Having children doesn’t mean the next few years of travel are all about two-week package holidays, self-catering accommodation, and strategic locations near gaudy play centres.
Read on to find out why the Maldives isn’t just for blissful couples and whether safaris and toddlers really can mix.
Conventional wisdom says that safaris aren’t suitable for young children, what with the long, bumpy drives, the need for bladder control and the importance of keeping quiet when coming across a pride of lions. Not to mention the possibility of picking up a tropical disease.
However, popular safari destinations including Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa offer plenty of opportunities for families with younger children to watch wildlife; and the latter has several malaria-free parks and reserves.
While some safari lodges still don’t accept children under the age of seven, or even 12, an increasing number come with family suites and allow children as young as two or three on specially tailored family drives.
For those who would rather leave the kids behind, many lodges lay on activities including wildlife walks, bug hunting, and stories around the campfire; and there are babysitters to keep babies and toddlers amused. Choose your lodge wisely and there’s always the possibility your kids will be treated to a wildlife spectacle from the safety of camp.
River Bend Lodge (riverbendlodge.co.za) in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park comes highly recommended for its family-friendly approach, as does the country’s Madikwe Safari Lodge (madikwesafarilodge.co.za). In Kenya, Mara Intrepids (porini.com) is a good choice for cash-flush families.
An increasing number of families are choosing to backpack with their children; from hiking and camping trips in nearby national parks, to taking their kids on the road on a full-blown family gap year. It allows your children to experience the world in a way they might not on a traditional package holiday, and is often less expensive, especially if you stay in the increasing network of family-friendly backpackers hostels.
Taking the plunge can be difficult, however. Suddenly, all those previously exciting trip ideas seem fraught with danger – what if my baby starts projectile vomiting halfway up a mountain? Or my child falls into an open sewer? Stuck in a deserted guesthouse in rural Cuba with a sick toddler and a torrential rainstorm outside, I know I began to fantasise about a toy-filled holiday complex on the Algarve.
But while you’ll be less flexible, more luggage-encumbered, and more risk-averse, you can still have those magical experiences of your pre-parenting, backpack-toting days. After the rains had cleared in Cuba we bumped down a dirt track in a 1950s Pontiac to a deserted beach where we ate fresh seafood and our son played in the stupendously blue water – one of many days that made the more challenging aspects of the trip worthwhile.
There are loads of family backpacking blogs out there for inspiration – try mylittlenomads.com or thefamilywithoutborders.com. And see our guide on what to pack.
Romantic beach breaks
Near-empty beaches, snorkelling through clear waters, dinner under the stars – the stuff of honeymoon brochure dreams but not the best fit for a rampaging infant, right? Wrong. Having kids doesn’t mean that your Robinson Crusoe fantasies have to be put on hold. OK, so there are plenty of romance-heavy resorts where your munchkins might receive death stares, but opportunities to please both adults and children abound.
We chose to go to Tulum, Mexico, with our one year old; while most people we met were couples, his presence didn’t rule out the romance. We walked along the beach while he slept in a sling, took him out for drinks at barefoot bars, and had the requisite candlelit dinners for two while he slept in a beach hut a few steps away from the hotel restaurant.
If you’re looking for paradise islands with amazing underwater life, where the kids will be as blown away as you are, the Maldives are a great bet, from top-class “no news, no shoes” favourite Soneva Fushi (soneva.com/soneva-fushi), which provides sophisticated tots with beach tricycles, a beach cinema and childminders, to the more wallet-friendly Bandos Island (bandosmaldives.com) with its kids’ club and on-site medical centre.
Overland trucks have had some bad press over the years – painted as party machines where raucous twenty-somethings traverse Africa or South America getting drunk every night. But there are plenty of companies offering a more grown-up approach, including trips tailored especially for families.
These offer the perfect opportunity for adventure (seeing multiple countries on one trip, safari one day, snorkelling the next…) without the logistical hassles of a backpacking trip under your own steam. What’s more, sleeping under the stars and eating around the campfire can be a magical experience for children and a wonderful opportunity for family bonding.
Typically, you’ll be travelling with three to five other families (trucks hold around 20 passengers) so children can have a group of readymade friends for the trip. Both Dragoman (dragoman.com) and Imaginative Traveller (imaginative-traveller.com) organise family overland adventures.
A city break is the ultimate adult getaway: exploring cultural attractions, stuffing your face with the local cuisine, sampling the nightlife into the small hours… Having children in tow totally changes the dynamic but can be surprisingly relaxed, provided you pack sensibly and slow down the pace. And because you’re in an amenity-filled metropolis, when the kids get bored of museums (although they may surprise you – our toddler loved the Pompidou Centre but was totally unimpressed by the Eiffel Tower), there are parks and playgrounds in which they can blow off steam, as well as plenty of cafes for emergency snack and loo breaks.
Where to go? Berlin may be famous for its nightlife these days, but it’s also one of the most child-friendly European cities, and home to mega play mecca Kindercity; Stockholm’s safe and compact centre, inspiring archipelagic setting and child-friendly museums also make it a top destination for little ones. Rome’s ruins are a great choice for families with older children.
A few points to consider: If you have a baby or toddler, try using slings or backpacks rather than tackling an un-pushchair friendly transit system such as the Paris metro. And when choosing accommodation remember that a self-catering apartment with its own kitchen will be a far more welcome sight after a day out in the city than a compact hotel room.
Volunteering abroad isn’t just for gap year students. It can be a positive learning experience for families as well, with organisations offering them the chance to take part in projects such as elephant conservation in Namibia.
For obvious reasons volunteer placements are usually restricted to older children and you’ll have to decide whether your children are mature enough, and hardy enough, to participate. Well-regarded organisations include Responsible Travel (responsibletravel.com/holidays/family-volunteering) and Earthwatch (eu.earthwatch.org/expeditions).
You don’t have to spend weeks in a developing country or head out to a far-flung conservation project to get your family involved, though. Organising a few days’ trip in your own country can be just as rewarding. In the UK, the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer/ways-to-volunteer/family-volunteering) organises working holidays for families including garden planting, beach clearing and working as family tour guides.
The article was first published on lonelyplanet.com.
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