Monday, January 9, 2012

Amy's Top Five: Vacation {with kids} Destinations

I once read a piece about happiness research which concluded people glean happiness not from possessions, but from experiences. This little bit has always fueled my desire to travel together as a family. To build memories. To spend time together away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It brings us closer together. It broadens our horizons and, well, it's a whole lot of fun! 

And yes, it takes effort to travel with small children. But it's worth it. We did not, you'll note, travel oversees with two two-year-olds. We are realistic but also wanted our children to begin exploring different areas of the country {and continent} at a young age.

We cherish the family times we've shared on these travels. But yes, we also cherish a little adult time on our family vacations. So this list is not entirely kid-driven. It is not full of amusement parks and water slides {though we've done our time at both}. Rather, it is full of family destinations. Places to enjoy time as a family and to create those memories that will help get us through the tween and teen years ahead when they will refuse to be seen dancing with us to low country music. 

In 2012 we plan to repeat two of the top five. And as our kids grow and mature {and become more adventurous eaters} we plan to expand our sights further. 

But this is my top five list for traveling with kids ages 3 - 8. 

1.  Sea Island, Georgia

Entering through the gates and onto Sea Island you are immediately transported back in time. To a refined era where people dress for dinner and generations gather to "summer." Sea Island is an amazing enclave. The lodging options vary from posh hotel suites to cottages by the sea. We opted for a cottage we shared with another family. It was an ideal arrangement and allowed us the space for our kids to run a muck and to cook the majority of our own meals {so important to me when traveling with kids}. 

What I loved about Sea Island was the old-town feel. Everyone rides bikes from the cottages to the Beach Club. Older kids ride alone. The feel is one of very established neighborhood in which you are completely comfortable and safe. 

The amenities and activities are mind boggling -- tennis, air rifles, horseback riding, nature adventures, kayaking, fishing, pool games, movies, kids' club and more. Our kids' days were booked and they loved all the activities. Every activity was staffed by professionals and safety was the top priority. 

And while the resort itself is fancy-schmancy, we only "dressed" for dinner one night of nine -- the night we attended bingo night. I cannot possibly convey how fun bingo night was for our entire family. It's unlike any bingo hall you've been to, I can assure you of that. It is southern gentility at it's finest. And a "show" that will keep you in stitches until the final Bbbbbbbb5.

Sea Island is an exceptional resort. Ever facet - the spa, the golf, the facilities, the kids' activities -- are beyond reproach. And yet the staff is friendly and accommodating {need a babysitter tonight, of course we can find someone} and no detail goes unnoticed {supervised activities for the kids during cocktail hour, of course}. It quite simply provides the ultimate location and atmosphere for a family to make lasting memories! 
Sea Island memories ~ 2008
2.  Kauai, Hawaii

Simply amazing. We were all blown away by our Kauai experience. You can read all the splendid details here and here. It was a lengthy vacation for us -- 15 days including travel -- so that alone added to our enjoyment. But it is the people of Kauai and, of course, the gorgeous natural environment that make Kauai, well, paradise. 

Snorkeling just 50 feet off-shore with your kids for the first time. Seeing the Na Pali coast by helicopter. Taking family surf lessons. Enjoying fresh fish and produce at every turn. Marveling at the glorious natural landscape. Completely unwinding and bonding as a family. These are just a few of the reasons Kauai now holds a special place in our family's history. 
Kauai memories ~ 2010

3.  Costa Rica, Central America

What I loved so much about Costa Rica was the lack of development. It felt like Mexico without the Burger King and with howler monkeys. It is remote and a long bus ride may be required, but the hospitality we encountered, in addition to the pristine beaches and rain forests, was beyond compare. 

Within thirty minutes of arriving Little Miss Thang had slipped on a rock and busted her chin open. The doctor was paged, emerged from the hot tub {no lie}, and stitched her up about thirty minutes later {after the hubs grilled her to ensure she was indeed a "real doctor"}. 

I also remember taking our kids to one of the nicer restaurants {note: kids were then 4 and not at all accustomed to fine dining}. The restaurant staff went above and beyond in ensuring we all enjoyed our meals, by providing activities for the kids and customizing meals to their exact specifications. 

We stayed at the Westin Resort & Spa, Playa Conchal because we were with a large work group. It is a lovely resort with a plethora of activities and restaurant offerings. Because of the age of our children we did not opt for the six hour rain forest excursions complete with towering zip lines. We did, however, explore enough to experience a bit of rain forest and zip lining and so much more.

We spent an entire afternoon and evening in Tamarindo with a group of friends. The kids surfed, played and climbed trees. The adults lounged, some surfed, and all enjoyed one of the most laid-back days and glorious sunsets of our lives. We all feasted on steak and lobster that night at a little shack right on the beach and paid only $80 / family {including a day-long bar bill}. 

Everywhere we went there was someone looking out to ensure we were all enjoying ourselves. The hospitality and scenery were simply amazing at every turn. 
Costa Rica memories ~ 2007

4.  Beaver Creek, Colorado

"Not exactly roughing it" {the officially Beaver Creek motto} sums up our experience at this Colorado ski resort. The mountain is vast. The runs are challenging, and easy, and scenic and everything in between. And it doesn't hurt that they offer warm chocolate chips cookies as you come off the slopes around 4:30. 


And truly, beyond cookies, there is something for everyone at Beaver Creek -- in terms of skiing, lodging, dining and shopping {not that I stopped to fully explore the shopping - maybe this year}. Yes, there is the super posh Spago restaurant at the Ritz Carlton at Bachelor Gultch, but just up the hill there is also the buy your lunch and grill it yourself venue which, as you may guess, is much more affordable {and scenic}.  

What ultimately sold me {besides the cookies} was the ski school. It has been referred to as the "Ivy League of ski schools". And who doesn't want an ivy league ski education for their children!? The ski school facility, while mildly chaotic {first come, first serve in selecting an instructor}, was wonderful. They devote a large portion of the mountain to the ski school -- a very large  portion of a very large mountain. It is an incredible set-up for every level. Additionally, the instructors were friendly, engaging, laid-back, and most importantly, great with my kids. And allegedly they ate more than cookies and hot chocolate for lunch. 

But the proof is ultimately in the pudding, as they say, and well, at the end of three days my kids were skiing. Little Miss Thang successfully {albeit accidentally} navigated a black on her first day with us. Even more importantly, they had a positive attitude the entire time. They contacted us when one of the cousins was having a bad day, though handled and rectified it perfectly. 

Bottom line: they made my kids fall in love with skiing and want to return. For that I am forever grateful!  
Beaver Creek memories - 2011

5.  Disneyland, California

No list of kids' travel destinations would be complete without a Disney experience in the mix. For our tots, then 3, we chose Disneyland in lieu of Walt Disney World. In my opinion, you can capture that magical "Magic Kingdom" experience at Disneyland in about half the time as Disney World. And with toddlers, three days of excitement is about all they can truly enjoy. We were even able to walk from our hotel straight into the park {and back for a nap}. No car. No bus. No tram. Character dinners and experiences were plentiful and lines were mangeable. 

I know I do not need to convince you that every kids adores the Disney experience. It is truly magical. And I think every parent should experience the awe in your child's eyes when she see her favorite princess {or he sees his favorite character} and truly believes she is that princess. Disneyland makes that Disney experience manageable and enjoyable for families with toddlers. 

Now that I won't be pushing a double stroller and trying to coordinate a nap schedule, we will certainly venture on to Disney World and all Orlando has to offer. And I'm certain it will allow for an entirely new and different sense of wonder and awe. For the kids and the hubs and me.  
Disneyland memories ~ 2006

What destination do we need to try next?  And what is your favorite family-friendly spot so far?

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