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Thomson Family Adventures
A SPECIALIST IN TRAVEL en famille to destinations such as China, Egypt, and Peru, Thomson Family Adventures has a kids' Adventure Club that creates parental downtime for a few hours each day. Each child is assigned a foreign pen pal to correspond with beforehand; during the trip, the kids meet, teaching one another songs or games. In Tanzania, there was a memorable soccer game where players used rolled-up socks as a ball and dribbled through cows on the field. Adventure Club "mentors," often professional teachers, also oversee journal-writing and play. Hike through cloudforests and play on remote beaches for just $1,390 per adult ($1,290 per child 12 to 17) on the eight-day trip to Costa Rica. Contact: 800-262-6255, www.familyadventures.com
Mackay Wilderness River Trips
ON THESE RAFT TRIPS, parental furloughs are elevated to a wilderness art form. Along with a full complement of river guides, Mackay Wilderness River Trips sends along a real proan elementary schoolteacherto lead activities with kids during off-water hours. Children learn about Native American culture, making dream catchers or hearing lore about the Sheepeater Indians. The über-teacher also arranges scavenger hunts and beach volleyball. The kids' program is so much fun, in fact, that no one is surprised when parents grow envious and choose to play along. A six-day trip on the Main Fork of the Salmon River costs $1,395 per adult; five days on the Snake River, $1,195. Kids under 14 are half-price. Contact: 800-635-5336, www.mackayriver.com
CHECK INTO A CONDO with a full kitchen at Keystone Resortin June, a two-bedroom, two-bath unit for a family of four costs $953 for six daysand get an Adventure Passport: $500 worth of fun at no extra cost. Cash in the passport for bike and in-line skate rentals, yoga classes, and other activities, as well as something just for kids scheduled each daykite flying, mural painting, panning for gold, or pony rides. What's more, the all-day Kid's Camp (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., for kids two months to 12 years old) gives parents a day to themselves; Kid's Night Out amuses the brood with stargazing and campfire stories while couples sneak off for dinner alone. So what's a parent to do with the free time? The Colorado resort's mountain biking, hiking, fly-fishing, and horseback riding are sublime. Contact: 800-222-0188, www.keystone.snow.com
The FDR Pebbles Resort
THIS FIND SOUNDED too good to be trueso we checked and double-checked. But it's true: The FDR Pebbles Resort, on Jamaica's north coast, issues a nanny to every family that chooses the resort's all-inclusive package. The nanny, on call from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (with an hour off for lunch), will watch the little ones or tackle domestic chores around the hotel suite, like stocking the fridge or picking up. Meanwhile, there are free activities for kidsespecially teenagersincluding windsurfing, snorkel, and scuba lessons as well as a camp-out. Special summer rates at the resort dip as low as $700 per adult for five days, including meals, with one child under 16 free per paid adult. Contact: 800-330-8272, www.fdrfamily.com
Butterfield & Robinson
THIS SUMMER, the outfitter Butterfield & Robinson debuts its "Homebase" twist to family travel. This six-day program establishes a beachhead at an exclusive European property, with separate programs for parents and kids. For infants and toddlers, there's daycare, open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., that parents can use as little or as much as they like. For the older kids, there are age-specific activities scheduled throughout the day; think surf camp, horseback rides, and kid-only dinners. Parents can attend language or painting classes, or use their kid-free time to follow their own muses. In Tuscany, guests stay at a restored farmhouse; in Brittany, it's a château. Cost is $3,995 per adult for Tuscany, $4,495 for Brittany; call for kid prices. Contact: 800-678-1147, www.butterfield.com
Close encounters of the eco-correct kind
Wild Dolphin Tips
1. A natural interaction should be unscripted and up to the dolphin.
2. If a dolphin approaches, avoid the impulse to reach out and touch. Imitate the creature's movements, swimming with your arms to your sides. Avoid splashing.
3. Don't interject yourself into a pod of dolphins or try to prevent the animals from swimming on.
4. Smile back.
Look! Fly Flipper, fly!
THERE'S NO DENYING the appeal of swim-with-dolphins programs: What kid doesn't want face time with Flipper? But growing awareness of hazards to the captive dolphins used in these programscritics lament everything from the size of the enclosures to the destruction of dolphin social systemshave generated a backlash. Last December, Maui became the 18th county in the United States to ban the exhibition of captive whales and dolphins.
The swim programs became popular, in part, by marketing their worth as a teaching tool, which dolphin-protection advocates dispute. "Captive dolphins are in a man-made environment, eating food provided to them by humans, doing the bidding of humans," says Merrill Kaufman, director of education at the Maui-based Pacific Whale Foundation. "There's little educational value to that."
Now, as the tide turns against captive-swim programs, organized excursions to swim with wild dolphins are riding a wave of popularity. But critics aren't keen on these, either, saying that the boats motoring up to dolphin pods to drop swimmers into their midst stress the animals.
So what's a dolphin-loving family to do? Anne Rillero, the foundation's director of marketing, encourages wildlife enthusiasts to simply observe dolphins rather than forcing interaction with them. When you're observing, she points out, the emphasis remains on the dolphinnot you.
Get fueled with these fossils
The almost completed picture
KIDS CAN'T SEEM TO GET ENOUGH OF DINOSAURS, whether they're starring in a motion picture or standing tall as a museum centerpiece. Catering to these dinophiles, three museum programs in the Rockies are taking their in-house displays a step further with paleontologist-led digs, showing kids how to excavate fossilized dinosaurs in the field.
Museum of Western Colorado
Grand Junction, Colorado
Sweating in the high-desert sun, it's hard to imagine that 70 million years ago Rabbit Valley was likely a watering hole for the allosaurus, a bipedal carnivore. Paleontologists teach mapping and excavating techniques, and the three-day program also heads 50 miles north of the museum to the streaked shale of Douglas Pass, where a slew of bee, ant, mosquito, and plant fossils from the Eocene epoch, which ended about 35 million years ago, has been uncovered. Learn plaster-casting techniques at the museum's Dinosaur Journey exhibit in Fruita, about eight miles from Grand Junction. Cost: $99 for a one-day dig, with lunch; $695 for three days, including some meals.
CONTACT: 888-488-3466, www.wcmuseum.org
LODGING: Fruita's Comfort Inn (970-858-1333) overlooks Colorado National Monument
Wyoming Dinosaur Center
In hopes of finding another Morris the Camarasaurus, who was discovered here in 1993, children on the two-day Kids' Dig Program (for ages eight to 12) work alongside researchers in the red hills of the Wind River Canyon. Morris's 48-foot-long skeleton stands watch in the exhibit hall on this 8,000-acre working ranch, a few hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park. Sift through soil at a dig site, go on a dino-themed scavenger hunt, and tour ten more skeletons at the 12,000-square-foot exhibit. Cost: $75 for two days, including lunch.
CONTACT: 800-455-3466, www.bhbfonline.org
LODGING: In Hot Springs State Park, the Holiday Inn of the Waters (307-864-3131) has a mineral-heated pool
Pioneer Trails Regional Museum
Bowman, North Dakota
This museum's project is a 30-mile drive through prairie dog territory into an isolated stretch of badlands. Day-diggers hike in about a mile to assist researchers, hoping to strike the equivalent of dinosaur gold. Over the last couple of summers most of a 65-million-year-old Edmontosaurus skeleton was discovered here, minus the skull. Until that skull is found, scientists won't know exactly what kind of dinosaur they've dug up. Cost: $200 per family per day.
CONTACT: 701-523-3625, www.ptrm.org
LODGING: North Winds Lodge (888-684-9463) is at the edge of the badlands in Bowman
Before attempting the first descent of Tibet's Tsangpo River, filmmaker Scott Lindgren turned to LIQUIDLOGIC for a boat that could survive almost anything. Behold the GUS. At eight feet six inches, it's designed to hold a line even when immersed in man-eating turbulence and store enough cargo for multi-day explorations. Larger folks will appreciate the ample legroom on long journeys, but those weighing less than 165 pounds might find it a bit too much. Although designed to perform in the far corners of the earth, those navigating their local rivers will find the Gus a snap to handle. ($1,125; 828-698-5778, www.liquidlogickayaks.com)
Skills Into Thrills
Whitewater kayaking is difficultand dangerous. Good training is essential, and these are two of the best schools in the world.
Deep inside Northern California's Klamath National Forest you'll find OTTER BAR LODGE KAYAK SCHOOL, which boasts Deep back-door access to the Salmon River and its Class II-V rapids. Seven-day classes run from intro to kayaking ($1,890) to advanced playboating ($1,605), gourmet meals and lodging included. Mid-April to late September. (530-462-4772, www.otterbar.com)
On the East Coast, it's tough to beat the NANTAHALA OUTDOOR CENTER, in North Carolina. In its 31st year, the NOC's classes range from weekend novice clinics to thorough two-week schools with a graduation trip to Costa Rica. Sessions are held on the Class II-III Nantahala and the playboat mecca of Tennessee's Class III-IV Ocoee River. Best of all, the NOC guarantees that rank beginners will learn to kayak and can keep coming back for free instruction until that roll's dialed. ($380-$1,400, includes all meals and lodging; 800-232-7238, www.noc.com)
The New Family Tree
Reaching for the sky at climbing school
Dancing with Trees (700-778-8847, www.dancingwithtrees.com) charges $200 for groups of up to ten people for three hours, $650 for a full day, and $200 per person (maximum five people) for overnights. Classes run year-round, barring wet or stormy weather.
WHY BE TERRESTRIAL when you can be arboreal? Go out on a limb and spend your family vacation in the branches of an oak tree, waking to the sound of woodpeckers, the chattering of squirrels, and expansive views across the treetops. The new "sport" of recreational tree climbing draws on techniques used in rock climbing, caving, and mountaineering and offers all the physical challenges of a ropes course, minus the goal-oriented agenda: You climb at your own pace and only go as high as you want. With a little instruction, anyone can scale a tree.
Dancing With Trees, a recreational tree-climbing school 80 miles northeast of Atlanta, welcomes climbers as young as five. Strap on a harness and inch your way up ropes dangling from the thick branches of white oaks and tulip poplars. A self-belay system prevents you from slipping down, and once you reach the first branch you can make like a monkey and continue climbing limb by limb into the canopy.
Spend anywhere from three hours to a full day exploring the trees, walking along branches (as if on a balance beam) and moving from tree to tree by sidestepping on cables or swinging across like Tarzan. Come nightfall, kids ten and older can bed down in canvas hammocks called tree boats and sleep ten stories above ground. Watch the moon rise, hear owls hoot, and wake up to breakfast "in bark"bagels and cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, and PowerBarsthen rappel down.
Owner Genevieve Summers, a former chimney sweep, got into climbing 12 years ago, after she and her two sons, then ages six and ten, took a course at Tree Climbers International in Atlanta, where the sport was founded, and she's been aloft ever since. Says Summers, "I tell my students they haven't had a good climb unless they have bark in their underwear."
Save big this summer at the lodge at Pico Bonito
The Big Easy, Honduran-style
SCORE ONE POINT for politicians keeping promises: Honduran President Ricardo Maduro has achieved his goal of increasing tourism, and he hasn't even been in office a year and a half. Maduro supports foreign investment and hotel construction, and he set up a tourism police force and increased advertising in the United States. The number of visitors to Honduras grew 20 percent in 2002, to 600,000 travelers.
Even with the increase, Honduras still gets half as many tourists as nearby Costa Rica, which is also half its sizegood news for families who need room to roam. Honduras has more rainforest and cloudforest than Costa Rica and ecological offerings like those of Belize, not to mention crystalline beaches and Copán, one of the world's premier Mayan archaeological sites, so don't expect the throngs to stay away for long.
One fab option is the Lodge at Pico Bonito (888-428-0221, www.picobonito.com), a 200-acre hideaway on the Caribbean, outside La Ceiba, adjacent to the rainforest, rivers, and waterfalls of Pico Bonito National Park. Mention Outside Traveler and receive a package deal this summer: Two adults and one or two kids up to age 21 can stay in one of 15 standard cabins for four nights at $1,553 for three people or $1,827 for four (not including taxes and service charges, about $300). The package includes all meals; a rafting day trip on the Class II-IV Cangrejal River; a naturalist-led trek on the flanks of 7,985-foot Pico Bonito for bird-watching and swimming; a motor skiff ride through the Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge where you can look for alligators, manatees, and herons; and a tour of the lodge's butterfly sanctuary. A family of four can save as much as $730 with this package.
Pico Bonito can also arrange for your family to visit the ruins at Copán, the ancient city in the lush jungle near the Guatemala border.
Fat Boy Slim
Fight those calories: Choose bananas, not Big Macs, for the road
AMERICANS OF ALL AGES are packing on the pounds, but the rate at which kids are getting fat is particularly alarming. Since 1980, the percentage of overweight children has tripled, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity is something everyone should worry about, says nutritionist and trainer Philip Goglia. Although he is better known for body makeovers of star clients (among them Kristanna Loken, the villain of this summer's Terminator 3), Goglia spends a good deal of time addressing children's weight woes. The author of Turn Up the Heat: Unlock the Fat-Burning Power of Your Metabolism (Viking Press) told us how parents can help their kids, especially while vacationing.
Why are you so interested in childhood obesity?
I was about 120 pounds overweight in my early teens, so I can relate to the health problems these kids have. And I'm also a father.
Why are kids getting fatter?
Part of the problem is convenience foods. They're highly advertised, children want them, and parents give in. Even my clients who are eating well and exercising are guilty of feeding their kids deep-fried chicken fingers.
What can parents do if they have a couch-potato kid?
You have to ask yourself, "Do I sit in front of the TV, too?" If the answer is yes, then you'd better change. Whatever change your child makes without you doing the same will be superficial.
How do you stay on the health-food wagon when you travel?
Always pack snacks like raw almonds, peanut butter, or fruit. Also, plan your stay. Have the hotel concierge fax you a menu before your trip, and if there are no healthy options, make special requests. If you're going to a cabin, take food with you and know where the grocery store is. This makes it easier to avoid giving in to convenience.
Any other travel tips?
Keep taking your vitamins and drinking a lot of water, especially if you're going on a plane, which is a winged petri dish of germs.
What is the one big mistake parents can avoid?
You know, it is so easy to make food magical and mystical by saying, "You had a bad day, here is a brownie." Instead, I want parents to say, "Eat this chicken breast and you'll run faster."