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Ask T+L Family: Costa Rica, Dolphins, Single-parent Families

Can you recommend a great outfitter for Costa Rica?We're a family of four and want to do as much as we can in a week.
—S.M., St. Louis, Mo.

You need a guide who's knowledgeable about both the wildlife and culture—someone who can spot a three-toed sloth as well as demonstrate Tico dances. Consider top-of-the-line Thomson Family Adventures (800/262-6255; www.familyadventures.com; family of four from $7,760 for eight nights); or Wildland Adventures (800/345-4453; www.wildland.com; family of four from $3,690 for eight nights); or Costa Rica Expeditions (011-506/257-0766; http://www.costaricaexpeditions.com; family of four from $4,600 for eight nights). Costa Rica Expeditions, which owns and operates three of the best ecolodges in the country, can also create custom guided itineraries for families. Rates, by the way, are lowest during the wetter, but still pleasant, summer season.

We'd love to go to one of the swim-with-dolphins places. From an animal rights standpoint, is this an okay thing to do?
—T.C., Portland, Oreg.

The Humane Society says no, claiming that those "smiling" bottlenose dolphins are being exploited, exposed to disease, and driven crazy by captivity (citing examples of very un-Flipperlike behavior, such as swimming in circles, rubbing themselves raw, and, though no serious injuries have been reported, even acting aggressively toward humans). Swim-with-dolphin operators, however, argue that besides providing great vacation memories, their programs educate people, fund research, and promote conservation. If you decide to take the plunge, consider places such as Dolphin Quest (www.dolphinquest.org; $75—$125 for 30 minutes), operating in Hawaii (Oahu and the Big Island), Bermuda, and Moorea, French Polynesia, or Discovery Cove in Orlando (877/434-7268; www.discoverycove.com; $219 per person for an all-day session, $399 for a trainer-day session). These programs house the dolphins in large natural lagoons (as opposed to featureless tanks), have staff veterinarians who perform daily checkups, and provide refuge areas where dolphins can go if they're not in the mood for mingling.

Do you know of any travel agents that cater to single-parent families?We've felt a little left out because we don't have a dad with us.
—A.R., Hudson, Ohio

Lately, single-parent families have started to join forces on the road. Quality Time Travel (888/758-9386; www.qualitytimetravel.com) organizes all-inclusive, single-parent vacations and cruises in the U.S.A., the Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada, for groups of 20 to 30 families. Web sites such as singleparenttravel.net and loneparent.com offer advice, packages, and the opportunity to meet other solo parents via chat rooms and forums. Club Med (800/258-2633; www.clubmed.com) is another easy option, thanks to its kids' programs and communal meals. You may even make a connection that endures beyond the frozen daiquiri stage. An important note: single parents traveling abroad with children must have a notarized statement from the absent parent, if there is one, giving permission for the child to leave the country. In addition, a new law requires a person applying for a U.S. passport for a child under 14 to demonstrate that both parents consent, or that the applying parent has sole authority to obtain the passport.

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