How to Turn a Vacation with Kids into an Adventure
There's a moment in a child's life when she's old enough to go on a real trip yet still young enough to want to hang out with her parents. These travel tactics and tools will help you seize that window.
Parenting is like living in the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Except that what you want changes all the time. When your kids are babies and you are semipsychotic from sleep deprivation, all you want is to take an honest-to-God vacation where you can put your feet up and read a book for more than 60 seconds in one sitting. The problem is that vacations with little ones are not vacations unless you are independently wealthy and have brought along multiple babysitters and doting grandparents. Because wherever you go, there they are.
A funny thing happens as the kids get bigger: Suddenly you don’t want a vacation anymore. Vacations are boring! What you crave is an actual trip. An adventure. If only the kids were old enough!
Then one day, they are. How do you know they’re ready to really travel? There are a few ways to tell: They can pack and carry their own small suitcase. They’re old enough to switch hotels every few nights and won’t have a meltdown if they lose sleep. They can read or play solitaire or otherwise entertain themselves for several hours at a time without you handing them a tablet. (Because the best adventures are the ones where the screens stay at home.)
When these things are true, your moment has arrived. Grab it. Because all too soon, they will be more interested in their friends than you, or they will go off to college, and then you will take any time you can get with them.
For our first real vacation with our daughters, ages six and eight, we decided to go to Belize. English is the official language, U.S. currency is accepted almost everywhere, and it’s just over a two-hour nonstop flight from Houston. Coming from Santa Fe, New Mexico, we didn’t even have to switch time zones. There’s also the absurdly clear Caribbean water, the world’s second-largest coral reef, stellar bonefishing for my angling junkie of a husband, lush inland jungles, Mayan ruins, and more than 600 species of birds, all in a country the size of Massachusetts.
We wanted to see as much as possible in ten days without running ourselves or our bank account into the ground, so we plotted an itinerary that would hit all three of the country’s major destinations—mainland beach, remote outer cayes, and inland rainforest. Our first stop was the Belize Ocean Club, a laid-back, 60-room resort straddling the Placencia Peninsula, a finger of land in southern Belize fronted by the Caribbean and backed by the saltwater Placencia lagoon.
While we easily might have lounged all day at the resort’s small but lovely white-sand beach, our first strategy of the trip was simple: make sure the girls had plenty to do. On a Sunday morning, I rode one of the resort’s free beach cruisers ten miles south into Placencia Village while Steve took the girls kayaking in the lagoon. On another, we took a boat trip up the appropriately named Monkey River, where monkeys swung from trees and crocs lurked in the murky water. Best of all, though, was the day our fishing guide, Ivan, from Blue Horizon Belize, took us 15 miles offshore to fish and snorkel. Steve threw his line for bonefish, and the girls cast spinner rods, catching lizardfish, red snapper, and even an errant pelican. (Ivan unhooked it without injury.)
I swear the girls grew up during our four days at Belize Ocean Club—in the best possible way. It was small enough to give them the run of the place without worrying and big enough to provide them with a newfound sense of independence. By the second day, we were letting them cross the road from the beach and go back to our room on the lagoon side solo, order snacks at the beachside restaurant alone, and swim in the pool with friends they’d met without us hovering. Small steps, maybe, but a major development for us as a family. More independence for them meant more downtime for Steve and me (I read two whole books ), and for the first time, I felt them engaging directly with a place on their own.
A funny thing happens as the kids get bigger: Suddenly you don’t want a vacation anymore. Vacations are boring! What you crave is an actual trip. An adventure.
When it came time to head to our second destination, the transfer was simple due to our second strategy: pack lightly. The girls each carried their own small Patagonia Lightweight 45-liter Black Hole duffel, which easily held a week’s worth of clothing, sneakers, books, and bathing suits. The duffels weigh almost nothing and scrunch into their own pocket if you need to consolidate bags, and the straps can be easily slung over small shoulders as a backpack. Best of all, they’re streamlined, with only one outer and one inner zip pocket—just enough for storing essentials like toothbrush and headlamp, but not so many that stuff gets squirreled away, never to be seen again (a common problem for our younger daughter).
Our second stop, Ranguana Caye, is a one-acre island on the Mesoamerican Reef. It’s popular among day-trippers (about 20 at a time, max), who take the hourlong boat ride from Placencia to snorkel. But what most people don’t know is that you can also stay overnight in three simple wooden palapas on stilts, which opened in 2015. After the boat ferried the snorkelers back to the mainland at 3 p.m., we were the only paying guests on the island, and the girls had more of a chance to explore independently, thanks to the one exemption to our traveling-light rule: the Red Paddle Co. 9'4″ inflatable Snapper SUP, which packs into its own wheeling duffel and converts to a backpack. When we weren’t on or in the water, the girls spent hours on their own playing with Blue.
Our final strategy was to minimize travel time—we wanted to travel no more than a few hours on any given day. Our last leg was the longest of the trip—a three-hour ride from Placencia inland to Blancaneaux Lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Developed and owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola in 1993, the 20-room sustainable eco-lodge sits above the clear, swift-running Privassion Creek in a remote swath of upland pine savannah. Our open-air, thatch-roof cabana had a wide porch, plus floor-to-ceiling screens that let in the forest air (and kept bugs out).
On the first morning, we woke up early for the 6:00 birding walk around the property, stopping to spy blackbirds, orioles, and nearly 20 other species of birds through our binoculars. After breakfast, the girls took a guided horseback ride from the stable, and then we hiked a mile and a half along the river to Big Rock Falls. It seemed impossible that anything would top Ranguana’s turquoise water—basically our own private, natural infinity pool—until we discovered the swimming holes and trails of Blancaneaux. Steps from our cabana, Privassion Creek dropped over granite ledges and through a series of deep pools. We chased every adventure—mountain biking with the lodge’s free bikes, hiking, tubing, and trail running—with repetitive dunks in the 75-degree river. We had every intention of checking out the nearby outings, like canoeing through caves and zip-lining, but we’d found our happy place, and leaving the lodge and its river seemed like a crime.
Which gave us a new strategy for our next trip: make time for plenty of relaxation at the very end.