Family vacations are a risky business, even in the best circumstances. Throw in a cranky toddler or a sulky teen, and the going can get pretty rough. What to do? Plan ahead, and look for a resort or hotel that really knows what kids want. Only then can you sit back and relax.
Anyone who has traveled with kids more than once knows the importance of keeping the younger set busy. Good hotels offer a wide range of family activities. Great hotels go a step farther, creating kid-friendly environments where kids can try out some new things then go back to just being themselves. The following are some of this summer’s best bets for kids.
Hyatt Corporation has made a major effort to create a program for kids called Camp Hyatt. It is available at about a dozen properties in the United States and the Caribbean, and is open to kids ages 3 to 12. Camp Hyatt programs normally focus on local history, regional crafts and the surrounding environment.
At the Camp Hyatt in Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, kids learn about the desert, create their own cactus gardens and learn about Hopi Indian culture. At the Hyatt Grand Cypress in Orlando, Fla., activities include scavenger hunts, sand castle building, canoeing and feeding the horses at the equestrian center.
Some Hyatt hotels and resorts also have a program for teenagers called Family Camps, which offers special activities and meeting areas for teens. Families traveling to these properties are often offered a 50-percent discount on additional rooms — a great arrangement when teenagers (or their parents) want their own space.
Some of the country’s unique grand hotels also have created children’s programs that are entertaining and educational.
In New Paltz, N.Y., the Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian castle perched on a beautiful lake, is a great family destination — and has been for decades. The resort offers extensive water activities, including trout fishing, and is surrounded by 85 miles of hiking trails; there are also carriage roads for horseback riding. All this just 90 minutes from Manhattan.
Mohonk Mountain House has weekly theme programs and kid-friendly activities that parents can also enjoy, including stargazing, croquet, hayrides and campfires. Paddleboats and canoes are complimentary with lodging, and families can even play hide-and-seek in a Victorian maze.
In Bretton Woods, N.H., the spectacular, grand old Mount Washington Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, sits beneath towering Mount Washington. Opened in 1902, the hotel is a throwback to the days of travel with steamer trunks and a retinue of servants.
Today the hotel offers a full program of activities for all age groups, including biking, camping, hiking, carriage rides and arcade games. It also offers a supervised Kids’ Camp, as well as a group of nature and outdoors programs created in conjunction with the Appalachian Mountain Club. For almost sure-fire family fun, take a ride on the cog train, which climbs steep grades up to the top of Mount Washington, sometimes passing right through the clouds.
In Pennsylvania, the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) has programs for youngsters throughout the summer, with an emphasis on learning about the surrounding environment of the Delaware Water Gap. Families share accommodations in rustic cabins. Among the programs are family nature weekends and weeklong family workshops on bird watching, photography, grasses, butterflies and so on.
Out west, some of the best family vacations are available at mountain resorts where, during the winter, skiing and snowboarding reign supreme. At these mountain resorts, summer is low season, so, normally, savings abound.
Here are some of my favorite mountain resorts for the summer.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, in Wyoming, gives the entire family a taste of the Wild West. Cowboy cookouts, Yellowstone tours, hiking, biking, fishing, a great aerial tram ride and a wonderful wildlife museum are just some highlights from a long list of summer activities. To top it off, the nearby town of Jackson is a tourist town of the cowboy persuasion, with regular “shoot-outs” staged by actors in period costumes.
Winter Park Resort, in Colorado, is a winter playground for Denver-area families. In summer, it offers mountain biking, chairlift rides, hiking, and a thrilling alpine slide. In August, there will be a craft fair and chili cook-off.
Mammoth Lakes, Calif., home of Mammoth Mountain, offers summer fun at almost every temperature. Diehard skiers and snowboarders may find the higher elevations of the mountain open in mid July. Below the snow line you’ll find hiking, fishing and camping, as well as wonderful road trips down through Death Valley, where kids can complete a wide range of nature activities through the Junior Ranger program at Death Valley National Park.
Finally, Big Sky Resort, in the wilds of Montana, offers great fly-fishing and whitewater rafting in the neighboring rivers. It has a dramatic golf course, two tennis courts, and miles and miles of mountain biking trails. Kids get their own clubhouse and a program of late-afternoon activities that include tie-dyeing and dodge ball. The resort can also arrange kid-friendly tours through Yellowstone National Park.
Wherever you go, take one final piece of advice: Let the kids do some of the choosing. You may thrill to the idea of a whitewater ride, but maybe the kids would just like to play shuffleboard. Let them do it. After all, a happy kid is the best part of a family vacation.
Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .