Soft Adventure with the Kids

Soft Adventure with the Kids

 Summer is coming. Want to do something more exciting than the same old week at the lake or beach? Back in your pre-kid days, you may have rafted the white water of Brazil’s Bio Bio River or scaled to the top of Yellowstone’s Half Dome. Or, at least, tackled the rapids of West Virginia or climbed Mt. Washington.  Today, with kids in tow, just getting through the airport can seem like a major accomplishment.

 But it’s possible to add some adventure to your vacation even when the kids are young. We’re not talking Outward Bound or wilderness camping. Instead, consider these destinations that feature family-friendly activities as well as “soft adventure.” Best yet, though they feel remote, they’re all fairly convenient to major airports.

Bandelier National Monument

Play house with your kids -– in Pueblo cave dwellings that date back to the 1100s. Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico, is a terrific place for families. The archeological sites are easily accessible –- the best known, in Frijoles Canyon, is just a short walk from the visitor center.      

The park offers numerous activities for kids, including a Junior Ranger program. To participate, kids fill out a worksheet while visiting the main loop trail and the site museum. If they make the grade, they receive a Junior Ranger patch and certificate.      

You can easily spend an entire day wandering through the cliff dwellings, most of which were built on graduated inclines so the drop-off is seldom dangerous. However, there are a few sites you won’t want to visit with little ones, including a ceremonial cave kiva that is perched 140 feet above the canyon floor.

The 32,000-acre park is a great place to hike, with more than 70 miles of backcountry trails. If you visit in summer, you’ll be able to see Native American artisans demonstrating crafts. Past demos have included kachina carving, willow basketmaking, traditional embroidery and turkey-feather blanketmaking.

There is a campground on site, which offers nature programs most evenings in the summer. Other accommodations, predominantly budget hotels, are available in Los Alamos.  For something nicer, head to Santa Fe. La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa is a good choice, with its large swimming pool and convenient location, a few blocks from the town’s central Plaza. About an hour and a half south, Albuquerque is the nearest major airport to Bandelier and Santa Fe.

For information on Bandelier National Monument, call 505-672-3861. For info on La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa, call 505-986-0000.

Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

Picture yourself snorkeling three miles offshore in crystal-clear waters, amid 650 varieties of fish — including a five-foot-long sand shark lazily swimming beneath you.

Yikes! Get me out of here. Although I had that up-close encounter with said shark at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the rangers there tell me such incidents are rare. And, they reassured me that sand sharks are rarely aggressive, preferring fish, not humans, as their food of choice.

So, yes, I would go back, not only for the awesome snorkeling but for all the other cool things to do in and around Pennekamp, the nation’s first underwater park. It’s located at Mile Marker 102.5 in the Florida Keys, an easy hour-and-half drive from the Miami airport.

If your kids aren’t strong swimmers, skip the snorkeling and take an outing on the Spirit of Pennekamp, a glass-bottomed catamaran that takes visitors to a sunken Navy vessel, in addition to the reefs.

Drive south a few miles to Islamorada to feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Rent-a-Boat. For just a buck, you can buy bait and feed a school of 50 to 100 tarpon. Sometimes, these huge “silver kings” actually rise from the water to meet the fish as it’s dropped from visitors’ hands.

 There’s a slew of nearby lodging; one of the best bets is the Holiday Inn Key Largo & Marina. It’s nicer than the average Holiday Inn, and kids stay and eat free. 

 For more information about John Pennekamp State Park, call 305-451-6300. For info on the Holiday Inn Key Largo & Marina, call 305-451-2121.

 Point Reyes National Seashore

Eerie-looking geological formations, the ocean, the bay, a lighthouse that’s reached by descending 300 steps down a cliff through a veil of fog, and miles and miles of hiking trails.

 This is Point Reyes National Seashore, a 71,000-acre national park about 1 1/2 hours north of San Francisco. Located off Highway One, this dramatic, rock-strewn landscape bears scant resemblance to the softly pretty coastline further south on Highway One, in and around Carmel, Monterey and Santa Barbara. 

 It’s hard to believe that the vast open space of Point Reyes is so close to San Francisco, which is what makes it so good for traveling families. You can eat breakfast at bustling Fisherman’s Wharf and soak up the solitude at Point Reyes before lunchtime.  

Family-friendly activities include nature programs, guided walks and hiking on your own on the 147 miles of trails. 

Lodging options include five campgrounds and the Point Reyes Hostel, all located in the park. But, if your family desires a bit more comfort, try the nearby town of Inverness, which has several inns and bed & breakfast establishments. Inverness has a population of 1,400. Unlike some even smaller area towns, it boasts a market/general store and a pizza shop.    

For more information about Point Reyes National Seashore, call 415-669-1534.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center

Fall asleep to the sounds of howling wolves in the comfort -– and safety –- of your tent cabin at Fossil Rim. In the morning, sit a spell on your cabin’s front patio, the perfect spot to view a waterhole where an ever-changing variety of animals, from sandhill cranes to waterbuck, come to quench their thirst.

Most locals simply call it “the wildlife park” but Fossil Rim, near Glen Rose, Texas, bills itself as an education, conservation and research facility. Located on 1,800 acres of live oak and juniper in the North Texas Hill Country, Fossil Rim is home to more than 1,000 species of animals, including 14 endangered species. Although you can drive through the park, a better way to experience it is on a guided tour. “Behind the Scenes” tours are open to all ages; you’ll have to wait until the kids are over 12 to go on the all-day Adventure Tour and two-hour Wildlife Feeding Tour.

Although it feels out in the middle of nowhere, Fossil Rim is only 1 ½ hours from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. It’s a few more hours to Austin or San Antonio, the latter of which is especially kid-friendly, with Sea World, Splashtown USA water park, and the famed River Walk.    

Fossil Rim offers tent cabins at the Foothills Safari Camp. They’re pretty posh; they include private bath, ceiling fans and heat and air conditioning. Equally comfortable is a nearby lodge that offers bed & breakfast accommodations in five rooms.

For more information about Fossil Rim, call 254-897-2960.

–Margo McDonough


Newbie to Family Travel? Listen up!

Your life is going to change.

You heard those words during the pregnancy or adoption and begged to differ. But now your bundle of joy is home and dreams of backpacking in Europe en famille have been replaced by dreams of just getting a good night’s sleep.

 Yes, life has changed, but if you really love to travel you’ll find a way to make it work with kids (even if you do lose that backpack).

 Here’s what I learned from 4 kids and 60-plus family trips. Next up – Denmark and Sweden this summer and maybe Scotland in the fall.

You Still Can Do Grown-Up Stuff

Three boys under the age of 10 and the Louvre are not mutually incompatible. I know; I did it. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I bribed them with lunch at Planet Hollywood on the Champs-Elysees. (It could have been worse; they could have picked McDonald’s.)

Go ahead and take the kids to the Sistine Chapel. See Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms. Learn about batik-making in St. Lucia or olive oil making in Puglia. Just keep it short. The boys and I zoomed through the Louvre in three-fourths of a day. And – antithetical to what any parenting expert will tell you – be sure to have a goody bag or bribe ready to go.

Eat Your Words

I wouldn’t be caught dead on a cruise ship.

Mass-market package trips and cruise ships weren’t your thing when you traveled solo. But the conveniences they offer may make you reconsider. Take a cruise ship vacation and you won’t need to pack your own peanut butter for Little Miss Picky Eater who survives on PB&J sandwiches. You’ll be able to enjoy grown-up-only activities like doglsedding on Mendenhall Glacier or ziplining in Honduras while your kid chills in the ship’s childcare facilities. You certainly won’t want to make every vacation a cruise or package trip but it can be the right option when you’re feeling weary or overwhelmed.  

 Start Young

The best time to start family travel is right now. If you wait until the kids are out of cribs, in school, or “when they’re a little older” you’ll never go. Changing diapers or potty training at 35,000 feet isn’t fun. But it will be worth it when you watch your toddler bite into a hand-made chocolate in a Bruges candy shop or search for monkeys in a Belize rain forest.     

Pull ‘Em out School

I’ve received truancy letters from my school district’s lawyer for taking my kids on trips abroad. But I dug my heels in and now the district leaves me alone. If you can’t afford to travel in summer, when’s school’s out, go ahead and take that family trip to Pompei or Paris in the dead of winter, when airfares plummet. The kids will undoubtedly learn more that week than any other week of the school year.      

Make a Commitment to Travel     

The USDA says it takes $269,520 to raise a child to age 17. Social researcher Mark McCrindle says you’ll spend more than a million. Either way, that’s a lot of cash. Unless you’ve got a trust fund, you’ll have to get creative to find a way to pay for all those diapers, daycare bills, braces, piano lessons and take a trip or two.

Decide from the get-go that travel is an integral part of your family’s budget. Maybe you’ll need to pick up a part-time job or freelance. Maybe you’ll need to skimp in other areas, like home furnishings. But if you don’t make travel a priority, the money will get spent elsewhere.      

–Margo McDonough