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En español | Grandparents who've had the pleasure of taking their grandchildren on vacation know just how rewarding it can be to get to know a little person in an environment removed from their home routine, and without their parents around (a “skip-gen” trip).
It also can be challenging, especially when you're traveling with high-energy younger children. When choosing where to go with kids 11 and under, think of scenic places with lots of outdoor activities for affordable fun, as well as a few child-focused highlights (interactive museums, theme parks) for a special treat.
These destinations, some of my favorites, are ideal for smaller children and their grands.
Visit Indian River County
1. Vero Beach, Florida
When to go: winter or spring
How to get there: Drive about 90 minutes southeast from Orlando International Airport along Florida's storied Treasure Coast (named for the many Spanish galleons that wrecked here during 18th-century hurricanes). It's also about 90 minutes north of Palm Beach.
What to do: The Vero Beach area is a nature lovers’ delight. Active grandparents can take children, if they're old enough, on self-guided kayaking trips ($40 for two hours in a double kayak) through the mangroves along the Indian River Lagoon at the Environmental Learning Center, home to an interactive touch tank exhibit and aquariums ($7 for adults; $5 for children). Relaxing two-hour pontoon cruises ($35 for adults; $15 for children) to the nearby Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge are also offered from the center. Even the littlest kids will enjoy the boardwalk trails; they'll also want to check out a cool nature-inspired playground.
The Vero Beach Museum of Art, where kids under 17 get free admission ($12 for adults; $11 for adults 65 and up), has a dedicated Art Zone for kids with multisensory exhibits that include an interactive sketch aquarium where they can draw sea creatures and watch them move through a virtual aquarium.
Plan your visit for late December through March and it'll coincide with strawberry season in these parts. At Countryside Citrus, you can fill your baskets at the you-pick fields and treat the kids to one of the famous orange slushies to reward their hard work.
Where to stay: Fronting the ocean and a lovely beach, the Driftwood Resort is a collection of buildings with various room types made largely from driftwood that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You'll pay about $145 per night for two adults and two children in a non-oceanfront studio unit.
2. Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec
When to go: summer or fall
How to get there: There's an airport in Bagotville, but opt to fly into Quebec City for far more affordable flights to the region. You'll have a 2.5-hour scenic drive north from there to reach Alma, one of the main towns on Lac Saint-Jean and a perfect base for exploring.
What to do: The Blueberry Route bike trail (known there as Véloroute des Bleuets), stretching for some 160 miles around the lake, is a lovely paved trail for pedaling along the water's edge. In summer, you can stop to pick blueberries. If biking's not your bag, head out on guided walks for families to the open crystal mine at Cristal du Lac, just south of Alma, where the kids will be thrilled to use little trowels to unearth quartz crystals while learning about the area's unique glacial geography (about $28* for adults; $20 for children 8 to 14; free for children under 8).
For the chance to see black bears in the wild from an elevated viewing platform, book a driving tour through the forest with Okwari Adventures (roughly $24 per adult; $14 for children 12 and under). Note that the U.S. dollar has been holding strong against the Canadian dollar, so bargains abound.
Where to stay: Centre de Villégiature Dam-en-Terre has rustic cottages and campsites, as well as modern townhouse-style accommodations with three bedrooms, firepits and lake views. Beautiful, modern six-person townhouses start from around $225 per night during the summer.
*Prices are in U.S. dollars and dependent on the exchange rate
Visit San Antonio
3. San Antonio, Texas
When to go: winter, spring or fall
How to get there: If you're arriving by air, you might find the most affordable fares on flights in and out of Austin, which is about 90 minutes northeast of San Antonio.
What to do: The Alamo City mixes historic sites, kid-centric fun and tons of culture into one terrific destination. This spring sees the opening of the Sea Life San Antonio Aquarium ($22 for adults; $18 for children ages 3 to 12; free for children 2 and under), where you can see 5,000 marine and freshwater creatures in a state-of-the-art facility to complement the fabulous San Antonio Zoo. And the city's longstanding Kiddie Park attraction, which has great rides for the little ones, has moved next to the zoo.
All senses get stimulated along the San Antonio River Walk, where you can hop a riverboat for a tour (about $13.50 for adults and children 6 and up; $10.50 for adults 65 and up; free for children under 6), try some authentic Texas barbecue at one of the many restaurants, tour 18th-century Spanish missions — if your grandchildren are the patient type — or shop for Day of the Dead-inspired souvenirs.
The city's children's museum, the DoSeum, targets kids 10 and under with incredible exhibits that include a puppet parade, a spy academy and a musical staircase ($14 per person; $13 for adults 65 and up; children under 1 are free). And Bakery Lorraine, onsite at the DoSeum, is a convenient lunch spot for grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade applesauce, macarons and other treats children love.
Where to stay: A good base for your explorations is La Cantera Resort & Spa, just north of the historic downtown in San Antonio's hill country. It has a children's pool, arcade and naturalist program, where kids can learn about armadillos, raccoons, deer and other animals that roam the resort property. Deluxe rooms for two adults and two children start at $240 per night.
Glenwood Hot Springs Resort
4. Carbondale, Colorado
When to go: summer or fall
How to get there: Rent a car and drive about 3.5 hours west from Denver. There's a closer airport — Montrose Regional Airport is about two hours from Carbondale — but flights there can be pricey.
What to do: The area around Carbondale is more affordable than nearby Aspen, while still offering tons of do. Start with a morning play session at the new outdoor splash pad and warm thermal pools at the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, just north of Carbondale in Glenwood Springs ($21.75 for adults; $14.75 for children ages 3 to 12; free for children under 3). Then drive about 20 minutes south of Carbondale to the tiny riverside hamlet of Redstone, home to a playground alongside a trout river and the cutest general store, which sells giant ice cream cones and lots of old-fashioned candies.
The Rio Grande ARTway is a paved trail that winds right through Carbondale. It's a nice spot to get some exercise with the kids after feasting on pancakes and waffles at the Village Smithy.
Where to stay: With gorgeous mountain views, Avalanche Ranch is an affordable hot springs resort just south of Carbondale. Its collection of rustic cabins and “wagon” rooms have one to three bedrooms, and guests get free access to the three onsite hot springs, open 24 hours a day. Cabins that can sleep up to six people start at $235 per night.
RooM the Agency / Alamy Stock Photo
5. Carlsbad, California
When to go: spring, summer or fall
How to get there: Carlsbad is about a 45-minute drive north from San Diego International Airport.
What to do: This is the quintessential California beach town, a wonderful place to explore with young kids. Legoland California Resort (at least $90 per person) and Sea Life Aquarium ($25; free for kids under 3) are the big-ticket attractions for youngsters, but Carlsbad is also all about incredible nature — which is a lot less expensive. You can stroll with the grandkids along dirt paths to look for wading birds at Batiquitos Lagoon, one of California's last remaining coastal wetlands (free). And from March through early May, the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch burst to life with red, white, yellow and pink ranunculus blooms over 50 hillside acres ($18 for adults; $16 for adults 60 and older; $9 for kids ages 3 to 10; free for kids 2 and under). You can simply stroll among the gardens and fields on designated pathways or, for a few extra dollars, opt for a tractor-pulled wagon ride.
Or consider group surf lessons along the wide stretch at North Carlsbad State Beach with SoCal Surf, which claims to offer lessons for ages 5 to 75 and guarantees to get you standing (or your next lesson is free). Private lessons are $110 per person, with discounts depending on the size of your group. If you're like me and would rather watch, treat the grandchildren to a surfing lesson while you take photos of them in action.
Where to stay: The Hilton Garden Inn Carlsbad Beach is located on cliffs overlooking the beach and has a heated outdoor pool where the kids can burn off any extra energy at day's end. Rates are from $165 per night for two adults and two children.
Terry Ward is a longtime travel writer who has lived in Australia, New Zealand and France. She's now based in Tampa, Florida.