Family Resort Vacations
What They Offer and How to Choose the Right One

“Mom, I just tried sugarcane juice!”

Daniel, my 7-year-old, came running into the main dining room at Casa de Campo, where my husband and I were just finishing an elegant candlelit dinner for two, preceded by a glorious hour of reading and lounging on our villa’s garden porch.

“Did you like it, sweetie?” I asked, stretching out my arms, which were still a little sore from the morning’s tennis tournament.

He scrunched up his face. “Not really, but I wanted to try it because we picked the canes this afternoon, and I got to grind them up.”

Whenever people ask me why I always choose going to a family resort over staying in a nice hotel or renting a single-family house in a resort town, I tell them this story because it perfectly illustrates a resort’s two big advantages:

1. Resorts are high on adventure, low on commitment. Resort vacations offer both kids and adults a chance to try new things, together and apart, in a low-risk setting. Would Daniel respond enthusiastically if I proposed a family outing to a sugarcane field? Probably not. Would he be willing to try cane juice if I squeezed it in our kitchen at home? No way. But the support and enthusiasm of a well-led, well-organized group made him a willing participant in both adventures. And, like many resort activities, they were one-shot events that required no big commitment. If your kids don’t like hiking through sugarcane fields, they don’t have to do it again.

2. Resorts offer time together and time apart. Family resorts, unlike vacation rentals, provide both kids and parents with occasional breaks from one another. When every individual enjoys a satisfying experience on his or her own, then everyone is happy when they come back together as a family. In addition to organized programs, many resorts have safe places – game rooms, recreation areas, supervised playgrounds and swimming pools – where kids can hang out, while parents tee off, read or get wrapped in seaweed without fretting about their child’s safety. Organized evening activities for kids – like the cane-juice-making session – sometimes include dinner, so adults can linger over a quiet, romantic meal.

Making the Right Choice

Convinced? Once you make the decision to try a family resort, the array of choices is staggering. As you begin researching possibilities, it’s important to know what you’re actually looking for. If, like most parents these days, you have scant time to “play” with your children at home, and you take relatively short vacations, this time away is precious. If you go to a place that isn’t suited to your family, it’s a lost opportunity. To help you make the best possible choice, we offer some general points to consider.

• How much activity do you want? Your children’s ages, interests, and temperaments are key factors, and so are yours. Would you prefer a laid-back resort where all activities are optional, and most of the planning is up to you? Or do you want non-stop fun, sports and other scheduled events that will keep you going every minute? Ask the resorts you’re considering to fax you a sample program schedule (or check their Web sites) so you can get a feel for the range of choices, length of sessions, and level of participation at each place.

Is inclusive better than pay-as-you-go? This consideration hinges on the previous one. If your family plans to hang out at the resort and take full advantage of the programs and facilities, then an all-inclusive plan probably makes sense. Most cover all activities, meals and snacks for every family member throughout the day with certain exceptions, such as tennis instruction or golf fees. Be sure to ask for full details about what’s covered (see Checklist). But maybe you don’t like sports. Or, using the resort as home base, you plan to venture outside the premises for most of the day. If so, then pay-as-you-go is a better bet.

• Is the resort genuinely family-friendly? Just as important as the geographic location is a place that has a welcoming, casual, family feel – and that applies to the facilities, staff and chef. Look for a place that offers easy opportunities for you to play with your kids and wander into fun activities. When you head out to the lawn after a meal, is volleyball, badminton and croquet equipment already set up for you? And, in the evening, can you easily find checkers, chess and other board games to play with your kids, either indoors or perhaps on a comfortable veranda looking out at the water? Avoid places that make you check out and set up sports equipment and games on your own.

To get a sense of whether the staff is friendly and well-trained, call up and ask questions (see Checklist). The person at the other end of the line should be able to answer them or offer to find out and call you back. Be sure to ask about the chef and what special things he or she does for kids. The last thing you want to worry about is whether your children will be able to get food they like, whenever they like it.

Age Does Matter

Another key consideration is the age of your children. We’ve been “resorting” since my two boys were 3 years and 6 months old respectively. When the two of them reached school age, our requirements changed pretty dramatically.

Resorting with Preschoolers Young children like consistency. They’re not ready for serious sports training, nor are they keen on being apart from their parents for long stretches of time. For this age group, you don’t need to go far to find what you’re looking for, and you don’t need a resort with tons of scheduled activities. A lake, river, beach, farm or even a mountain can be the focal point for your child’s “adventures.” Take advantage of the fact that your children aren’t in school yet and go off-peak, when rates are lower and your children can enjoy more private attention from the resort staff and instructors.

• Activities Look for brief, fun activities geared especially to the interests of young kids: early morning treasure hunts, nature hikes, collecting shells on the beach, gathering local wildflowers. These outings give your child an opportunity to connect with the special features of the location while you get a short break, and many resorts schedule options throughout the day: two hours in morning, two in afternoon, and two in evening. Some have drop-in activities, too, such as arts-and-crafts rooms staffed with counselors throughout the day.

“Kids Night Out” programs provide opportunities to bond with the same counselors your children got to know during the day: outdoor scavenger hunts, campfires with songs and roasting marshmallows, and storytelling. If dinner is included, then you can have a grown-up, three-hour meal or take an evening sail, stroll or bike ride with your spouse. Of course, some kids do better with a babysitter in the room, and a quality resort will offer that option.

Also look for daytime family activities you can do together: sand-castle building, a pontoon cruise on the lake or a miniature golf tournament. One memorable summer morning at Sun Mountain Lodge in Washington, we rode with the kids in a horse-drawn wagon to a lavish breakfast of hot pancakes and eggs to order, served alfresco in a flower-filled meadow.

• Food While we’re on the subject of food, don’t underestimate its importance for this age group. Make sure food is accessible throughout the day and geared to the preschooler’s palate. Avoid resorts that force you to waste an hour ordering and waiting for lunch at a table. Resorts that have sit-down meals should either allow you to preorder dinner and get served as soon as you arrive, or to be seated earlier than other guests. The thoughtful Wildflower Inn in Vermont, for example, had plenty of little toys for my kids to play with after they finished eating: Etch-a-Sketches®, puzzles, books and other quiet amusements kept them busy until my husband and I were ready to leave. The Four Seasons Wailea in Hawaii had wonderful, kid-friendly breakfasts with a low buffet table that enabled pint-size guests to reach for their own cereal, juice and toast.

• Accommodations Young children like togetherness. Look for a place with connecting rooms so you can be together during the day but close the door for privacy at night. Some places have everyone sleep in one room but allow space for a little privacy. A refrigerator is handy, even in an all-inclusive resort, so you can keep fresh milk and other snacks on hand for late-night forays. Or, you may prefer a condo or villa with a complete kitchen and communal living space.

• Facilities Water safety is the key thing to verify. Choose a resort with a children’s pool or one with a very shallow end and safety bars. If it’s a beach resort, you’ll want shallow, still waters without surf where little ones can wade. Also make sure the program has well-defined procedures for dropping off and picking up kids to ensure that they leave with parents or designated guardians only.

School-Age Children Activities are the most important consideration with this age group. Look for a place that offers a balanced range of options – resort-based sports or projects as well as exotic adventures – and that welcomes beginners of all ages. Look for programs that divide kids into narrow age groups: ages 6 to 12, for example, is too broad a spread.

One indicator of top-quality programming is a year-round director who hires and thoroughly trains the staff. It takes true professionals to put kids at ease when there are always new kids coming into the group. The director should also be in charge of purchasing kid-size equipment: tennis rackets, golf clubs, life vests and helmets for skiing and horseback riding.

ew York'">Expand their cultural horizons. Consider traveling to an area of the country (or world) your family has never visited. Good resort programs make the most of local cultural and natural resources. The Orchid at Mauna Lani in Hawaii offers hikes to archaeological sites that include shelter caves, petroglyphs and native fish ponds; Rancho de los Caballeros in Arizona takes kids on guided horseback tours of desert flora and fauna; Ojai Valley Inn & Spa in California offers a morning walk to a Chumash Indian hut and concludes with Chumash craft-making and archery lessons.

ew York'">Seek out favorite or new sports. You might plan a vacation around your passion for a particular sport – and introduce it to your kids. If the equipment is readily available, your kids can try the sport out without a big investment of time or money. And, if they like it, over the course of a week, they can build their skills in a non-competitive environment and get lots of individual coaching before taking up the sport at home.

ew York'">On the other hand, when you plan to try out a new sport or skill as a family, there’s a hidden bonus: Kids get a big ego boost if they can pull ahead of – and then coach – their struggling parents.

“You should have seen the gleeful look on my 9-year-old’s face when she started whizzing past me on the bunny hill,” recalls my 48-year-old neighbor, who shared an introductory ski lesson with her daughter last winter at The Balsams Grand Resort in New Hampshire. “She started giving me pointers, and it made her feel 10 feet tall.”

Something for every kid. Good programs also offer choices for kids who don’t like sports, whether it’s cooking local cuisine; sand painting; making palm-leaf baskets, flower leis or a seashell collage; or going apple picking and making apple sauce. At night, the Loews Coronado Bay Resort in California gives older kids “grown-up” opportunities to raid the refrigerator; at the Sunrise Resort in Connecticut, kids can watch a “dive-in movie” – shown poolside – and enjoy a bonfire on the beach.

For school-age kids, resorts offer unstructured time to exercise independence in a safe environment. Kids can venture out for lawn games, play bingo or shoot pool with friends made during organized activities or a counselor who’s only a few years older than they are. Athletic facilities should also be open to them for post-lesson practice.

Venture outside the resort. The concierge at a full-service resort can help you arrange exciting outside excursions with local experts, such as a biologist who takes you deep into a swamp to find alligators or an archaeologist who takes you to nearby ruins. Kids also love mixing environments – for example, spending the day in a children’s museum or zoo and then returning to the resort for evening sailing.

Long Weekends and Family Reunions

Keep in mind that family resorts can also be wonderful, stress-free destinations for holidays such as Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day. They may give you an opportunity to experience a traditional American celebration – complete with sack races, fireworks, carnival and band – without all of the work or planning. They’re perfect for extended-family celebrations, too. Most resorts have on-site group planners who can help with all the arrangements, including booking comfortable group accommodations, special private family meals, activities and outings.

Now, go find the right place for you and your family, and have a fabulous vacation!

Print out detailed checklist for choosing the right resort for your family.

Resources to Read

100 Best Family Resorts in North America, by Janet Tice and Jane Wilford, The Globe Pequot Press, 1998.

Ranch Vacations, by Gene Kilgore, John Muir Publications, 1999.