The World Beat

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

The World Beat

Update the passports and booster shots: Australia, Belize, Peru, Nepal, Zimbabwe, here we come. . .


I peered over the edge of the boat at the sharks that surrounded us. Three of the gray predators swam expectantly in circles, followed closely by a half dozen stingrays. Doing my best to ignore the knot of fear tightening in my gut, I calmly turned to my seven-year-old daughter and said, "Jump in!"

Ariel leaped into the water, and as a nurse shark moved toward her, she tossed it a dead fish. The beast bared its teeth, snatched the food, and swam away slowly as Ariel stroked the length of its body. Back on the surface, she bellowed through her snorkel, "That was cool!"

Belize is full of such counterintuitive little wonders. My wife, Sue, and I were lured there largely because of the beach- and jungle-adventure opportunities packed into a country the size of Vermont. The only English-speaking nation in Central America, Belize contains the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, a rainforest teeming with wildlife and 540 species of birds, and thousand-year-old Mayan ruins scattered throughout the countryside.

We ended up swimming with sharks while snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a five-square-mile swath of the Caribbean Sea protected from fishing and prized for its rich marine life (one-fifth of Belize is similarly protected in nature reserves). The nurse sharks and stingrays have become accustomed to divers and don't even flinch at the sight of a seven-year-old human in a pink diving mask. The flinching is left to us parents.

Our base for adventuring on Belize's Caribbean coast was Ambergris Caye, the laid-back, 25-mile-long, string-bean-shaped island that's a 25-minute puddle-jumper flight from Belize City. We stayed first at Mata Chica Beach Resort, a très romantic getaway of 11 elegant thatch-roofed casitas. Owner Nadia Taricco has a keen eye for fun kid activities, and she dispatched us on a daylong boating adventure to see manatees and snorkel, then lent us her gregarious ten-year-old daughter and her pet parrot to play with Ariel. That freed Sue and me to go kayaking and sailboarding.

Later, we spent several days enjoying the Victoria House Resort on the southern end of Ambergris. The whitewashed colonial pretense of the place--the lodgings range from comfortable hotel rooms to breezy thatched casitas--was quickly undone during the easygoing buffet meals. It was Mexican Night when we were there, meaning dinner was accompanied by a folk guitarist and followed by a spirited round of piñata-bashing for the kids.

A two-hour drive from Belize City brought us to Chaa Creek Cottages & Inland Expeditions, where we were swallowed up in the green embrace of the rainforest. After settling into our thatched white stucco cottage, we stepped out onto the veranda and were greeted by the four-foot spiny tail of an iguana perched on an overhanging branch. It was a quick orientation to our new environment.

I started the next day at 6:30 a.m. with a two-hour bird-watching walk on which I spotted brilliantly colored quetzals and toucans high in the rainforest canopy. The rest of the family hung out in bed until breakfast, after which we all hiked to the site of the butterfly research program. Ariel watched in amazement as an iridescent blue morpho butterfly emerged from its pupa and flew off. We also hiked on the rainforest medicine trail, went mountain biking, took a sunset canoe trip with a Belizean naturalist, explored Mayan ruins on horseback and foot, and floated on an inner tube into a 12-mile-long cave.

But it was the sharks that--excuse the phrase--left the deepest impression on my daughter.  --David Goodman

The Details: Mata Chica Beach Resort (011-501-21-3010; charges $135–$210 per night per family (its new policy is no children under ten), including use of kayaks and sailboards. Victoria House Resort (800-247-5159; costs $125–$600 per night per family in hotel rooms or casitas. Chaa Creek Cottages & Inland Expeditions (011-501-92-2037; charges $115–$135 per family per night in cottages, or $48 per night per adult ($40 for kids under 14) in cabins at Macal River Jungle Camp, breakfast and dinner included. Arrange caving trips and expeditions to Mayan ruins with Caves Branch Adventure Company (011-501-82-2800;



Despite what you may remember from Smilla's Sense of Snow, Greenland really is green. True, more than 80 percent of the world's largest island is covered by ice. And yes, Erik the Red admitted to coming up with the name as a marketing ploy to encourage more Icelanders to emigrate with him back in 985. But Greenland, at least the southwestern part, is luxuriously verdant.

My wife, Lisa, our 1 1/2-year-old twin daughters, and I spent a week in mid-July in Narsarsuaq, a small settlement in southern Greenland. It's admittedly an unusual place to take a family vacation, especially since we were expecting our third child in about six weeks, but I was about to set sail from there on a Viking ship replica for a book I was writing.

Russell Kaye

We flew in from Iceland, crossing Greenland's ice cap en route. Through dense clouds and fog, we caught glimpses of a land that made the mountains in Alive look like a walk in the woods--nothing but harsh white ice. What was I doing bringing my family here?

It was 10 p.m. when we landed, but it felt more like a lazy afternoon. A golden aura glowed over Narsarsuaq's great plain, and two more hours would pass before the sun set briefly. It was surprisingly warm, and, a little embarrassed, we quickly removed our heavy coats. Our view from the airplane had been an aberration. Outside the Narsarsuaq Youth Hostel, a well-kept single-floor inn a half-mile from the airport, the world was carpeted in flowers, moss and lichen, dwarf birches, and northern willows. This was a subarctic oasis.

The next morning, after a breakfast of toast and pungent Danish cheese (Greenland is still part of Denmark, although it operates under fairly autonomous home rule), our hostel hosts, Erik Larsen and Michael Kreutzfeldt, began telling us about the place. Besides the youth hostel, the town consisted of only a dozen or so houses, a fancier hotel, one store, and a museum covering the U.S. occupation of Narsarsuaq. Most of our adventures would not be in town. Erik bounced Anabel on his knee as Michael animatedly proposed, among other things, a weeklong ice-cap trek or, better yet, a short kayak tour a few hundred miles out the fjord and down the coast.

"You'll go right past humpbacks, and you could probably even make it to the hot springs south of Qaqortoq if you paddle hard enough," Michael said.

"The twins?" I reminded him.

So he gave us a long list of more appropriate local hikes and boat tours. "But at least try to helicopter to the ice's magnificent!"

Our first hike was to a landlocked glacier through the Valley of the Flowers, suffocating with honey-tasting harebell blooms, rosy broad-leafed willow herb, and even ten-foot-high trees (the tallest in Greenland). We ate tart mountain sorrel and buttery roseroot lettuce and drank straight from local streams during the two-hour hike. (Giardia is not an issue, and there is no industry to pollute the waters.) The glacier itself looked like a frozen tidal wave and was arresting not only for its mass but also its multiple hues of blue and white.

Other days we took shorter hikes to local waterfalls or simply sat by the water and watched fleets of icebergs sail down the fjord. It was an easy place to be with toddlers: None of the plants are poison-ous, and we could lie down for a nap just about anywhere, thanks to the ever-present mounds of cushiony moss. Also, we would not see another soul for hours at a time, so we didn't have to be concerned with the kids' audio level. About the only thing we had to worry about were the mosquitoes--like Visa, they're everywhere you want to be.

Our favorite outing began with a two-mile boat ride across the fjord to Qassiarsuk, home of Brattahlid, Erik the Red's farm, settled in 985. We dodged small pieces of icebergs that were often the size of respectable mansions, and marveled at the sparkly silt from glacial runoff that turned the fjord an enchanting milky blue. Then, once at Brattahlid, we were able to sit on the actual foundation of Erik's house because the government has left the site unmarked and completely open to the public. Being a Viking nut, I was thrilled. The body-sized granite blocks also made a perfect jungle gym for the girls to scramble on.

From Brattahlid, we took a three-hour hike on a highland trail to sleep in a sheep farmer's cabin overlooking another fjord. The twins scrambled along gamely, tottering ahead for a grand five minutes. After that, they traveled in our arms or on our shoulders. The narrow dirt road wound past hard-packed snow that would last through the summer.

When we finally reached our shepherd's hut--actually a very comfortable home--we walked down to a small cove, broke off a chunk of ancient ice from a stranded berg, plopped it into our water bottle, and drank a quiet toast to the wisdom of the Vikings.  --Hodding Carter

The Details: The Narsarsuaq Youth Hostel charges $40 per night and is open from late May through September; call 011-299-66-52-21 or in winter, 011-299-32-12-05. Double rooms at the Hotel Narsarsuaq (011-299-66-52-53) cost $169 per night, breakfast included. Contact for information on outfitters for hiking, boating, and skiing.



We were reclining like pampered shoguns in the seventeenth-century dining room of a ryokan in Matsumoto called Sugimoto when our waiter brought the first course to the table: a large platter of glistening raw meat, embellished with a dab of wasabi and paper-thin seaweed wraps.

"Basashi," he explained with a bow.

We smiled and nodded--our usual dumb-foreigner response.

"Horsu meatu," he added, smiling, finally getting the reaction he was waiting for.

I was in Japan confronting weird food because I refused to be left behind when my husband announced he was off to Tokyo to research a book and would be back in three months. And because I figured that exposing my three feral American boys to this notoriously mannered land of white-gloved taxi drivers and five-hour tea ceremonies might have a civilizing effect.

To my two-, four-, and seven-year-olds, Japan was synonymous with Pokémon, sumo wrestling, and, best of all, samurai--the Japanese equivalent of gun-slinging cowboys. After thorough research (we opened our guidebook to "samurai"), the boys and I found that the best stuff from the samurai glory days is in Matsumoto.

A hot-springs town on the threshold of the Japan Alps, just four hours from Tokyo by car (an hour and 20 minutes by bullet train), Matsumoto's jumble of weatherbeaten inns framed by the snow-dusted Hotake Mountains was the perfect antidote to the neon billboards that made Tokyo feel like a 3-D Nintendo game.

The morning after eating the raw horse, and 30 minutes into the pine-, fir-, and birch-clad mountains, we were following the roiling Azusagawa River on a sliver of asphalt that snaked up to Kamikochi. An upscale base camp for a network of backcountry trails and huts, Kamikochi is packed with international mountaineers in summer. The serrated peaks that rise 10,500 feet and the simmering volcanoes on their southern flanks offer some of Japan's best hiking.

From the Kappabashi bridge, we waded through wildflowers along the Azusagawa, watching for ptarmigans. Had our boys been a little older, we would have camped on the slopes of Yari-ga-take, "the Matterhorn of Japan," and climbed to its summit. If we make it back to Japan when the boys are teenagers, we'll scale Yari at dawn and continue along the breathtaking ridge trail that crosses the peaks and cols of Kita Hotaka-dake, Karasawa-dake, Okuhotaka-dake, and Maehotaka-dake, looping back down to Kamikochi--one of the most spectacular alpine routes in the world.

But for three midget samurai, who were quite satisfied with the gently sloping river trail, Kamikochi's postcard scenery served as merely a stage for melodramatic duels. This particular stage offered great props: pencil-straight birch branches for lances, magical plants that miraculously resurrected the dead, and rubbery brush that catapulted grapes at the enemy with fair precision.

After our theatrically choreographed walk, we backtracked a few miles south of Kamikochi to towering, volcanic Norikura-dake, where long plumes of sulfur mist rose from the hillsides. We found a trailhead and slowly scrambled up the loose ash and chunky lava scree. After two hours of stop and go, we reached a lovely panoramic view and broke out the chocolate-covered pretzels. Exhausted, we returned to the car and started for Matsumoto. Ten kilometers down the road, we came upon the hike that might have been: a kid-friendly gondola at Norikura-kogen ski resort, where we could have glided to the top and skipped downhill like happy Von Trapps.

Kaz Mori/The Image Bank

Back in Matsumoto, just a 15-minute walk from our ryokan, stood Matsumoto-jo, the imposing six-story, 500-year-old castle that is the very essence of samurai might. After staring down a second adventurous breakfast of six kinds of fish--pickled, dried, and still writhing--we picked up coffee and donuts and made a beeline for the jo. The boys clambered up precipitous staircases (the better to shove your enemy down) and skied across wooden floors, polished to a silky shine by hundreds of years of studious slipper wearage.

The Japanese, as I learned at our ryokan that last night, take their slippers seriously. I nearly touched off an International Footwear Incident when I forgot to change out of toilet slippers and into bath slippers as I made my way toward the women's bath, causing audible gasps from fellow bathers. A swat team of hotel staff sprinted toward me, each carrying the proper pair for me to change into. We all bowed many, many times, repeatedly murmuring, "Sumimasen" (literally, "excuse me," but which I interpreted as "sue me for my sins"). But it was clear that I was on slipper probation.

So at dinner, when we were again offered cold horseflesh, we weren't going to make a fuss. It's important to know how to handle these situations diplomatically. Fortunately, my husband does. Throughout the meal he nickered and neighed discreetly.  --Anne Goodwin Sides

The Details: For information on the area, call the Japan Tourism Board (213-623-1952). Ryokan Sugimoto (011-81-263-32-3379; fax: 33-5830) has doubles for $130–$300 per adult, including two meals; 30 percent off for children under 11. Konichi Walks (011-81-261-23-5065; offers English-speaking hiking and mountain-biking tours of the Japan Alps.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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