Every member of my family loves to travel; unfortunately, deciding where to go is a trip in itself. For a small unit, we have a remarkably wide range of ages and wishes: Hannah, now 20, is fond of art galleries and shoe shops. Ian, 14, would live in a bear cave if he could. For my husband, Joel, the sybarite, the perfect spot would be an Italian restaurant with a massage table. My heaven is a beach with no footprints. And two years ago we adopted Senay, then seven, from Ethiopia. He promptly fell in love with big hotels and big-screen TV’s. You see the problem.
Like most working mothers, I treasure vacations for the luxury of time with my children; I skimp and plan all year long to make our getaways great—but for whom?When Hannah and Ian were little, we tried compromise. For years we went to Ireland, my home country, for browsing in newly chic Dublin and horseback riding in Wicklow, but the shops and the ponies became very familiar, and both kids got bored. Next, we tried Francis Ford Coppola’s two retreats in Belize, selected on the theory that thin-crust pizzas, cushion-piled teak daybeds, and occasional celebrity sightings would temper the wilderness outside. The result: parental nirvana, but small-fry discontent. It was too rugged for one, too tame for the other.
In 2001, we took off for Africa, dividing our time between Cape Town (the cushy Cape Grace hotel) and Botswana (a small private game park named Mashatu). Somehow, despite Hannah’s contempt for rusticity and Ian’s for fleshpots, going to extremes worked. He (then aged eight) learned to run up a bar tab buying sodas for little girls at Cape Grace; she still talks about the leopard that ate the down pillows in the safari tent. Because Ian was young, we couldn’t play the usual safari game of trekking from one camp to another in pursuit of the Big Five animals. But staying put at Mashatu had its benefits: We became accustomed to the vervet monkeys that dropped from the rafters to steal our food; we named the elephants and followed the local lion’s pride as two young males invaded the territory of the old king, killing his tiny cub to make their point. Ian went on foot safari; Hannah went for a bike ride accompanied fore and aft by guides with shotguns. We all learned to eat impala, the Happy Meal of the Kalahari.
We had found the secret to a great trip: if they can’t all be ecstatic all the time, make them take turns. We spent a weekend in Paris (Galeries Lafayette and the Louvre) en route to La Digue, one of the smaller Seychelles islands (outdoor showers, swimming with hawksbill turtles). We went to Brazil for two weeks, first hitting Rio de Janeiro (world’s best shopping for long-legged girls), then tracing the Rio Urubu, an Amazon tributary that’s blissfully mosquito-free. Even Hannah the Squeamish swam in its clear, cold water and was enchanted by the pink dolphins.
But then, travel planning became even more complicated in 2005, when we adopted Senay. That was also the year Hannah asked for the ultimate high-school graduation present: a trip to Italy with her family plus her boyfriend, Chris. (Cheaper than the cars some of her classmates got, but not by much.) With the addition of a civilized English teenager and an easily bored seven-year-old, four sets of mandates became six. I dreaded this trip.
I didn’t worry about Hannah, Chris, or Joel; art and food would keep them happy. So I planned the itinerary around the boys: Siena, for the Palio, the famous horse race around the medieval square; Florence, for the fabulously creepy natural-history museum, complete with wax models of genitalia; Venice, because what boy doesn’t love mucking around in boats?
To my immense surprise, the trip was a success. Senay discovered that the marble floors of Italian museums are the perfect surface for those sneakers with wheels in the soles—you could tell where he’d been by the "What on earth?" expressions of the guards. Ian loved the craziness of Siena, where everyone but us was either drunk, or on horseback—or both. My children’s tastes converged when we wangled our way into a Gothic chapel for the pre-race blessing of one of the horses. In a ceremony that has kept its form for four centuries, a nervous steed and terrified jockey in Monty Python–esque outfits made their way to the altar for a benediction from the local priest. It was an afternoon with enough beauty and history for the older members of our group, and enough nature and drama (backing a horse down an aisle packed with excited Italians) for the younger two.
Where to next?We’re thinking of Australia (Sydney, Lizard Island, and the vineyards of the Barossa Valley) or Thailand (Bangkok, followed by the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary). Somewhere along the way, one of us will be forced to do something detestable for the sake of another. And that is family travel.
Isolde Motley, formerly Time Inc.’s corporate editor, is at work on a handbook about adoption.
1. Even the longest plane rides are manageable with toys, food, and, if necessary, drugs. As our pediatrician said when suggesting Benadryl to knock out our toddler boy, "It’s medically justified to stop the other passengers from killing him."
2. Don’t worry about jet lag. Whatever time it is when you land, go for a walk outside to reset your body clocks. Then switch to local time.
3. Don’t worry about food. You can always find rice, pasta, or bread, and it won’t hurt your kids to eat nothing else for a week or two.
4. Do worry about illness. For foreign trips, take a medical kit, including prescription antibiotics, and if you’re going to a Third World country, ask your doctor to give you syringes with pediatric needles.
5. If you’re staying anywhere for more than a couple days, book an apartment or house rather than a hotel. Who wants to be penned in?
6. Plan ahead, and then let life take you where it will. Surprises make the best souvenirs.
After 20 years of travel with kids in tow, here’s where we’d happily return:
Amazonat Jungle Lodge, halfway up the Amazon, in Brazil: A small eco-lodge with excellent guides. 55-92/9966-2876; www.amazonat.org.
Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn, both in Belize: From the lodge you can visit Caracol, half-restored and utterly untouristed Mayan ruins; Turtle Inn offers spectacular scuba diving along the nearby reef and atolls. 800/746-3743; www.blancaneaux.com; Blancaneaux Lodge doubles from $190, including breakfast; Turtle Inn cottages from $250, including breakfast.
The Cape Grace, on the harbor in Cape Town, South Africa: child-friendly luxury. 27-21/410-7100; www.capegrace.com; doubles from $600.
Casa dell’Albero, Venice: A tiny pink merchant’s house with an amazing collection of beds. 44-20/8878-1130; www.venice-rentals.com; from $3,000 per week.
Casa Guidi, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s apartment in Florence: A real find (yes, you can actually stay here with children). Book through Britain’s Landmark Trust. 44-1628/825-925; www.landmarktrust.org.uk; from $2,000 per week.
Devil’s Glen Holiday & Equestrian Village, in County Wicklow, Ireland: Riding at every level, from lead-rein to foxhunting. 353-404/406-37; devilsglen.ie; two-bedroom apartments from $250.
Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana: Lots of animals, few people. Run by the Rattray family, who also own the better-known MalaMala. 27-11/442-2267; www.mashatu.com; From $300 per adult, from $180 per kid under 12, all-inclusive.
Palazzo Ravizza, above the Siena city walls, in Tuscany: Ask for Mrs. Frick’s room, number 20. 39-0577/280-462; www.palazzoravizza.it; doubles from $210.
Tropical Manaus, Brazil: The machine guntoting security guards out front will thrill any small boy. 55/923-659-5000; www.tropicalhotel.com.br; doubles from $120.
L’Union Estate, on the island of La Digue in the Seychelles: Giant tortoises and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. 248/292-525; ladigue.sc; chalets from $565.