When I think back on the success of our family vacation this summer, I realize that there are key elements that contributed to our enjoyment. I wanted to share these with you:
1. My Children’s Ages
We’ve traveled to Europe many times before with Nick and Sasha. This time, at ages 10 and 14, their stamina, their sense of adventure, and their flexibility made it more relaxed and enjoyable.
2. A Variety of Activities
Let’s face it, in this day and age, neither adults nor children have long attention spans. Making sure to plan days that include both active and cultural outings helps keep everyone engaged. A museum in the morning (when everyone is fresh) and an afternoon of sailing, for example. In our case, we went to the Chateau Musee d’Annecy and then rented a sailing boat on the lovely lake that afternoon.
3. A Home Base–with good meals and a pool!
Moving around from hotel to hotel and spending long hours driving or traveling between points is not recommended on a family vacation. There is a reason why European families often return every summer to the same hotel. Settling in to one hotel for multiple days (in our case, five) allows the family to feel a part of the place, to get to know the hotel staff, to return after a long day with a sense of home. Even better, book yourselves in “demi-pension” (half-board), withbreakfast and either lunch or dinner included. Given our daily schedule, we opted for dinner. The children love the certainty of a full meal, with dessert, every night. Furthermore, it relieves the stress of finding an appropriate, good restauarant every night-one that your children will agree upon unanimously, especially.
A pool during the summer makes your home base even more appealing. On some days, when my daughter was dragging a little, I would hold out the promise of a swim before dinner as a reward for her perseverance. This carrot usually had the desired effect!
4. Experiential Activities
Whether cultural or active, the kinds of activities to plan for a family vacation must be interactive and engaging. This is, of course, fairly easy with active options like hiking, riding horses, kayaking, and zip-lining. When choosing a museum, for example, seek out any special visit days that involve more creativity in the presentation. On our trip, I waited for a weekend day to take the family to Chateau Menthon St Bernard (http://www.chateau-de-menthon.com/) because they featured a costumed tour done by actors who portray the various family members (including 11th-century St. Bernard himself) and introduce each room in the Chateau. The actors spoke French, and I am lucky my children are bi-lingual, so the experience ended up being doubly educational for them. They even translated for their father at times!
Any time you travel as a group, it’s important to gauge members’ energy and interest level, and remain flexible on timing and the order of activities. The first day we arrived, I reviewed the various options we had before us and had each member of the family state their priorities. It became clear that we wanted to: hike, paraglide, sail, see Annecy, take a cruise on the lake, swim, ride horses and do a forest parcourse. We managed to fit it all in, except for the paragliding (which my husband decided, after the 2300-meter hike, he’d have difficulty jumping off a cliff).
Though I know France and this region fairly well, I did feel that I missed having the more in-depth educational input in places like the cheese farm, the Chateau Museum of Annecy and elsewhere–context that we provide to our groups on our travel programs. And certainly, having someone else do the planning for such a trip would have been a wonderful relief. In short, even with my insider’s knowledge of travel planning, the value of an organized family program was not lost on me!