Why settle for the easy option close to home? Try one of these far-flung picks instead.
Planning a family vacation, like so many aspects of parenting, is a fine art. With so many people to please and such little time usually set aside from them, the stakes are high when plotting the perfect break. How to ensure your holiday hits the high notes? Start by choosing the destination carefully and then look for hotels that not only welcome but also encourage and entertain younger travelers. You don’t need to sacrifice comfort and style for family-friendly programming, either. Whether you’re embarking on the first adventure with a swaddled addition or you’re in transit with a teen, these spots across the globe should provide inspiration to get you going.
There’s a reason why the Bahamas was an AFAR Traveler’s Choice finalist for Best Family Destination for 2019. In fact, there are several. Sun, sea, sand, and surf are just the most alliterative; the island chain is packed with festivals, cultural events, and local workshops to keep kids entertained once the boogie board has lost its charm. For a quieter retreat, we love Cat Island, where Airbnbs and family-run hotels supplant mega-resorts and a People-to-People cultural experience offers the chance to take part in a range of activities with locals.
Where to stay: Baha Mar, which encompasses three hotels: the Rosewood, SLS, and a Grand Hyatt. Here the Explorers Club keeps kids ages three to 12 occupied from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a variety of activities and games, and The Sanctuary offers the chance to feed turtles and nurse sharks, nurturing a new generation of conservationists in the process. There’s also an aviary and a flock of flamingos. Movies are screened by the pool on Saturday nights. Unencumbered parents can choose golf, the spa, or one of the 40 dining and nightlife options. The Rosewood property itself is opening its own Explorers Club in November 2019.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles, California
Halfway between Hollywood and Anaheim and just west of greater Los Angeles’s tangle of freeways, the Palos Verdes Peninsula is a remarkably wild stretch of Southern California jutting into the Pacific. You won’t find movie studios or theme parks on these ragged clifftops. Here hiking, biking, and horse-riding trails wind round succulents and native shrubs, offering expansive sea views at every turn. Head north for the comparatively chilled beach towns of the South Bay, including Redondo Beach, upscale Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach. Or follow the road south for kayaking and whale-watching at Long Beach, the historic Queen Mary, and the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Where to stay: Since Terranea opened in 2009, it’s been a haven for staycationing SoCal families. A full-service pool with cabanas, waterslides, and a splash pad will get you started, while the Tide Pool Kids Club offers babysitting so adults can experience supper at Mar’Sel (a 2019 Wine Enthusiast Best Restaurant winner). Guided coastal hikes, horseback adventures, cake making, and plein air painting (for those six and older) will keep everyone busy, while Saturdays in the summer see a magician from Hollywood’s Magic Castle amuse and astound with puppets and clowns.
Mexico City, Mexico
Whether it’s the food, history, design, or a love for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Mexico City exerts a magnetic pull on adult travelers. But there’s also plenty for small and medium people—and they don’t have to have seen Coco to enjoy the trip. World-class museums, sprawling parks, and top restaurants abound, and that’s before you get to the luchadores wrestlers, the Planetario Luis Enrique Erro (planterium), the chocolate museum, or the Acuario Inbursa (aquarium). If all else fails, there’s a Six Flags here, too. Did we mention the chocolate museum?
Where to stay: The Four Seasons lays out the red carpet for kiddos, with child-size bathrobes, cookies and milk at bedtime, diapers and teddy bears for toddlers, and crayons, coloring books, and table games for older kids, plus babysitting services and an activity concierge. Outside the city, head to Hotel Rodavento in Valle de Bravo, a lakeside town some 95 miles west of Mexico City. Here kids choose their own adventures at Camp Rodavento, where cooking classes, kayaking, zip-lining, and fishing for the family’s supper are all options. A UNESCO Monarch Butterfly Reserve nearby will teach children the importance of that vanishing species.
This southern county is brimming with family-friendly attractions, including Beaulieu National Motor Museum in the heart of the lovely New Forest, several Go Ape rope courses for swinging from tree to tree like a crazed monkey, and Paultons Theme Park with its newish dinosaur world and Peppa Pig land for the true parental gluttons for punishment. The cities of Portsmouth and Southampton feature the usual urban diversions, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more historic hub than the country’s former capital, Winchester.
Where to stay: Chewton Glen in the New Forest. Kids stay free during the summer at this luxury British retreat, and with a range of activities on offer—including biking, archery, falconry, and duck herding (yes, duck herding)—you’ll want to bring them along. The hotel offers 14 Treehouse Suites high in the foliage and has partnered with design firm Blue Forest to create a new tree house for 2019, full of corners to play and read. Alternatively, converted Georgian Mansion Heckfield Place secured a spot in AFAR’s 2019 Stay List and offers children’s menus and special activities as well as untold acres of woodland to explore.
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D.C.’s top-notch family credentials have been on display for decades; you can’t swing a lunch box without hitting a museum, monument, or memorial. The Smithsonian’s Fossil Hall reopened in early June after five years, with a giant T. rex skeleton taking center stage among 700 other specimens, while the Kennedy Center’s REACH extension—a new space designed to allow the public to watch artistic work in progress and orchestras rehearsing—is scheduled to open in September.
Where to stay: Small historic hotel The Jefferson has a new walking guide, “Kids Who Made American History,” in which the property’s historian, professor Susan Sullivan Lagon, leads youngsters round the city to various places where young trailblazers had an impact. Transgender student Gavin Grimm, who took his fight for fair restroom use to the Supreme Court, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “smallest freedom fighter,” Sheyann Webb, who marched from Selma to Montgomery as a nine-year-old, are among those featured. Back at the hotel, children can peruse bookshelves curated by the likes of Barack Obama and Eva Chen while sipping a mocktail. (Parents could try a real cocktail at one of Washington D.C.’s best rooftop bars.)
Having largely bounced back from Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is open for business and a perfect family spot. From cultural San Juan, where museums and underground tunnels will fire young imaginations, to surf and snorkel opportunities along the east and west coasts, and hikes in the lush interior, the island will keep everyone busy.
Where to stay: At the Dorado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, on the north coast west of San Juan, the Rockefeller walking trail and the Watermill Aquatic Park—an “aquatic playground” fashioned after a traditional sugar mill and featuring lazy rivers and waterslides—will tire older kids out while you relax at the spa.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
From kaleidoscopic coral reefs to Mayan ruins, the Yucatán Peninsula is one immense educational outdoor playground for families with older children. Spectacular Chichén Itzá is one of the best-known sites, but the region harbors all manner of discoveries on land and sea. Plenty of top resorts cater to big broods, but you’ll want to make sure you leave the compound once in a while.
Where to stay: The Rosewood Mayakoba has partnered with Disney to bring Toy Story 4 to the property this year. That means themed activities and surprises throughout the site as well as “exclusive welcome amenities.” (That’s toys, right? It must be toys.) There’s 50 percent off a second suite until September 30, so you can spread the familia out. Woody and Buzz aside, the Rosewood offers eco boat tours accompanied by a biologist, Mayan storytelling, Spanish lessons, and pizza nights.
Wolgan Valley, Australia
Sydney could, of course, keep a family happy all vacation long. But it’s also worth taking your traveling circus northwest out of the city a few dozen miles. Here you’re in national park territory, where the canyons and rock pagodas of Gardens of Stone National Park and the calm lakes of Wollemi National Park await.
Where to stay: The Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, which is part of the Luxury Lodges of Australia group of independent hotels and sits within 7,000 acres of “carbon-neutral conservation and wildlife reserve.” Here evenings stargazing round the campfire take precedence over Netflix while kangaroos and wallabies feature heavily on the family excursions into the surrounding Greater Blue Mountains. There are just 40 villas here, each with its own pool, fireplace, and verandah.
Ningaloo Coast, Australia
Nature provides the big draw here, too, whether you’re after a swim with the gentle whale shark (technically the world’s largest fish) by the spectacular Ningaloo Reef or emu-spotting in the sand dunes or at Cape Range National Park.
Where to stay: Sal Salis, another Luxury Lodge of Australia, consists of 16 luxury tents pitched on the dunes. Children over five are welcome to stay in the camp and take part in activities. The resort also offers the chance to swim with humpback whales from August through October.
Grossarl is a serene outdoor playground an hour from Salzburg, great for hiking and horse riding in the summer and the usual winter sports after snowfall. It’s right by Austria’s largest national park, Nationalpark Hohe Tauern, and the world’s largest ice cave.
Where to stay: Five-star family hotel Moar Gut will take kids of any age off your hands and ensure their vacation exceeds their own expectations. The property’s “Baby Hotel” takes care of the tiniest of munchkins all day long, with massages and baby swimming in between naps for infants over one month old. The “Children’s Hotel” includes a playhouse, theater, and cinema shows for middle children, and the “Teen Hotel” occupies older siblings with bikes, Segways, and other age-appropriate activities. The farm also has a petting zoo and riding stable. The hotel is part of Europe’s Kinderhotel network, which offers several other high-end family retreats. Elsewhere in Austria, try Almhof in Gerlos, in the Zillertal Valley just outside Innsbruck, or Hotel Löwe in Serfaus in the attraction-packed Tyrol region a few hours from Munich airport.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa
A safari can be one of the most transformative experiences for children once they’ve hit the right age, and South Africa’s Sabi Sand Reserve (which shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park) is a prime spot to make those memories. The big five roam some 160,600 acres here and over 300 bird species fly the skies.
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Where to stay: Ebony Lodge, the first of the Singita luxury safari camps, is made up of 12 comfortable suites with private plunge pools. The activities will keep children busy all week. Stargazing, photography, and game drives are all on offer, and Singita’s extra family options include board games, arts and crafts, and a “Rangers’ Course” teaching animal tracking, bird-watching, and bush survival. New mini rangers are tested and awarded a certificate. Older teens, meanwhile, are taught advanced survival skills like building fires and finding water sources or may be taken to plant trees at community schools. The 12 cottages of &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp are another worthy option. This exclusive resort welcomes children and runs a WildChild program, encompassing everything from fishing to crafting, painting, and making bows and arrows, as well as a babysitting service.
With the first nonstop flight from the United States to Nairobi launching last year, the wonders of East Africa are more accessible than ever before. Kenya’s capital is a must but the lions, leopards, and black rhinos of the quintessential safari spot, the Maasai Mara, are calling, too.
Where to stay: The kids’ classes at Angama Mara take it up a notch or two, with beading and spear-throwing (taught by a Maasai warrior) among the opportunities. The hotel also offers nature walks, photography classes, trips to local schools, and stargazing. There are four interconnected family tented suites in the lodge’s two camps. Kids six and older are welcome, and childminding is included in the rate.
Thailand’s largest island is surrounded by sea caves and subaqueous marine life that will delight your young swimmers, but there’s also plenty to explore on shore. Head to Phuket Town for museums and shrines, Chalong for imposing temples, and Thalang for its national parks and wildlife sanctuaries before introducing young palates to the region’s tempting mix of southern Thai and Malay cuisine.
Where to stay: Children ages eight to 12 can play out their hotelier fantasies at Anantara Layan Phuket Resort, following the resort team as they prepare for the arrival of new guests at the nearby Layan Residences by Anantara, learning cooking with the chefs and towel art with housekeeping.
Summer hordes fill the beaches of Croatia year after year, but for a less-trodden alternative try heading a few clicks north. The much smaller country is densely packed with family-friendly delights, including caves, castles, and water parks. Try charming Piran on Slovenia’s sliver of Adriatic coast or the fortifications of Ljubljana, via a paddle on Lake Bled or rafting on the Soča river.
Where to stay: The Grad Otočec hotel is basically a fairy-tale castle dating back to the 13th century. Outside it’s all turrets and and fortifications but inside it’s pure comfort. It’s played host to European royalty and several real-life James Bonds, and it offers a pool, tennis court, and amusement park at its sister hotel nearby.
Hawaii, with its reliable weather, Polynesian food and culture, and abundance of outdoor pursuits, has long been a stalwart family travel choice. Oahu is also home to Pearl Harbor and dozens of movie locations.
Where to stay: Aulani, the island’s Disney resort, is expanding its programming for 2019. On top of the usual precision-tooled kid-friendly stuff you’d expect from Disney (character meet-and-greets, live music, movie nights), the new Aunty’s Beach House is a 5,300-square-foot space full of game tables, arts and crafts spaces, and video games with an added focus on Hawaiian history and culture. Similarly, Honolulu’s ‘Alohilani Resort has been working on respectfully teaching guests elements of indigenous culture, including ukulele classes and coconut frond weaving. The hotel’s Monkeypod Kids Club features kite-making, lawn games, and other diversions for kids ages five to 12.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
Ancient forests, rambling pathways, and secret swimming spots are among the abundant alfresco draws that exert a magnetic pull away from the smartphone on this wild retreat a few hours from the city of Vancouver.
Where to stay: The Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is all-inclusive, but nothing like your standard fries-by-the-pool fare. For starters, a horse-drawn wagon will shuttle you to your luxury tent at the 600-acre Relais & Châteaux property. From there all meals, alcohol, activities, and instruction are taken care of. Horseback riding, whale- and bear-watching, biking, climbing, surfing, and yoga are among the outdoorsy options. Kids seven and older are welcome.
As Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anthony Doerr discovered this year on a last-minute AFAR Spin the Globe trip with his teenage boys, the Sultanate of Oman—a country of 4 million pointing southeast from the Arabian peninsula—equally deserves a place on this list. If you’re looking to broaden young horizons, this portion of the Middle East, where the landscape is “like southern Utah mixed with western Wyoming, with tablespoons of Mars thrown in” ticks that box and then some.
Where to stay: The Six Senses Zighy Bay offers an immersive program for kids that includes trips to the farm and organic garden to pick up breakfast (and meet the baby goats and camels) and time at the resort’s Earth Lab, where they can create organic sustainable scrubs and masks. Ecological concerns are front and center here, with marine biologists accompanying young snorkelers to foster a love of and concern for our watery cousins.
Thie geographically diverse country, with its cloud forests, rain forests, dry plains, and rugged beaches perfect for beginning surfers, will keep kids entertained at every turn. Throw in some howler monkeys, a few cute sloths, and a zip line or three and you have a family vacation for the books. No surprise Costa Rica won Best Family Destination at the 2019 AFAR Travelers’ Choice Awards.
Where to stay: The Tulemar Bungalows & Villas was voted the best in world by Tripadvisor and the resort’s four pools and private beach will tire out the tots with ease. Or try the Four Seasons, where family cooking lessons, chocolate-making, and salsa dancing entertain during rainy spells, and kids ages four to 12 can busy themselves at the Childrens Center. Teens, meanwhile, get their own clubhouse with basketball court, pool table, and the usual gamut of video game consoles.
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