There are family vacations. And, then there are epic adventures that may qualify as the experience of a lifetime.

Here are five to consider now. 

Resized guide photo

Plan a family safari.

Visit northern Tanzania’s Serengeti for a wildlife viewing and cultural extravaganza. Home to more than 3,000 lions and1000 leopards as well as zebras, wildebeests, warthogs and waterbuck, it’s a magical sanctuary best known for the great migration.

With the Four Seasons Serengeti as your basecamp, choose to explore via half and full day jeep tours, walking safaris, or from the basket of a high-flying, hot air balloon. The excitement doesn’t end when you return to the Lodge, where a watering hole, just beyond the Infiniti pool, serves up hydrating sustenance to elephant families on a daily basis.

Dine on the veranda, with sweeping views of the plains, where giraffe, eland and topi graze in the distance. Kids can visit the on-site discovery center to learn about Maasai history and culture, the significance of the Serengeti Cheetah Project and life in the bush. Relax at the spa, take a family cooking class and be amazed by a live performance of tribal dance and song offered by local Maasai.

Contact: https://www.fourseasons.com/serengeti/

https://www.tanzaniatourism.go.tz/destination/serengeti-national-park

 Adventures by Disney through the heart of Europe

Revel in a river cruise.

Unpack. Settle in and let the adventure begin.

Explore the Rhine, Danube or Seine river valleys with your family or multigenerational group from aboard a luxury AmaWaterways ship. With itineraries crafted to your family’s preferences, each day you’ll take part in active adventures or culturally immersive experiences in compelling destinations.

Well-trained and knowledgable Disney adventure guides, paired with local storytellers, combine talents to insure each member of the family gets maximum enjoyment from the trip. Wander through medieval castles, sample local cuisine, pedal along the river bank and enjoy private tours and  insider access to popular attractions. Adventure guides are at the ready to engage youngsters in evening activities so the adults may opt for a fine dining experience or a musical performance. (Food and wine trips are also possible when it's time to leave the youngest travelers at home.)

Expect an all-inclusive, backstage pass-style adventure through the heart of Europe. 

Contact: www.adventuresbydisney.com/europe/danube-river-cruise/

 Windstar is back in Alaska

Explore Alaska.

Our sparsely populated and endlessly captivating 49th state lures those who yearn for epic scenery, spouting whales and glaciers the size of small countries. Experience family travel in rugged Alaska via boutique yachts and expedition ships that set sail for adventure beginning each Spring.

Aboard smaller vessels you’ll have meaningful cultural experiences, find your way to natural nooks and crannies, opt for hiking and kayaking and discover rarely visited wilderness areas, increasing the chance for up-close wildlife viewing. Those who venture to America’s last frontier will be rewarded with Mother Nature in all her glory.

 

Contact: www.Uncruise.com ; www.WindstarCruises.com

Explore Minnesota Boundary Waters 

Discover Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

Ease your canoes into the pristine water near Ely, MN and look forward to peaceful days of paddling amid a sparsely populated, one million-plus acre expanse of wilderness. Listen to the waves lapping against the shoreline and the haunting lullaby offered by local loons as you drift to sleep in one of 2,000 secluded campsites that dot the lake region. Wake to the sounds of birds chirping in the birch trees and enjoy breakfast over a campfire. Then set out to explore more of the 1,500 miles of canoe routes that crisscross the waterways.

Contact: www.boundarywatersoutfitters.com; www.ExploreMinnesota.com 

 Austin Adventures in Galapagos

Immerse in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Given the island’s location on the equator, air and water temperatures remain relatively stable, making the Galapagos Islands a desirable destination any time of the year. Within this pristine and diverse eco-system, your family will thrill to the site of cliff-diving blue-footed boobies and the waved albatross known for an elaborate courtship dance that can include 20 minutes of bowing, honking, whistling and bill clacking. You’ll want to know about Darwin’s 13 finches, creatures that were central to the scientist’s evolutionary theories. Learn more about the volcanic island’s winged population as well as the abundance of sharks, sea lions, mantas and iguanas via a live aboard vessel (popular with scuba divers), a cruise or a hotel-based tour.

Contact: www.Expeditions.com ; www.AustinAdventures.

Take advantage of the years when your family travel plans are not limited by school holidays and summer vacation.

Travel with your toddlers! You'll expand their world and plant the seed of adventure early. (And have fun in the process.)

Here are a handful of ideas to consider:  

Resort pool

Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa, St Lucia.  

At this Caribbean Resort, children will learn about their destination through activities designed for each age group.  The SCOUTS program – Seeing, Crafting, Observing, Understanding, Tasting, St. Lucia) is infused in the fun you’ll find headquartered within the 50,000 square foot Cocoland Kidz Club. Expect youngsters  to access a mini zipline and rock wall, a petting zoo and plenty of water play. Three of five resort pools cater to kids and include a lazy river and a zero entry splash pool. Savvy youngsters can order colorful slushies and fruity drinks at their own swim up bar. When parents opt for a night on their own, kids can enjoy their own Pirates Night or Movie Night on the Splash Lawn.

Contact: www.cbayresort.com

 for resort

FDR Resort, Jamaica.

 There is nothing like an afternoon splashing in the surf and building sand castles to wear out an active toddler. At the FDR Resort in Runaway Bay, Jamaica, once Junior goes down, a Vacation Nanny is available to sit by his side, while you enjoy an afternoon playing golf, scuba diving or exploring by kayak.  Check in to this all-inclusive seaside getaway, and meet your CPR-trained Vacation Nanny who will assist you and your family in having the most relaxing time possible. Trained in child care and housekeeping, this professional staff member’s goal is to fill in where needed, whether by looking after youngsters in the pool, or making sure the kids’ favorite snacks are on hand in the room.  Contact:  www.fdrholidays.com.

 loews miami

Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Miami Beach, FL. 

This oceanfront resort, the recipient of a recent $50 million redesign, offers a bounty of family enticements via the Loews Loves Kids program. Families can choose to enjoy the benefits of direct beach access (which makes castle building a breeze) or head to the zero entry pool where pop fountains add to the vacation vibe.  Celebrate in style by spending the day with access to a SOAK cabana where air conditioning, flat screen TVs,  private butler service and rooftop terraces will convince the kids they’ve reached VIP status. Take a pizza-making class together or take advantage of Family Happy Hour during which time kids can enjoy complimentary lawn games while parents sip cocktails, join in or cheer them on.

Contact: www.LoewsHotels.com/MiamiBeach

 Atlantis

Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas. 

For families that check into The Coral, the resort’s recently revamped, family-centric tower, a new level of luxury awaits. Compare notes with the Kids Concierge and in a flash, the dreams of mini-travelers (and their parents) will soon be a reality. From scheduling family swims with the dolphins to registering for Sea Squirts, an interactive marine program where youngsters can feed baby stingrays, sharks and schools of fish, the concierge is on hand to help create itineraries and smooth any bumps on the path to a memorable vacation. Ask about helping the Atlantis Aquarists guide Green Sea Turtle hatchlings to the sea.

Contact: www.AtlantisBahamas.com

hike with toddlers REI

Kids on the Trail. 

Getting kids outside early and often is likely to instill a lifetime love of nature.  Visit a local trail and watch as your child explores with wonder, turning over rocks and observing small animals and birds. Choose a loop trail or plan a scavenger hunt. Bring along a picnic and plenty of water or juice so that the whole family stays hydrated. After a few close-to-home practice rounds, include nature walks and hiking in your family vacation travel plans. In time, you’ll be scaling heights.  

Contact: www.childrenandnature.orgwww.Trails.com; www.NPS.gov.

Published in Resorts

Novelist and travel writer, Pico Iyer says, “We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and to learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.

So be mindful of who we are, where we are going, what we are bringing with us and what we leave behind. Each and every day get up and ask yourself, why the hell not?

Be fearless. Be independent. Be bold. Out dream yourself and just go." 

women traveling together

Girls – as in grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, and nieces – are more likely than ever to "just go" and explore the world together.

That, according to multiple research reports that indicate an increasing number of women are seeking new adventures at home and abroad. Here are five to consider:

intrepid

Intrepid Travel.

This global adventure travel company has recently launched a series of women-only expeditions in Morocco, Iran and Jordan, encouraging female empowerment and showcasing the traditions and routines of local women in each destination.

The itineraries, guided by female tour leaders, are designed to break the barriers of traditional tourism in these locations, offering a deeper understanding of female culture in each of three Middle Eastern nations. For example, travelers will have the option to visit a traditional hammam with local women in Morocco, spend time with a female shepherd in Jordan and experience the nomadic life of rural people in Iran.

Contact: www.IntrepidTravel.com

Travel makes women feel on top of the world. - Trafalger*   

country walkers

Country Walkers.

As boomers check destinations and experiences off bucket lists, they are often eager to include other family members in their adventures. This, in part, has contributed to the significant rise in multigenerational travel. At active travel companies like Country Walkers, more women are joining their well-curated trips, often in the company of sisters, daughters and nieces. Immersive guided and self-guided walking and hiking adventures are possible in destinations from Iceland and Ireland to Zambia and New Zealand. The Travel Together program means a helpful consultant will coordinate the various needs, interests and requirements of family members. You’ll also garner savings when six or more join a guided walking adventure.

Contact: www.CountryWalkers.com.

She believed she could, so she did. The vast majority of women believe traveling has made them more independent. - Trafalger*

Exodus travel FamilyTravel.com

Exodus Travels.

In response to a significant increase in women booking their trips as well as requests for more cycling, walking, trekking and responsible wildlife tours, the 40 year old company has added itineraries they believe will help women of all ages and interests to push their own personal boundaries. Consider trips to China, Myanmar, Iran, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and beyond. The departures, which will include four to sixteen travelers, will be led by local female guides, creating more career opportunities for women across the globe.

Contact: www.ExodusTravels.com

Regardless of what’s happening in the world today – she still goes, with 86% of women stating they are not afraid to travel. - Trafalger*

on familytravel.com doing

Chebeague Island Inn, Chebeague, ME.

For those family members eager to reconnect or celebrate a special life event, a getaway to this island inn might fit the bill. It will be easy to unplug and focus on good conversation around a beach bonfire or while sipping a glass of wine aboard a classic schooner as your group sets sail in Casco Bay. Dine on fresh seafood and local ingredients harvested from the island farm or the garden behind the inn. Take in a yoga class on the lawn, ride bikes to the General Store for lunch or set out on island trails for a breath of fresh air.

Contact: https://www.chebeagueislandinn.com   

family travel dude ranch.org on familytravel.com

Cowgirls Convene.

Recent research revealed that when planning a trip, adventure outweighed luxury by 20% among the women surveyed. So why not channel your inner cowgirl, and gather the gals for a ranch-style getaway. From horseback riding and hiking to fishing and cattle rustling, a trip to the wide open spaces is sure to inspire the wild hearts in your group. If rustic isn’t right up your alley, there are plenty of ranch destinations where gourmet meals, yoga and spa treatments as well as luxury accommodations are on the menu.

Contact: Top50Ranches.com; DudeRanch.org.

* Award winning travel company, Trafalgarrecently conducted a survey of over 1,000 U.S. women to discover how travel both empowers and inspires women. The study illuminates all of the reasons #SHEGOES – with nearly three quarters of American women believing that travel makes them stronger and regardless of what’s happening in the world today – 86 percent of women continue to travel unafraid.

Published in Adventure

One of the hottest trends in travel is EAT vacations. We’re not talking about tours with celebrity chefs. Rather, families are looking for trips that provide memorable Experiences, real Adventure and Transformative moments. 

Here are five ideas that may fit the bill.

Visit Palau for family travel

1. Discover Palau.

Located in the westernmost corner of Micronesia, Palau, an archipelago of more than 586 islands, consistently ranks as one of the world's best dive destinations. Pay off for the lengthy travel time includes 1,450 species of fish, 500 species of coral as well as rare sharks and stingrays.

You may have heard about the opportunity to snorkel amidst the moon and golden jellies of Jellyfish Lake. For now, the lake is closed to snorkelers while the environment recovers from complications of drought. It is still possible to hike around the 12,000-year-old marine lake where scores of gelatinous creatures waft through the water following the arc of the sun.

When not diving, snorkeling or kayaking through the turquoise waters tap into the country's considerable WWII history that incudes sunken ships and planes.

Contact: www.Visit-Palau.com ; www.FamilyDivers.com


visit Cambodia Angkor wat familytravel

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Fans of the Tomb Raider film series will particularly enjoy exploring the Angkor Archeological Park, unfolding deep within the Siem Reap province. While hundreds of archeological and artistic temples and ancient structures remain, the most familiar (it’s on the Cambodian flag) is Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century to honor Vishnu, a Hindu God, the temple's bas relief galleries inform modern visitors of life in ancient times.

Also of note is the remarkable water system, including moats, canals and reservoirs, that once provided water and crop assistance for the thriving communities. Visitors arrive via river cruises on the Mekong or a stop in Siem Riep where lodging and tours are plentiful.

Contact: www.VikingCruises.com ; www.TourismCambodia.com.

May your way into the Colorado backcountry. Huts.org familytravel

Choose your backcountry.

For an EAT trifecta, establish a pure connection with nature, off the beaten path. Hike, paddle or float into a pristine location where your family can learn or hone their wilderness skills. Choose a destination suitable for the ages and abilities of your crew. Encourage each person to take responsibility for the adventure whether that is early research, carrying a small pack, collecting kindling or serving as master storyteller around the fire.

For the youngest set, get started with an overnight in the backyard or a nearby park. That way, should the weather or unforeseen forces create a kink in your plan, warm and dry shelter is nearby.
Contact: www.Backcountry.com; www.NPS.gov  ; www.Huts.org

Dali with kids familytravel.com

The Dalí Museum. St. Petersburg, FLA 

The budding artist in your clan will be transformed by a visit to this 66,450-square-foot museum that houses the most comprehensive collection of Salvador Dali’s works in the world. Enjoy the priceless collection of masterpieces, paintings, photographs, watercolors and books sure to inspire the whole family.

Younger children will enjoy the “Dillydally with Dali” program offered daily, which includes puzzles, games, story hour and creative expression. Be there on the first Saturday of the month, for Breakfast With Dali, a morning that includes a junior-focused tour, followed by a buffet breakfast. Children under five are admitted free.

Contact: www.TheDali.org ; www.VisitStPeteClearwater.com

Boundary waters canoe trip familytravel.com

Boundary Waters Canoe Trips. Ely, MN.

Ease your canoes into the pristine water and look forward to peaceful days of paddling amidst a sparsely populated, one million-plus acre expanse of wilderness. Listen to the waves lapping against the shoreline and the haunting lullaby offered by local loons as you drift to sleep in one of 2,000 secluded campsites that dot the lake region. Wake to the sounds of birds chirping in the birch trees and enjoy breakfast over a campfire. Then set out to explore more of the 1,500 miles of canoe routes that crisscross the waterways.

Contact: www.boundarywatersoutfitters.com  www.ExploreMinnesota.com.

 

 

 

Published in Adventure

According to advocacy group Project: Time Off, more than half of American workers leave unused vacation days on their company’s board room table. Meanwhile, the research shows that by planning ahead, more families will actually take much-need vacations and thus reap a multitude of personal and professional benefits.

Here are five ideas to consider:  

Make planning a priority.

Whether you begin by tossing up a tent in the backyard or strategizing to experience a safari in Africa, there is no time like the present to begin planning a family vacation. As children and grandchildren get older, their schedules become more complicated by their own commitments making it more difficult than ever to plan time together. With dates on the calendar, you’ll feel less stress at work, knowing you’ve provided the boss and coworkers with plenty of notice about your plans.

Longer vacations.

According to Project: Time Off , 75 percent of those who plan ahead were more likely to take a full week or more of vacation in a single stretch. By crafting a strategy in advance you’ll have your pick of departures, the best cabins on a cruise ship and more options in popular resort areas. While you are at it, scan the year ahead and be the first to claim vacation days around existing holidays and school breaks, creating a longer stretch for relaxation and enjoyment. Knowing good times are on the horizon, you’ll have the added benefit of anticipating the getaway.

Bucket lists.

Taking time to create a thoughtful bucket list can make it easier to plan for meaningful vacations, those that are a deliberate reflection of your values, hopes and dreams. So before you begin listing desired destinations, ask yourself what aspects of the world - geographically, spiritually and culturally - you want to share with your children, grandchildren and perhaps other friends and family members. As your ideas take shape, know your list will evolve over the years. Therefore, think about which destinations you hope to visit while your children are in the nest and which might best be saved for later. And, when it comes time to involve the children in creating the bucket list, remember that kids don’t know what they don’t know. Certain theme parks and resorts will likely be on their radar screens. But they may not be aware of the glories of Yellowstone or Yosemite or the historical significance of Gettysburg or Montpelier. 

Celebrate milestone events.

Geographic spread, busy careers and school and sports schedules make it more difficult than ever to spend time together. Therefore, planning ahead to celebrate birthdays, graduations and anniversaries can be an important touchstone and meaningful part of a family’s legacy. With plenty of advance notice, you’ll increase the odds that more family members will be able to take part in the fun. Ask your clan to save a date and then get to work creating a gathering that will be a lasting memory for all.

Reap the benefits.

In-depth research indicates that Americans who take time to plan their vacation time in the year ahead are happier than their come-what-may counterparts. Planners are happier with their health and well-being, their financial picture, their personal relationships and even their overall mood, according to the research. Further, an overwhelming majority of American workers report that time off helps them relax and recharge, and offers the opportunity to pursue personal interests Nearly two-thirds of employees say their concentration and productivity at work improves with time off. Business leaders echo this sentiment. Of those surveyed, 91 percent believe employees return from vacation recharged and renewed—and ready to work more effectively.

Ready to make a plan? Find out how we can help or check in with our FamilyTravel.com Vacation Planner!

Resource:

Take advantage of  National Plan For Vacation Day. For more information: www.ProjectTimeOff.

 

 
 
Published in Plan

Want to kiss a giraffe?

You’ve probably never asked yourself that question. But yes, you can, as my kids discovered on a recent visit to Kenya.

Head over to the Giraffe Centre just outside Nairobi, more formally known as the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, a breeding center of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe.

Our whirlwind tour of two Kenyan wildlife attractions took place in a single morning, the ideal day trip if you happen to be in Nairobi for a day or two. If nothing else, it’ll allow your family to appreciate the conservancy efforts being made in Africa, or just to get in touch with your wilder side.

What giraffe saliva feels like

Here’s how the Giraffe thing works: You pay the $9.65 admission to the center, and that gets you close — very close — to these rare giraffe. A guide will offer you a pellet. It’s not for you, it’s for the giraffe. Open your hand and one of these gentle creatures will swoop down and gobble up the pellet.

Got that?

My daughter, who can follow basic instructions when she wants to, decided to cooperate. She’s only 10 and fairly short. The Rothschilds must have looked like monsters to her. Good call.

After a few false starts (she dropped the pellet and the annoyed giraffe retreated into the sky) she made contact with tallest terrestrial animal on earth. Specifically, with the animal’s long, gray tongue.

What does giraffe saliva feels like? Glad you asked. In order to find out, I grabbed a pellet and offered it to the nearest animal. It gratefully accepted, leaving a generous amount of warm, thick, translucent substance behind. It felt a little sticky. 

What does it taste like? Ask this woman, who was part of a delegation of American travel agents in town for a convention. Brave soul.

She did not reveal any details of this intimate moment to the group. Then again, we were so shocked by it, no one could say a word.

But it’s settled: You can kiss a giraffe.

Elephants, mud and a cautionary tale of getting too close

At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya’s famous elephant orphanage,  you can get close to one of nature’s cutest creations: baby elephants. The trust helps rescue and raise mostly elephant and rhino orphans. Guides parade the babies into a large viewing area, where the orphans receive milk, water and leafy vegetation.

But the question isn’t if can you get close, but do you want to. With signs like this, the kids had second thoughts, understandably. 

Just to be clear, the elephants didn’t look dangerous at all. On the contrary, they were adorable. Maybe a little messy, rolling around in all that red mud, but still adorable.

Can we stay on the topic of messy for a moment.

Elephants can squirt water over long distances. You probably know where this is going, right? Now scroll to the top of this story and look at my daughter’s shirt. Notice anything? Yep, nailed by a baby elephant. I got splattered, too. Those pachyderms can spit!

But, awwww. How could you stay mad at something like this? 

Like the Giraffe Centre, the Sheldrick Trust is doing this for a good cause — in this case, offering hope for the future of Kenya’s threatened elephant and rhino populations against poachers, loss of habitat and human conflict. That’s well worth the $7 contribution to get into the orphanage.

If you don’t have the time or resources for an African safari, this day trip may be the next best thing. Your kids are guaranteed to see giraffe, elephant, rhino and other species in an almost-natural environment.

Published in Go Global

The trouble with eating raw oysters isn’t the taste (it’s delicious) or knowing where it’s been (filtering water on the bottom of the bay) but that it’s alive.

“If you open it right, you can still see the heart beating,” says oyster farmer Lane Zirlott, who co-owns the perhaps appropriately named Murder Point Oysters in Bayou La Batre, Ala.

Zirlott pries open a fresh oyster, recently scooped out of Portersville Bay, and shows my kids the soft, white flesh, pointing to the veins and other organs of the still-living mollusk.

Then he eats it.

“Ohhhhh,” exclaims my 10-year-old daughter.

On Alabama’s Gulf Coast, you’ll have a lot of “I-can’t-believe-I-ate-that” moments, from Zirlott’s murderously tasty oysters to the farm-to-table restaurants that serve bycatch fish, the alternate seafood that helps stocks stay sustainable.

(OK, I can’t believe I just used the words “farm-to-table” and “sustainable” in the same sentence. Forgive me!)

Murder Point is part of a fledgling movement, just now springing up on this state’s shores, to nurture more environmentally viable food sources. Oysters used to be abundant in the estuaries that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, but over the decades, development and pollution decimated the colonies.

The answer: oyster farming.

In these shallow waters, they use the longline method — PVC pipes spaced at equal distances on a premeasured length of wire — to raise the oysters. The line is submerged off a dock, anchored on hard bottoms, and hung on a rack. Looks a little like a maze in shallow water.

This is one of several new farms that have sprung up in the last few years. Zirlott, whose family owns a 2 ½-acre farm capable of of growing 1.4 million oysters says the mollusks raised in these waters have a unique taste: sweet, buttery meat with a subtle, briny aftertaste.

I admit, I was reluctant to try a live oyster, but then, I’d do anything for a good story. I grabbed a live mussel and sucked it down. No discernable movement in my mouth. I channeled my inner Andrew Zimmern and swallowed quickly.

Zirlott is right. I’ve had oysters before, but never like this. It’s said that chefs from Charlotte to New Orleans phone him frantically when they run out of Murder Point oysters, begging for more. He can’t keep up with demand, he says.

Oyster farming is more than a novelty for his family. They’re fifth-generation shrimpers and were looking for something new that kept them near the ocean. When his mother, Rosa Zirlott, took an aquaculture class at Auburn University, something clicked. They could be close to the water, doing what they loved, without spending weeks at sea. That’s when they decided to try oyster farming.

But that’s not the only unusual item you’ll eat here. A short drive and a ferry ride away on the more touristy Orange Beach, you’ll find an unusual experience at Voyagers, a fine dining restaurant overlooking the Gulf. The restaurant’s executive chef, Brody Olive, participates in a program called NUISANCE Group, which served “trash” fish.

I know what you’re thinking. No, a “trash” fish isn’t something they plucked out of the dumpster. It’s a fish my daddy used to call “not an eatin’ fish” like bonita, pigfish, pinfish, hog snapper, butterfish or the highly invasive lionfish. Only, it turns out they are eatin’ fish. (Sorry, Dad.)

Elliott on FamilyTravel.com

“The bycatch used to get thrown back into the ocean,” explains Olive. “We keep it.”

Focusing on these lesser-known fish, he notes, allows the more popular stocks like Red Snapper to replenish, which is good for the environment. But also, it lets you take a culinary expedition through the ocean to try something a little more unusual.

I ordered one of the more exotic Strawberry Grouper and braced myself, but I shouldn’t have worried. It was excellent (and definitely not alive) and to make things more interesting, they even showed my kids the exact location of where they caught the fish with an iPad and geotagging software.

Why such detail? Well, the NUISANCE Group wants you to know the fish is local and that your seafood came from the Gulf and helped make the world a better place. When’s the last time your dinner did that for you?

Reality check: This part of Alabama is still known for deep fried seafood and oysters imported from Louisiana or Florida. But like a tide slowly moving up the white sands of Orange Beach, change is coming. The next time you visit this area, you might be surprised by what you eat.

If you go …

Where to stay
For a resort experience amid all the vacation rentals, book a room at Perdido Beach Resort, a pink hotel right on the Gulf. Need more room? Check out Turquoise Place, a luxury beachside condominium by Spectrum Resorts, which offers breathtaking ocean views and more creature comforts than your home.

What to do
You mean, besides the beach? Try a flying lesson from BeachFlight Aviation, which offers a 20-minute powered hang-gliding experience over Orange Beach.

What to eat
Stop by The Gulf, a restaurant made almost entirely of repurposed shipping containers. It serves seafood in a relaxed beachside experience. For barbecue — hey, it’s the South — try Hog Wild BBQ. Warning: Their hot sauce burns real good!

Published in Eat

A week before we visited Yosemite National Park, Alex Honnold became the first person to free-climb the near-vertical 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. And just a day before we arrived, two other climbers — Leah Pappajohn and Jonathan Fleury — scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without clothes.

And by “we” I mean, my 10-year-old-daughter and my sons, ages 12 and 15.

Great timing, huh?

Unfortunately, Honnold was long gone by the time we arrived at the foot of “El Cap.” Fortunately, Pappajohn and Fleury were. I didn’t know how I would have explained that one to the kids. (“But Dad, they’re still wearing ropes, right? So they’re not totally naked.”)

That’s Yosemite National Park in the summer. Always something to do, always something to see. I’m just reporting the bare facts.

For us, Yosemite meant taking in the iconic sights, but also wandering through the amazing sequoia groves with the help of an expert guide. If you’re thinking of coming to the park during peak season, you need to know about the “insider” way we avoided the crowds.

A visit with “El Cap”

I know what you’re thinking. Yosemite in June. But isn’t everyone there?

Yes, but it’s still an enormous park, which at 1,189 square miles is about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. An insider will know where to go to avoid the crowds, and that insider is a private guide from the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports this national park.

Pete, our conservancy guide, knew the best spots to see the famed El Capitan, the shortcut to Bridalveil Falls, the perfect meadow to stop for a picnic. He even knew the best place to see the climbers scaling the north face. While a line of cars waited on the other side of the park, we used his insider knowledge to save time and see the best places.

The main attractions, of course, were “El Cap” and Half Dome, the two monoliths. If you’ve never been to the foot of these landmarks, let me tell you, there’s no way to adequately describe them. The only thing that comes close is a photo, and only famed photographer Ansel Adams captured what I would consider their essence — the shadows, the smooth granite face and the elegant shape that inspired countless tourists from around the world and a clothing line or two.

There’s a meadow in the Yosemite Valley, right off Northside Drive near the raging Merced River, where you can watch the brave climbers challenging “El Cap”. Bring a powerful pair of binoculars so you can see them inch their way up the vertical face. Not to be melodramatic, but my two youngest kids, who are known to be a little chatty, were stunned into silence. This was some rock.

Circling the sequoia grove

The rocks aren’t the only big things in Yosemite. There are also enormous, thousand-year-old sequoias, and the best place to see them is a secluded grove called Tuolumne Grove. It’s a 2½-mile hike down into the grove, but well worth it. Among the attractions: a dead sequoia you can walk through, a massive fire-red sequoia named Big Red, and a California redwood felled by lightning and hollowed on the inside that the kids can walk through.

Pete explained the fascinating history of these trees — how they used to be common in North America until climate change forced them to retreat to a few isolated pockets, how some of the trees are up to 2,000 years old, and how they create their own ecosystem that’s home to a variety of beetle, millipede and spider species.

Visitors to Yosemite probably know there are redwoods here, but if they don’t know about Tuolumne, it’s unlikely they’ll ever visit. This is one of the smaller and least-trafficked of the groves, yet it is also one of the most visually arresting. Standing next to one of these giants, you feel a lot like you do when you’re at the foot of Half Dome or “El Cap.” There’s an almost reverent attitude you see in the other visitors, even the kids. It’s as if they innately know that these trees are among the last of their kind and must be respected.

Impressed as I was with the silencing effect that Yosemite had on my otherwise boisterous kids, it couldn’t last. On the drive back to the Rush Creek Lodge, the conversation turned to an unanswerable question: Will the nude climbers ever return? Also, why weren’t they arrested for indecent exposure? (Apparently, there’s no law against it in the national parks. Who knew?) And just as suddenly as the quiet had descended on our group, it all evaporated into laughter.

Timing is everything.

If you go…

Where to stay
If you want to avoid the traffic and long waiting lists for a campground in the park, check out Rush Creek Lodge, a new hotel on the east end of the park. Go to their poolside barbecue for dinner, which is the best value this side of the national park.

Where to eat
If you’re heading into the park, pick up a few sandwiches at Rush Creek’s general store. For dinner, we found a respectable Mexican dinner at Cocina Michoacana in nearby Groveland.Cover your eyes, kids! I think I see two nudes ascending El Capitan!

 

Published in Explore

Blink and you’ll miss Buellton, Calif., a tiny town a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. And maybe that’s just fine with Buellton, one of those undiscovered destinations where everyone expects you to stay a few exits south, in touristy Santa Barbara, or just keep driving through to nearby Hearst Castle.

But, if you pull over, you’ll discover a place with a series of quirky, fascinating attractions that take a nice picture and a tasty, if not unexpected, cross-cultural experience.

I have to admit, Buellton’s presence was jarring to me when I drove south on California Highway 101. When I was a college student in Southern California, this town technically didn’t really exist. It wasn’t incorporated until 1992, a few years after I graduated. If you’re still having trouble placing it on the map, then think Pea Soup Andersen’s, the iconic roadside restaurant known for its split-pea soup. That’swhere Buellton is.

Just across the street from Andersen’s is the new Sideways Inn, named after the cult film shot right here. It’s part of a sprawling Flying Flags RV Resort, with its rows upon rows of impressive land yachts.

Buellton definitely has a road theme going on. Across the old 101, which runs parallel to the current 101 and right next to Flying Flags, you’ll find the Mendenhall’s Museum, a private collection available by appointment only. You can tour its vast collection of gasoline pumps, globes and road signs.

Elliott on FamilyTravel.com

Mark and Vickie Mendenhall, the museum’s curators, live on the property and personally give all the tours. I was particularly impressed with their California license plate collection that goes back almost a century and tells the state’s automotive history. You can easily identify plates issued during the world wars, as well as the state’s evolving self-image, from agriculturally-focused to the diverse place it is today. 

If you’re in town for just one day, stop by OstrichLand USA, a 33-acre ranch where you can view and feed these ostriches and emus. That’s right, feed. You get a dish of bird pellets, and the birds peck at them through a fence. Ostriches are known for being territorial and irritable, so the entire ranch is littered with warning signs, which of course I heeded but my children didn’t. (“No, honey, don’t feed the bird with your fingers!”)

Somehow, our digits survived.

One of the best parts of Buellton is its central location. From here, you can quickly get to some of California’s best beaches. My favorites: Goleta Beach Park, right next to the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus. Walk out on the pier for a terrific view and you might see a shark or two, like we did. And Jalama Beach County Park, a 45-minute drive from Buellton on mountain roads that twist and turn their way to an abrupt end. If you go, you have to try the famous Jalama Burger at the General Store.

Elliott on FamilyTravel.com

To get a better view, you have to get higher. We headed over to nearby Los Olivos for a hot air balloon ride with Sky’s The Limit, a regional operator. We’d seen their balloons flying over the wineries in Temecula, Calif., when we visited a few weeks before, and were dying of curiosity. What’s up there? On an early morning flight, we found out. Wineries, a bird’s-eye view of the beach, and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Yes, this is where the Gloved One came to get away from Los Angeles.

From the sky, you’ll also see Solvang, a curious and unexpected place that all too often steals the spotlight from Buellton. And there’s a reason for it. Solvang is an American city that looks as if it belongs in Europe — specifically, in Denmark. People come here to marvel at the faux Danish architecture, sample Danish pastries, and pretend they are not in the United States. Which is kind of difficult in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, but I guess that’s what you call “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Solvang is worth a look, and you’ll find a few good restaurants and a lot of great pictures there, but if you’re coming here it isn’t the main attraction. To really experience the northern part of Southern California — or as some call it, Central California — you have to get out. Head to the mountains or the beaches, and push the boundaries a little.

Or, to borrow a word the Buelltonites like to use, go sideways.

Where to stay
In Buellton, the Sideways Inn is a fun, authentic experience. It has a nice pool, and breakfast is included in the room rate. The nearby Santa Ynez Valley Marriottcaters to more of a business travel crowd and has an excellent on-site restaurant, which makes really good salad and sandwiches.

Where to eat
For breakfast, head over to Ellen’s Danish Pancake House (805) 688-5312 for the Danish pancakes. They’re oversize, thin, and not too sweet; you will want to order another plate. Go to Bacon & Brine in Solvang for lunch and order anything with a pickle. The pickles ruly are one-of-a-kind. Try the Hitching Post II for dinner. The artichokes there are amazing, and the steaks are cooked to perfection.

What to do
You mean, apart from ballooning and visiting the beach? How about picking fruit? We had a fun afternoon harvesting delicious blueberries at Santa Barbara Blueberries. The hiking opportunities here are also extensive. You can find more on hiking and other outdoor activities at the Visit Buellton site.

Published in Destinations

If you really want to see Alaska, you need wheels.

Most visitors come to the Last Frontier on a cruise ship or a plane. A motorcoach picks them up at the airport and delivers them to a hotel, to an airstrip or a national park, and they only see a small sliver of this state.

It’s a beautiful sliver, to be sure — but too small considering Alaska’s vast size.

Which is why my kids and I decided to go the other way. We rented a car in Anchorage and took to the road, driving down to Seward and up to Denali National Park. Yes, there’s still a lot for us to explore, and plenty that’s inaccessible by car, but the enchantment of Alaska’s open road is something you can’t experience from the back of the bus, off the deck of a cruise ship, or from Alaska’s impressive railroad.

My three kids and I are fortunate. Our family travel site is supported by Hertz, which set us up with a Ford Explorer, an SUV that can handle almost any Alaskan road. I should note that most car rental contracts, including Hertz’, don’t allow you to drive on unpaved roads, especially in the 49th state, where unpaved can mean anything from less maintained to downright dangerous.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: Take the SUV, or at the very least, a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You never know when you’ll be trying to negotiate a steep grade in a national park or find yourself on a rain-slickened road, and you’ll want the extra control. Two-wheel-drive cars are for suburban commutes, but not for this place.

There are at least two things you can discover in a car — the road and the destination. And there are three roads that really stood out during our month-long tour of Alaska. First, the magnificent drive from Anchorage to Alyeska on Highway 1, with its breathtaking views of the Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm and the unspoiled wilderness of Chugach State Park. There’s also the intriguing drive south along Highway 1 and Portage Glacier Road to Whittier, through the narrow Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. And finally, there’s the ridiculously picturesque drive up Highway 3 to Denali National Park, and if you’re adventurous, up to Fairbanks.

Along the way, we discovered that the road was the destination. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Highway 1 from Anchorage to Alyeska

It’s a short, one-hour trek from Anchorage down to Alyeska, Alaska’s legendary ski resort. We made the trip in early September, when the leaves were starting to turn yellow and low clouds hovered low over the Cook Inlet. Coming from San Diego’s balmy 80 degree weather to the mid-40s was a shock. We recovered just in time to appreciate the stunning views of the mountains and bay.

The road winds its way south, with frequent turnouts for tourists like us to take pictures. Good thing, too. Without these opportunities, I’m sure there’d be more traffic accidents, with shutterbugs veering into the oncoming traffic in order to find the perfect shot.

Here, off the beaten path means access to almost everything the locals have. You can shop for groceries at Fred Meyer or swing by Gwennies for sourdough pancakes, and you don’t have to worry about a train schedule. A word of warning, though: Parking in Anchorage can be a real bear. Like a lot of tourist towns, they’ve figured out a way to maximize their parking revenue. It pays to park a little farther from downtown and walk off that pancake breakfast.

Alyeska is its own reward, from the impressive Alyeska Resort, with its incredible network of hiking trails, to my kids’ favorite, the Bake Shop (try the sweet rolls, they’re amazing). But the highlight is the drive. If you’re staying in Alyeska, as we were, you’ll be tempted to head back north a few times just to do it over again.

Portage Glacier Road to Whittier

If you’ve never driven to Whittier, and you have an extra day, you really should consider going. Highway 1 extends farther south to Portage, past even more spectacular views of mountains and inlet. Then you hang a left and motor down a narrow, two-lane road past Portage Lake until you meet the mountain. It’s a $13 toll to pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and reach Prince William Sound on the other side, but well worth it. At 2.5 miles, it’s said to be the longest highway tunnel in North America. And it’s the narrowest. At just one lane, it’s shared with train tracks and you have to time your journey just right so that you don’t have to wait for your turn.

We found Whittier shrouded in clouds, with lone espresso booths at the port catering to freezing visitors like us. This is a popular launching point for glacier tours, but as with the first road trip, the drive is also its own kind of destination. Along the road you’ll see abundant wildlife, including moose and eagle. Portage Lake takes such a beautiful picture. But go slowly, since it’s only a 40-minute drive from Alyeska to Whittier. Pull over often and savor the views.

Highway 3 from Anchorage to Cantwell

This 3 1/2 -hour road trip is among the most picturesque in the United States, if not the world. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of Denali National Park, including Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet. But take that drive on a clear fall day, as we did, and you’ll see so much more. The foliage is more vibrant, with brilliant yellows and reds with the dark cinnamon undertones of the turning blueberries bushes.

Many visitors to Alaska make this trip in a motorcoach or by train. I’ve done it every way, and driving is still my favorite. Why? Because you get to determine where you go. Want to stop at the Talkeetna Roadhouse for a slice of pie? You can in your own vehicle. Want to visit my friends at Alaska Nature Guides for a hike up Curry Ridge in Denali State Park, for the best views of McKinley? Take the SUV.

Mostly, though, the road to Cantwell is mesmerizing in a way that no other road in America can be. Its two lanes run straight north into pure wilderness. The shifting weather — sunny and bright one minute, rainy the next with a slight possibility of snow — reminds you that you are no longer in the lower 48. This place is not for the faint of heart.

Driving Alaska’s roads is strictly defensive. A lot of the oncoming traffic is commercial: Trucks hauling logs, fuel or other supplies. The roads are sometimes well-paved, but often riddled with potholes that are the inevitable result of the wildly fluctuating temperatures. You have to be at the top of your game to drive here. And if you’re not, the car can help. Someone turned the settings on my SUV to maximum sensitivity, so that even a sudden turn would result in a warning to “rest soon” from the vehicle’s navigation system.

Rest? But I’m just getting started.

For some people, coming to Alaska is a bucket list trip, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For my family, driving in Alaska was the bucket list trip, and I can’t wait to do it again.

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