It’s hard to select one family destination at a time. The more places you go, the more you realize where you’ve never been. Our family favorites typically combine culture, adventure, friendly people, learning, getting a little dirty and consuming an unnatural amount of ice cream. Here are five family-friendly trips that combine all those things and more.
Our baby made our trip to Italy “A Messy Amalfi,” but that trip was important. It was the first time we had ever traveled far with a child. Six-month-old Cora was a difficult baby—colicky and impossible to get to sleep. But I learned how to parent her in Italy. She liked to stay busy and didn’t require as much sleep as those parenting books cautioned. Although she was hyper-clingy, the Italian grandmothers managed to whisk her away while John and I enjoyed romantic dinners together. I’m pretty sure they fed her gelato. The Italians love babies. Here’s photographic evidence.
Cora loves to look at the photos from that first big trip. Although, she can’t remember it, she thinks of it with fondness. So much so that she chose Italy when carefully considering her options for our 12-year-old tradition, a promise to our children long ago, before we realized how quickly they would grow: “When you turn 12, you can choose a parent-guide and a destination.” They are required to work within a budget, and plan their adventure with some parental input. Our Childhood Exodus: France & Italy occurred last March. I will always cherish this one-on-one time and hope these memories will buoy us during the teenage years. We visited several places from this first trip to Italy, ate a lot of excellent gelato and reenacted a few photos (see Cora below at 6 months and 12 years).
Costa Rica is such an easy place to take families. We’ve returned a few times over the years to experience different parts of this small but vast country: the turtles in Tortuguero; the volcano, horseback riding and river rafting in Arenal; monkeys in Manuel Antonio; whales and dolphins in the Osa Peninsula; our favorite thermal river, zip-line canopy and stylish bungalows at Rio Perdido; and the kids’ favorite, surfing in Nosara.
A friend and I rented a home in Nosara and transported seven kids on a super-sized golf cart for a month before our husbands arrived. It’s hard to get away for extended stays, but it’s worth the effort. Time stands still while traveling. You remember with more clarity the interests and abilities of each child during travel. We stayed long enough to understand pura vida ('poo–rah 'vee–dah) a particularly Costa Rican phrase meaning “pure life.” For them it’s a way of living. The phrase symbolizes the idea of letting go and simply enjoying life.
Our 2-year-old screamed in the mud volcano when a strange-to-her man (my masseur) began massaging my floating body in the thick, cool mud. The other kids would have stayed inside the volcano forever, and we worried that the rest of the month in Colombia would be a total dud by comparison. We were wrong. The horse-carriage rides, fortress treasure hunts, gigantic statues, pigeons and gelato were more than enough to keep my gaggle of girls happy.
When well planned, Colombia has something for every age group. We loved the pastel facades and cobblestone streets of Cartagena’s historical center; the hard-to-reach but breathtaking beaches of Tayrona National Park; exploring the Colombian coffee region at Hacienda Bambusa; adventuring through the Cocora Valley by Jeep Willys and bamboo rafts; and the museums and markets of Bogota.
When my husband was 7 years old, he saw a picture of Machu Picchu and thought, “I have to go there.” Many years later, as his college graduation gift to me, he planned our first hike on the Inca Trail. I had no idea it would be the beginning of a career doing humanitarian work in Peru and surrounding countries. Naturally, I wanted to share Peru with my daughters.
Machu Picchu has a lot of uneven stone steps, which can be hard on little legs, but it also has magic: llamas, caves, misty vistas, chinchillas and stories of Inca culture. In spite of Machu Picchu becoming such a popular destination, this region is well worth a visit. In the Sacred Valley we played and learned with local children at Sol & Luna Lodge. We explored the salt pans of Maras and the Incan gardens of Moray. We found the profile of Tunupa carved in the mountain above Ollantaytambo and ate mouth-watering empanadas. Then, we journeyed onto Lake Titicaca, where the kids adapted easily to the altitude, played on floating islands, chased guinea pigs and sheep and observed centuries-old weaving and spinning traditions.
Every family needs a go-to destination, a place that never gets old and feels like a vacation, but isn’t too far away. It’s where you go for a long weekend when everyone needs a break from the daily grind. Zion National Park, and relatively nearby Bryce and Arches, are the places we return to often.
Perhaps part of the appeal is nostalgia from childhood trips; when I’m surrounded by red rock and blue sky, the memories keep coming. I can picture my freckle-faced brother running barefoot catching lizards and stubbing his toe; my adventure-seeking father slowly moving me away from a cliff’s edge; camping in the red dirt that somehow packed itself into the crevices of our 1980s Chevy van; and jumping through the crimson-colored hoodoos.
These national park memories always lead to Delicate Arch—the place where John asked me to be his wife, and the place I first imagined what it would be like to travel with my own family.
When these memories come, I realize these are the gifts I want to give our children, memories of time together laughing, learning and loving each other.