Kid-friendly retreats set in unbeatable destinations but without the mega-resort feel. Start planning your next vacation.
"All-inclusive" used to be synonymous with sprawling mega-resorts that catered to the masses. They were large, impersonal, and generic. And they were tantalizingly easy. Paying a single fee up front gained you access to a rare enclave where money never changed hands. There were honeymoon suites and babysitters on hand; all-you-can-eat buffets; and a long, if predictable, list of activities to keep you and the small city of other guests busy. Culture and nature took a backseat to convenience and predictability. They were like cruise ships that never left port.
These places still exist, of course (and if this is your thing, check out Beaches' enormously popular, family-friendly properties across the Caribbean). But thanks to a recent surge in small, boutique properties, "all-inclusive" is now truly all-inclusive, offering wilderness and true adventure, in remote locations shared with only a handful of other travelers. The following three lodges specialize in custom, nature-based vacations, where you and your family will be treated like family—without being slapped with a lot of extra fees for activities, guides, food, and, well, extras.
The Tropical Base Camp: Slickrock Adventures, Belize
Sixty-five miles offshore from Belize City, Slickrock's Long Caye eco-lodge is ultra-minimal by design: 15 open-air, thatch-roof cabanas fringe the beach and the turquoise waters of Glover's Reef. You won't find air conditioning, maid service, Wi-Fi, flush toilets, deep mattresses, or a saltwater pool (unless you count the ocean) anywhere on the 13-acre island, but if you like your tropics laid-back and natural and packed with action, this is definitely the place. When I was last there, pre-kids, in the late '90s, I spent my days kayaking the calm waters inside the atoll and surf kayaking just offshore. Since then, they've added a vela, or windcenter, stocked with windsurfers and kiteboards, a full complement of surfboards, and even a dry land trainer for teaching newbies to windsurf. You can scuba, surf-cast from your kayak, or just lounge in the hammocks or beachside all day. The island is wind- and solar-powered, and home cooked meals are served buffet-style in the sand-floored dining palapa—no shoes or fancy table manners required.
Kids Included: Although many of Slickrock's guests are solo travelers or couples, families fit right in, and kids especially will dig the Castaway-style isle. Children three and older are welcome, and although there is no designated kids' program, those who are too young to paddle can ride along in a tandem or sit-on-top; there's also a cache of sandcastle equipment and a well-loved beach volleyball court. Slickrock is happy to help arrange for a full-time, on-island babysitter (for just $25 per day, including housing and meals). Note to landlubbers: The boat trip takes three hours, but less than an hour of that is through open seas, so plan accordingly if you or your little ones get seasick.
Coordinates: Five-, six- and nine-night all-inclusive adventure packages cover roundtrip transport to Long Caye aboard the lodge's 41-foot power boat, three meals per day, unlimited beverages (including beer), all island activities (including guides) and sports instruction, and use of all equipment. Scuba diving and kitesurfing are extra. Adults from $1,325; kids 3 to 6 from $795; kids 7 to 11 from $1,060.
The Big Sky Splurge: The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana
Horseback riding to the top of the world for a picnic lunch, guided fly fishing on some of the state's best trout waters? Check, check. Sleeping in a swanky tented cabin on the banks of Rock Creek. Ditto. Impromptu huckleberry milkshakes after lunch? Yup. Bowling, darts, billiards, and big-screen Westerns in the family-friendly Silver Dollar Saloon? Such is the sweet life at The Ranch at Rock Creek, an ultra-luxe outpost at 5,200 feet in southwestern Montana. But this is not your typical family dude ranch: Owner Jim Manley scoured the Rocky Mountains for 20 years looking for the perfect setting amidst high peaks, with a river running through it, and an authentic cowboy culture. He found it on this sprawling, ten-square-mile parcel of meadows and mountain outside of Philipsburg, and proceeded to create the ultimate, spare-no-expense adventure ranch. Guests live close to nature without roughing it in ten stylish, canvas-walled tents that call to mind the finest African safari camps, or nine private log homes, some original to the 130-year-old cattle ranch and impeccably restored. And forget the family-style, checkered tablecloth eats you'd find at other western dude ranches: RARC delivers fine, fresh, seasonal dining—think Montana lamb and local trout—without the fuss.
Kids Included: The Little Grizzlies Kids Club wrangles to children ages four to 12, with morning and afternoon pleasers like horseback riding, nature walks, and archery. Kids are also welcome to join their parents for guided hikes, biking, fishing, swimming, and stagecoach rides—and you won't have to convince them to tag along with you on the half-day mission to Philipsburg, home of the world-famous candy shop, The Sweet Palace, and its addictive huckleberry fudge.
Coordinates: RARC is about an hour from the airport in Butte, and fewer than two from Missoula. Rates are per person and include lodging all food, drinks, activities, guiding, and gear from the Rod & Gun Club (whitewater rafting, town trips, heli-hiking, and massages at the Granite Spa are extra). Adults from $850 per night; children 0 to 2 free; kids 3 to 12 from $700 per night.
Your Own Private Island: The Lodge at Little St. Simon’s Island, Georgia
With seven miles of beaches for 32 guests, there's plenty of untrammeled sand on Little St. Simon's Island to go around. Except for the six guest cottages and main lodge, the rest of the 10,000-acre, family-owned barrier island just off the Georgia coast is virtually all undisturbed wilderness: woodlands, marshes, mangroves, and beach. Not surprisingly, there is more wildlife here than people: deer, alligators, armadillos, dolphins, and more than 280 species of birds. Roam the island on your own on foot or by bike (supplied free) or head out on a guided hiking, birding, wildlife-scouting, kayaking, beach-combing, or fishing trip with the lodge's naturalists. Book a one- or two-bedroom cottage with screened porches and outdoor showers, or bed down in the hundred-year-old Hunting Lodge, where meals are served family-style, with fresh produce from the island's organic farm.
Kids Included: With a full range of nature-based explorations, the Lodge has options for the whole family. Borrow the bikes and ride two miles to Main Beach, look for loggerhead turtle nests, play in the surf, and kayak the mangroves—if you're feeling especially energetic, all in one day.
Coordinates: Roughly halfway between Jacksonville and Savannah, off the Georgia mainland, Little St. Simon's is accessible only by private boat. This is included in the cost of your stay, as are all meals, drinks, activities, gear, and guides. Doubles from $500 per night; additional children from $100 per night.
Morgan's Rock Eco-Lodge on Nicaragua's Pacific coast is that rare breed of high-end hotel that doesn't try to dominate the landscape but instead immerses you in it. Fifteen gorgeous, screened-in hardwood bungalows flank a cliff overlooking undeveloped Playa Blanca, with kid-friendly waves and a full complement of kayaks and boogie boards. Sleep to the sound of crashing waves, and wake to huge views of the Pacific. Lodging and three meals a day, sourced straight from the sea and the lodge's organic farm, are included in your stay. Activities and guided nature tours are extra. From $223 per person per night; children 11 and younger from $79 per night.
At Dunton Hot Springs, a 19th century ghost town-turned-micro-resort in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, 13 meticulously restored mining cabins curve around a grassy meadow and trio of natural mineral pools, perfect for soaking your bones after a day of mountain biking, hiking, or fly fishing. Bonfires, lawn games, and nature walks will make little guests feel right at home (guided expeditions cost extra). All meals and drinks, served in the historic Saloon, are included in your nightly rate. One- to five-bedroom cabins from $600 per night.