Best Warm-Weather Family Adventures
While their Brooklyn neighbors shoveled snow and sat in airports over Christmas, the Belfreys lathered on the SPF. Unfazed by the news that 49 of 50 states had snow, the family contentedly spent their December vacation on their paddleboards, cruising the 71-degree water in Duck Key, FL.
Winter 2010–2011 has not been kind to the United States. Record snowfalls have pummeled several snow-hearty cities like Boston and New York. And U.S. airports cancelled more than 10,000 flights in December. The worst part? It’s only six weeks into winter. Who doesn’t want to escape the tundra for a sunny adventure?
The Belfreys chose their vacation spot wisely. The one state not touched by Snowpocalypse was Florida. The Sunshine State’s image as a theme park mecca and God’s Waiting Room is slowly yielding way to a wallet-and-eco-friendly adventure destination that’s easy to access. But the Keys aren’t the only warm spot in Florida. With 228 days of annual sunshine and average winter temps in the mid 70s, Central Florida ranks highly among family adventure travelers seeking an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Surprisingly, Central Florida is home to the world’s largest concentration of freshwater springs, not to mention opportunities for diving with dolphins, kayaking over gators, snorkeling among manatees, and more.
“Adventure travel has been growing in popularity because it appeals to all ages and is something families can do together,” says Tom Armstrong from Tauck Operators, whose family-adventure-oriented Bridges Trips are the fastest growing in its portfolio. “Everyone feels a real sense of shared accomplishment and bonding.”
While families have begun acting more like teams (some even taking advantage of hotels’ corporate team-building activities), local tour operators have upped the ante and increased the adrenaline factor for family travel, a genre that no longer suggests a sanitized encounter.
California and Arizona desert jeep tours have become full-fledged safaris that involve robust hikes with opportunities to identify native animals and study ancient petroglyphs. And canopy ziplines are being installed at family-friendly destinations from Yeehaw Junction, FL, to Mendocino County, CA. Off-roading, rock climbing, snorkeling, and eco-touring have also become great ways for families to discover a new dimension of destinations they might have overlooked years ago.
Finally, the family vacation is cool. And you don’t need to be the Swiss Family Robinson to make an adventure out of it.
Hot-Spring Hopping in Central Florida
This easy-access region averages winter highs around 73, plus has more than 240 days of sunshine a year and 700 freshwater springs—the most in the world. Each of the crystal-clear springs maintains a year-round 72-degree temperature. Blue Springs State Park ($6), 40 minutes from Orlando, is a winter favorite among scuba divers, snorkelers, and manatees alike, while hiker, kayaker, and riverboat passengers can look for endangered species like the Florida scrub jay.
Stay: Orlando’s posh Waldorf Astoria (from $199) shares pool access with the neighboring Hilton, so kids can use its lazy river and waterslides.
Jeep Tours in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
California’s largest state park lies between San Diego and Coachella and has more than 500 back roads to explore. With winter temps hitting the 80s, open-air jeep tours are a great way to experience the baked landscape. California Overland (two-hour tours, from $55) offers guided excursions that corkscrew up and down the canyon, bypassing mud caves, big-horn sheep, badlands, and cholla cactus, with accompanying hikes to see sacred Kumeyaay Indian pictographs, dusty gold-mine towns, and the mysterious Phantom Desert Lights.
Stay: Borrego Springs Resort (from $150) has a heated pool and surrounding dark skies for stargazing.
Biking and Kayaking in Austin
This outdoorsy, family-friendly city sees winter mercury regularly hitting 90. The capital’s amped-up bike-trail system offers 193 miles of trails that crisscross the surrounding Hill Country, while Lance Armstrong’s shop Mellow Johnny’s rents kids and adult bikes, plus offers guided rides and clinics on traffic and bike maintenance. Or watch 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats on the Kayaking Bats tour (1.5 hours, $35) under the Congress Bridge.
Stay: Four Seasons Austin (from $250) has free bicycles, child-size robes, jogging strollers, and a s’mores fire pit.
Hiking in Las Vegas
Semi-arid southern Nevada is ideal for families who want something extra after the sun sets; winter highs hit the 70s but climb much higher in the sunshine. The rusty rocky landscape is an untouched adventureland of hiking, rock climbing, scrambling, geocaching, and ghost-town hopping. Red Rocks Canyon, 22 miles east of Vegas, is home to 19 trails—and countless jackrabbits and roadrunners.
Stay: The MGM Grand’s casino-free Signature Towers (from $199) feature spacious and stylish two-bathroom suites with full kitchens and free Wi-Fi. The thrill-filled Cirque du Soleil show Ka is just downstairs.
Exploring Redwoods in Mendocino
The Mendo coast is known for cool coastal fogs and craggy sea cliffs, but 20 minutes inland the sun cuts through the fog and temps rise dramatically. A handful of underrated redwood forests await exploration. Hendy and Montgomery woods offer some of the oldest groves on the planet, groomed hiking trails snake under the towering trees, and a new redwood-climbing wall and zipline course stretch across 450 feet in Fort Bragg.
Learning SurvivalSkills in Scottsdale, AZ
Sunny Scottsdale has a reputation for luxury, but it’s hard to beat for family adventure, offering everything from rattlesnake hikes to hot-air-balloon rides in the toasty desert. Arizona Outback Adventure’s corporate team-building courses are open to families of six or more, who can enlist in a CSI-themed scavenger hunt or a Desert Survivor Course, which simulates a plane crash and teaches survivor skills.
Stay: The Intercontinental Montelucia (from $224) offers a free (one hour per day) interactive kids day camp, with daily themes like Treasure Hunt Thursdays and Tasty Tuesday, where the kids learn organic gardening techniques.
Crayfishing in Lake Charles, LA
N’awlins gets bawdy, but its Texas border neighbor Lake Charles is a quieter hub of Cajun culture, with some of Louisiana’s warmest weather, far removed from the oil spill. Options include aerial helicopter swamp tours, canoeing and airboating through gator-filled bayous, and hiking national Lacassine and Sabine wildlife refuges. The Creole Nature Trail has free downloadable audio tours, and local guides to teach you how to crab, shrimp, and crayfish.
Stay: Sam Houston Jones State Park is in a mossy bald cypress–lined bayou with spiffy cabins (from $85) that sleep six.
Airstreaming in CentralCoast California
Surf clinics in Santa Barbara, diving the sea kelp forests in the channel, horseback riding through Ojai’s avocado and citrus groves, and whitewater rafting class V rapids in Sespe Creek make balmy Central Coast an ideal place for families.
Stay: For families seeking a retro adventure, check out Santa Barbara Silver Safari, a 1967 vintage Airstream trailer fitted with an iPod dock, marshmallow skewers, and binocs (sleeps four; from $175). The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa (from $300) offers family golf and tennis clinics, rock climbing and ropes courses, and excursions to a nearby butterfly sanctuary and seal rookery.
Exploring SouthernNew Mexico
Santa Fe gets downright chilly in the winter, but low-lying Southern New Mexico is much warmer, explaining why it’s the state’s chile capital. In the southeast, Ruidoso and Las Cruces are rugged mountain biking and climbing meccas. Explore the ancient Gila Cliff Dwellings or go winter wakeboarding and wave-running on Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Don’t miss the numerous regional hot springs near Silver City and Truth or Consequences.
Stay: Gila’s Double E Guest Ranch (five nights, $1,500 per person) is an all-inclusive family-friendly working cattle ranch.
Wreck Diving in Florida Keys
Sunny and warm year-round, the Keys offer a variety of ocean charter excursions, including glass-bottom boat and shark sighting trips, stand-up paddleboarding, and scuba diving. But wreck-diving Spiegel Grove and the USNS Vandenberg remain the popular favorites. Encounter native marine life like porpoises and sea turtles on an eco-friendly Dolphin Safari, which provides free wetsuits and hot chocolate in the winter if the water temp dips too low (which it rarely does).
Stay: Hawks Cay (from $219) has an expanded kids program with a pool and pirate ship, an excursion camp for teens, scavenger hunts, and its own saltwater lagoon.