You have now picked the country or place you want to visit (Where should you go?). You are sorting out the best accommodation that will work for your family (Where should we stay?). Now, you need to figure out what you should do once you get there.
The answer to that question begins with making a proper assessment of the age and maturity of your children. Up until our youngest child turned 7 years old, we only went to warm destinations and stayed in accommodations that had a pool. We kept things very simple. Our days were spent at the beach or the pool. Sometimes we spent the day on a boat, other times we might have rented snorkelling gear, or boogey boards. If there were child centred activities, like an Aquarium, we would go there. These holidays were definitely not stimulating for an older child or an adult, but it worked when our children were young. They were peaceful and relaxing holidays for everyone.
The advantage of these sorts of holidays is that they don’t really require an itinerary. Once you have researched where you should go with your family and where you should stay, you can pretty much just arrive with your bathing suits and sunscreen, ready to get on with your holiday.
However, there comes a time when this type of holiday becomes “boring” for your children. When exactly that happens to your family will depend on your children.
For us, this happened around the time my two older children were 14 and 10 years old (my other two were 7 and 8 years old). Don’t get me wrong! My children were still excited to go on holiday. However, after the first or second day at the beach or the pool, they started to want to spend more time inside, watching TV or playing on their devices. In other words, doing separate things! This was not my goal for our holiday. I wanted to reconnect as a family; share experiences that would leave lasting memories; and spend more time together, not less. We needed to change the way we went on holiday together in order to accomplish these goals.
Our first major trip beyond a beach/pool type of vacation was Europe in the summer of 2012. My oldest child was 14 years old and my youngest was 7 years old. My oldest was ready for cultural tours and visits to art galleries, whereas my youngest could still spend all day in the pool. We spent 5 weeks in Europe and everyone had an amazing time. How did we do it?
Finding A Balance
I tried to make sure that every day was balanced – filled with fun, adventure, and of course, a little bit of history and culture.
It is tempting to go to Europe and plan to visit every important church, museum and art gallery that you have ever heard of in the city of your choice. You don’t know when you will be back. It costs a lot of money to get there and spend time there, especially with kids.
However, no matter how old your children are, I guarantee you that they don’t want to spend all day, every day, being educated. They might be interested in seeing a church, or visiting a museum, but they will have their limits. After that, we all know what follows – a lot of complaining. You still might be able to drag them around from site to site, but you will not be reconnecting with your children. You will be annoyed with them and them with you. Your lasting memories of this amazing adventure to Europe might end up being one that you never want to have again.
Our First Week in Europe
During our first week in Europe, we rented a house with a pool near the beach in Lloret Del Mar, Spain. Every morning, my three youngest kids got up and immediately went swimming. After lunch, we explored. One afternoon, we drove to Girona and went on a half day walking tour of the City. On another afternoon, we visited the Dali Museum in Figueres. After each of these outings, we went home and the kids went back in the pool. In the early evening, we chose a nearby town, a different one each night, and went out for dinner and then, casually explored that town.
Ice cream treats were liberally handed out throughout the day, depending on the tone of the day – some days were very hot and a little harder to stay focused; a couple of days required a long commute in the car; and sometimes, I was just impressed by how my kids behaved. It is astonishing how ice cream can be the solution for most everything!
Full Day Trips
There were a couple sites that I wanted to see that ended up being full day excursions. One day we went to a National Park and went ocean kayaking with a guide. On another day, we did a full day tour where we drove to Cadaques and visited Dali’s home in Portillgat.
However, we never did back to back full day trips. They were always spaced out with more relaxed days in between. Further, we never did back to back cultural or historical type tours regardless of whether they were half or full days. I always made sure that a more “serious” day was followed by a more fun or adventurous type day. Finally, no matter what we did, I always made sure the kids made it back in the pool before bed time. A long day was quickly forgotten with some fun in the pool!
My kids slowly learnt that if they stayed focused and engaged on the historical and cultural things, they were rewarded with fun times in the pool, adventures and lots of ice cream! My oldest was ready to expand her mind. She didn’t need the same persuasion to learn about the history of northern Spain or about Dali and his creations. However, even with her, I know that balancing the educational days with the more carefree days were impactful.
Fast forward 5 years, and today my children hardly spend any time in a pool if air conditioning is available. Nonetheless, the principles that I started 5 years ago – making sure that I am creating a balance – still rules the philosophy behind the itineraries that I create. My kids know that for each day that includes an educational experience, the next day will not. On the contrary, I will do my best to find some excitement, if available.
It might seem that the best type of vacation that you can take with your older children is a beach holiday where the goal is do very little and everyone lazes around the pool. However, in my experience, these have always been the most disappointing type of holidays. Sure, the weather is beautiful and hot. The pool and beach are spectacular and inviting, and the food is often decadent. But, what seems to happen is that everyone just does their own thing. Even worst, wifi is usually offered throughout the resort. Once your children reach a certain age, it is very difficult to stop them from bringing their devices to the beach or the pool without an argument.
If your goal from a vacation is to reconnect with your children, then you need to find destinations where you can reconnect. I have learnt that for my family, the best destinations are in developing countries. There, wifi is limited, and some of the simplest activities, like walking in a market, are interesting and create lasting memories.
Then, you need to create a balanced itinerary for your trip. For my family, I try to blend fun and adventure, with moments of learning. This can be as involved as a tour of medieval cities highlighting their history and culture (our tour of Malta in the summer of 2015); or as simple as a hike through the jungle to watch macaws feed at the salt licks (the Amazon in Ecuador in the summer of 2016). Each day on your holiday can be simple, complicated, fun, awe inspiring, humbling, exciting… depending on your family’s interests. It’s really just about having moments where you stop together, listen and look around in wonderment at where you get to be.
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