JUST LIKE HOME, ONLY BETTER
These homes-away-from-home offer plenty of privacy and all sorts of amenities. Want your own pool? You got it. Bringing along aunts, uncles and cousins? No problem — you can choose villas with one to 10 bedrooms.
A few tips when shopping for a family villa: If you have young children, ask about safety features. For instance, in the French Caribbean all villa pools are now required to have an alarm. Are there lots of stairs, a cliff, a long walk to the beach? Know before you go.
This agency’s large villa menu includes a Family Collection with 43 houses featuring child-friendly features such as outdoor play areas, large lawns, adjoining bedrooms, cribs, high chairs and movies. The Wharf House, for example, comes with a play cottage complete with toys, games, a mini pool table, a dollhouse, and even a kid-size four-poster bed for naps. Nannies can be hired at any villa, and each house is staffed with a chef who can prepare special meals for the children in addition to standard fare. Contact: 301-229-4300.
French St. Barts has more than 400 villas in its eight square miles. St. Barth Properties represents more than a hundred, several considered family-friendly. Villa Playa Dorada offers five bedrooms on big, sandy St. Jean Beach, where the water is shallow. Other suitable houses include Champagne, Sky and Roi Soleil. Contact: 800-421-3396.
This agency rents villas throughout the Virgin Islands; St. Thomas has the most equipped for families. Villa Overlook has an oversized great room, a pool and a media room with games, books and a collection of more than 100 videos and CDs. Captain’s Walk has a fenced yard to corral the young’uns. Others to check out are High View, Mimosa and L’Esperance.
Representing more than a thousand villas on 15 Caribbean islands, WIMCO has a wide selection of child-friendly houses. The beachfront Nevis Palm has four bedrooms and a fenced-in pool. The six-bedroom Villa Serena on St. Martin has a large pool and a spacious living area.
Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.