On the last day of a weeklong Funky Fish Ocean Adventure camp, on Florida’s southeast coast, you’re headed to an offshore reef with a boatload of sun-kissed children to witness their newfound snorkeling prowess. You have never seen your daughter this excited. Once the vessel arrives at the reef, she dons her mask, snorkel, and fins, and a moment later all you see is the bobbing tip of a snorkel as she explores the wonders of a foreign world. At $59 a day, this camp, offered by the Ocean Sands Resort & Spa in Pompano Beach, is one great way to ensure that kids make the most of a vacation—while giving parents some much-needed time to relax.
Many destinations offer attractive options for family outings, among them farm stays, ranch experiences, and cottages on the beach. But sometimes the ideal hotel program is one that keeps the kids occupied while the adults go their own way. These offerings, often called clubs or camps, come in all shapes and sizes; so-called family resorts pioneered the genre in the 1970s, but the programs are relatively new to mainstream hotels, whose focus has understandably been on adults rather than their progeny.
The most rudimentary offerings, typically offered to ages 3 through 10, are simply certified daycare facilities, costing on average $60 to $90 a day (many are offered by the half-day as well). Increasingly, though, hotels are tapping into the desire of parents to give children more compelling, immersive activities.
“Parents are realizing that they just don’t want their kids to be inside coloring for four hours when there’s so much around them to discover,” says Denise Naguib, director of environmental programs for Ritz-Carlton hotels. “They want them to have an experience they can’t get every day, like learning about an ecosystem.” That’s just what children do at one of the programs Naguila oversees, the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, in Maui, where snorkeling is taught one session and underwater photography the next. A like-minded program at the Mohonk Mountain House, in New York’s Hudson River Valley, offers youngsters unusual ways to gain insight about local wildlife—by, for instance, having them build a “debris shelter” in the woods to imagine what it’s like for an animal to survive the winter.
All the camps we’ve chosen to highlight share the philosophy that a program ought to be unique to its surroundings and engage kids with hands-on experience and a lot of time outdoors. Activities range from the weeklong ski school at British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort—right at the doorstep of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler—to the Farm Barn at Shelburne Farms, on Vermont’s Lake Champlain, where kids collect eggs, brush horses, and watch cheesemakers turn 6,000 pounds of milk into 400 pounds of exceptional cheddar cheese.
With offerings like these, parents will often feel like putting down that novel and actually joining in.