A Small Ship Family Cruise to Alaska

Years ago, before my husband and I had kids, we did a 2-week overland vacation in Alaska.  While it was wonderful — highlights included rafting on the Talkeetna River, touring Denali by bus, foot, and bike, and exploring the Kenai Peninsula on our own — I’d like something a little different when I (eventually) take my kids.

Like many parents, I love the idea of cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage on a small ship.  What’s not to love?  Someone else cooks, you see fascinating places, and travel while you sleep.  Un-Cruise, one of the sponsors of our Smart Parents Guide to Adventure Vacations, offers the following family and wallet-friendly itinerary:

Alaska Family Cruise

A family cruise to Alaska. Zebra hats optional.

Un-Cruise Adventures Top Family Trip for 2014

It’s a family discovery on an adventure cruise in Alaska’s outback! Unleash your inner explorer aboard the 84-guest Safari Endeavour as you cruise wilderness waterways and into Glacier Bay National Park on the 7-night Discoverers’ Glacier Country.

Together with young kids and teens, parents and grandparents alike, it’s about the luxury of experience—details, wilderness and wildlife, adventurous activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, and guided hikes, and indulging yourself, just a little.

Along with the exclusive activities, these INCLUSIVE experiential luxury adventures include attentive service; meals; premium spirits, fine wine, microbrews; exclusive transfers; port fees/taxes; and spa services, including a complimentary massage. Kids 12 and under receive a “Kid Adventure Log Book” on all departures (refer to booking code: KIDLOG), and save 25% on select “Kids in Nature” departures and stateroom categories.

Book your family on a 2014 Alaska adventure today! Click here for more information.

April 21st, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson Comment

5 Best Family Trips from Kensington Tours

This summer, why not let someone else sweat the details?

For families considering an adventure vacation, I highly recommend Smart Parents Guide sponsor Kensington Tours.  They organized our private guided trip to Thailand, and every detail was perfect.  Even better, it was surprisingly affordable.

While they’ll take you pretty much anywhere in the world, some trips are just naturally better for families than others.  Read on for their top trips for families, and don’t be surprised if your armchair traveling turns into the real thing — the places and prices are that good.

Traveling to Costa Rica with kidsJUNGLES & JAGUARS
Costa Rica Family Adventure
7 Days from $1,799 pp

Fact: Monkeying around can bring a family closer together. Get your clan’s adrenaline pumping with kidtastic Costa Rican action including zip lining through the tree tops, exotic animal safaris and volcano hikes. If that’s not enough, enjoy a river cruise, thermal pools and plenty of snorkeling, surfing and relaxing on white sand beaches. Complete with kid friendly hotels, your own private guide and driver, your family will go wild for this Costa Rican adventure.

China Family Adventure
12 Days from $3,995 pp

This National Geographic Award winning, action-packed journey through China is filled to the brim with kidtastic fun for children and adults of every age! Highlights include the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, Terracotta Warriors and more. Enjoy visiting local families, Tai Chi lessons, rural villages, dazzling Kung Fu shows, terraced rice paddies, cultural performances and delicious cooking lessons, all at your family’s pace.

Traveling to Africa with kidsTHE REAL HAKUNA MATATA
Kidtastic Kenya Adventure
8 Days from $2,800 pp

The little ones will go wild for thundering elephants, preying lions, bathing hippos and tree-climbing leopards on this kidtastic safari through Nairobi, Laikipia, Lake Nakuru and the Masai Mara with private guide.

While not on game drives, kids 1 to 99 will love the elephant and giraffe centers, chimpanzee refuge, rhino sanctuary and meeting local Masai. For sky-high adventure add a hot air balloon ride to this safari, made to measure.

Italy Family Signature
9 Days from $4,999 pp

Traveling to Italy with kidsOrdering a pizza is cool. Learning to make the real deal in Italy is much cooler. Say hello to la dolce vita on this kidtastic adventure through Italy, full of hands-on action.

Tickle your palate during gelato tastings in Florence, test your mettle at Rome’s Gladiator school, try your hand at Venetian mask making and ride the gondolas of Venice. Complete with private guide and driver, premium hotels and the perfect mix of activities and time at leisure.

Galapagos Family Adventure By Land
6 Days from $2,895 pp

Traveling to Galapagos with kidsA kidtastic animal packed adventure for families of any age (or just the young at heart), this wild journey takes you deep into the legendary Galapagos Islands. Enjoy an amazing eco-hotel, private tours of Quito, delicious fare and more.

Then follow in the footsteps of Darwin as you discover unique and fearless animals. With hiking, snorkeling, equatorial stars and pristine beaches, this tour is educational and exciting!

Still not sure where you want to go?  Check out the Smart Parents Guide to Family Adventure Vacations for more parent-to-parent trip planning tips.

March 19th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 1 comment

5 Common Myths about Group Travel

When I told friends that I was traveling to Scotland on a luxury escorted group tour, I got a lot of blank stares.  Why would a savvy world traveler like me subject herself to a slow bus, a rigid schedule, and the company of strangers?

Obviously, group travel has a little bit of an image problem.

5 Common Myths about Group Travel

Should you book an organized trip for your family vacation? Short answer: yes, at least once.

Now that I’ve been on a handful of these trips, I’ve become something of an evangelist.  Why?  Because group travel is fun and easy.  And as a traveling mom, those are not adjectives I throw around lightly.  Here are five common myths I hear all the time about group travel:

1.  It’s too expensive

People invariably get sticker shock when they price group travel.  It’s easy to get hung up on the big numbers without really thinking about what’s included – I’ve done it myself.

Let’s look at a 1-week trip to Costa Rica that costs $14,400 for a family of four without international airfare.  Ouch, right?  Before you go breathing into a paper bag, consider that the price includes exhaustive destination research, nice hotels, internal flights, exclusive activities, most meals, a couple adult-only dinners, and superb guides.

Could you organize a family trip to Costa Rica for less?  Of course.  Would you get high quality activities, luxury accommodations, and a completely hassle-free experience?  Probably not.

Read the full article on The Smart Parents Guide to Family Adventure Vacations (please note: the guide is a PDF and may take a few minutes to load, depending on your connection speed.  Stick with it — it’s worth the wait.)


March 10th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 2 comments

Things to do in Chincoteague with kids

Wild ponies, windswept beaches, and playful dolphins

Things to do in Chincoteague with kids

This is a new copy bought on the island last summer, because I practically wore my old one out.

When I was a kid, there were two kinds of girls: horse lovers, and the rest of you.

Even though this was the mid-70s, Misty of Chincoteague, the Newbery-winning book that Marguerite Henry penned in 1947,  was our bible.

(For those of you who didn’t grow up with pony fantasies, let me catch you up: in Virginia, there is a barrier island populated by wild ponies.  Every summer, the volunteer fire department rounds up the herd and swims them over to a neighboring island where they auction off some of the foals as a fundraiser.)

Misty of Chincoteague is the semi-true story of two children who save their money to buy a pony and her foal at auction.

I liked the book enough to organize a family vacation there for my kids, just as my parents had done for me.

Things to do in Chincoteague with kids

If you’re not feeling ambitious, here’s the short version of things to do in Chincoteague with kids:  go to the beach, eat seafood, and look at ponies.  If you’re looking for a few more diversions, here were some of our favorite things to do in Chincoteague:

1.  Crabbing

Go to any hardware store on the island (I think there are only two!) and pick up a crabbing kit, which consists of string, a bait clip, and frozen chicken necks — it’s probably best to buy a bucket and a long-handled net too.  We didn’t cook and eat our crabs, but we had a huge amount of fun coaxing them out of the water and screaming like lunatics as the waved their pincers at us.

Things to do in Chincoteague

The one that got away. Actually, they all got away — we were really just crabbing for fun.

2.  Captain Barry’s Back Bay Cruises

This nature-loving, hands-on, feet-in-the-mud tour of the waterways around Chincoteague is a must do!  It’s hugely popular, so be sure to book well in advance.  Imagine the best marine science-y field trip of all time, and now imagine something twice as good.  You’ll pull in crab traps, dig for clams, catch minnows, throw out nets, wander sand bars, and generally learn a lot about the ecology of this area.  My favorite part?  When Captain Barry pulled in fresh oysters and shucked them for me — heaven.


Things to do on Chincoteague: Catching critters the old fashioned way! (Captain Barry is the one in the blue hat.) His boat is comfortable, shade-able, and easy to land on sandbars so you can go exploring.

4.  The Carnival Grounds

There are plenty of places to gawp at ponies on the islands, but in the week after the annual Pony Swim, none is better than the Chincoteague Carnival Grounds.  Ponies that are not quite old enough to leave their mothers as well as ponies who are awaiting transportation to their new homes, graze quietly in a paddock in the back.  I could have stood watching baby ponies all day.  Oh wait, I did.

Things to do in Chincoteague: see ponies

My husband was very, very worried that we were going to come home with a pony or three. Somehow, I resisted them.

5.  Daisey’s Dockside Nature Cruises

This is a great way to see the two islands (Chincoteague and Assateague) from the water.  The likeable guides at Daisey’s are lifelong islanders who will get you up close and personal with seabirds, hundreds of wild dolphins, and the two herds of wild ponies.  The pontoon boats are very comfortable.  Since you don’t get off the boat on this tour, it’s a nice complement to Captain Barry’s trip.  Early morning trips are best for wildlife viewing, so bring a sweater!

Things to do in Chincoteague: wildlife tours.

There are dolphins absolutely everywhere in the waters around Chincoteague, and they come really close to the boat on Daisey’s tour.

6.  Chincoteague Pony Centre

You would have thought that after five days on Chincoteague, I would have had my fill of ponies.  Well, you would have thought wrong.  On our last day, we visited the Chincoteague Pony Centre — unofficial keepers of the history of Misty.  We saw the newest generation of ponies in Misty’s line, watched a fascinating 30-minute documentary of the history of the Pony Swim, shopped for pony tchotchkes, and (most crucially) hugged ponies.  There were also pony rides and pony shows, but we didn’t partake of these.

Chincoteague Pony Centre

Misty’s great-great-great-great-grandponies are happy to be cuddled. The feeling is mutual

If you go

I did a fair amount of research when deciding where to stay.  If it had been available, I would have chosen the Refuge Inn.  Alas, it was sold out.  We wound up at the Hampton Inn and Suites and we liked it just fine.  We had a very large room with space for a rollaway and a balcony overlooking the water.

If we had been staying a week, I would have definitely booked a house.  While there are lots of places to eat on the island, we would have been better off cooking our own meals.  There’s only so much fried seafood we can face.  Speaking of food, there were two standouts: the gourmet groceries and takeout we regularly picked up from Poseidon’s Pantry and the homemade ice cream from Island Creamery (don’t worry about the long line – it moves quickly).

If you feel like you’d like to visit, but you live too far away.  Consider adding Chincoteague on to the tail end of a family trip to Washington, DC.  In closing, here are a few more pictures of our visit.  Any questions?  Leave them in the comments.

Things to do in Chincoteague with kids

This is how close you get to the wild ponies on Daisey’s Dockside cruises. It’s so peaceful!

Things to do with kids in Chincogeague, Virginia

Love at first sight!

Crabbing in Chincoteague, Virginia

The kids liked crabbing, but my husband *loved* it. We couldn’t tear him away…

Crabbing in Chincoteague.

…the crabs weren’t quite as enthusiastic, however.

Things to do in Chincoteague: hug ponies.

I never actually, officially outgrew the whole “I want a pony” thing.

I'm also a very big fan of horse nose photos.

I’m also a very big fan of horse nose photos.

Captain Barry's Backbay Cruises.

While most of Captain Barry’s cruise is pleasantly educational, there’s also time to act like idiots in stinky mud, which is high on my kids’ list.

An eagle in Chincoteague, Virginia

Seeing this eagle was an unexpected pleasure on Captain Barry’s trip.

Fun things to do in Chincoteague

For $5, my mud-speckled son agreed to try an oyster for the camera…

Fun things to do with kids in Chincoteague

It was quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen — well worth the investment.

The best things to do in Chincoteague with kids

Captain Barry is a dad himself and a good sport, so he doesn’t bat an eye at teenage girls. The unofficial caption of THIS photo is: “Oh. Are you still talking?”

Crabbing in Chincoteague with kids

She actually wasn’t a brat at all. Here she demonstrates the correct usage of crab grabbers.

Sunset in Chincoteague

So ends a fun family vacation in Chincoteague, Virginia.

Misty of Chincoteague

My original copy of Misty of Chincoteague. Yes, I still have it!

Misty of Chincoteague

My childhood copy of Misty of Chincoteague, inscribed by my grandmother. The book that inspired this trip.




March 4th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 7 comments

7 Great Family Trips from Backroads

If you’re the planner-in-chief for an active family like I am, you know it’s a ton of work.  A ton of work for which you won’t get much sympathy from anyone.

What you need is a shortcut, like the newly published Smart Parents’ Guide to Family Adventure Vacations, a great source of been-there-done-that ideas of where to travel this year with your kids.  We’ve asked all our sponsors to tell us about their best and most popular family trips, starting with the company that pretty much invented active travel: Backroads.

Whether you’re booking, plotting, or just daydreaming (and doesn’t it always start that way?), you’ll find plenty on this list to pin, forward, or bookmark.

Backroads trips for families

1.  Brittany & Normandy Biking: From D-Day Landmarks to the Emerald Coast

Families will visit colorful villages, bike to legendary beaches and explore the magical island monastery of Mont-St-Michel. Along the way, kids can go horseback riding, get a hands-on lesson in the art of glass blowing and chat with a local historian

2.  Czech Republic & Austria Biking: Bohemian Knights & Danube Castles

Fairy-tale castles on the horizon. Ancient cobblestones beneath frolicking feet. The Danube River, a fascinating falconry show and a theatrical sword-fighting demo performed exclusively for Backroads guests. And a trove of lifetime family memories!

3.  Iceland Multisport: Nature, Culture & Adventure at the Edge of the Arctic Circle

Glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, geysers, waterfalls… Families experience Earth’s most stunning natural wonders in incredible Iceland! Traveling by bike, foot, Zodiac, plane, horse and “super jeep,” everyone enjoys letting off steam in the Land of Fire and Ice.

The best family trips with Backroads

4.  Ireland Bike Tour: A Pot O’Gold for Families in Counties Cork & Kerry

The whole gang will adore what’s in store while pedaling through Ireland’s west Cork and Kerry: peaceful routes past green hills, quaint cottages and woolly sheep, a rich look at regional history and village culture, and a stay at the venerable Park Hotel Kenmare.

5.  Loire Valley Biking: Fun in France’s Regal Touraine

Easygoing routes for younger riders and lots of options for the older crowd. Treats at patisseries, gourmet cuisine and exquisite wines. A visit to Leonardo da Vinci’s house and a fencing lesson just for kids. History come to life. This is truly a family vacation nonpareil.

6.  Pyrenees to Costa Brava Biking: Catalonia’s Peaks to Mediterranean Beaches

Kids will be thrilled with the bike rides, rock climbing, pottery making and beach time. Grownups will love pedaling scenic routes in the Pyrénées foothills, seeing landscapes that inspired Salvador Dalí, and savoring sun-kissed Catalan wines.

7.  Tuscany Biking: Pedaling & Pizza North of Siena

Sublime scenery takes center stage on family-friendly biking routes amid ancient hill towns, sprawling vineyards and cypress-lined lanes. There’s wine tasting for the adults. Hands-on pizza making for the kids. The perfect family adventure in Tuscany.

March 3rd, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 2 comments