Last summer, we were road warriors—and the year before that, and the year before that. We’ve pretty much hit the road every year since our kids were born, and they’re now seven and eight.
I’ve always been partial to planning epic family vacations, with the one requirement being that we’re as close to a large body of water as possible. Lakes are great, but saltwater kisses from the ocean are even better.
We’ve now moved on to our second family van and racked up thousands of kilometres of travel, but we wanted something a little more low-key this year. We were hoping for less repeated packing and setting up, more budget-friendly options, lots of relaxing and, like our road trips, a big focus on family bonding.
Living close to the water and just a quick jaunt from the highway to Toronto definitely helped ease us—OK, me—into embracing the idea of a staycation. We compromised on only a smidgen of travel (six hours) compared to the past three years of 24- to 30-hour treks from our home to Sundance, South Dakota, Prince Edward Island and Saluda, South Carolina.
This summer, we had three weeks to plan out, and the first half kept us sleeping in our own beds and either staying local in our own city or hopping in the car to drive up to an hour away to check out some bigger city attractions.
Of course, now I’m an expert on staycations, and I’m here to share some tips and ideas on how to go about planning your trip and where to look.
1. Be a tourist in your own city
Explore options in your town or places that are a quick drive, bus or train ride away. Check out the places you usually recommend to family and friends. Start with a quick search of your region or city’s website for free events in local parks, farms, museums and libraries. After taking in some of your city’s sites, use the money that you would have spent on accommodations to splurge on a special dinner at a local restaurant. Or if you’re feeling wild, research and book local adventure packages, which often include kayak, canoe, tandem bike and boat rentals.
2. Camp in your own backyard
Setting up a tent in your own backyard may seem like a lot of effort when you could just sleep in your own bed, but really, we’re doing this one for the kids, OK? If you’re feeling Pinterest-y, a great add-on is to put up a bed sheet and projector so that you can screen family movies. Another option is to camp with friends at a local campsite or RV park. There are so many great sites across Canada and the US (check out Kampgrounds of America) that offer daily planned activities, kid-friendly swimming pools, parks, mini-putt and more. Do your research and you’ll find some amazing gems—we were surprised to find a local family campground that was very wallet-friendly!
3. Check out local festivals and powwows
Summertime is festival time—and powwow trail time. In the summer, there’s guaranteed to be something happening every weekend in your city or just a short drive away. Grandfather Google is your friend here, and some people have even put together lists to help you in your search.
4. Get creative at family art sessions
From pottery to watercolours to sewing, there’s no doubt that your local art gallery or community centre has something fun going on for the whole family. Explore your options to get creative in nature or in an inspiring space you never thought of before, with all the materials and ideas supplied for you! Plus, you won’t have to clean up the mess.
5. Have fun at a discount
Who doesn’t love deals on last-minute concert tickets and amusement park passes? There are so many easy ways to score them. Start with Facebook under local marketplace listings and you can click to receive notifications for keyword searches. Sign up for Groupon and take the time to enter in geography, search criteria and areas of interest so that you’ll only get notifications for deals that are nearby and actually of interest to you. It doesn’t have to be just last-minute deals you get either; with a little careful planning and research, you can hook up your family with some deep discounts well in advance.
6. Think beyond hotels
If you want to go on a mini-vacation for a few days to break up the fun at home, why not go the RV or trailer route instead of renting a hotel or cottage? It’s a trendy option—and a good one. If you want to find a good deal for a time that actually works for you, you’ll have to do your research and book in advance because these pocket-friendly options will get snatched up quickly. Airbnb is also a great resource: Simply modify your search to include more filters, such as exact city or multiple areas, dates, number of people and budget, click “More Filters” and, under the “Unique Homes” section, click “Camper/RV.” You’ll find everything from renovated RVs that have been built out with decks right on rivers and lakes (if you live on the east coast, many of these RVs feature gorgeous ocean views) to kitschy vintage trailers to swoonworthy Airstream getaways. Another thing I love about Airbnb is that you can save your finds to different lists, so if you find something absolutely dreamy that isn’t available this year, think ahead to next summer and set a calendar reminder for yourself.
7. Head to the farm
10 easy recipes that kids can make Visit a local farm to go berry picking—and don’t forget to pick up honey, eggs, maple syrup and all the good green stuff that’s in season. Then choose some kid-friendly baking and jarring recipes you can do together. Galettes and no-bake crisps are much easier to make than pies yet just as tasty (and juicy!). Fridge jam made in the blender instead of on a hot stovetop is another foolproof way to get the kids in the kitchen without the added heat and epic mess. Also, did you know that many farms with berry patches have a second strawberry season in August that boasts even sweeter picks? You’re welcome.
8. Go for a hike (and a swim)
Your local parks are just waiting to be explored, and if you live close to a national one, lucky you! Load the bikes on your car, put on your hiking shoes and pack swimsuits, towels, bug spray, sunscreen, plenty of water, snacks and a picnic to really make the most of your day. Again, researching your options to get the most of your commune with nature is a good idea. Map out where you want to bike and hike, and be sure to take a refreshing dip afterwards. Know where the best spots are to bust out a picnic, or see if there are hibachis so you can get your grill on. Don’t be afraid to choose challenging trails and adventures either. This was the first year that we thought our kids were old enough to tackle some of the big Gatineau trails during the second half of our vacation. It was tough, but we tackled the big hills together as a family, took as many breaks as needed and, in the end, everyone was flying high off endorphins and the sweet feeling of facing something hard and overcoming it. The rewards of careening down all those big hills was the best.
9. Volunteer together
Depending on the age of your kids, volunteering is a great way to introduce the values of working hard, serving the community and caring for others while helping them understand their own privilege. Look for local places to volunteer or check out your branch of the Humane Society or Habitat for Humanity.
10. Tackle a house project
Not everything can be all fun and games; there’s something to be said for the bonding experience that comes from taking pride as a family in your own little oasis. One of my favourite tasks is going through digital photos and choosing which ones to print and frame. Or maybe you want to make some digital art with your photos, including a few from your summer adventures. This activity could be added to a refresh-and-purge/deep clean of your kids’ rooms. Donate all those clothes that don’t fit anymore, organize all the Lego or make a fun homework station just in time for back to school.