Best Hotel Kids' Programs
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.
TheRitz-Carlton Kapalua, Maui, HI
Hotel Kids’ Program: Kapalua’s Ambassadors of the Environment kids’ curriculum, developed with preservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau, features snorkeling expeditions, underwater-photography classes, and workshops on turtles, whales, and ancient Hawaiian navigation techniques. The three-hour Ambassadors sessions are $59–$79 apiece, while a room for four starts at $299.
Setting: The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is situated on the 23,000-acre Kapalua Resort, a former pineapple plantation, with quick access to both rainforest preserves and the reefs of Kapalua Bay’s pristine waters.
For the Whole Family: Whale Wonders, a whale-watching excursion the Ritz offers from December through April, gets you up close and personal with humpbacks. And North America’s longest zip-line system begins at the Kapalua Adventure Center.
Inn atShelburne Farms, Shelburne, VT
Hotel Kids’ Program: From mid-May to mid-October, the Farm Barn—populated by cows, goats, horses, chickens, and rabbits and staffed by farm educators—offers hands-on activities, such as milking cows and goats, brushing the horses and bunnies, collecting eggs, cleaning wool, and helping supervise the “chicken parade,” when the birds are let outside to roam or are brought back in. The programs are free; rooms for four start at $255.
Setting: Shelburne Farms was founded in 1886 by doctor-turned-financier W. Seward Webb and his wife, Lila Vanderbilt Webb, by combining the land of 30 area farms on the shores of Lake Champlain. Today it’s a nonprofit environmental education center, working farm, and National Historic Landmark. The spectacular lakeside inn is the couple’s former home.
For the Whole Family: Visit the farm’s dairy, then head to the Farm Barn to watch cheesemakers transform milk from the herd’s 125 registered Brown Swiss cows into award-winning artisanal cheddar cheeses, which are sold on the spot.
Hawks CayResort, Duck Key, FL
Hotel Kids’ Program: Camp Hawk, for kids ages 5 through 12, offers activities like nature hikes, scavenger hunts, swimming in the resort’s two pools, snorkeling and kayaking in the resort’s saltwater lagoon, and feeding tarpon from the marina’s dock. Teens (ages 12 through 17) can sign up for AquaJam, a three-day camp that includes an intro to scuba diving, a dive at the reef, sailing lessons, and a snorkeling trip. A half-day program starts at $38, while a room for four starts at $149.
Setting: Hawks Cay, dedicated to the life aquatic, sits on the northeast corner of the Atlantic-facing Duck Key, halfway between the Florida mainland and Key West.
For the Whole Family: Choose from activities that allow you to swim with bottlenose dolphins in the saltwater lagoon, do a meet-and-greet that doesn’t involve swimming, or immerse yourself in a three-hour, in-water session with the dolphins and their trainers.
MohonkMountain House, New Paltz, NY
Hotel Kids’ Program: At Mohonk’s camp, kids get to choose their activities (indoor or outdoor), such as a guided hike, an early-morning bird walk, animal tracking, or a project that teaches about local wildlife, like building a sheltered habitat to imagine what it’s like for an animal to survive the winter. The camp is free; rooms for four start at $554 (meals included).
Setting: In the midst of the Shawangunk Mountains of New York’s Hudson River Valley, Mohonk is a 140-year-old castle retreat that covers 2,200 acres, with 85 miles of hiking trails, nine holes of golf, a lake to swim in, tennis courts, stables, a campfire site, and a lawn for watching movies.
For the Whole Family: Two times a year (the next being December 13–23 and February 15–18, 2010), the resort waives room and meal charges (normally there’s an additional charge per child per room) for kids 12 and under.
TheFairmont Chateau Whistler, Whistler, BritishColumbia
Hotel Kids’ Program: The Fairmont offers weeklong kids’ camps throughout the ski season at three mountain faces, but the only one you need to know about is the one at Blackcomb Base, since it’s just a two-minute walk from the resort. Kids are assigned to one of three age groups and have the same instructor all week. If for some reason your child has an aversion to skiing (or just needs a break), he or she can enroll in the Fairmont’s new 90-minute, three-days-a-week RU Ready program, designed to improve kids’ agility skills, hand-eye coordination, and balance. A weeklong camp starts at $529, while rooms for four start at $459.
Setting: If it’s good enough for the International Olympic Committee, it’s probably good enough for you. Think breathtaking vistas, cable car rides, and miles and miles of Canada’s best skiing.
For the Whole Family: A dogsledding excursion through the backcountry of Soo Valley nature preserve, led by several huskies and a musher. Just make sure you’re wearing plenty of warm clothing.
The Broadmoor,Colorado Springs, CO
Hotel Kids’ Program: Bee Bunch is offered to kids ages 3 to 12 in full-day, half-day, and evening sessions from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Among the activities are scavenger hunts, a mile-long hike through North Cheyenne Canyon, culinary classes, a trip to the zoo, and a sports day featuring tennis or golf lessons. A half-day is $40; rooms for four start at $160.
Setting: Built in 1917 to offer visitors a European-style resort experience, the sprawling Broadmoor sits at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs.
For the Whole Family: About 20 minutes from the hotel are the Broadmoor Stables, where adults and kids ages 8 and up can go on a one- or two-hour guided horseback ride through the Pikes Peak wilderness.
OceanSands Resort & Spa, Pompano Beach, FL
Hotel Kids’ Program: Funky Fish Ocean Adventure Camp, a school designed to teach kids ages 4 to 12 about the ocean and its reefs, is reason enough to book a stay here. Instructors with a background in education or marine biology teach intros to snorkeling, skimboarding, and boogie boarding, and crafts like hemp-jewelry and tie-dye-shirt making. On Fridays, kids take a trip in a glass-bottom boat to a nearby reef for snorkeling. The program is$59 per day or $259 per week; rooms for four start at $95.
Setting: The Ocean Sands, an all-suite boutique hotel originally built as a residential complex, is luxe but not over the top, and it’s right on a stretch of quiet, white-sand beach.
For the Whole Family: An early-morning walk or jog on the hotel’s rooftop track while you take in the sunrise over Lighthouse Point.
WequassettResort and Golf Club, Chatham, MA
Hotel Kids’ Program: A brand-new, indoor-outdoor children’s center is home to the VIP Kids’ Club (morning, afternoon, and evening sessions mid-June–August, for kids 4–10). It features a splash-pad fountain park (think running through sprinklers), enclosed pirate-themed playground, rock-climbing wall, and amphitheater, where talent and puppet shows are staged. Kids also hit the resort’s beach to collect seashells and treasure hunt, and end up in the kids’ pool. Teen gaming nights are offered Tuesdays and Fridays. Sessions are $60; rooms for four start at $525.
Setting: On the outskirts of Chatham, a vibrant, old-fashioned town on Cape Cod’s elbow, Wequassett sits on a ridge overlooking a secluded inlet of Pleasant Bay, itself buffered from the Atlantic’s fury by a barrier beach—the southernmost tip of the 40-mile-long National Seashore.
For the Whole Family: Hook up with the Cape Cod Rail Trail, a 22-mile paved bike route following an abandoned railway that runs from Dennis to Wellfleet.
GrandSummit Hotel at Mount Snow Resort, West Dover, VT
Hotel Kids’ Program: Since the hotel is owned by the ski resort, all manner of ski school programs are conveniently intertwined with a winter vacation. A full day of ski school is offered to kids ages 3 (Cub Camp), 4–6 (Snow Camp), and 7–14 (Mountain Camp for skiing, Mountain Riders for snowboarders). Half-days are available for the older two groups and are often preferred by the tween set, as they allow kids to break loose on the slopes with friends in the afternoon. Ski school prices start at $59 for a half-day, with reduced rates for groups; rooms for four start at $216.
Setting: Grand Summit, at the base of Mount Snow, is convenient (walk out the door and there’s the chairlift) and unintimidating (nearly three-quarters of Mount Snow’s trails are of moderate difficulty).
For the Whole Family: The resort has three Kids Ski and Learn Free weeks (January 17–22, February 28–March 5, March 7–12), in which fees for kids’ lift passes and lessons are waived. A family of four will pay a very competitive $900 for three nights, $1,174 for four nights, and $1,460 for five nights.
TheRitz-Carlton Naples, Naples, FL
Hotel Kids’ Program: In November 2007, the hotel converted its Ritz Kids space into a nature center with 11 aquariums and touch tanks (home to eels, baby alligators, sharks, and jellyfish), a laboratory, and a computer room. Helmed by certified Florida master naturalists, the Nature’s Wonders program gives kids ages 5 to 12 an immersion in field biology, with a mix of indoor and outdoor fare like nature walks through the on-site butterfly garden and mangrove forest, a birding primer, a dolphin tour by boat, beachcombing trips—and, of course, plenty of chances to feed and sometimes hold the nature center’s many creatures. A half-day is $60, while a five-day summer camp is $400; rooms for four start at $209.
Setting: The palm-strewn Ritz-Carlton Naples, on the Gulf of Mexico, has a spa and three swimming pools, but its main claims to fame are its three miles of white-sand beaches and loads of Florida sunshine.
For the Whole Family: The center hosts a daily open house from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., letting you and your kids get a complimentary sneak peek at the program upon arrival—and the children who are already involved get to show off a bit of what they’ve learned.