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Being a parent can be stressful. One moment you're tensing up as your child climbs to the top of an absurdly high play structure. The next, you're grappling with the fact that a year has flown by, and though you feel unchanged, your kid is noticeably bigger and faster — not to mention wiser.
When children get older, though, caution can give way to bravery. You become fairly sure you've got matters of safety under control, and your patience has been tried and thoroughly toughened. For traveling families, such confidence might translate to swapping an expected beach or theme park vacation for a more surprising and unknown destination.
Have clients who are ready to step onto the road less traveled? Here are five picks from destination and family specialists who are skilled at making any adventure feel seamless.
Canadian RockiesExpert: Janel Fidalgo, Ware, Mass., Janel Fidalgo Agency, an independent agency of Avoya Travel
What to Do: The Canadian Rockies track through British Columbia and Alberta, and the range is a veritable playground for multigenerational groups with a sense of adventure and a love of the great outdoors. It’s also a shutterbug’s heaven, as it is home to gorgeous natural gems such as Lake Louise and year-round waterfall Bow Falls.
Janel Fidalgo specifically loves Banff, an Alberta resort town within a national park of the same name. Hiking and wildlife watching are particularly grand — bighorn sheep, pearly white mountain goats, elk and bears are among the large mammals that families might spot. To take in even more natural gems, hug the curves along Icefields Parkway. Thanks to its dramatic peaks, waterfalls, cliffs and glaciers, the drive is considered one of the most spectacular on Earth. A stop at Columbia Icefield is also a must. The massive, ancient glacier is so thick that specially designed vehicles can transport guests to its middle section to explore on foot. For a birds-eye view, check out Glacier Skywalk, a dizzying glass platform 900 feet above the ice.
Where to Stay: Fairmont Banff Springs is a top pick here. The secluded, luxurious property dates back to 1887 and is styled after Scottish baronial castles. Varied dining experiences, family-friendly suites, a kids’ club and a bowling and entertainment center are among the amenities offered here.
Good to Know: A guided tour — such as Collette’s seven-day Canadian Rockies & Glacier National Park itinerary — takes the pressure off parents and grandparents trying to tote kids from one site to another. Fidalgo recently booked a client and her two grandsons on this itinerary, citing its balance of active and leisure time.
ChileExpert: John Montgomery, Salt Lake City, Mosaico Travel Services
What to Do: Mosaico Travel Services sells exclusively Central and South America trips, and 30 percent of its 2015 family bookings were for Chile. Founder John Montgomery suggests spending two or three days in the museums and restaurants of Santiago. Don’t miss hands-on science center Museo Interactivo Mirador or historic La Vega Central market, where the kids can sample local fruits such as guama and lucuma.
After a tour of the capital, consider traveling to the Atacama Desert, said to be the driest desert on Earth. The arid region looks so out of this world that it has been compared to Mars. Clients will count vast salt flats, flamingo lagoons and geyser fields among sights seen. Biking and hiking excursions also abound.
To explore a different landscape, consider the Lake District. Once a backpackers’ haven, the region now attracts luxury family clients with new high-end hotel options. Montgomery’s clients especially love the option to ski, snowboard or snowshoe here during wintry July and August.
Where to Stay: In the Atacama Desert, meals, private excursions and transfers are part of Awasi’s all-inclusive model. In the Lake District, Hacienda Hotel Vira Vira caters to families.
Good to Know: If an additional five-hour flight is in the realm of possibility, Montgomery recommends families tack on Easter Island. In addition to seeing the iconic and mystical Moai statues, there are incredible opportunities to learn about the culture of the island’s original inhabitants, thanks to expert local guides at properties such as Explora Rapa Nui, about 10 minutes outside the town of Hanga Roa.
Travel agents can suggest under-the-radar destinations for older (and younger) kids. // © 2016 iStock
For adventurous animal lovers, Banff is an ideal getaway. // © 2016 Icefields Parkway
For clients exploring the Bay Area, Cavallo Point lodge is luxurious and family-friendly. // © 2016 Kodiak_Greenwood
Cavallo Point lodge offers a sense of place with its view of Golden Gate Park. // © 2016 Kodiak_Greenwood
For an unforgettable family trip, visit the world’s driest desert in Chile. // © 2016 iStock
One travel agent reported that more families are choosing Panama over Costa Rica. // © 2016 iStock
And if families are opting for Kenya, suggest they take a hot-air balloon ride during the Great Migration. // © 2016 iStock
Greater San FranciscoExpert: Kara Slater, Los Angeles, SmartFlyer
What to Do: Alcatraz, Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium are givens on a San Francisco itinerary, but the surrounding area has plenty of other diversions for those who feel that they have been there, done that.
Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge is one of Kara Slater’s favorite Bay Area stops: the quaint, seaside town of Sausalito. Good eats and fabulous city views await along scenic Bridgeway Promenade. Other nearby family-friendly options include The Marine Mammal Center, an educational facility that rescues and rehabilitates animals such as sea lions and otters; the interactive Bay Area Discovery Museum, specifically designed for children ages 8 and under; Muir Woods; Stinson Beach; and Muir Beach.
Where to Stay: Cavallo Point – the Lodge at the Golden Gate is Slater’s ultimate resort choice for luxury clients. Set on former U.S. Army post Fort Baker, the property offers suites in restored officers’ residences, contemporary rooms on a hill and a giant parade lawn for outdoor play. Bay Area Discovery Museum is set on the same cove as well, making it an easy afternoon excursion.
Good to Know: Ferry trips and bike rides are quintessential experiences here. Golden Gate Ferry and Blue and Gold Fleet offer easy (and likely breezy) 30-minute voyages to and from Sausalito. Clients with older kids might test their leg muscles on an 8-mile bike ride from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito via the Golden Gate Bridge.
KenyaExpert: Kathleen Wheeler, Sacramento, Calif., Kathleen’s World of Travel
What to Do: For multigenerational groups making their first foray into Africa, specialist Kathleen Wheeler suggests Kenya. She loves that Nairobi is more than just an initial landing place — the city also offers unique opportunities to see African mammals up close. Clients can visit the baby elephant orphanage founded by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. And at the nonprofit Giraffe Center, guests can hand-feed Rothschild giraffes before looking for indigenous flora and fauna in a 95-acre nature sanctuary.
With the capital under clients’ belts, it’s time for a safari. Wheeler likes Masai Mara National Reserve for families traveling from August through October. That’s an ideal time to witness the Great Migration, when more than 1 million wildebeests, zebra and antelope run toward Kenya from Tanzania, following the rain. Another option is Samburu National Reserve, set on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river. Hippos, big cats and hundreds of bird species make their homes here.
Where to Stay: In Nairobi, book one of 10 rooms at Giraffe Manor, a boutique hotel near Giraffe Center. Since the facility’s long-necked animals roam freely, it’s common for guests to find a giraffe peering into their second-story guestroom window. In Masai Mara, Alex Walker’s Serian Nkorombo tented camp is well-suited for children. In Samburu, try one of 28 luxury tents at Samburu Intrepids.
Good to Know: Kenya’s private reserves have different rules than national parks. The former offer a less crowded experience, as only game vehicles operated by lodges within the reserve are permitted. It’s also possible for reserve guests to get out of vehicles for guided bush walks, which isn’t allowed in national parks.
PanamaExpert: Amie O'Shaughnessy, Piedmont, Calif., Ciao Bambino
What to Do: Costa Rica remains a popular Central American destination for families, but Amie O’Shaughnessy says more clients are looking to Panama, which feels somewhat less discovered than its neighbor to the north. The Ciao Bambino founder recommends clients spend two or three days in Panama City, where classic architecture and cobblestone streets in Casco Viejo, the old district, juxtapose the modern skyscrapers and buzzing clubs at the metropolis’ core.
Bocas del Toro Province, an archipelago on the country’s Caribbean side, is a great follow-up destination. Here, clients can revel in a lovely blend of jungle and beach experiences as well as in biodiverse rainforests home to sloths, howler monkeys and toucans. For a highland adventure, head to the city of Boquete, where it is cool and lush most of the year and Volcan Baru stands like a watchdog in the distance. Trekking, ziplining, river rafting and birdwatching are popular activities.
Where to Stay: The newish American Trade Hotel, located in Casco Viejo, is an excellent home base for families. There isn’t a kids’ club, but on-site “cultural engineers” can create custom excursions to suit kids in the group. If clients want more contemporary accommodations that look and feel like home, try Red Frog Beach Resort in Bocas del Toro.
Good to Know: For what O’Shaughnessy calls one-of-a-kind, “Robinson Crusoe-esque” experiences, connect with a trusted local tour operator such as Beyond Adventure Tours out of Boquete, which leads trips to uninhabited islands, monkey sanctuaries, coffee farms and more.