Exotic but Kid-Friendly: 7 Top Spots for Family Vacations (UPDATED 2021)
My kids may not remember everywhere they’ve been, but they understand, in an elemental way, that their way of life is just one of many. Perhaps as importantly, they’ve learned that for all the differences there are from culture to culture, there are just as many commonalities. That in every culture, parents love their children, hope for a better future, and work towards that future in whatever way they can. I think my kids’ travels make them more compassionate, smarter human beings. But then, I’m biased.
Here are some foreign destinations that I can personally recommend for your 2020 family vacation. Some may surprise you.
Looking back I have one worry about the trip I took with my daughters to Belize: how we’ll ever top it!
For a solid week and a half, they didn’t argue once (a minor miracle!). They simply didn’t have the time or energy to do so, between rappelling down cliffs, scaling waterfalls inside Mayan-artifact laden caves, climbing ancient temples and going on intense nature hikes into the rainforest. My picky eater elder daughter even ate an ant at the urging of a guide (they can be a good source of protein if you’re lost in the jungle apparently). She declared it “minty”, with a big smile.
For your own trip to Belize, I highly recommend you split your time between the beachy resort towns and the jungly interior so you get a taste of all the adventures the country has to offer. Final perk: this is an English-speaking country.
What struck me most about Ireland, when I took my wee bairns there for the first time, was how welcome children are, pretty much everywhere. Even the pubs allow little ones; parents can enjoy a pint while listening to a session (live music) as the wee ones play with one another in a corner of the room. How civilized! This was allowed in the late afternoon and early evening at least.
The welcome at Ireland’s B&B’s was a particularly warm one, mostly because we were being hosted, almost entirely, by other parents. In fact, I’d hazard the guess that that’s why the Emerald Isle has so many B&B’s: parents with large families need to fill the extra rooms once their kids have fled the coop. I’ll never forget the B&B owner in County Clare who, sensing that my then 6-year-old was a bit bored, called around to invite the neighborhood kids over. Soon they were all in the backyard, playing croquet and having a grand old time.
As foreign visitors to Japan know, sometimes the locals will keep their distance. Not so when you’re traveling with babies or children. When we took our 8-month-old daughter to Japan, the air rang with calls of “kawaii” (cute!). We were constantly surrounded by people who wanted meet us. Ok, they wanted to hold and coo at the cute western baby. But we found that far from being a hindrance, traveling with a baby opened doors for us. At markets, vendors offered us tastes and we didn’t have to hunt down the geishas in Kyoto for a photo, they asked to pose with us! Yes, the time change was a difficult adjustment, and took several days. But getting baby supplies was a snap. In Japan, one simply uses the words “diapaah” and "wetto tissue" (wet wipe) to get what you need.
I was a bit nervous taking my teenage daughter to Morocco. I was worried she’d attract too much of the wrong kind of attention. But the greeting we got there was at one and the same time warm and respectful; and the adventures were non-stop. One day, we rode camels on the beach, on another we went to a local grandmother’s home to learn how to make her family recipes. And simply walking through the souks (markets) of Fes, Essaouira and Marrakech was both a treat and an education, a magical mystery tour of snake charmers, bright piles of herbs and spices and lots and lots of henna-opportunities. (We indulged once; the expensive hand designs were gone by the next day). All in all, it was a fascinating education for my girls to visit this ancient culture, see how different the gender roles were and also see how it, as a civilization is changing in so many ways.
I think we all found Guatemala to be a place of sensory overload. Kept apart from the rest of the world for 30 years by a brutal civil war (that ended in the 1990’s) Guatemala has, more than most places, its traditional culture intact. So when you go to the small towns off Lake Atitlan, you still see women wearing their native and very colorful Mayan costumes—not for the tourists, but because that is what they wear on a daily basis. Religious processions wind through the streets and people still come down from small mountain communities to sell their handcrafted goods at market (the market at Chichicastanengo is an especial marvel). Best of all, we got to interact in a meaningful way with the people of Guatemala, doing some volunteer work at a local school off Lake Atitlan; and helping the teens at another school in Antigua create an elaborate alfombra (carpet of flowers) for the Easter processions there. The photo shows my younger daughter working on that.
Yes, you’ll see a lot of hardship and poverty in Guatemala. But you’ll also meet a people whose resilience and courage is remarkable.
I took my younger daughter to Poland on a pilgrimage of sorts, to trace my grandmother’s heritage. I did so knowing that much of what we saw would be dark, and perhaps too adult, for a then 8-year-old to fully understand. Among other places, we visited Auschwitz and the Warsaw Uprising Museum (which chronicled the total destruction of the city at the end of World War II). And these were, without question, difficult visits, though ultimately I think my daughter learned a great amount about history and her heritage.
What we weren’t expecting was how beautiful the country was and how intriguing its castles, and salt mines and medieval festivals and ancient cities would be for both of us. I’d always concentrated on the sorrowful part of Poland’s history, but we found great joy in visiting here.
Cartagena is an excellent gateway, thanks to its orchid-colored colonial-era buildings, its many excellent hotels and restaurants, and its adventures right outside the city. Pictured is the mud volcano that my teenaged daughter, her friend, and I climbed and then bathed in. From Cartagena, we also went swimming in a "pink sea" (an inland body of water that maintains that bright hue naturally thanks to the micro-organisms that live in it) and snorkeling around islands that are about an hour's ferry ride from the city. In Medellin, the kids enjoyed local genius Botero's oversized human sculptures, traveling by funicular to see mural-covered neighborhoods, and visiting an extraordinary aquarium and highly interactive science playground, right in the heart of the city.