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Rather than relying on scheduled resort activities to enhance their vacations, parents as well as their children are seeking experiences that are tailored expressly to their interests and abilities—whether that means a gourmet cooking school in Paris or a canoe ride down glacial rivers in Iceland. Premier tour companies and hotels themselves are now arranging customized family itineraries that include youth-oriented programs, kid-savvy staff, and multicultural lessons on history, art, politics, and religion.
1 Hiking the Canadian Rockies
Austin-Lehman Adventures takes heli-hiking to new heights. Their six-day custom trip explores the Bugaboos, a rugged wilderness southwest of Banff, accessible only by Bell 212 twin-engine helicopters owned by Canadian Mountain Holidays. Marty von Neudegg, director of marketing at CMH, reports "We never have more than forty-four guests in a 500-square-mile area, so you're not going to bump into anyone—besides the moose." During this complete immersion in an alpine environment of glaciers, lakes, high peaks, and wildflower meadows, mountain guides lead daily treks adapted to meet skill and ability levels. A dedicated guide teaches children how to read animal signs and make plaster casts of tracks. Says co-owner Dan Austin: "In this kind of environment, the kids are learning 16 hours a day and it sticks with them." (Before departing from Banff, junior paddlers don buckskins and navigate the Bow River in a traditional Voyageur canoe.) Wilderness evenings are spent at the rustic Bobbie Burns Lodge, with staggering peak views of the Purcell Mountain Range. Despite the backcountry location, the lodge has urbane appeal, including an international wine cellar, massage staff, and pastry chef. This special excursion can also include a mountain bike ride in Banff National Park and whitewater rafting on the Kicking Horse River. Minimum age: 7. Six-day trips average $3,000; 800-575-1540; www.austinlehman.com.
2 Cooking With Le Cordon Bleu
The Four Seasons Hotel George V has partnered with Le Cordon Bleu, one of the world's most distinguished cooking schools, to create an ideal learning vacation called the French Culinary Adventure for parents and teenagers who wish to expand their culinary repertoire. The exclusive five-day course consists of daily demonstrations, three- to six-hour practical classes, and workshops at the renowned Left Bank institution. Families then digest the daily experience at the George V, one of Paris' grandest Right Bank hotels (recently awarded three stars by the Guide Michelin for its elegant restaurant Le Cinq). Sandra Messier of Le Cordon Bleu explains the course: "We introduce certain French classical techniques, baking, kitchen organization, palate education, and plate presentation." The chef-instructors address both savory and sweet recipes with regionally focused menus—you may learn how to properly poach a perch caught in the rivers of the Loire Valley or to pair wines and cheeses from the same terroir. Classes also visit the open-air Marché du Raspail in the sixth arrondissement and enjoy seasonal lunches at distinguished bistros near the school. Minimum age: 13. Rates start at $5,840 per person and include classes, deluxe room, breakfast, market tours, gift certificate for spa treatments, and all classes; 33-149-52-7100.
3 Around the World in 480 Days
Known for its highly educational, far-flung excursions, Geographic Expeditions offers a unique opportunity whereby families take their children out of school for an extended trek. Most "road schooling" trips last between two and three months, but one couple recently took their four children around the world in 480 days. They visited Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Australia, Antarctica, and South America. In addition to guides, transportation, and lodgings, GeoEx organized cultural programs at every destination. Included were lessons in Thai dancing and a stay in grass huts with the Dani tribe in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The family also went trekking in Nepal and cut a path to the South Pole aboard a Russian icebreaker. According to GeoEx's John Sugnet, "Children often open doors that would be closed to adults traveling alone. A simple act, like sharing crayons with tribal villagers, can turn indifferent strangers into animated friends." Minimum age and price based upon itinerary; 800-777-8183, 415-922-0448; www.geoex.com.
4 A Cloudwalk In Costa Rica
Jungles and Rainforests, part of the new Tauck Bridges tours, starts in San Jose, Costa Rica and takes families through the cloud forest on "skywalks" over suspension bridges in the northwestern region of Monteverde, and into Tortuguero, on the Caribbean coast. "I'm taking my eight-year-old daughter," says Brian Stacey, who designed and set up the weeklong program, which launched this summer, "and she is 'out-of-control excited' to see the jungle, look at a real and active volcano, and be out in the wild with monkeys, alligators, sloths, agoutis, and other animals she has never heard of. Every day there is something special for kids, and my wife likes the beach, so we are going to extend the trip a few days, which we can also easily arrange for our guests." The Bridges trip to Costa Rica comes in the middle of turtle-nesting season at Tortuguero National Park. "The area is highly restricted, so we arrange for permits for all our guests," says Stacey. "You dress in all black and are equipped with special lights. A licensed guide takes you out on the beach at night to look for nesting and hatching endangered turtles." At EARTH University, which was designed to train Latin American youth in sustainable agriculture and other ecologically friendly industry practices, the group visits the banana plantation on campus and learns how to make paper out of recycled banana stalks. There are also visits to a frog farm and a guided hike through the Children's Eternal Rain Forest. A river-rafting trip makes a stop at a traditional Costa Rican farm with no electricity or indoor plumbing and allows for a visit with the family that has lived there for over 100 years. Minimum age: 8. Rates start at $1,830 per person; 866-636-6500; www.tauckbridges.com.
5 Surf and Turf in Laguna Beach
The newly opened Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, California, sits on 30 acres of prime oceanfront property, which means that your family can sit back, lounge, and enjoy life—collecting seashells and building sandcastles to their hearts' content. But the resort's three-day Art of Adventure program gives you other options: guided hikes, mountain-biking adventures, kayaking at Diver's Cove in North Laguna, ferry rides to Catalina, and a whale- and dolphin-watching cruise. The resort also has its own children's center and has developed the Paintbox program for children ages five to 12 (half-day, $50; full day, $75). "We try to always tie the activities into our surroundings. They are definitely California-focused," says the hotel's chief concierge, Carol Leenerts. "California-focused" translates into everything from Surf's Up day, spent on the beach creating sand art, and Hooray for Hollywood, which includes a talent show and a movie-making activity. Every Saturday children are invited to have their own night out from 6 to 9 p.m. with dinner, movies, and popcorn. No minimum age. Rates start at $2,200; 888-715-6700; www.montagelagunabeach.com.
6 Off to Bhutan
Country Walkers creates culturally focused walking tours to remarkable outposts throughout the world, from New Zealand to Ecuador. Their expertise extends to the remote kingdom of Bhutan, where, due to visa restrictions, few travelers can journey independently. A ten-day moderate-level trek in this Himalayan realm may incorporate child-oriented activities such as a school visit in the traditional village of Thimpu (children are provided with souvenir school uniforms), lessons on making spirit catchers with a Buddhist monk, and an evening farm visit with a Bhutanese family to watch cooking demonstrations of salted-butter tea, wind-dried beef, and hand-churned milk. Guides are versed in the local history, mythology, and natural sciences; they arrange horseback rides to the famous Tiger's Nest monastery, traditional dance performances, visits to craftsmen, and river rafting. Country Walkers' Bob Ellsasser says, "Younger kids need constant diversion. Part of their job description is to drive their parents out of their minds. So we always plan what we call UPS, or unexpected pleasant surprises." Minimum age: 8. Rates start at $3,900 per person; 800-464-9255; www.countrywalkers.com.
7 Fire And Iceland
Sunrise Expeditions specializes in rugged, open canoe trips to places such as Scotland, Portugal, Australia, and Mongolia. The company's most unusual voyage is a ten-day descent of the glacial, spring-fed Pjorsa, Tungnaa, and Vatnakvisi rivers in Iceland's uninhabited interior highlands. Director Martin Brown describes this landscape as "a cross between the Canadian arctic and the planet Jupiter. No two expeditions to this area are ever the same." During the brief Arctic summer, black-lava badlands and active volcanoes contrast with massive white glacial ice caps. Skilled guides teach children and parents about this region's awesome natural phenomena, which include hot springs, calderas, and arctic mirages. Accessed by "lunar buses," the heart of this wild interior is the Sprengisandur, which translates literally as exploding desert. (In the famous Icelandic sagas it was the spiritual home of outlaws, elves, and other mythical creatures.) After paddling Class II whitewater rivers, adventurous families camp out in comfortable tents under the midnight sun. Travelers return to the first-class Hotel Borg in Reykjavik, the world's most northerly capital. Minimum age: 8. Rates start at $3,150 per person; 800-748-3730; www.sunriseexpeditions.com.
8 Winging it at The Greenbrier
On 6,500 acres in the Allegheny Mountains, West Virginia's Greenbrier resort, with its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, tennis, and trails for horseback riding, should make everyone in the family happy. There are gourmet cooking classes for parents and themed cooking lessons—I'll Make Supper (barbequed chicken, corn on the cob), Pizza Party (pizza and stromboli), and Critters in the Kitchen ("hedgehog" biscuits, chocolate "mice")—for children ($60 per class per child). While their parents get a Therma Stone massage ($130), children under 13 can elect the M.E.2 Package of mini pedicure, manicure, and facial ($80) or, if a bit older, indulge in a Teen Clean facial ($85). Robbie Gilmore, director of instruction at the resort's Sam Snead Golf Academy, recommends the Family Mini Golf School ($125-$220), a two-hour-long program in which families can learn the rules and etiquette of the game, full-swing fundamentals, chipping, and putting. "We had a three-year-old in class last week," says Gilmore. There are junior golf clinics and adult classes offered daily as well as private lessons and reduced-rate Family Golf after 4 p.m. There's a supervised children-only program that includes lessons on how to craft Appalachian folk art, as well as readings by local children's authors. In addition, those over 16 can participate in the resort's Land Rover Driving School, which consists of an off-road driving lesson ($185 per hour). For a full-family activity, The Falconry and Raptor Education Foundation, a nonprofit group founded and run by Duane Zobrift, offers beginning and advanced hour-long falconry lessons ($75) to Greenbrier guests throughout the day. Beginning classes feature a brief introduction to the history and art of falconry and end with a lesson on bird handling, after which each guest is given a glove and a bird to handle for photo ops. No minimum age. Rooms, $220-$500; 800-453-4858; www.greenbrier.com.
9 Yellowstone and Beyond Montana-based tour operator Off the Beaten Path specializes in family-adventure vacations in what cofounder and CEO Pamela Bryan calls "that sweep of landscape from Alaska down through the Canadian Rockies to the American West, the Southwest, and right to the Mexican border." Private, fully-customized tours in the region are also available. "Custom trips are how we got started," says Bryan, "and they are still our signature service." Clients review over 30 sample itineraries, fill out an extensive questionnaire, and work closely with a consultant to tailor the trip to the family's interests and needs. A family of four was intrigued by a trip to southwestern canyon parks but wanted to add an emphasis on Native American history. Off the Beaten Path arranged for guided visits to the Hopi Reservation and totem-pole tours through Monument Valley with a Navajo guide. The mother also wanted to revisit some of the places she had enjoyed on a childhood trip to the region, so Off the Beaten Path tailored excursions to her requests. Another trip, to Vancouver, was adjusted to add cultural experiences to an otherwise outdoor-activity-heavy itinerary. Three weeks before departure, custom clients receive a guidebook highlighting must-see sights, great trails, and the best places to eat. Bryan does warn that accommodations in the "wild country" are not always plush. "What we are after," she says, "is the high-end, first-rate experience." No minimum age for custom trips. Rates start at $1,600 per person; 800-445-2995; www.offthebeatenpath.com.
10 Culture Club at the Met
The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers families the same level of cultural experience you find within the museum's walls, only on tours that take you to China or Ireland, Italy or Argentina, Russia or Greece. The trips are organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad. Harriet Friedlander, the organization's chairwoman, warns that while there is no set minimum age for the trips, those over 13 generally benefit the most: "The intensely curious child who is interested in foreign cultures and history or in learning more about their own roots will love it. But if they are steeped in video games and require entertainment and amusement on that score this may not be for them." Each trip includes Met-appointed experts, private museum tours, and visits to private collections and homes. In June 2004, a two-week cruise of England and Ireland aboard the Sea Cloud II begins in London with a private tour of the Tate Modern. It continues toward Ireland with a stop at the castle of the Knight of Glin, where he personally takes the group through his extensive collection of paintings and decorative art. "We try to have an author, an art and architecture expert, and someone from the diplomatic world, like Charles T. Magee, who was U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg, or Jack Matlock, former ambassador to Russia, or Lech Walesa, to cover the political and economic front," says Friedlander. The Sea Cloud II itself is also a draw. "It is a small, informal cruise," says Friedlander, "and children are welcome to go into the bridge. The captain and crew can explain navigation, or kids can watch the sails raised by hand." Families are also given an extensive pre-departure reading list that ranges from traditional travel guides to historical novels. Met membership not required. No minimum age. Rates start at $6,950 per person; 800-221-1944; www.metmuseum.org.
11 Tanzania Safari
Uncharted Outposts devises exceptional safaris to introduce children to the African subcontinent. The 11-day Ape Escape explores three remote areas in Tanzania that even seasoned travelers rarely visit. Sandy Cunningham of Uncharted Outposts says, "This is pristine Africa, not like the Mara or Serengeti or Okavango. It's off the beaten path, more wild and authentic." Families first visit Sand Rivers Lodge in the Selous Game Reserve, which has one of the world's largest elephant and buffalo populations; they then explore more remote regions at two other camps: Chada Camp is a typical East African bush tent with Egyptian cotton linens and four-course dinners. On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Greystoke Camp is an elegant tented camp complete with Persian rugs and hurricane lamps. The property is at the base of the Mahale Mountains, where a small group of chimpanzees have been the focus of a research study for the past 30 years. Families trek to watch them from yards away as the chimps groom, wrestle, and forage their way across the forest floor. (Children under 12 stay at the camp with other guides, who take them fishing, birding, sailing, and swimming.) There are also night game drives and walks in the bush escorted by a Masai warrior. Minimum age: 8. Rates start at $6,725 per person; 888-995-0909;
12 Rowing on the Grand Canal
Venice may be one of the world's most romantic cities, but Italian cousins Riccardo Lanza and Antonio Baucina, who specialize in creating the unique Italian travel experience, swear it is also a perfect family destination. "Even if children don't have a deep love of Renaissance art, Venice is so visually spectacular it becomes a fairy tale," says Lanza, who recommends that parents avoid Venice in August, when crowds and heat may make for less-than-happy offspring. "There are so many things to do there outside of cultural outings—families can rent bicycles and bike around the Lido," says Lanza, "or sail around the lagoon and picnic for lunch. There is also nothing quite like getting off an airplane and straight into a boat, then speeding across the lagoon as soon as you arrive. I have watched children's faces, and they love this!" Several private palazzos with direct access to the Grand Canal, not on the general market, are available for rent through L&B. Private rowing instruction is provided by the well-known Bucintoro Rowing Club. Students can go solo, Lanza says, "but only after quite a bit of training. There are a lot of traffic issues in Venetian canals!" On-land excursions include an after-hours tour of St. Mark's Basilica and a visit to a printer who still uses hand-printing methods and Gutenberg presses. There's also a stop at a private glassblowing factory, which makes glass for Tiffany and Cartier and lets kids take a turn at blowing, and a tour of a fabric company where silks are still printed on 18th-century looms. Palazzos come fully staffed upon request, babysitters included. Minimum age: 8. Rates average $1,165 per day; 44-207-738-2222.