My husband and I used to joke that once we had kids we were only allowed to vacation at Great Wolf Lodge. We actually have visited Great Wolf Lodge with our kids and had a great time, but our deeper concern involved being beholden to vacation destinations that are deemed “kid-friendly.”
The major players that come to mind are theme parks, beaches, cruises, national parks and, yes, water park hotels, but there are destinations all over the world that are more family-friendly than they may seem. You’ll still find some beaches and amusement parks on this list, but their locations may surprise you.
Read on to break out of your vacation rut and find your new favorite family vacation spot.
Costa Rica’s natural beauty and year-round tropical climate make it an appealing option for outdoorsy families. Along the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, there are a plethora of rugged beaches and national parks where you can see wildlife, waterfalls and even volcanoes.
Speaking of volcanoes, Arenal Volcano National Park, located in Costa Rica’s Northern Highlands region, is a hot spot, literally and figuratively, for visitors. Arenal is Costa Rica’s most active volcano and, within the park, you can hike among cooled lava floes, enjoy a dip in a hot spring and take in sky-high views of the park and crater from hanging bridges suspended in the forest canopy.
Beach-bound families should head for Tamarindo, a laid-back town in the province of Guanacaste where you can play in the surf and sand. From Tamarindo, you can book a half-day or full-day tour to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where you can experience the nation’s famed biodiversity — it’s home to over 5% of all known species.
Costa Rica also has some truly unique accommodations, including a repurposed vintage 1965 Boeing 727 fuselage not far from Manuel Antonio National Park that has two bedrooms and sleeps up to six guests. 727 Fuselage Home rates start at around $500 per night.
Once they hit middle school, most kids are aware of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and their connection to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Real-life education is always more impactful than what you can read in a book, so why not bring your kids to the spot where Darwin first saw the wildlife that inspired his work?
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The archipelago’s remote location may suggest it’s not ideal for families but, as a “natural laboratory of evolution,” that’s part of its unique appeal. Based on your family’s travel style, you could choose to do a land-based tour of the Galapagos or book a cruise that hops from one island to the next. Whatever your preference, you’ll have the opportunity to snorkel, kayak and see rare, endemic wildlife like giant sea turtles, marine iguanas and the emblematic Blue-footed booby.
A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island should definitely be on your list if the scientist’s theories piqued your child’s interest in school. They can experience firsthand the initiatives and ongoing research aimed at preserving the area’s fragile ecological systems.
The Royal Palm Galápagos, a Curio Collection Hotel by Hilton also located on Santa Cruz, is a great jumping-off point for day trips to the other Galapagos Islands. The hotel has family villas that sleep up to six guests and the property participates in the Hilton Honors program so you can earn and redeem points. Rates start at around $227 or 67,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Maybe we’ve seen “The Mummy” with Brendan Fraser one too many times, but there is nothing my kids would love more than to see ancient Egyptian tombs in person, not to mention the mummies who call those tombs “home.”
Any trip to Egypt with kids should include a visit to the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza just outside of Cairo. Various ticket options allow you to explore different areas of the Giza Plateau, or you can book private tours and camel rides through third-party tour vendors.
While in Cairo, you can view a collection of 50,000 artifacts that span the full history of Egyptian civilization at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Additional artifacts, including relics from Tutankhamun’s tomb, will be on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is expected to open in 2023.
Further south in Luxor, you can see the Valley of the Kings — the royal burial ground of Tutankhamun, Ramesses II and more, the Karnak and Luxor Temples and the Luxor Museum.
You can even add on a beach vacation with a stay at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh. Located on the Sinai Peninsula, the hotel is perched on a hill overlooking the Red Sea. Like other Four Seasons resort properties, there’s a complimentary Kids For All Seasons program with daily activities for children ages 4 to 12. Rates start at around $350 per night.
Palm Springs, California
Palm Springs is often thought of as a Southern California paradise for the Hollywood elite and frequent golfers, but the sunny town is surprisingly family-friendly. It’s best to visit in the fall or winter before temperatures climb into the triple digits so you can better enjoy being outside (especially if it’s chilly back home).
Speaking of being outside, the best way to see all that Palm Springs has to offer is with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. This rotating tram car (the world’s largest) travels more than 2 1/2 miles through Chino Canyon to Mt. San Jacinto State Park.
After your return trip to the desert floor, you can enjoy close encounters with animals at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, visit planes (including Walt Disney’s private jet) at the Palm Springs Air Museum and see giant dinosaurs in nearby Cabazon. If you have the time, Joshua Tree National Park’s desert landscapes are less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs.
With an impressive water park and discounted greens fees for the golfers in your family, the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells is a perfect Palm Springs hotel for families. Rates start at around $250 or 17,000 World of Hyatt points per night.
New Orleans is so much more than Mardi Gras parades and bachelor parties. From kid-friendly Bourbon Street tours to a whimsical storybook theme park, the Big Easy has just as many activities for families as it does for adults.
French Quarter Kid Tours offers teacher-led walking tours that teach children (and adults) about the history of New Orleans in fun and engaging ways. After all that walking, you’ll probably have worked up an appetite, best satisfied with beignets from Cafe Du Monde or hot dogs from Dat Dog.
You could easily spend a full day exploring City Park. It’s one of the country’s largest urban parks. In addition to the requisite playgrounds, tennis courts and botanical gardens, you’ll find mini golf, a children’s museum, a train garden, a storybook-themed playland and an amusement park with 18 fun-filled rides.
The Omni Royal Orleans is located in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, within walking distance of Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde and Bourbon Street, as well as endless shopping and dining. Rates start at around $240 per night for a room with two double beds.
Key West, Florida
Tourists flock to Key West for the fishing and the energetic nightlife, but that’s not all there is to do when you visit the southernmost city in the U.S.
The warm waters of Key West’s beaches are well-suited for days spent playing in the waves. Higgs Memorial Beach Park has a shaded playground for kids, though there is no direct beach access from the play area, making Smathers Beach a better choice if you are visiting strictly for the sand and water.
A few hours at the Key West Aquarium or the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum provide fun and a much-needed break from the Florida sun. Kids can learn about the sights of Key West on a 75-minute ride on the Conch Tour Train or see Key West’s marine life on a glass-bottom boat ride.
If you have the time, schedule a day trip to nearby Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, which includes a round-trip ferry ride, food, snorkeling equipment and entry into the park.
The Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel is, as the name implies, just steps away from the beach with family-friendly amenities like a beachfront pool and on-site dining. Room rates start at around $390 per night for a one-bedroom presidential suite that sleeps up to four guests, but can climb above $700 per night during peak season.
With its private overwater bungalows, crystal-clear waters and tropical setting, the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora is largely considered to be a romantic paradise for honeymooners. It’s those same qualities that make it perfect for families.
The privacy offered by overwater bungalows at the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora or the Conrad Bora Bora Nui means kids can splash and play without you having to constantly remind them to quiet down, and their waterside location means you can walk right out of your hotel room and jump in the water for swimming and snorkeling.
Rates at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui start at around $975 or 120,000 Hilton Honors points per night if your dates are flexible. Overwater bungalows that sleep up to four guests at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui start at around $3,225 or 1,530,000 points per night. If you are hoping for a bungalow, you’ll need quite a stash of points, but the 80,000-point welcome bonus with the no-annual-fee Hilton Honors American Express Card could get you well on your way to a night in a standard garden-view villa.
Both resorts also have complimentary kids clubs with play areas and activities, leaving you free to experience at least a small bit of Bora Bora’s romantic side. Outside the resorts, older children can snorkel at Matira Beach or swim (in shallow water) with white-tipped sharks and stingrays during a lagoon tour boat ride. Some tours also include close-up views of Mount Otemanu, an extinct volcano at the center of the island.
Feeling inspired yet? As much fun as it can be to visit familiar family vacation spots year after year, these unexpected, memorable destinations prove that it’s worthwhile to shake up your travel plans.