Someone has invested a lot of marketing dollars into the catch phrase “family friendly” in recent years and it seems to be paying off. A quick search of “family friendly travel” will provide a bevy of “must see” destinations with children, complete with lists of how and when to go and why your kids are sure to love it. The biggest draw back to these “family friendly” spots: they’re overrun with children.
It’s a pet peeve of mine, the assumption that children won’t be interested in anything other than child culture, that everything must be dumbed-down and made “family friendly” before kids will become engaged. I think we sell the little people short as future guardians of the Universe when we expose them to Disney World and not Degas, Legoland and not the L’Ouvre, Sea World and not open water SCUBA diving. If you, like us, have done the “family friendly” destinations and are ready to move on to something more, let me assure you that you can take your children anywhere and find it family friendly, so long as you pack your sense of humor and are willing to throw out the guidebook.
The big secrets to making any destination family friendly? Know your kids, plan ahead and go for the totally unexpected! Include your kids’ current interests, research the “untold secrets” of your destination ahead of time and then blow their minds by doing something super cool. Here are a few ideas to whet your whistle:
Take a Sailing Course Vacation
What could be more “family friendly” than learning something new together? Kids raised on a cul-de-sac will have their eyes opened to a whole new world on a sailing adventure.
It is easy to book a week, or a month, on a fully crewed boat that incorporates sailing lessons, underwater adventure and loads of family togetherness. Five bucks says no one else in your sixth grader’s class has learned how to set a jib over spring break.
Your kids will learn a whole new set of skills and rub elbows with folks who might change the course of their lives forever in exotic new locations on the deck of a boat. If you’re even mildly tempted by the idea of life at sea, this will be the trip of a lifetime.
Mexico City is rarely on anyone’s radar for family vacations and yet it is one of the most “family friendly” cities in the world. Since I was 13 and first visited the capital of Mexico it has been my favorite city and one that I love to take my kids to over and over. Stay right downtown, on the zocalo if you can and avail yourself of the excellent public transportation network in one of the biggest cities in the world.
Three things any kid is guaranteed to love:
Chapultapec Park: a huge park filled with a child’s delights, from strolling cotton candy vendors to clowns, a zoo, rowboats for rent and a castle. Take the metro and get off at “the grasshopper” station.
The Voladores: Papantla’s famous “flying men” still ply their age old craft for visitors to the city. For a tip of your pocket change you can watch four men scale an impossibly high pole and descend upside down in a slow spiral tied by a single rope around the waist in what was an offering to the gods. Catch the show just outside the Museum of Anthropology, every half an hour or so; follow the sound of the reed flute and you’ll find them.
Aztec Dancers: Another bit of free fun on the zocalo. You’ll find several troupes of dancers re-enacting ancient Aztec rites, complete with offerings of fruits and incense, drumming and wild dancing in enormous feathered headdresses. Your kids are sure to ask, as mine did, “Are they really praying?” Some of them, it seems, are.
Don’t miss Teotihuacan, the big set of ruins north of Mexico City that are laid out as an accurate replica of the solar system. Every kid will love to climb the pyramid of the Sun, the largest pyramid you can climb in the world. You can arrange a bus out to the ruins any day of the week through your hotel in the city. And be sure to check out the Ballet Folklorico, an amazing display of the history and culture of Mexico through dance. Make reservations in advance as there are only three shows a week. Currently the Palacio Bellas Artes is under reconstruction, so the show has been temporarily moved to the Archeological Museum. See it at Bellas Artes if you can, the glass curtain alone is worth the price of admission.
Read about how to have an indie travel experience when visiting Mexico City.
Lago de Atitlan
Nestled within a ring of volcanoes in the highlands of Guatemala is the liquid sapphire that is Lago de Atitlan. I’ve never seen this on a list of “family friendly” destinations, but it’s on the short list of our kids’ all time favorite places. What’s not to love about waking up to smoking volcanoes, catching crabs in crystalline fresh water and taking boat instead of taxi rides?
Panajachel tops all of the guidebook lists, but skip it in favor of one of the “towns less traveled,” like San Pedro or San Marco. If you drive in, bring an extra set of brakes and “watch for falling transmissions” instead of rocks! An easier option is to hop a chicken bus in Guatemala City to Pana and then flag down a boat on the wharf. Our family scored two rooms in a very nice hotel in San Pedro, with a full kitchen, for $30 USD per night, for both rooms (Hotel Mansion del Lago).
Climb a volcano, zip-line through rainforest canopy, ride on horse back through a coffee finca, kayak, SCUBA dive, take Mayan weaving or painting lessons or enroll in a week of one-on-one Spanish classes taught under picturesque little palapas on the shore of the lake. Be sure to point out the floating pumice rocks, which will keep a curious kid busy for hours, and don’t miss the roast beef dinner served English-style on Sunday nights at the Alegre pub in San Pedro; as an added bonus, they play a different big screen movie every night in the rooftop garden.
While Amsterdam has quite a following with the gap year student crowd and those seeking the delights of legalized ‘fringe activities’, it’s a surprisingly fabulous city to visit with children. Don’t miss the Anne Frank Haus but, after that throw out your guidebook and get lost in the city. Between the excellent (and very safe) cycle paths, the labyrinth of canals that turn into a fairy land at night with a million tiny white lights, the excellent museums and a continual parade of culinary delights (try at least three different bakeries) your children will be delighted by Amsterdam.
Of course, even with children, the “anything goes” attitude of the city will filter through. Pack your sense of humor and be prepared to hear your seven year old announce, “Look Mama! The ladies behind the glass are waving at me!” when you’ve turned down the “wrong” street. Swallow hard, laugh and with your best Mama smile reply, “Well, yes they are Darling! You’d better wave back!” I’m quite sure our little troupe provided the “ladies” with the best entertainment of their day as we made our way through the red light district.
Among the other educational benefits of a week in Amsterdam: the five year old learning to sniff the difference between pot and hash. He’s ready for college.
Eastern Europe won’t usually make the travel section of Disney’s “Family Fun” magazine, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t family fun to be had there. Prague is a magical destination with children. Spared major damage in WW2 by Hitler’s particular love for the city, we heard it repeatedly referred to as the Disney World of the Czech Republic. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it certainly is a glimpse into history and a peek into the future of the emerging post-communist east.
There are loads of hotels that are easy enough to access, but if you’d like a truly immersive experience, why not rent an apartment in Praha 1 or 2 (the downtown area) through one of the many vacation rental sites, and live like a local? With kids, it’s a great way to really settle in, cook food that’s familiar and let your hair down in a home like setting. If your kids know the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” then don’t miss a visit to his imposing castle, the focal point of the city. See the changing of the guard in their powder blue uniforms and take the obligatory pictures from the St. Charles Bridge.
After that, leave the guidebook at home and take a cheap tour of the city by hopping on any of the street cars and riding wherever it takes you. Plan a long morning at the Vysehrad, an even older castle in a quieter part of town and listen to the cathedral bells echo across the river. The biggest obstacle to a visit to the Czech is the language, with the locals laughingly refer to as their best weapon against invaders. Be prepared to be completely illiterate and don’t be afraid to smile a lot and use sign language – we’ve never met a Czech who wasn’t happy to help.
Be sure to try the bacon and cheese wrapped breadsticks, and order svickova (roast beef in heavenly sauce with whipped cream on top and something like cranberries on the side.) It will be an experience your kids will never forget. <
New Orleans for Mardi Gras
Everyone knows the best way to get a lot of beads at a Mardi Gras parade… take your kids!! Even if it’s known as being hedonistic and full of hard-core partiers, there is a side of Mardi Gras that is a blast with kids. Touring the facility that builds the floats, standing shoulder to shoulder with locals and tourists alike, yelling for “throws” and munching beignets and hot chocolate after bedtime at Le Monde, when the last parade floats have faded into the darkness, is the stuff childhood memories are made of.
Finding lodging during Mardi Gras can be tricky, and expensive if you have a lot of kids. If you don’t have an inside connection somewhere, consider a hostel for cheap beds, and the use of a kitchen, which will reduce the number of times you have to shell out $44 USD for six “chicken on a sticks” from a street vendor on the parade route. Do one of the big downtown parades, by all means, but also venture out into the burbs and check out a local parade in Metatarie or somewhere like it, for a lower key Mardi Gras experience with a definite family focus. Don’t forget to eat at least one meal of crawfish and wear your beads home with pride.