Host David Lytle and author Holly Hughes chat about great destinations for holiday travel or winter vacations. Whether you want to go celebrate the holidays somewhere where they really celebrate in style, go somewhere warm and sunny to chase off the winter chill, or visit a destination that truly sparkles in the winter, Holly has great ideas for a getaway the whole family will enjoy.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

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  • Where to go: West coast -- Hawaii or Arizona, East Coast -- Florida or the Caribbean.
  • Keeping busy: Although its nice to relax, the kids will need distractions.
  • Park ideas: Visit if you plan on visiting the national parks.
  • Exotics: Find a place with a sharp contrast from your home environment.
  • Urban Places: New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Montreal, Quebec City, London.


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Hi my name is David Lytle. I am the editorial director for Today on the podcast we are talking with Holly Hughes. She is the author of "500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow up," she is also the author of "The Fromer's New York City For Kids." Hi Holly, how are you today?

Holly Hughes: I'm great, David how are you?
David: Doing well, thank you. Now, we are going to be talking today about winter vacations that you can take with your family. It is approaching that time, fall is here, school has started and the next vacation cycle is coming up which typically falls around the holidays in November and December when schools are out. So, what sort of options do people have for planning a winter holiday, Holly?
Holly: I think, if it is cold out and you live in a cold climate, it is great to go somewhere where there is warm weather. You want to go someplace where it is most beautiful only in the winter and also someplace where you could, whatever holidays you celebrate, find a place where they really are done in style, so that gives you three different approaches for a trip at that time of the year.
David: Yes, I think probably the most is going to be people who are feeling the chill and want to get someplace to warm themselves up a little bit. What sort of places do you recommend, traveling with kids, to take off that winter chill?
Holly: Because you are generally working around the school vacation which is probably two weeks at most, I think you don't want to spend too much of that time in the actual traveling. So if you are on the West Coast, a place like Hawaii, or even Arizona is good because you can get there and get going. If you are on the East Coast, you would probably be heading down to Florida or the Caribbean.
David: Personally I would prefer the Caribbean over Florida, just a little farther away, and you are leaving the country for the most part.
Holly: I think with kids, "I left the country," by the time you get back to school, "I was in another country since I last saw you."
David: If you are going to the Caribbean there are so many activities you can take part in. There is the typical lying on the beach, but that gets boring after a while.
Holly: Yes, I think it gets boring to the kids faster than it does to the adults. People who say "Well we just wanted to go down there and collapse on the beach and rest," but after 20 minutes you have the kids wanting something to do.

So I think that, when you are picking a Caribbean destination, it should be a place where there is something else to do, whether it is a nature preserve you are going to visit. You should think about what sports your kids like, like snorkeling or sailing. You have got to make sure there are some activities built in.

David: Right, I know that if you are staying at resorts too, oftentimes they have kids programs where you can have the option to lie on the beach for a while, while the kids are attended to. Oftentimes those are educational programs that deal with local flora and fauna, some water activities, they might teach you to sail on a Sunfish. I know there was a program outside of Porta Viarta where they would take the kids to turtles' nesting grounds. Then the kids could participate in the conservation of that area.
Holly: A few times I know that when our kids have been on the kids program they come back and tell us the great time they had and we think, "Where can we sign up, we would like to do that!"
David: Right. "Where is the adults program?"
Holly: Yes, I tend to get bored lying on the beach anyway. Another thing I like about the Caribbean islands is that they were settled by all sorts of different people. There's a Dutch island, there is a Spanish island and you want someplace that still has some of that flavor. I think it is easier to go to a resort, and everything is lovely and it is all set up like fine resorts anywhere in the world. I think especially with kids, you do want someplace with a little history and local color.
David: Yeah, absolutely, to break the mold of just being in a hotel and on the beach, it's nice to explore that. You know, there is pirate culture in the Caribbean.
Holly: Yeah, the Cayman Islands especially. I think I read that maybe 1/4 of all Cayman residents are related to pirates.
David: Really? Wow.
Holly: Yeah I mean, it's a safe haven and that is where the boats docked and the Pirates started families there, the descendants are still there.
David: That's interesting. That would be something fun to tell your kids before they go so that then they will keep their eye out for potential pirate relatives while they are walking through town. What about something closer in if you are not going to Hawaii, or you don't want to take a flight over the water or you want to stay closer to home, what are some activities, places? I think of the American Southwest as a nice warm winter destination.
Holly: Yeah, and I think it's lovely and you still feel like you've been somewhere quite different if you are going down to a desert climate. If you go to see the saguaros down in Arizona, or that painted desert, or the petrified forest. Those are just really stunning things so that you really feel you have been somewhere different. It's nice because I always feel that there should be a little learning going on with any vacation I take with my kids.

There's natural phenomena there that they understand. It is so much better after they have seen the fact that these rocks are colored differently for this reason, this is what caused the wood to petrify, these are why saguaros are built the way they are to survive in this environment. You can learn about it in textbooks all you want to, but when you see it, it's different. The Ranger led programs in those parks are so amazing, everyone in the family is learning a lot.

David: Absolutely. Well that national parks program in general, and many state park programs, really do have fantastic educational programs for whole families, for kids, for adults only. So that is something to be considered too.

You can just go online to, say you are going to the American Southwest, and you are visiting the Grand Canyon, you can reserve ahead of time and get signed up for some courses while you're there. Sometimes, they are just a half a day, they are a hike, but you are having a naturalist who leads you on a trail and will point out things that you never would notice before.

Holly: Yes, it's amazing stuff. You know historic stuff too, if you go down to Canyon Touche, you are seeing evidence that the European settlers were not the first people here, by a long shot and that is fascinating. When we were recently down in New Mexico to visit some of the old cave dwellers, the kids were astonished and asking, "How many years ago was this? This is amazing." They loved it.
David: Right. You can also go much farther away because, now, while we are in winter, we have got the whole entire Southern Hemisphere that is having summer. So that is another option, although it does press you for time a little bit because your travel distances are longer to get there.
Holly: Yeah, I think that if you are going down to Australia or New Zealand, it is good to have it all planned out before you get there, to know exactly where you are going to take advantage of being down there. I have a couple of friends who have done trips over the short holiday down to Australia or New Zealand, it is one or the other, you can't fit both into that time. You really have to focus on what you are going to be doing. If you are divers and you want to do the Great Barrier Reef, that's great, but you probably can't on the same trip go down to Kangaroo Island and see all the exotic animals, which is what my kids would prefer to do.
David: Right, exactly. Well, Tasmania is growing in popularity as well. I know there are a lot of national parks there. It is sort of similar to Madagascar, an island that broke away from a continent and Darwin has proven out there a lot of bizarre creatures developed, so it is another possibility. In New Zealand, you have the North island and the South island. If a family would pick just one, they are easily drivable within a week. In the South island especially, you can go from a glacier, through a rainforest, down to the beach in 20 minutes.
Holly: Yeah, yeah it's amazing. Again, the exotic looking landscape makes the kids know they have been somewhere else.
David: Yeah exactly, right, they're not in Kansas anymore. Now what about the idea, in the wintertime, I know that there are several places in the world where natural events occur only at that period of time. I am thinking of, like, the Northern Lights as one example. How could people plan a vacation around something like that?
Holly: Well, certainly the Northern lights are great and, probably, if you are trying to do a relatively focused short trip, I would actually say one of the best places to do that, is to fly to Norway, then you get a flight up to Tromso which is the northernmost city in the world. If you really want a settlement of some size with a decent hotel so you don't have to then do an excursion out to the countryside, you can stay in the middle of Tromso and see the northern lights.
David: Oh wow.
Holly: It's a pretty cool place and they tend to be pretty greenish up there, it's a beautiful phenomenon. At the same time, you do not have to go too far from your creature comforts. Another thing that I think is a great thing that can only be done between November and March is to go down to Mexico and see the monarch butterflies which go down there and they're in a special grove. It is a day trip to go see them, but once you're down there...
David: What city is this?
Holly: It's Michoacan. I don't speak Spanish so I'm not sure I'm pronouncing it correctly. It hasn't been overly developed. The environmentalists have preserved it to make sure you have to hire some local guide. Most of the guides there are on horseback or hiking to get into this grove in limited areas because they are trying to protect the butterflies' grounds. You can get in there, I read an account of it, where you walk into the grove and it's this stunning explosion of color. Every tree is covered with monarch butterflies.
David: There must be thousands.
Holly: Millions.
David: Millions of butterflies. That's amazing. So this is sort of like the monarch butterflies Florida. It's their winter retreat.
Holly: Yeah. The amazing thing is that these are not the ones that left in the spring. These are the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the ones that left in the spring.
David: Oh really.
Holly: They've flown north and died, and had new butterflies and the caterpillars have grown and they died and their caterpillars are turned into butterflies and flew back.
David: That's interesting.
Holly: The astonishing thing is how specific their migratory path is. They come back to the exact same grove.
David: Wow, that is really amazing because it's a migratory population, it's not even the same creature going north that's returning south.
Holly: Right, who tells them this is where to go?
David: Yeah, exactly. It's also the holidays, so we think of Diwali, it's Christmas, it's Chanukah, Kwanzaa. There are tons of holidays that are being celebrated around the world and even within the United States. How could somebody plan a trip around celebrating a holiday specifically?
Holly: Well one thing is obvious, and I think a fair number of people do save up for this, a once in a lifetime trip to fly to Bethlehem. You know the Holy Land in general there's so many different religions that celebrate there right close to each other. I think it's really important for Christians and Jews to know they were the same religion for a long time, and you really see that when you are in those places. There are some very well run tours there that are just amazing.

I also happen to like Northern Europe. They celebrate some of the Christmas stuff beautifully. One of the best places is probably Cologne. Their cathedral there is dedicated to the three kings. They have a shrine there -- who knows if these are actually the bones of the three kings but what happens is that cathedral has taken that on as their theme and it's a stunningly beautiful cathedral and it's at it's most beautiful, you know the gothic look when there's snow on the ground is amazing.

David: Right. Probably good to go there, what was that, January sixth is the Epiphany, I believe when the kings arrived at the manger, so they must have some large celebrations planned on that day.
Holly: Another thing that is not strictly religious, which I think is always a fun thing to do around the holidays, is up in Finland you can go to Santa's Village which is probably the most, I mean there's a lot of adorable kitschy Santa's Village places around the United States as well. But this one in Finland, and you can actually get there on a day flight from England. You fly up to Finland for the day, you meet Santa, you see elves, and it's a really glossy sophisticated kind of thing. You may see the northern lights, who knows?

There's some good shopping there. And it's actually fairly accessible even though it's all the way to Finland, which is a crazy place to go. You get to go out and pet the reindeer, Santa's reindeer in the paddock and everything.

David: Is that up in Lapland?
Holly: Yes.
David: So you're going up into reindeer territory for sure. Now is that a pretty expensive trip?
Holly: The fares that I saw last year from England were very reasonable. It was a specific thing; they were going there to go to Santa's Village. Ryan Air or some airline had a pretty decently priced day package trip.
David: Right. It's always a good idea to look for package trips.
Holly: England is an issue, but London is a very popular Christmastime destination for families. There's so much theatre, there's so many festive things going on.
David: Right.
Holly: It's not unreasonable to be in London at that time of year anyway.
David: Right, exactly. Which brings me to another point -- cities, for the lack of another term. They really get decked out for the holidays. What are some really great urban cities to visit for Christmas, for window displays, for shopping opportunities.
Holly: Well New York City just turns itself inside out. You've got the Rockefeller center trees, you've got these major department stores with really elaborate window displays, great music, there are sing-a-long Messiahs everyday.

That's always a really fascinating time of year. I've also been to my two favorite cities for New Years, are Boston, they deal with New Years in a really great alcohol free way, which is great for the kids to go to. There's parades and processions, all sorts of activities that are perfect for families, not just a boozy New Years Eve celebration where you have to leave the kids with a sitter in the hotel room.

Also, Paris is completely charming at New Years. Parisians love to celebrate publicly; they have no problems with having a great time in public places. I remember at the moment, the stroke of midnight in Paris, you could just throw open your windows and listen to the whole city celebrating in a wonderful way.

David: Wow, that sounds fantastic.
Holly: The city of light is always beautiful at night in the winter.
David: Right, I know. You said it was charming at New Years, and I was going to counter with I think it's charming accept for August. It's always charming.
Holly: Washington DC is also beautiful at Christmas time. The government does a lot to decorate the buildings and you've got the nation's Christmas tree at the White House. Everybody is sort of on their breaks from the business of government and they are actually enjoying themselves for a little while.
David: Yeah, so the town loosens its necktie for a little bit.
Holly: Right, and Washington is not quite so cold, it's still perfectly fine to walk around in December in Washington.

Another place I love at that time of year is Montreal. It's lovely to get far enough north where you're really going to see some beautiful snow. Also because Montreal has this great series of tunnels. You can actually move around the downtown area pretty efficiently without having to be outside all the time.

David: That was a smart adaptation for the city's planning. Because you do have to get around. Nobody likes to freeze. I think Montreal also, it's either Montreal or Quebec City has an ice hotel that opens only in the winter time.
Holly: I think that's Quebec City, I'm not a hundred percent sure.
David: That's always an option, although I don't know if they allow children in there or not because of their extreme conditions.
Holly: I know I mentioned to my kids once the idea of going to an ice hotel, and they looked at me like I was crazy. "Mom, I want a warm bed at night, why would I want to go a place like that."
David: Well you get to sleep on furs.
Holly: They would like to see it. They would like to go in and have coke at the bar and then leave.
David: Right, exactly. At least you can see it.

Well, that's all the time we have today. Holly, I really want to say thank you. These are some great ideas and I hope you've helped people with some ideas for some holiday travel with the kids.

Holly: Oh, I hope so. I think it's a great time to travel.
David: Thanks a lot.
Holly: Thank you.
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