500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 500 of the most exciting and memorable cities, museums, and trips throughout the world. The seven destinations below offer excellent opportunities for families seeking to see the sights via two wheels and pedal power.
What:Bicycling on Nantucket
Who: All ages
Where: Nantucket, Massachusetts
Bringing a car to Nantucket, the tiny Massachusetts island 30 miles off Cape Cod, can be an incredible hassle in summer -- there are only six pokey car ferries per day from Hyannis, and they book up months in advance. Day visitors generally choose to come on foot (which frees you to opt for a high-speed ferry), but then they don't explore any further than tourist-mobbed Nantucket Town. Your solution? Rent bikes. Flat, sandy Nantucket is heaven for beginning bicyclists, with paved paths leading all over. Bring helmets with you (they're required for children under 12) or rent them along with bikes in Nantucket Town at shops right by the wharf. Nothing could be easier, or more fun.
Here's the lay of the land: Three major bike routes radiate out from Nantucket Town, one heading west to Madaket, 6¼ miles, one south to Surfside 3½ miles, and the longest one a 17-mile loop out to Siasconset Beach ('Sconset to locals) and Sankaty Head lighthouse. It's classic beachy terrain, with few trees, wide skies, and swaths of tall dune grass on both sides. The pedaling is easy, and the island's small scale makes you feel you're really getting somewhere, especially when you hit the bluffs and get that Atlantic panorama. Picnic benches and water fountains are conveniently provided at strategic points along all the paths, which you'll appreciate if you're towing really young ones in a bike trailer.
Madaket is picturesque, especially at sunset, but has strong surf; with kids, you're better off turning right on Eel Point Road and swimming at gentler Dionis Beach. Popular Surfside beach is your best bet with young children, not only because the ride is shorter but because there's a snack bar. My favorite, though, is the ride to 'Sconset, even though it is the most demanding, longer and with a few hills. 'Sconset is rarely, if ever, crowded, perhaps because of the water's strong sideways tow. Lifeguards are usually on duty, but the closest facilities (restrooms, grocery store, and cafe) are back in the center of the village, which is lovely and worth a stop anyway. From 'Sconset, head north along the coastal path on Polpis Road, stopping off to snap Nantucket photos in front of the classic lighthouse at Sankaty Head. If you've planned ahead, though, you've booked an unforgettable naturalist-led tour (offered June-Oct) of the barrier beaches with the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (tel. 508/228-6799; reservation required); detour up Wauwinet Road to the Wauwinet Inn to meet the tour. By the time you pedal back into Nantucket Town and get back on the ferry, you'll have spent a day in the sun you won't soon forget.
Contact: Nantucket Visitor Services, 25 Federal St. (tel. 508/228-0925; www.nantucket-ma.gov).
What: New River Gorge: Mountain Biking the Canyon
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Fayetteville, West Virginia
While many visitors come to West Virginia's New River Gorge to shoot the white-water rapids or to climb the hard sandstone cliffs, I much prefer to enjoy this national parkland on the seat of a mountain bike. There are 20 miles of shady mountain bike trails laid out, none too strenuous for competent younger riders, and as you pedal along you'll discover the region's coal-mining history. From 1873 through the 1930s, this southern West Virginia area wasn't the idyllic wilderness you see today -- it was King Coal country, laced with railroads and pocked with mining operations. My ancestors worked in the West Virginia coal fields, so I feel a personal connection to this steep-sided river gorge, where vestiges of the industrial past lie half-hidden beneath beautiful new-growth forests.
The easiest trail is the 3-mile Thurmond to Minden trail, a flat pedal along an abandoned branch line of the C & O Railroad. You'll rattle across five trestle bridges and can stop at several scenic overlooks with panoramas of the New River and Thurmond Depot. The Thurmond Depot visitor center is well worth a look, with historic furnishings showing its railroading past. Another short route, although more demanding, is the rugged 3.5-mile Stone Cliff trail, which climbs up to an abandoned homestead. The 6-mile Cunard-Kaymoor Trail visits an abandoned coal mine site, while the bumpy-though-level 6-mile Brooklyn to Southside Junction trail winds along another former rail bed, past a handful of old coke ovens and derelict mining towns, so close to the river that you may hear the screams of rafters hitting the Surprise rapids. (Trail distances are all one-way; you can pick up detailed trail instructions at any of the recreation area's four visitor centers.) You're never far from the river on any of these trails -- the entire park is a long narrow swath of green snaking along 53 miles of the river's twisting course.
Long after the last coal mines had shut down, travel through the area was radically simplified with the building of the New River Gorge Bridge in 1977. The world's second-longest single-arch bridge, it crosses the river just north of Fayetteville along U.S. 19, carrying traffic 876 feet above the river. Views from the bridge are breathtaking any time of year, but come here on Bridge Day -- the third Saturday every October -- and you'll witness a carnival atmosphere as hundreds of base jumpers take their turns plunging into the gorge, against a spectacular backdrop of fall color.
Contact: Off U.S. 19 (tel. 304/574-2115; www.nps.gov/neri).
What: Mackinac Island: Not a Car in Sight
Who: All ages
Where: Straits of Mackinac, Michigan
You pronounce it "Mack-i-naw," like the raincoat (the mainland town where the ferries operate from is spelled Mackinaw City, just so out-of-towners get it straight). Cropping out of the Straits of Mackinac, which separate the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan at their closest point, this summer resort island is a Victorian period piece of white frame houses and trim gardens. The only way to reach it is by private plane or ferry; and since you can't bring a car you have three options for getting around the island: on foot, by horse-drawn carriage, and on a bike. Pedaling happily along the limestone cliffs overlooking the straits, you may wonder why the automobile was ever invented.
A complete circuit of the island on traffic-free Lake Shore Road only takes 8 miles, doable even with fairly young riders (rental bikes in town also offer child seats and trailers if that's a better option for you). You'll have to stop along the way, of course, to drink in the views -- don't miss Arch Rock on the east coast, a boulder pierced with a gaping 30- by 40-foot hole gouged by waves and glaciers, or Sunset Rock on the west bluff above town. Most of the island is covered by Mackinac Island State Park (tel. 906/847-3328), with 70 miles of paved roads and trails where cyclists can explore the cedar- and birch-forested interior. Above the town, you can also cycle up to Fort Mackinac (tel. 906/436-4100; www.mackinacparks.com), built by British soldiers during the American Revolution to defend the link between Lakes Michigan and Huron, vital to the lucrative fur trade. Fourteen buildings, mostly from the 1880s, are still intact, and costumed interpreters do military reenactments; shoot off rifles and cannons; lead children's games; and perform bugle, fife-and-drum, and bagpipe music. The cliff-top site was chosen specifically for sentries to watch over the lakes, so you can just imagine how fantastic the views are.
Of course, if you'd rather take in the scenery from a rocking chair, you can always plunk yourself down on the white colonnaded veranda -- the world's longest front porch -- of the landmark Grand Hotel (tel. 906/847-3331), built in 1887. Even if you're not staying here, you can tour the historic hotel. In the center of town, a few neat low white buildings recall the days of the early-18th-century fur traders, along with a bark chapel built by the original Huron natives.
Contact:Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce (tel. 800/454-5227; www.mackinacisland.org).
What: Montréal: Riding Les Pistes Cyclables
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Montréal, Québec, Canada
Long country bike rides attract the Lance Armstrongs among us, but younger riders quickly get bored -- they need something to look at as they cycle. Well, they won't get bored bicycling around Montréal -- according to Bicycling Magazine, it's the number-one bicycling city in North America, with 349km (217 miles) of urban bike paths, or as they say in French-speaking Montréal, pistes cyclables.
One of the city's main tourist magnets, the restored harborfront Vieux-Port area, has bike paths running along its 2km (1¼-mile) promenade -- the kids may beg you to rent one of those four-wheeled Q-cycles they'll see trundling along, a welcome option for families with toddlers. At the eastern end of the port, park your bikes to visit the 1922 clock tower, Le Tour de l'Horloge, with 192 steps climbing past exposed clockwork gears to three observation decks.
Perhaps the city's most popular bike route is the flat 11km (6 ¾-mile) path to Lac St-Louis along the spruced-up Lachine Canal, which begins just west of the Vieux-Port. Stop en route at the open-air Atwater Market, 3025 St-Ambroise, to pick up freshly baked bread, gourmet cheese, and fruit for a picnic along the canal. Montréal is named after the towering hill in the middle of Parc du Mont-Royal -- start from the top and you'll coast 4km (2 ½ miles) downhill through woods and grassy expanses. A more ambitious route goes west 16km (10 miles) from the St-Lambert Lock to the suburb of Côte Ste-Catherine.
Montréal taxis have bike racks, and the superclean and efficient Métro system will let you take bikes on its subway trains (enter the last car); so it's easy to zip out from downtown to various start points. Take your bikes on the Métro west to Angrigon station to pedal around the 6.4km (4-mile) bike circuit in Angrigon Park. Go east to Pie-IX station to ride around the lushly landscaped Botanic Garden before you visit the Biodôme de Montréal, 4777 av. Pierre-de-Coubertin. The Biodôme is a one-of-a-kind attraction that kids love for its weirdness: four distinct ecosystems -- a Laurentian mountain forest, the St. Lawrence marine system, a tropical rainforest, and a polar environment -- re-created in almost obsessive detail in one vast structure, which was originally built for the 1976 Olympics as -- fittingly enough -- a velodrome for bike races.
To rent bikes, check out CaRoule in the Vieux-Port, 27 rue de la Commune est (tel. 514/866-0633), or Vélo Montréal near the Botanic Garden, 3880 rue Rachel est (tel. 514/2599-7272; www.velomontreal.com). At 1251 Rachel St., the headquarters of Vélo Québec has a cycling boutique and the Bicicletta Café, modeled after Italian bicyclists' cafes.
Contact:Vélo Québec, 1251 Rachel St. (tel. 514/521-8356; www.velo.qc.ca).
What: Cycling the Rim Road: Crater Lake
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Crater Lake, Oregon
The story begins with a volcanic explosion so fearsome -- scientists estimate it was 42 times as powerful as Mount St. Helens -- that it left behind a phenomenally deep crater, which in time filled with water to become America's deepest lake. But this version of events doesn't prepare you for the sight of Crater Lake, for the intense sapphire blue of its cold spring-fed waters reflecting the sheer forested cliffs that encircle it. It's simply breathtaking, a panorama of supreme serenity that belies its violent origins. It takes about 2 hours to drive around Crater Lake -- which, unfortunately, is all most park visitors do, rolling along the asphalt, narcotized by the pretty scenery. Trade in those four wheels for two, though, and you'll really feel the transforming power of this volcanic landscape.
The 33-mile Rim Drive, open only in summer, has 30 overlooks where you can gaze at these pristine waters cupped in their rocky chalice. Travel clockwise, wear bright clothing so motorists can spot you, and if possible sleep in the park the night before so you can hit the narrow road early before the traffic gets heavy (as it inevitably will). The Rim Drive may look like an easy pedal, but don't underestimate it -- it can be demanding, especially on the east side of the lake, where there are more hills (hills you'd scarcely notice if you were just driving). On the other hand, the east side of the lake has more panoramic views, providing good excuses to catch your breath. The Cloudcap Overlook is 2,000 feet high, with vistas that stretch as far as Mount Shasta. Another cool turnoff overlooks the Phantom Ship, a jagged basalt formation jutting up out of the lake.
An alternative ride goes from the Rim Village visitor center north to the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead and back, 21 miles total, on the flatter west rim. Cleetwood Cove is the sole trail that goes down to the lake's edge; it may only be 2.2 miles round-trip, but the way back is strenuous, like climbing 65 flights of stairs. My advice: Save your strength for the cycling.
No matter which of the park's entrances you come in, you'll drive a few miles to get to the Rim Drive, where you can park your car and get the bikes off your rack. If you've got more than one driver in your party, consider taking turns driving the car to meet the cyclists at each overlook -- it'll give the kids the option of pooping out if necessary. (Blame it on the high altitude.) There are no bike rentals in the park, but you can rent them at Diamond Lake Resort, 5 miles from the park's north entrance on State Road 138.
Contact:Along OR 62 (tel. 541/594-3000; www.nps.gov/crla).
What: Circling Arran Island on a Bike
Who: Ages 10 & up
Where: Isle of Arran, Scotland
At the mouth of the Firth of Clyde, the Isle of Arran is often described as "Scotland in miniature" because of its varied scenery. The coast road circles the island in a 97km (60-mile) circuit, which could be done in 1 day if you're ambitious. Break up a 2-day ride with a stay overnight on the west coast. Several intriguing stops en route (many associated with the 14th-century hero Robert the Bruce) will keep kids distracted enough to forget their aching calves.
The ferry docks at Brodick, where you can pick up a picnic lunch in the shops, then rent a bicycle at Mr. Bilsland (tel. 01770/302-272) or Brodick Cycles (tel. 01770/302-460). Heading clockwise around the island (go south from Brodick), you'll come to Lamlash, a beachy sea resort, then King's Cross Point, where Robert the Bruce is said to have sailed for the mainland after hiding out on Arran for months. The road climbs to Dippin Head, and the southern curve of the island's coast is high over the sea with great views of tiny islands and the Ailsa Crag lighthouse. The road goes downhill toward Sliddery, where an overgrown mound marks the site of an old Norse keep. At Tormore, north of Blackwaterfoot, you can detour a mile inland to visit some standing stones. Drumadoon Point on the west coast has basalt columns and the remains of an old fort, and King's Hill has caves where Robert the Bruce hid out from his enemies for months.
At the northern end of the island, the scenery turns ever more romantic and Highlands-like, with rugged mountains towering over narrow green glens. Castle ruins at Lochranza were reputedly the hunting seat of Robert the Bruce. Back on the east cost, you'll pass dramatic Glen Sannox and the Fallen Rocks, huge sandstone boulders that have tumbled off the cliffs. On your right looms the island's highest mountain, Goat Fell ("mountain of the winds") with its 874m-high (2,867 ft.) conical peak. At its foot are Arran's two major sights -- the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum, a series of restored buildings tracing life on Arran from prehistoric times to the present, and the red sandstone Brodick Castle, ancestral home of the dukes of Hamilton. The castle has fine furnishings inside, but the real attraction is its gardens, which feature plants from such far-flung habitats as Tasmania, Chile, and the Himalayas. The rhododendrons are amazing. Cycle back into Brodick, where you can return your bike and catch the ferry back to Ardrossan.
Contact: Arran Island Tourist Office, The Pier, Brodick (tel. 01770/302-140; www.ayrshire-arran.com).
What: Holland's Haarlem: Traversing the Polders
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: The Netherlands
One thing every school kid learns about the Netherlands: It's the land of dikes, those walls against the sea that the thrifty Dutch built to turn their flood-prone coastal lowlands into arable farmland. Miles and miles of reclaimed polder land stretch along the North Sea coast west of Amsterdam -- no rolling hills, no dramatic seaside cliffs, just a low steady horizon and roads laid straight as arrows. What could be better for bicycling?
Our favorite day trip out of Amsterdam is to head for Haarlem. It's a lovely town with a sedate 17th-century charm, but few sights that will interest kids. We come here for the surrounding countryside, which lives up to all the images of the Dutch landscape painters: neat patchwork farmlands with the occasional windmill, and broody gray clouds scudding against a vast scrim of silvery skies.
Rent bikes in Haarlem at Rijwielshop Haarlem, Stationsplein 7 (tel. 023/531-7066), or Bike Planet, Gierstraat 55-57 (tel. 023/534-15020), and you can be out of town in no time. The beach resort of Zandvoort is 7km (4.3 miles) directly west of Haarlem, an easy cycle through woods, polders, and sand dunes to a seemingly endless stretch of smooth sand lined with seasonal cafes. Or branch off to the Zuid-Kennermerland National Park, just north of Zandvoort, a dune-edged nature reserve where you can breathe the salt tang of the North Sea air. South of Haarlem is another popular cycle, along N206 or N208, where from late January through May masses of vibrantly colored tulips fill the fields. This so-called Bollenstreek Route runs 60km (37 miles) all the way to Leiden, though you only need ride as far as you want.
So where are the dikes? Steam pumps did the job when the Haarlem area was reclaimed in the mid-19th century; if the kids are keen to see dikes, drive 62km (39 miles) north of Amsterdam on A7/E22 to the 30km-long (19-mile) Afsluitdijk (Enclosing Dike). Completed in 1932, this huge dike finally sealed off the encroaching North Sea, transforming the saltwater Zuiderzee into the freshwater Usselmeer (and turning several fishing villages into farm towns). Haul out your bikes again, because a bike path runs along the highway as it follows the top of the dike. Expect it to be windy while you're out on this ribbon of highway, with nothing but sea on either side. Halfway across, you can turn around at the monument (with a cafe) that commemorates the workers who built this massive wall against the sea, mostly by backbreaking manual labor.
Contact: Tourist office, Stationsplein 1 (tel. 0900/616-1600; www.vvvzk.nl).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.
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