It’s time to forget what you think you know about family vacations. Ditch the amusement park brochures and resort-ready refillable cups. Forget the boxes of cereal tucked into your luggage for your resident picky eater. There won’t be room for that in your suitcase anyway; not when you’ve got to dig deep into the closet, dust off your sense of adventure and fit excitement back in to your life.
In June 2011 after years of talking about it, Heather Greenwood Davis, her husband Ish and their sons Ethan and Cameron (then 8 and 6 respectively) set out on a yearlong trip around the world. Over the course of that one year they touched 29 countries (including China, Kenya, Egypt and Colombia) on six continents, rode ostriches, came nose to nose with a sphinx, swam with sharks and detailed their adventures on their blog, globetrottingmama.com. But Heather says that while the adventures were exciting, the bond the family developed from taking on a big trip together was the real reward.
“We knew we were going to have an adventure,” Heather says, “but we never could have predicted the ways it would change our family dynamic for the better.”
The kids realized their parents had fears just like them (her youngest had to hold her hand and shepherd her out of a “rat temple” in India) and the parents had the time to really listen to what their kids were saying – these were two of many concrete benefits of the trip, she says. A picky eater who recognized his own inner foodie and a shy boy who learned to make friends despite language barriers were other rewards.
Most of all,she says, it was the family’s ability to spend uninterrupted time together that made the biggest impact.
“We were close before we left but our relationship hit another level as we travelled together. Without peers to influence them or obligations to limit our time together we grew closer,” she says.
“It wasn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
It Happens to Most of Us
The baby arrives and as we unpack the car seat, we fold up our days of high-adrenaline, spontaneous travel and put it neatly on the shelf. Get a group of travel lovers together at a play date/birthday party/bar mitzvah and chances are you’ll hear stories of pre-kid trips that involve daring escapades and nary a costumed character in site.
But at some point the possibility of jumping off a cliff into the ocean became less about how high we could go, and more about whether our life jacket was secure and the kids’ swimming lessons would hold up.
While no one is saying that having kids doesn’t bring with it some incredible things (neck snuggles from a baby top my list), for many it also means the beginning of the end of the kind of vacations you’d write home about.
In its place? Anxiety, dread and annual trips to the same old destination.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Take our quiz to decide what type of family you are and then pick from one of these adventures that gets you out beyond your limits and back into the exciting vacations you’ve been waiting for.
Quest for Adventure Quiz
Circle your answers below and then tally your scores.
1. Your child is standing on the edge of a pool. They know how to swim and they’re wearing water wings. You think:
a. He’s going to fall in, bump his head and go into coma, and it’ll all be my fault. I knew we should’ve brought the bubble wrap!
b. C’mon kid. Go for it! Jump!
c. Next time we leave the wings at home, strap on a paragliding chute and hit the ocean.
2. You’re out on a “wild” adventure with your little ones at your side. The vehicle you’re in bumps across the terrain and settles at your destination. Your smile is wide because you’ve arrived…
a. at the local zoo.
b. to see a pack of lions roaming so close you could touch them and the promise that tomorrow there’s a boat waiting to take you
out to an open water to swim with sharks.
c. in a part of the world where guides don’t outnumber locals.
3. You’ve arrived at your vacation destination. A local approaches your family and smiles. When they open their mouth to speak to you, you hear…
b. French, Spanish or English.
c. sounds like Swahili but you’ll need to check your guidebook to be sure.
4. What a day. The family had a lovely time exploring and you’ve returned to your base camp to get ready for what’s next. You glance at your watch. It’s 5 o’clock! Perfect time for…
a. the kids to head out for a kids-only activity while you catch up on some reading in your room.
b. you to meet up with the other families in your group and head out together for the evening meal and some light exploration.
c. you to grab your flashlight, a map and a backpack and set out to explore the surroundings on your own.
5. It’s the vacation you’ve always dreamed of! You step off the plane and there waiting for you is…
a. an air-conditioned tour bus, a well laid out itinerary and a seasoned tour guide who will follow it to the letter.
b. a tour guide holding a sign with your name and the names of the 10 other visitors joining your group.
c. a car rental agent with the keys to your car. Hop in and head off to begin your great adventure.
What's Your Adventure?
Tally the number of As, Bs and Cs in your score, then read below to find out where your next vacation could take you.
Your sense of adventure is calling but you’re only willing to open the door with the chain-lock on. Comfort is important to you and you want to start off slow. Dip your toes into the adventure pool with one of these trips:
Where: Italy, China and more. If your family loves the magic of Disney theme parks but is hoping to venture further abroad, Adventures by Disney may be the perfect answer. Trips with the adventure tour company mean never having to say goodbye to the pixie dusted magic you’re used to while learning to make pizza in Italy or walking the Great Wall in China.
Where: Yellowstone National Park , Banff. While this award-winning adventure company offers plenty of international adventures and more rigorous trips further afield, these two popular outings are great starter trips. You’ll stay close to home and still get an incredible adventure under the watchful eye of a seasoned guide and simple itinerary.
You’re ready for adventure but you want the option to dial up the adrenaline level according to your family’s abilities. You’re looking for a mix of activities that feel like the trips you did “before kids” but have the safety component and family feel you need to be sure the kids aren’t overtaxed; not to mention the option to out if things look hairy. Check out:
Where: Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and, new in 2014, Burma. This Canadian company knows a thing or two about adventures. They’ve been synonymous with active, adrenaline-pumping trips for years and may have even been a company you traveled with before kids. Many of their options would allow for older kids who can handle the adventure but the Family trips are specifi cally geared to kids as young as five. Together you can swim with sea lions and sharks in the Galapagos; search for tarantulas in Costa Rica and more. Tour guides (known as COs) are picked for their love of kids and ability to take the interests of the group and tweak the itinerary to match.
Where: Kenya, India. If you’re hoping to add a volunteer component to your family trip but not sacrifice the adventures, this might be the one for you. Me to We is the sister organization to the Canadian charity Free the Children founded by brothers Marc and Craig Kielberger. Cultural immersion and community immersion mean the whole family will come away with a meaningful experience, and the sense of adventure remains with a safari excursion (Kenya) or exploring India’s largest fort.
You’re more of a lone wolf than the hanging-with-the-pack type but you still need some guidance. Try:
Where: Six continents including 15 European cities. The Monograms program satisfies your need for independence and control over the vacation. Your idea of a great vacation is just you and your family with a local guide you can count on when you need them and wave off when you don’t. Monograms tours offer independent family travel options you’ll enjoy on six continents. Packages give you a pre-planned itinerary, your choice of accommodation, a half day of guided sightseeing in every city you visit and transportation between cities. The local host in each city is able to offer you ideas for dining and shopping and other ways to fi ll unscripted hours but for the most part you’re on your own to explore.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2014.