Let’s face it. Sometimes, when you get to that fork in the road, you just want the sign to point “Beach This Way.” Or maybe you don’t even want to be out on a lonely road – you want to be in the middle of a happening city. At times, you might even want a bird’s-eye view of the route from a mountain you’ve just climbed, baby in backpack.
Whatever your family's travel type – beachcomber, culture clubber or intrepid explorer – we know what you share: a passion for travel (with those baby passport photos to prove it), and a desire to keep the “are-we-there-yets?” to a minimum. Set your compass for your next trip, as we pick the top spots for families that crave city, beach or adventure destinations.
There should be a badge for visiting the nation’s capital. After all, you can check off plenty of Canuck symbols in one place. Explore multiculturalism – a decked out Pakistani bus, Japanese homes or towering Pacific totems – at the Canadian Children’s Museum and Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Touch the fur of a polar bear and examine the giant skeleton of a blue whale at the Canadian Museum of Nature, or let the kids roam between the outdoor sculptures on a mobile-phone tour at the National Gallery of Canada. (OK, giant mosquitoes might be more of a Canuck thing, but Louise Bourgeois’ oversized spider called “Maman” should not be missed.) And while the famed cat sanctuary may be gone, Parliament Hill beckons with its Centennial Flame, Peace Tower tours and that great green lawn expanse that just says: “run!"
Think your dinner table is raucous? Stand before the singing and smoking clan of 17th-century work known as The Merry Family. It’s just one stop along a new family treasure trail at the Rijksmuseum. The art-rich and design-mad city is going through something of a cultural renaissance.
The Rijksmuseum is reopening this month after 10 years of renovation. The Van Gogh Museum – what child isn’t drawn to his bright sunflowers or starry night? – is also due to reopen this spring. And the modern Stedelijk Museum, which unveiled a major revamp last year with a new wing that looks like a giant bathtub, opens its doors to discuss art and architecture with your kids. All the exploration here isn’t indoors. The city is celebrating four centuries of its canals – recognized by UNESCO in 2010 – with concerts, catwalks and art shows. Kids will love the opportunity to cross so many little bridges.
From the ground up, there are a ton of hits here: feeding a tarantula at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo; sitting in the cockpit of a Cessna 150 at the National Air and Space Museum; climbing the marble steps to the majestic Lincoln Memorial. Plus, the major museums are free, so if anyone has a meltdown, you haven't squandered entry fees. New experiences include an exhibit on Bond villains at the International Spy Museum, and the addition of an educational campus at the Lincoln-focused Ford's Theatre.
Or, head to the National Children's Museum. Here kids can jump continents on a giant floor map, pretend to run for political office or operate a lunch truck. And hotels cater not only to visiting politicians: the Kimpton boutique chain provides a friendly goldfish, hula hoops and pint-sized animal-print robes for turndown. Makes you wonder what life is like at the White House.
Sure there's the surfer-glam of Tofino, but Vancouver Island boasts a star attraction on it's protected eastern coast, too: warm, shallow waters, and a long sandy shore. The vibe here along the towns of Parksville and Qualicum Beach - approximately a two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver - is about capturing the kind of vacation you had as a kid. Instead of adult-experiences-writ-small (cooking classes or kid yoga anyone?), it's about retro family fun.
So go ahead and make sandcastles, dig for clams and snorkel. And when you want to hang up the plastic shovel, whimsical west coast diversions are a short drive away. There's some serious mini-putt: Paradise Fun Park features a giant pirate ship and Mother Hubbard shoe. Goats graze the sod roof at the Old Country Market. And a forever-memory-snap awaits of the kids hugging the ancient trees at Cathedral Grove.
It boasts a coastline of endless beaches set against a changing backdrop of cliffs, coves and sand dunes. It's easy to get around, English is widely spoken and the food is delicious. (Picture cheap wine, rich coffee and seafood so fresh your kids can watch the daily catch come in.) And your children will be not just welcomed, they'll be spoiled. For families, villas or hotels becon in quiet villages such as Olhos D'Agua, or near popular beach towns such as Armacao de Pera.
When everyone needs to stretch their legs, there are historic forts and hill towns to explore. There's no shortage of beach restaurants and cafes, either, which can only mean one thing: opportunities for almond pastries and wine on tap, the perfect multi-generational this-is-the-life mix.
Canadian parks are making it easier for families to head into the wild. Think canvas tents with bunk beds, indoor tables and wooden floors. Parks Canada continues to roll out its oTENTik - a canvas tent and A-frame combo that can sleep up to six - with new sites from BC to Newfoundland. This is an addition to an increasing number of yurts, cabins, teepees, cottages and set-up tents available at parks across the country.
Ontario's Murphys Point, Arrowhead and Pinery Provincial Parks even have a few cute cabins that feature log furniture and mini-fridges, as well as "deluxe tents" that include queen beds and the all-important coffee maker. Quebec Parks, meanwhile, offers a number of "Huttopia" tents that require you only pack the food. These new sleeps aren't the Ritz, but roasted marshmellows might be more your thing anyway.
While your days of bar-hopping on George Street may be over, exploring the wild west coast of Newfoundland with the family is no consolation prize. First stop: a few days in Gros Morne National Park, with its iconic mountain-and-ocean vistas. Bring out the inner geologist with a hike of the Tablelands - that's ancient ocean floor you're walking on! See the landscape from the water with a zodiac tour; explore the times when man kept watch over the sea at Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse; then, continue north on the Viking Trail to L'Anse aux Meadows, where Leif Ericson and comrades set up camp over 1,000 years ago. Across the way, everyone can blow off steam at Norstead, a recreated Norse village. And for any naturalists in your car, St. Anthony is the prime departure point for whale-watching and Iceberg Alley tours.Photo: Elena Elisseeva/iStockphoto
Dr. Seuss would approve of Costa Rica, with its cloud forests, hanging bridges and gardens of Blue Morpho butterflies. This isn't a lie-on-the-beach destination, but a country of volcanoes, waterfalls and rainforest jungles. Your Facebook posts will read something like this: "Climbed through the cloud forests in Monteverde. Just visited a butterfly garden. Heading out to pick coffee beans on a plantation tour. Now hiking through old lava fields in Arenal Volcano National Park."
For a little R&R, head to the laid-back beach town of Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, or settle near the white-sand beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park. Just remember to look up from your beach towel or snorkel mask - there are white-faced monkeys and sloths in the forests just above.
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