Big Kids: 7-9 • Tweens: 10-12 • Teens: 13-17

10 Best Family Vacations that Teach the Kids

See recent posts by Candyce H. Stapen

Adding a learning component to your family vacation is a bit like having your cake and eating it, too — you enjoy all the regular resort fun, plus you enrich your experience. The many and diverse options for additional learning at these resorts makes it easy to fit at least one fun learning activity into your trip schedule. Among the possibilities are hour-long Native American storytelling sessions, 90-minute tours of a former top-secret bunker, three-hour cooking classes or day-long excursions to a little-visited Mayan ruin.

Educational family vacations will give you and your family more than just a tan — you’ll gain new insights and possibly new interests, too!

Written by Candyce H. Stapen


Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa - New Mexico

Sharing Native American traditions is an integral part of the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa, a resort owned by the Santa Ana Pueblo and managed by Hyatt. Located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe on nearly 500 acres of the 73,000-acre Pueblo reservation, the resort offers educational trips for kids through a program called Srai-Wi, which means "gathering my children" in Tamayame, the native language of the people of Tamaya. Initially targeted to kids, the sessions proved so popular that they are now open to families and adults as well.

Before you make S'mores, sit under the stars and listen to a tribal member tell Native American stories about how the constellations came to be and why dogs have tails. In the Clay and Culture workshop, fashion a pot using the traditional pinch and coil method, and in the Native American Jewelry classes, create your own copper bracelet. On a guided nature walk of the Bosque, a cottonwood grove along the Rio Grande, discover the importance of the river and the Pueblos' efforts to reforest the river banks.

Watch tribal dancers perform in the courtyard, bake bread in an outdoor hurana (oven), and learn more about the Pueblos history at the onsite Cultural Learning Center. For pure western fun, watch barrel racing and team roping at the weekly rodeo. The resort also offers golf, horseback riding, a spa and children's programs -- ensuring not just an educational family vacation, but a fun one, too!

Amanyara - Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

At Amanyara's Nature Discovery Center, which opened in March 2011, you and your children learn about Turks and Caicos' environment while on land and water excursions. The resort's full-time naturalist, who developed these adventures in cooperation with teachers from the science and nature division of the American Museum of Natural History, leads the diverse experiences.

On guided snorkeling outings to Providenciales' marine preserve, swim among schools of rainbow-colored fish and float above massive elk horn coral "forests" and sea fan gardens. On eco-hikes, examine tide pools, see blowholes and search for medicinal plants such as aloe vera, "Bahama strong back," and baytansy, an herb locals use to remedy cold and flu symptoms.

Other programs for youngsters include research expeditions, beach walks, scavenger hunts and turtle nesting site conservation, all centered around the islands' land, sea and sky creatures. Amanyara is a casually elegant, upmarket property on Providenciales' less developed northwest coast.

The Greenbrier - West Virginia

Few resorts come with an underground bunker, but seeing this once top-secret facility is one of the many special experiences available at The Greenbrier, West Virginia's jewel. On a tour of The Bunker, buried beneath a hillside and built between 1958 and 1962, families learn about the nation's Cold War strategy. The 112,544-square-foot bunker, surrounded by three- to five-foot-thick, concrete walls, was designed to lodge members of the House of Representatives and the Senate in case of a "modest" nuclear attack on Washington D.C., about 250 miles away. After watching an informative film, walk through the massive, blast resistant doors and see the communications room, the meeting rooms, some original bunk beds and an exhibit gallery. Always ready but never used, the facility, exposed by the Washington Post in 1992, was deactivated in 1995.

Above ground, the Greenbrier offers golf, tennis, horseback riding, fishing, mountain biking, falconry and more. The resort's Off-Road Driving Adventure will thrill kids who love cars, as well as your own "inner child." Learn how to maneuver through mud, over boulders, and up and down steep hills; going slowly was never so scary. Children can come along for the ride, and teens 16 and older with a driver's license can get behind the wheel for the "epic" experience.

Also popular at this educational family vacation spot is the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating, which offers classes during select weeks throughout the year. Although the one-week courses go way beyond brightening a dorm room, the sessions may interest your 20-somethings with a knack for design. Draper, who decorated the Greenbrier's public rooms, was an icon of style. Sprawled on 6,500 acres, the Greenbrier, a National Historic Landmark, offers nearly 700 rooms, as well as a children's program, a noted spa, and a casino for adults.

Bitter End Yacht Club - B.V.I.

Vacation at The Bitter End Yacht Club in Virgin Gorda, part of the British Virgin Islands, and you'll morph from landlubbers to savvy sailors, even if you don't know your aft from your rudder. Course 101-Introduction to Sailing combines classroom time with hands-on dockside lessons. In other workshops, beginners practice maneuvers necessary for solo runs, and experienced skippers hone the art of anchoring, working with winches, and reading the waters, all skills required to captain a chartered boat.

At Junior Summer Sailing classes, geared for ages 7 and older, budding sailors ace lessons in rigging, sail trimming and boat handling. With fair winds and abundant harbors, the British Virgin Islands have been luring sailors for centuries. You can use your new skills to sail to one of the nearby uninhabited cays, or sign up for a resort outing to nearby snorkel spots. Back on land, sun on the resort's three beaches or splash in the pool. The Admiral's Family Vacation package bundles sailing lessons with lodging, meals, children's water sports and outings.

Fairmont Mayakoba - Mexico

Mayan culture and cooking classes can be part of your vacation at Fairmont Mayakoba, in the heart of Mexico's Riviera Maya, an 86-mile region along Mexico's Caribbean coast known for sun, white sand beaches, Mayan communities and ancient ruins. The area's most famous and often-crowded site is Tulum, a once prominent Mayan seaport. For a more personal experience, book an outing to less-visited Muyil.

Locals from Muyil's Mayan community, trained by the Fairmont Mayakoba, lead you on an exclusive, educational trip for kids. Listen to old tales and learn about medicinal plants and modern-day Maya as you trek through the rainforest to see several secluded ruins. At the Muyil lagoon, board a boat to a man-made canal where you can cool off by tubing in the water before returning for a Mayan-inspired meal.

For food fun, sign up for a family cooking class with one of the Fairmont's chefs. Begin with a tour of the resort's massive kitchens and learn about safe food handling. Then don chef hats and gloves and do as the chef does -- mix ingredients, plate items and garnish them. Choose from lessons in regional, healthy or green cuisine, as well as in grilling and crafting desserts. Afterward, tour the chef's gardens to see what parsley, peppermint, chili and other plants look like. The beachfront Fairmont Mayakoba stretches out on 240 acres laced with canals and lagoons. The resort offers a children's program.

Atlantis, Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas

A big, bustling mega-resort with over 3,400 rooms, Atlantis, Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas is known for its casino and water play-scape of lagoons, pools and slides, along with tanks, ponds and other habitats for 50,000 aquatic animals. What is less-known is that the resort offers additional "edutainment" opportunities for educational family travel.

During Atlantis Adventure Chefs, a segment of the Atlantis Kids Adventures (AKA) program, youngsters get hands-on in a demonstration kitchen, learning how to bake bread, twist dough into pretzels and make candy pizzas. At the Atlantis Speedway, an indoor facility, families can design, build and race remote controlled cars. In the summer, Atlantis also hosts several themed Fantasy Camps, each held at select times.

Atlantis is also popular for Dolphin Cay, where families can swim with dolphins, but did you know about the Sea Lion Behind-the-Scenes Tour? This experience offers families a unique chance to learn about the resident sea lions, and is a great photo opportunity, too.

Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa - Hawaii

Giving back to a local community while on vacation is one of the most rewarding experiences that you and your children can share. Not only will you develop a new skill, but you'll learn about the local culture and environment. The Enrich Volunteer Program at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa offers families several options. Those with green thumbs or a simple love for flowers can assist staff at the island's National Tropical Botanical Garden, a lush oasis of blooms. By weeding, propagating plants and tending to the flower beds, you'll learn about Kauai's native plants and how they are used in island culture.

While cleaning up beaches in conjunction with the Surfrider Foundation, established to conserve the state's oceans, families learn about coastal flora and fauna and how to protect the sea. Animal lovers can work with community members of the Kauai Humane Society, cuddling and playing with the abandoned dogs and cats so that the animals become prime prospects for adoption.

To see more of Hawaii's traditions, attend the resort's luau, a mix of Hawaiian and Polynesian hula, song and food. Centrally located on popular Poipu Beach Park, the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort also offers Camp Hyatt Kauai for ages 3 to 12.

Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is a find, and not just for its exemplary service and signature restaurant, Bleu, by award-winning chef Eric Ripert. The property is one of a few in the Caribbean that host the Ambassadors of the Environment Program (AOTE). Developed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau's son, AOTE engages children ages 4 to 12, as well as families, with environmental education workshops and outings that underscore the connectedness and diversity of all living things. The goal is to show participants how to be good stewards of the seas and the land.

In Turtle Tales, one of the more than 25 different AOTE segments, children ages 4 to 7 learn why all seven species of sea turtles are endangered. The future protectors of the sea discover fun facts, such as how much leather back sea turtles weigh (up to 2,000 pounds), and that jelly fish are a favorite food for several sea turtle species. With Frogtastic Fun, kids 4- to 12-years-old go on night walks to listen to and find the hopping critters, and with Wing It, ages 4 to 7 discover the many shapes and sizes of birds by creating crafts and visiting a bird sanctuary.

For kids ages 8 and older, there's Shipwreck Exploration Snorkel, and big kids ages 12 and older can take part in the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, where they'll feed and track free-roaming iguanas. After dark, families can embark on snorkeling adventures to discover the amazing colors of the corals at night. They can also enjoy outings to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, seeing the endangered blue iguana endemic to the Cayman Islands.

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman's 144 acres reach across two sides of a road, stretching from the Caribbean Sea to the North Sound. An enclosed walkway protected from traffic enables you to get from one area to the other without crossing the street. Like most Ritz-Carlton resorts, the Grand Cayman location's rooms start at an oversized 480 square feet, offering plenty of space for families.

&Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp and &Beyond Bateleur Camp at Kichwa Tembo - Kenya

Educational family travel is a big contributor to a family's health and overall well-being. A stay at any safari camp is a learning experience because each game drive often brings you close to elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, Cape buffalo and maybe even lions and leopards. Africa's animals are spectacular, but so are its people. One way that &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp & &Beyond Bateleur Camp at Kichwa Tembo support the local communities in Kenya is by taking guests to a Masai encampment -- one where people actually live as opposed to one that is recreated for tourists. The villages visited rotate to ensure that each village receives income. Led by Masai, the tours are carefully planned and thoughtfully executed.

Outside the village entrance, a group of Masai wearing traditional red cloaks discuss their way of life and traditions, and freely answer questions. Learn something new, such as the fact that a red mark on a male's forehead denotes him as a warrior, or the fact that the Masai drink cow blood and milk. Armed with this background, enter the village to meet the Masai families, going inside their huts, watching how they build fires and meeting their children. As part of the welcome, the women, wearing tribal regalia and beaded jewelry, sing and dance and invite your family to join them. Far from hokey, it's a happy cross-cultural encounter -- making it one of the best educational trips for kids.

Sister facilities near each other, both Kichwa Tembo and Bateleur Camp are tented camps with sweeping views of the Masai Mara. Kichewa has 40 tents, each with an en suite bathroom. Their twelve luxury tents are larger and not as close together as their other tents. More upscale and smaller than Kichewa, Bateleur Camp's 18 tents are divided into two groupings of nine tents each. Both camps welcome children.

Club Med - Multiple Locations

Club Med resorts are legendary for their all-inclusive prices and their non-stop activities. The chain's family resorts are no exception, providing day-long activities for kids that go way beyond mere babysitting. At Club Med Sandpiper Bay, Club Med Cancun Yucatan and Club Med Punta Cana, three of Club Med's most family-friendly North American resorts, kids can learn a variety of sports.

All three offer sailing, ping pong and tennis. Punta Cana and Cancun add archery, canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing and snorkeling. During baby gym sessions at the Punta Cana and Sandpiper locations, toddlers enhance coordination by climbing, crawling and sliding over, through and down pint-sized equipment.

The educational family vacation continues with non-sport sessions. Kids make volcanoes erupt in science classes, learn how to bake Club Med's famous white chocolate bread at Le Petit Chef Sessions and master juggling, unicycle riding and flying on a trapeze at Circus School. Along with regular and deluxe rooms at all three resorts, both Punta Cana and Cancun have large family suites, and Sandpiper offers a deluxe family room.

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