Most people can reel off more destinations in Spain than for most other countries. But for every place you’ve heard of, there are a dozen more that you haven’t. Every village has a fiesta, a fine and friendly restaurant, a genuine welcome for families, and a plaza or two to sip a cafe con leche. And with the country covered with coast, mountains or forest, there’ll be excellent landscapes to match – with no other tourists.
Family vacations that include the word ‘activity’ are not all about adrenaline, but more about stepping out of the comfort zones many of us have unwittingly built around our children. Unwrap all that cotton wool by hiking to an Alpine peak, or wild camping in a canyon, while feeling the fear just a little. Or mountain biking back down and watching grizzlies in the wild. And feeling the fear just a bit more.
Let’s face it, when you’re in charge of a hiking or biking expedition with your children, there are always tears somewhere along the way. A good family guide knows exactly how to keep a family inspired and interested, no matter how old they are. So, no more domestics over map reading, tantrums over treats, or kids declaring ‘This is sooo boring’. Expert guides love their jobs, and their love is always infectious.
There are lots of family safari opportunities, but more specific wildlife watching vacations can be tailor made to cater for different age ranges. Go polar bear watching one day and kayaking the next. Or see Rajasthan’s tigers in the morning and camel trek through the desert on a camel in the afternoon. Seeing nature’s wonders is spectacular, but holding your loved ones in your arms as you do so is the icing on the cake.
The idea of a walking vacation is always going to take a bit of selling to children. From toddlerhood on that instinct to just say ‘carry me’ can take time to wear off. However, throw in a safari camp, a donkey to carry your bags, a mountain yurt or a swim at the end of each day and the walking bug will kick in. Combine it with some kayaking and horse riding, and you’ll have converts for life.
Not only is it fun to stay in unique and funky accommodation, but because they are often created by people who have ambitious visions when it comes to responsible tourism. And hearts of gold, not just green, when it comes to hosting. Such as an eco yurt vacation in Lanzarote, a tree hotel in Sweden, a ryokan in Japan, a cave in Andalucia, a houseboat in Kerala or an off grid cabin in the Canadian Rockies.
If a family vacation makes you nervous about packing and planning, let it go. Many of the ones that we feature are small group vacations, where everything is organised for you – by experts who totally get family needs. All the equipment is provided, so no battling with bike carriers or stuffed-to-the-brim roof boxes. Or worrying about how to get from A to B. Just pack and go.
A family cycling vacation is a double whammy of wondrousness. First of all, everything is organised for you, so you don’t need to spend hours taking bikes on and off bike carriers, or finding the safest route from A to B without heading into a load of trucks. Second, the joy that you get watching your children gain that sense of freedom is second to none.
There is no doubt that it brings smiles to many people’s faces, but with so little time to enjoy together as a family these days, trust us - the smile on your child’s face as they go white water rafting, kayaking or, for something different, walking across the Alps with a donkey as their favourite companion in the world, is so much better than the cartoon alternative. Which, let’s face it, is all a bit Mickey Mouse.
Whether it is orcas in captivity, walking with lion cubs or riding on elephants, all of these animals are performing. And to perform they have to conform. And to conform, many of them are treated in the most unethical and destructive ways. Such outings are often disguised as being important for conservation reasons, but there are so many alternatives to protecting species than getting them to perform for our pleasure.
If you or your children have grown out of ‘kids’ clubs’ or, indeed, you never liked them in the first place, there are so many vacation activities out there. Swap face paint for real mud on a mountain biking expedition in Catalonia, or swimming pool games for wild swimming among Montenegrin waterfalls. Get away from the cold, clinical concept of clubs, and go a bit wild. Feral is the new fun.
Apart from the fact that these floating, all inclusive hotels are environmentally dubious and disengaged with local communities and economies, the idea of taking on a climbing wall in the middle of an ocean, or jumping into a pool in the middle of the Med is not even soft adventure, it is downright unsustainable squishy. You don’t need a bigger boat. Just a bigger imagination.