Kid-Friendly Adventure Vacations

On these educational and fun immersion vacations throughout the U.S., kids can have adventures and build skills they can use for a lifetime.

By Katherine Relf-CaƱas

If you're planning a domestic vacation for your family this year, the good news is there will be no worrying about exchange rates. And you can feel good about reducing your carbon footprint, too. You don't have to cross an ocean to have a memorable family adventure! Why not explore another realm right here at home?

Take On a New Identity With Immersion Travel

If you want your children to develop horse sense on a Colorado guest ranch or literally get their feet wet while learning to sail on the Chesapeake, read on. Immersion travel, as this kind of vacationing is sometimes called, borrows its name from the world of teaching foreign language where instructors limit their use of students' native language. In the same way, immersion travel lets you leave the familiar territory of home and discover what it's like to be part of some other - or someone else's world.

While you spend quality time as a family, you can introduce your kids to skills they can build on over a lifetime. Whether it be a three-day sailing adventure, a week as a cowboy, or an entire month retracing the past - and the path - of a pioneer explorer, there's something available for just about any interest, craft or endeavor.

The problem may not be in finding something to do but rather in narrowing your choices and, of course, finding something that will appeal to everyone. What looks good to mom and sis may bring groans from the male contingent, or vice versa. Some good old-fashioned bargaining and family deal-making are sure to lead to an agreeable compromise.

You might even stumble upon a place that beckons you back. We heard from plenty of families who returned year after year to some of the places described here. Returning each year, these families found familiar faces and also forged a family tradition that will leave them with memories to look back on.

Immersion adventures are not "one size fits all." From the start, consider how well your plan addresses the needs and abilities of all family members based on their age and individual development. Or make arrangements for some family members to have a little adventure of their own or an extended sleepover with friends or relatives.

If your clan is made up of a range of ages and stages, take stock of what your kids and teens are really able to do. "Plan your outings first with children in mind and then adults," says Vicki Lansky, parenting expert, guidebook publisher and author of Trouble Free Travel with Children. "It's also best to plan your trip to fit the needs of your youngest child," she advises. It's something to keep in mind before you get attached to a learning adventure that might end with your learning simply not to ever try this again. Do your research before you make reservations or commit any cash to a deposit.

Learn About Ranch Life at C Lazy U Ranch

Many camps and schools can accommodate a range of age groups. C Lazy U Ranch, which offers a premier guest ranch experience on 5,000 acres in Granby, Colorado, is one such example. Camp C-Lazy-U clearly divides their programs and activities by age and ability. Founded in 1946, they have a lot of experience and know-how in this area.

The camp's toddler-centered program accommodates 3- to 5-year-olds with pony rides, story time and nature hikes. The next level up is geared to 6- to 12-year-olds. At this level, kids graduate from pony rides to horseback riding. Young campers are paired with their own horse for a week. Teenagers 13 to 17 move on to more independent activities, including team-building games and an overnight camp-out.

While benefiting from the exercise, and enjoying the camp's natural setting, you'll also be introduced to America's cowboy ranch heritage. The whole family can learn, practice and then show off their horsemanship during camp 'shodeos.' In summer, Western activities and traditions at the camp include square dancing, archery, rodeo shows, fishing, rafting and campfire cooking. In winter, sledding, ice skating and other nostalgic activities tied in with the holidays are the draw.

Because the camp keeps children occupied, parents can also have time to themselves. Or, as Lansky puts it, "Keep in mind that this is your vacation, too. You and your spouse need some time to yourselves." For adults, there is the appeal of a getaway that also offers luxury dining and atmosphere in addition to casual cowboy amenities. Family members can rendezvous at different points throughout the day.

Learn to be a Sailor at Annapolis Sailing School

"Sailing can be competitive, recreational or anything in between," says Tim Dowling, owner of Annapolis Sailing, the country's first adult sailing school. The whole family can learn to sail or build on what they've already learned while enjoying the historic waterfront in Annapolis, Maryland. Annapolis is known as the sailing capital of the country, which makes it a destination in itself. The town is described as a living museum of colonial and early American history, and it's also home to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Today, there are hundreds of sailing schools to pick from all across the country. Back when Annapolis Sailing School opened in 1959, it was the only one. In 1987, a second school within a school program for children was opened. Called KidShip, it offers two- to five-day sessions that feature the same curriculum as the Annapolis Sailing School. "The focus is on safety, fun and learning, in that order," says Dowling, who acquired Annapolis Sailing from its original owners after teaching there since 1980.

Starting at age 5, the school offers a half-day program. Kids between 8 and 15 can participate in a full-day program. "The focus here is on hands-on, experiential learning with a minimum of theory," says Dowling. "In other words, the best way to learn to sail is by sailing."

The programs prepare individuals and families for a lifetime of sailing, readying them to charter a boat independently. "To develop as a sailor you can take anywhere from one to five years to advance through all the levels," says Dowling. The school gets a lot of return families.

Oceanographic Exploration at Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp

Jean-Michel Cousteau's Family Camp is an offshoot of his Ocean Futures Society and is allied with his global Ocean Ambassadors youth program. Based on the leeward side of Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, it is only reachable by boat. Most guests are picked up on the mainland shore. Or you can come in your own boat with permission to moor.

The camp provides wetsuits in every imaginable size so that snorkelers can spend longer periods of time in the water. You won't find many camps where renowned ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau is your personal guide. These dives are a fun way to explore the giant kelp forest. You use the island's ecosystem as an underwater laboratory and learn how what you see relates to principles of biological and ecological science, and how it applies to the sustainability of our larger global ecosystem.

This unique camp has become a family tradition for the Comras family of California, who have spent 10 consecutive summers there with their son who is now 17. "This place is a mix of luxury and roughing it," says Kelly Comras. "They do a great job of mixing age groups. It's suitable for ages 2 to 80."

"Cousteau - or JM as he goes by at the camp - is very accessible. He is such a kid himself. I think he enjoys being with the kids as much if not more than the adults," says Comras. Every night after dinner JM and Dick Murphy present a film and lecture. "They present all kinds of oceanographic issues, including biodiversity and conservation. We really enjoy getting a personal update on their 'round the world' activities," she says.

An international crew of superlative counselors help supervise almost a dozen different activity stations, including ocean kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, hiking, archery, arts and crafts, organic cooking, composting and a very popular climbing wall. Participation in each day's four sessions is completely voluntary. "Many adults opt for reading quietly, or go get a massage or take a long snooze."

The facilities feature current ecological technology, including solar power applied to camp energy needs. The five-day camp, held once annually in August, is a unique opportunity to learn about ocean conservation, meet other families, and connect with nature. Kids go home with knowledge and skills they can integrate into their lives.

WWOOF Attracts Would-Be Farmers

If you want a hands-on vacation that will get those hands right into the soil, would-be farmers in your family might enjoy volunteering for WWOOF. Begun in 1971, its initials say it all: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The exchange allows participants a place to stay and a chance to do real farm work. It also offers a budget-friendly way to explore the land and expose your family to the concepts of sustainable farming. In the process your children will learn where food comes from before it gets to the grocery store.

WWOOFers can choose listings that appeal to them from a members directory, and contact the hosts directly to organize their stay. Look for farms that welcome family participation. Once you get to one of these farms you will live as part of their family.

Wherever you are, there is probably some opportunity to do a WWOOF exchange nearby. WWOOF cautions volunteer families to be sure they inform their hosts on specifics about their children, including ages and capabilities. Also, those with younger kids need to consider whether their child will be old enough to fully understand and follow safety restrictions so they are not in harm's way.

Make Your Debut at Cazadero Performing Arts Camp

If your family has a budding musician, actor or storyteller, they can hone their craft at Cazadero Performing Arts Camp. Cazadero's mission is to encourage the artistic spirit in learners of all ages to blossom and grow. Early in the week, the instructors put on a concert. Another performance happens each morning when different instrumentalists get their chance to rise early and wander through the lodging area playing the wake-up call.

"At Cazadero, we don't offer private instruction but instead believe in "threshold ensembles." Beginners are thrown into the tub with other musicians. If you know five chords on the guitar, you're in rock band, learning to play with the drummer, the bass, the trumpets and blend," says Joelle Yzquierdo, Family Camp coordinator.

Located in an old-growth redwood forest in California's Russian River Valley, it's a place where you will feel supported and accepted as your talents take shape. "Cazadero is uniformly supportive since everyone is stretching out. It's like a mutual love fest," says Laurie Leiber, a California resident and longtime regular at the camp.

This one-week summer experience year after year has had a dramatic effect on the entire family, enriching their lives with music and developing them as performers all year long. Gathering with others to make music has become a part of the way they enjoy life. Husband Phil took up the clarinet and eventually formed a Klezmer band in their hometown of North Oakland. Jacob played cow bell in a band. Mom now has a singing group, all of whose members are Cazadero alumnae. The whole family has friends from camp.

"Cazadero is truly intergenerational." says Leiber. Kids from age 6 to adult can take as many as four classes a day in categories such as African dance, drama, yoga, concert sound production, rock, writing and storytelling. While these classes are in session, younger siblings can have fun in childcare, which accommodates campers from 1 1/2 to 5 years old. Two sessions are held in August each year.

If they want, participants can also take a lighter load. "I take a packed schedule," says Leiber. "It's hard to resist." Other recreation is also available. During what is called "freetime," campers organize themselves into self-selected groups to rehearse for the daily open mic shows. This is the time when rockers find rockers, and string quartets form, or singers find pianists to accompany them. There's also an un-talent show, which welcomes acts that are unusual and unprecedented, but not unrehearsed. Some of the characters return year after year. As Laurie puts it, "Before you even get to camp, you're thinking about the un-talent show."

On the Heels of Lewis & Clark on This Historical Ramble

Tracing a historical path is a great way to bring history to life for your children. Mara Shepherd, then 9, had read everything she could about Sacagewea, the guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Her knowledge and curiosity provided the inspiration for a unique trip into the past of Sacagewea and the Lewis and Clark expedition. "It was one of the best trips we ever had!" says mother, Asha.

Events from Sacagewea's life, including the role she played in helping assist the Lewis and Clark expedition, were the focus for the family's six-hour learning expedition. This was made possible thanks to a knowledgeable tour guide, Al Anderson, whose unique services the family found listed online. "Al seemed to find it a joy to share this with children who really wanted to learn about something," says Asha.

A former teacher, Anderson tailored a variety of immersion and hands-on learning experiences - many created for homeschool families - to Mara's interest in Sacagewea. Anderson's broad knowledge was revealed in the many activities and demonstrations in which the family got to take part. He also heaped praise on Sacagewea along the way as being a teenage girl among a group of handpicked explorers with military training.

They began their journey on the Jefferson Fork of the headwaters of the Missouri river in Montana. Al pointed out landmarks Sacagewea had used along the way. As they traveled the riverbanks and took in the landscape, Mara was thrilled to be seeing the terrain she had read about, and learned first hand what it was like to have to rely on landmarks.

Al had made a dugout canoe from the same tree that Lewis and Clark had made theirs. He had made a rope out of the same material they used, and he showed the children how to make it. He also allowed them a chance to pull the canoe by the rope against the current, as those on the expedition had done, so they could get a sense of how strong the men on the expedition had to be to travel that way.

Al also showed off period-tools and the kids got to feel their heft and see them used. They made an arrowhead hammer and clay impressions of tracks. Mara went to an eagle-nesting site and was able to spy a mother eagle returning to give its baby a meal in the nest. And Anderson, who had found a fly-fishing pole small enough for 5-year-old Sage, gave him his first fly-fishing lesson.

Whether Al Anderson is your guide, or not, and whether you start in Montana or in another stretch of the trail, you can do your own tour of the westward expansion. This is an experience where the family's nature lover and the family's history buff can find harmony. Thanks to the efforts of many groups and individuals, you can walk along restored segments of the Lewis and Clark Trail and visit interpretive centers at will. It is an ideal do-it-yourself-style trip made even better if you read up on your history beforehand.

Katherine Relf-Canas travels whenever she can. Her daughter, Olivia, now 6, is a responsible globetrotter in training. Her freelance writing has appeared in Mothering and GeoParents.