There's a reason it's called fall. With the start of the academic year, we tumble into the old routine of overscheduling, overwork, and exhaustion. But wait. Hidden in your child's backpack is your key to survival: the school calendar, which lists an average of 30 days off. To help you plan, we've gathered nine months' worth of ideal ways to play a little school-sanctioned hooky—no permission slip required.
AUTUMN LONG WEEKENDS
Vacation Duration Three days each
Your Assignment Pretend it's still summer and hit the beach
The water remains warm enough for splashing, and the dreaded towel-space encroachers of summer are gone. Now's the time to spread out: set up a volleyball net, play tidal-flat touch football, and build a driftwood bonfire (first nab a permit from the town hall).
THREE A+ BEACHES IN AUTUMN
Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Is that James Taylor tossing his dog a Frisbee?You never know who you'll run into on this calm west-end stretch—perfect for shallow wading, surf casting, and sunset picnics. A short stroll takes you to Menemsha Inn Cottages (508/ 645-2521; menemshainn.commenemshainn.com; doubles from $145; cottages from $210), a gray-shingled compound on 14 acres bordered by stone walls and roses.
Migrating songbirds fill the sky above this southern Outer Banks island, and ocean storms litter the 16-mile-long Atlantic beach with shells—watch for the elusive egg-shaped Scotch bonnet! The waterfront suites at Captain's Landing Hotel, Dockage & Suites (252/928-1999; thecaptainslanding.com; suites from $210) put you right on Silver Lake, Ocracoke's historic harbor.
Orchard Beach State Park
In the fall, there's terrific steelhead and salmon fishing at this Lower Peninsula preserve on Lake Michigan—with soft sand and grassy campsites—just north of the Victorian lumber town of Manistee. 231/723-7422; michigandnr.com; campsites, $24; four-person cabin, $45.
Vacation Duration Five days
Your Assignment Give thanks for a chance to get away
Thanksgiving is a terrific but often overlooked time to carve out a real vacation—and you don't have to skip the cranberry sauce or the postfeast nap.
HOTELS THAT TALK TURKEY
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Check into this 1890's castle for the T-day brunch buffet and annual Pageantry of Lights (November 24, 7 p.m.), when the switch is thrown on some 200,000 holiday bulbs and animated displays. Don't miss a soak in the giant hot springs pool across the street—so welcome after some early-season skiing at nearby Sunlight Mountain Resort (970/945-7491; sunlightmtn.com), a cozy mom-and-pop alternative to Aspen, 41 miles up the road. 800/544-3998; hotelcolorado.com; doubles from $145.
Palm Beach, Florida
What's new at the glamorous 560-room mansion is a free-form family pool surrounded by posh day-use bungalows with chaises, bathrooms, flat-screen TV's, Wi-Fi connections, and refrigerators. On the docket for Thanksgiving weekend: family football on the lawn and laser tag in the ballroom. 888/273-2537; thebreakers.com; doubles from $560.
Hotel del Coronado
Coronado Island, California
Seaside ice-skating, anyone?This San Diego institution serves up dinner buffets with live classical music in its ballroom and waterside Crown Room, and opens its artfully lit oceanfront outdoor rink for skating sessions daily. 800/468-3533; hoteldel.com; doubles from $295.
Vacation Duration Ten to 16 days
Your Assignment Give each other the gift of a reunion
Instead of exchanging presents, pool your clan's resources and organize a grand getaway.
FAMILY ASSEMBLY SPOTS
The YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch
Winter Park, Colorado
This 5,000-acre spread in the heart of Winter Park's alpine and Nordic ski country ranks high for active groups. 970/887-2152; ymcarockies.org; lodge rooms from $45; cabins from $150.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Welcome to Reunion Central. The all-inclusive resort in the Sonora desert foothills, just at the eastern edge of Tucson, has riding for all ages and skill levels, as well as guided single-track mountain biking, tennis, swimming, and kids' programs for ages 4 to 11. All that, and singing cowboys, too. 800/234-3833; tanqueverderanch.com; doubles from $420.
Holland America Line
Cruises—great for clans who want a big menu of activities but leeway to spend the day in a lounge chair—now offer reunion packages. HAL's program includes group portraits and, for qualifying families, one upgrade from an outside stateroom to one with a veranda. 877/724- 5425; hollandamerica.com; five-cabin minimum, from $1,099 per cabin for a five-day cruise.
Vacation Duration Nine days
Your Assignment Take a Caribbean quickie!
By this time in the school year, you're ready to bust out. Easy-access islands make it easy. Leave home at breakfast, be poolside for lunch.
THREE SENSATIONAL SANDBOXES
Sunshine Suites Resort
Cheery, freshly renovated digs with kitchens are across the road from famed Seven Mile Beach and only 10 minutes from the airport. 877/786-1110; sunshinesuites.com; doubles from $218.
Iberostar Hacienda Dominicus
La Romana, Dominican Republic
On the southeast shore of this mountainous nation, and only 25 minutes from La Romana airport, the 500-room beachfront resort in seven Spanish Colonial-style buildings has something rare in an all-inclusive: excellent food. 809/688 3600; iberostar.com; doubles from $230.
Paradise Island, Bahamas
The 2,000-room mega- resort, 10 miles from Nassau's airport, has added baby amenities—including pronto delivery of extra crib sheets and strollers—to its impressive list of family perks. 888/528-7155; atlantis.com; doubles from $370.
Vacation Duration Nine days
Your Assignment Go where the grass is greener.
Add biodiversity to your child's vocabulary with a visit to some of the world's lushest and most eco-conscious regions.
THREE GREAT JUNGLE LODGES
Lapa Rios Ecolodge
Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
On the Pacific Coast's pristine Osa Peninsula, 16 thatched bungalows are scattered across a steep, forested hillside populated by monkeys and scarlet macaws. 800/886-2609; laparios.com; doubles from $390.
Morgan's Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
With its years of political turmoil behind it, Nicaragua is about to be the next big thing, thanks to virgin beaches, vast jungles, active volcanoes, and well-situated lodges—like this two-year-old beauty on the country's west coast. Fifteen cliff-top bungalows are connected to the main lodge by a kid-thrilling 350-foot suspension bridge (acrophobes can take a footpath). 506/232-6449; morgansrock.com; doubles from $195.
Saba, Netherlands Antilles
This tiny volcanic island is all about rain forest solitude. The 12 brightly painted cottages are solar-powered and built from recycled materials. 877/257-0524; ecolodge-saba.com; from $65 per cottage.
Vacation Duration Three days
Your Assignment Brush up on your summer skills
You'll get no guff for enrolling the family in these tutorials.
RESORT CLASSES THAT READY YOU FOR THE SEASON AHEAD
The Somerset on Grace Bay
Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
Guests at this new 54-suite resort can fine-tune their shoveling and sculpting skills by enrolling in Sandcastle University, taught on the ivory sands of Grace Bay Beach; come nightfall, everyone heads to the Lookout Tower, where there's a high-powered telescope for stargazing. 649/946-5900; thesomerset.com; suites from $700.
Pinehurst, North Carolina
Tee it up at this legendary golf resort. The Family Fairways program includes a one-hour beginner or refresher clinic along with free club rental, unlimited range use, and family tee times after 5 p.m. 800/487-4653; pinehurst.com; doubles from $300; Family Fairways program, $175.
Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa
Huntington Beach, California
Learn to hang ten at this 517-room Spanish-style oceanfront spread. The resort's Surf City USA program offers semi-private family wave-riding lessons, taught by in-house Toes on the Nose surf pros; $120 per person for two hours. 714/698-1234; huntingtonbeach.hyatt.com; doubles from $265.
In the U.S., where the school year runs 180 days, kids have about 30 off. Here's how break time stacks up for other countries with comparable days of class time:
NEW ZEALAND 29
One out of five parents who took a trip in 2005 let their kids miss some school, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. "Entertainment," the excuse most people use, doesn't cut it with educators. But absences for family reunions, weddings, and educational trips are generally acceptable. Discuss your plans with teachers well in advance, get take-along assignments—and don't let the finished work blow out of the rental convertible in Orlando.
Pedal As You Leaf-Peep
You can admire the foliage from bikes on a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy path (202/331-9696; railtrails.org)—part of a nationwide network of traffic-free routes on former train lines.
Sample 17th-century foods—and spellings!—at a dinner at the Plimoth Plantation living history museum (800/262-9356; plimoth.org; dinner for four $190), in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Rent a House
Volunteer for a Vacation
Responsibletravel.com lets you find grassroots projects around the world that your family can take part in—such as helping construct a water system in a Mexican village.