It's a Big, Big, Big, Big World

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1997

It's a Big, Big, Big, Big World

Way beyond the border, cowboys ride camels and birds have blue feet
By David Noland

Thirty-four years later, we still talk about it in mythical terms: The Trip to England. I was 16 and my sister Becky 14 when our midwestern family boarded the S.S. United States and sailed for Southampton. We saw five-hundred-year-old cathedrals, funny little cars that drove on the wrong side of the road, people with strange accents who were entirely ignorant of the Chicago Cubs.

For a clean-cut suburban Hoosier kid, it was a life-changing experience. Horizons irrevocably broadened, I applied to Stanford instead of settling for the small Indiana college I'd been thinking about. (To my astonishment, I was accepted.) I developed a passion for travel that has taken me to every continent, shaped my career, and enriched my life beyond measure. It all started, I'm convinced, with that family trip to England. Every kid should be so lucky.

We can help. Listed below are 20 international trips, all fully outfitted and guided, all family-friendly in their physical demands and logistics. Most, in fact, are specifically tailored for kids, with special programs and staff. Sure, these trips are expensive, especially when you add international airfare. So put off the new minivan for a few years and drop the personal trainer. Instead, spend that money on something really important, something your kids will still be talking about in the year 2031.

To a child, an African vacation is a two-week trip to the world's biggest zoo, a special kind of zoo where the animals have the run of the place while the humans are confined in steel boxes. The appeal of wild animals--name a kid who doesn't adore Simba, Bambi, and Bagheera--makes Africa perhaps the ultimate international destination for kids.

In East Africa, National Audubon Society's quickie 12-day Kenya safari includes the obligatory visit to Masai Mara Game Reserve, plus a stay at Shaba National Wildlife Reserve. A Young Explorers program for kids 8 to 17 includes a lecture by Philip Leakey (son of Mary and Louis) and a visit to the home of Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa. Born Free Safaris's 15-day Hakuna Matata Family Safari takes in Masai Mara and Amboseli parks, plus Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater. There's plenty of kid stuff: camel rides, giraffe-feeding, baby-animal orphanages, and even a tree-house hotel. Families are grouped according to their kids' ages.

At $1,950 for adults, Journeys International's 13-day Tanzania Family Safari is only about half the price of the other trips listed here ($1,450 for kids under 12). The price is kept low by the lack of internal plane flights, stays in modest lodges, and the use of local guides. (However, this summer's trip will be accompanied by Journeys's owners, who are bringing along their kids.) The itinerary includes two days each in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.

Luxo-outfitter Abercrombie & Kent runs a 15-day Kenya Family Safari that hits the traditional wildlife high spots: the Masai Mara Game Reserve, Amboseli and Aberdare parks, and Samburu. Kids are given the opportunity to hand-feed giraffes, explore an ostrich farm and a baby-animal orphanage, and visit Masai and Samburu village schools. Although somewhat expensive for adults, the A&K trip is discounted for teens. (Most outfitters charge adult rates for age 12 and above.)

Micato Safaris's 14-day Family Safari visits Masai Mara and Samburu, as well as several off-the-beaten-path wildlife reserves. In addition to the usual giraffe-feeding and ostrich-farm visit, Micato kids visit with Masai students at Sister Jenny's school in the bush.

In Southern Africa, Family Explorations offers a 21-day safari through Namibia and Botswana. High spots include visits to Etosha National Park, Victoria Falls, and a week exploring the Okavango Delta.

The Details: National Audubon Society; 212-979-3066; adults, $4,195; kids 8 to 17, $1,995-$2,295; departure, July 5. Born Free Safaris; 800-372-3274; adults, $3,899; kids under 12, $2,350; seven departures, June 6-August 8. Journeys International; 800-255-8735; adults, $1,950; kids under 12, $1,450; departure, June 27. Abercrombie & Kent; 800-323-7308; adults, $4,305; kids under 18, $2,805-$2,935; four departures, July 4-August 15. Micato Safaris; 800-642-2861; adults, $3,575; kids under 12, $2,555; five departures, June 23-August 18. Family Explorations; 800-934-6866; adults and kids, about $150 per person per day; departure dates can be customized for individual families.

From a child's perspective, Australia must seem straight out of Lewis Carroll: animals with pockets, a sun that moves backwards across the sky, cowboys who ride camels. Abercombie & Kent and Journeys International offer similar family itineraries that include Sydney, the outback, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Queensland rain forest. On both trips, kids can ride boats, horses, camels, and mountain bikes, snorkel, explore caves, climb Ayers Rock, and feed baby kangaroos. The upscale A&K trip, at 15 days, is a bit longer and a lot more expensive, and features a three-day stay at a beach resort on Hayman Island. Alternatively, Journeys kids stay two nights at a working cattle ranch in the outback.

The details: Abercrombie & Kent; 800-323-7308; adults, $4,872; children under 18, $2,712-$4,702; departure, August 9. Journeys International; 800-255-8735; adults, $3,395; kids under 15, $1,745; departure, August 2.

For many kids, the rich cultural heritage of Europe--its treasures of history, art, music, and architecture--can be described in one word: boooooring. (My mom still smugly reminds me of a comment I made during our trip to England: "What's so great about Stonehenge?")

Europe needs to be jazzed up, disguised as a bike trip or a rock-climbing school or a boat cruise. Distracted by all the fun stuff, your kids might just absorb a little culture by osmosis.

A bike trip is great for kids; it keeps them focused and wears them out. Backroads offers a low-mileage (30 miles per day average) eight-day family bike trip in France's Dordogne River Valley. Kid-size bikes are available for rent, as are enclosed Burley bike trailers to haul the toddlers. Cyclists stay overnight in European-style car-campgrounds, which are typically equipped with showers, laundry facilities, and swimming pools--not to mention swarms of French and German kids. Backroads offers discounts ranging from 10 to 40 percent for kids traveling with two adults.

For a less strenuous trip, try Brooks Country Cycling's eight-day bike-and-barge trip in the flatlands of Holland. A refurbished canal barge serves as a floating lodge while guests cycle past castles and windmills, usually along car-free bike paths. Shipboard quarters are a bit snug, but if you're four feet tall, who cares? Discounts for kids run from 10 to 75 percent.

If you like a challenge, Adventures to the Edge, a Colorado guide service with a family connection in Switzerland, can customize a family hiking/climbing vacation in the Swiss Alps for kids as young as seven. A typical trip might include a five-day hut-to-hut hike--including a glacier walk--from Champex to Chamonix, followed by two days of rock-climbing lessons on the granite Aguilles of Chamonix.

Maybe your kid is more bird-watcher than needle-climber; The National Audubon Society runs an eight-day island-hopping cruise through the Stockholm Archipelago, a traditional haven for Swedish family outings. The restored ex-ferryboat has bikes and fishing poles on board. And if your kids think Grandma's house is really old, wait till they stay in Gripsholms Vardshus and Hotel, which dates back to 1609.

The Details: Backroads; 800-462-2848; adults, $1,198; kids under 18, $719-$1,078; departure, July 8. Brooks Country Cycling; 212-874-5151; adults, $934-$998; kids 10-75 percent off; departures, weekly all summer. Adventures to the Edge; 800-349-5219; group rate with two adults, two kids, $5,035; custom departures. National Audubon Society; 212-979-3066; adults, $2,580; kids 7 to 16, $1,290; departure, June 1.

The Galžpagos Islands
If Africa is the anti-zoo--animals roaming free, people in cages--the Galžpagos might be called the unzoo. Everybody roams free. Because the islands' wildlife--tortoises, seals, sea lions, iguanas, and blue-footed boobies--are harmless and have no fear of humans, the odds are very good for nose-to-snout encounters right out of The Jungle Book. If your child loves the water, so much the better, since most trips include daily swimming and snorkeling. But slightly hyperactive kids may feel a bit cooped up on the small ships that are the only way to reach the islands.

Discovery Tours, operated by the American Museum of Natural History, will run an 11-day family Galžpagos trip this summer that welcomes kids as young as seven. Discovery's ultramodern 90-passenger mini-cruise ship will call at ten islands, with plenty of time allotted for numerous shore excursions and day hikes. A special Youth Coordinator will arrange all kinds of activities to occupy kids while the adults attend the regular shipboard lectures offered by various museum experts. Discounts for kids 15 and under range from about 10 to 25 percent.

If you're looking for a more intimate experience, Wilderness Travel offers Galžpagos cruises from 8 to 13 days aboard your choice of two 12-passenger sailing yachts. Sit-on-top kayaks are available for coastal exploring. Wilderness has no family program as such, but does make an effort to steer families with children under 12 to specific departures. There are no special discounts for children, however.

Mountain Travel-Sobek offers ten-day cruises (their 13-day trips are already sold out) on a variety of 8- to 14-passenger sailing and motor yachts. There are no special family programs, but $200 discounts for kids 18 and under are available on the most economical ship, the Beagle III, which has shared baths but no air conditioning.

If your child has a special interest in zoology, consider the 11-day Galžpagos trip offered by Nature Expeditions International, which specializes in wildlife-oriented trips all over the world. The company puts a special emphasis on education, with daily on-board lectures and expert Ph.D. trip leaders.

The Details: Discovery Tours; 800-462-8687; adults, $3,210-$4,030; kids 7 to 15, $2,260-$3,595; departure, July 1. Wilderness Travel; 800-368-2794; adults/kids, $1,850-$3,495; 27 departures, June through August. Mountain Travel-Sobek; 800-227-2384; adults, $1,895-$2,595; kids, $1,695-$2,595; eight departures, June through August; the Beagle III will depart June 16, July 21, and August 18. Nature Expeditions International; 800-869-0639; adults/kids, $2,490; departures on July 3, August 7.

Costa Rica
Got kids who are budding environmentalists? There's no better place to take them than this hotbed of biodiversity, which has 2,000 species of trees, 1,500 species of orchids, 850 of birds, and 35,000 different kinds of insects. You'll see monkeys, sloths, peccaries, tree frogs--maybe even a jaguar. Best of all, Costa Rica is very accessible--relatively close to home, with the world's most progressive national park system.

Family Explorations has two Costa Rica itineraries and a choice of family togetherness quotients. The nine-day Discovery trip includes Arenal Volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and a four-day cruise along Costa Rica's Pacific coast. There's a full-time leader for separate children's activities. The nine-day Adventure itinerary substitutes the Carara Biological Reserve for the cruise and dispenses with the kids' programs. On both trips, children under 12 get a 15- to 45-percent discount. Journeys International's Natural Wonders Week is a whirlwind eight-day tour of Tortuguero National Park, Arenal, and the dry tropical forest in Guanacaste. Departures can be customized, or you can join a multi-family group departure on July 19. Kids' discount is 35 percent.

Abercrombie & Kent's ten-day family tour includes a nature walk in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a river float trip (minimum age six; day care available for kids five and under), bird-watching lessons, tours of a butterfly farm, local school visits, and a rainforest canopy ride. Kids under 12 get a 20 percent discount. Natural Habitat, a nature-trip specialist, offers a ten-day family program to Arenal, Monteverde, and Carara. Kids under 12 get a discount of about 20 percent.

The Details: Family Explorations; 800-934-6866; adults, $1,750-$1,800; kids under 12, $1,000-$1,500; Discovery departure, July 8; Adventure departure, August 15. Journeys International; 800-255-8735; adults, $1,525; kids under 12, $990; departure June 19, or custom anytime. Abercrombie & Kent; 800-323-7308; adults, $2,515; kids under 12, $2,065; departure, July 18. Natural Habitat; 800-543-8917; adults, $1,895; kids under 12, $1,495; departure, August 1.

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