1. Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas
This mega-resort on the Bahamas' Paradise Island is loosely themed on Atlantis, the lost city under the sea. As a result, water is everywhere, tying together the vast property with its many buildings housing over 3,400 guest accommodations. Along with multiple pools and man-made lagoons, Atlantis features one of the largest outdoor marine habitats in the world, one that showcases more than 50,000 aquatic animals representing 250 species. Walk through a shark tunnel and watch the fierce critters zig-zag above your head. Ogle tanks of jelly fish, lobsters and piranhas and be mesmerized by colorful schools of parrot, butterfly and other tropical fish. Watch nurse sharks in the Reef Lagoon, sea turtles in the Hibiscus Lagoon and Southern stingrays in the Stingray Lagoon.
Aquaventure features more water rides as well as the 14-acre Dolphin Cay where you learn about, touch and swim with dolphins. During the seven-hour Trainer for a Day program, kids help train the curious critters and assist a laboratory technician at the Dolphin Cay veterinary hospital.
2. Four Seasons Resort at Jackson Hole, WY
The West's panoramic vistas of snow-capped mountain peaks set against blue skies define the legendary landscape of a Wyoming vacation. But that's just the background. To really explore the west, you need to view the region's animals, a special treat for city slicker families.
On a custom, four-hour wildlife safari led by a naturalist and offered year-round by the Four Seasons Resort at Jackson Hole, you ride in an SUV equipped with Swarovski spotting scopes and binoculars. As you traverse such area must-sees as the Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger Teton National Forest and the National Elk Refuge, your guide talks about the region's history and geology while everyone searches the fields, woods, mountainsides and rivers for bison, bears, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, bald eagles otters and trumpeter swans. Kids can use the items in the adventure pack they receive for the outing to collect animal skulls, claws and scat.
You might also spot wildlife while skiing and snowboarding in winter or hiking the parks in spring and summer. Located in Wyoming's Teton Mountains, the Four Season Resort at Jackson Hole offers upmarket accommodations in 106 guest rooms, 18 suites and 32 private residences.
3. Gunflint Lodge, Grand Marais, MN
Gunflint Lodge, situated lakefront in Minnesota's Northwoods, lures families from mid-December to mid-March with dog sledding. Sit in the sled bundled in blankets as the willing team of huskies and Malamute mixes pulls you through a fairytale setting of frozen lakes and snowy trails edged by icicle-laced pine trees. During special dog mushing weekends -- January 12 to 16, February 8 to 12 and March 1 to 4, 2012 -- enjoy longer outings and hands-on time learning how to harness, handle and command the eager canines. Winter also brings naturalist-led wolf howlings: you howl in hopes the crafty critters howl back.
When not dog-sledding, try ice fishing as well as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Sprinkle the free corn kernels outside your cabin and in the early evening watch the deer that come to munch the treats. In summer, Gunflint morphs into a mecca for paddlers exploring the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. As you glide across the lakes, keep a look-out for moose, beavers, otters and loons.
Gunflint Lodge offers 23 one- to four-bedroom cabins. With simple, but comfortable early American style beds and bureaus, and pine paneling and fireplaces, the accommodations exude a woodsy feel. However, don't confuse "simple" with "rustic." Most units come with full kitchens, washer/dryers, multiple bathrooms and saunas. Cook in or dine out at the lodge's two restaurants.
4. Half Moon Rose Hall, Jamaica
The Half Moon Resort, one of Jamaica's long-time luxury leaders, sprawls on 400 acres that feature flower gardens, lush lawns, stables, tennis courts, a spa, an 18-hole golf course, scores of pools and two miles of beach. With so much land the resort hardly ever feels crowded. This is true for the property's dolphin encounters as well. One of the few Caribbean resorts to feature an onsite dolphin lagoon, Half Moon offers a dolphin experience for guests only. So instead of lining up with scores of cruise passengers crowding around a dock, you'll enjoy a small group or a personalized encounter. Little kids learn about the dolphins and touch their rubbery skin at a shallow water beach encounter. During a deep water or swim encounter, older kids, adults and families get more time to go nose to bottlenose with Reggae, the male dolphin, and Toni, the female. For even more time with these intelligent and friendly critters, 'tweens, teens and adults can serve as trainers for a day.
The AAA Four Diamond property joined the RockResorts collection in January 2011. With no high-rise buildings, the rooms spread out in clusters. Standard accommodation options include hotel rooms and one- to two-bedroom suites, or you can rent a five- to seven-bedroom villa.
5. & Beyond's Klein's Camp, Tanzania
A safari is the ultimate animal lover's dream. Watching a giraffe move languidly across a grassy plain, a herd of elephants munch tree branches, or a dazzle of zebra trot into the sunset are images you and your kids will remember forever. Because & Beyond's Klein's Camp is private. Rangers are allowed to drive off road and take guests out on night outings, two things that maximize your animal encounters. At night you can more easily spot certain animals such as leopards. At Klein's Camp, if the ranger sees a leopard slinking through the tall grass stalking an impala, he may drive the Land Cruiser off the dirt trail to follow her; the infrared lights on the vehicle allow the guests to track the leopard without disturbing her hunt.
Klein's Camp, comprised of a series of round buildings perched on a high ridge, affords a sweeping view of Tanzania's northeastern Serengeti. Often you can see giraffe, wildebeest and elephants from the main lounge or from a chair on your patio. Kids receive special packs with wildlife information, and the rangers show kids how the locals make fire by rubbing sticks together as well as how to identify an animal by his or her droppings and foot prints.
6. Tortuga Lodge, Costa Rica
Getting to Tortuga Lodge, accessible only by small plane or boat, is itself an adventure. Take the boat ride one way so you can enjoy the wind-in-your-hair feel of the waterways and spot monkeys, sloths and herons along the way. Tortuga Lodge, located on Costa Rica's northwest Caribbean coast, occupies 146 acres of land within the Tortuguero Conservation Area, a region of canals and slow-moving rivers that reaches to the sea and contains the over 51,000-acre Tortuguero National Park. From the lodge's 26 rooms and penthouse suite, you often wake to the guttural calls of the howler monkeys scrambling in the branches overhead. On canal boat tours see turtles, lizards, river otters, toucans, parrots and other animals.
From July to October, you can go turtle-watching on Tortuguero Beach, part of the national park and an important nesting site for the endangered Atlantic green sea turtles. You will long remember the age-old ritual of a 300-pound Atlantic green sea turtle lumbering ashore, digging a nest, laying her eggs and then slowly returning to the water.
7. J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort, Oahu, HI
Feed and find out about Hawaii's stingrays, sharks and other marine wildlife at the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort during naturalist-led sessions in the property's onsite saltwater ponds and lagoons. At the Reef Shark Feeding, learn about lifecycles, habitats, and identifying factors of the day's star predators, such toothy critters as scalloped hammerhead sharks from Kaneohe Bay, Oahu; gray reef sharks from Molokini, Maui; or iridescent black-tip sharks from reefs near Pearl Harbor, Oahu. The Ray Experience gets you in the water with Hawaiian rays and spotted eagle rays, graceful swimmers that get close enough to brush up against your legs. During the Reef Safari, the guide leads you on a show-and-tell walk through one of the resort's shallow lagoons, letting you touch the "resident" sea cucumbers, sea stars, tiger cowry shells, strawberry crabs, sea hares and maybe even an octopus. The resort, located on the island of Oahu, also offers special versions of the shark feeding and reef safari for children ages 4-10.
An AAA Four Diamond property, the 387-room J. W. Marriott Ihilani Resort is part of the Ko Olina resort area located about 17-miles west of the Honolulu airport. The upscale resort features two pools, five restaurants and lounges, a spa and access to the Ko Olina Golf Club golf course.
8. Occidental Grand Xcaret, Riviera Maya, Mexico
Scarlet macaws, flamingoes, white-tailed deer and parrots, are some of the animals that live at the Occidental Grand Xcaret, a 760-room, all-inclusive resort in the Riviera Maya. The animals make strolling the grounds fun, especially when a parrot greets you with a chirpy "Hola!" To see more Caribbean critters go to popular Xcaret Park, an eco-adventure park adjacent to the resort. The Occidental Grand has its own entrance to Xcaret and the hotel frequently offers discounted park admission.
At Xcaret, get close to sea turtles, meet tapirs, view bats in a cave, admire jaguars and pumas, see manatees and swim with dolphins or sharks, where you'll get an underwater view of a reef with Sea Trek or Snuba (neither of which requires diving certification).
With Xcaret next door, it's easy to come back to the hotel for an afternoon swim and then return to Xcaret for evening entertainment. For more luxury, book a room at the Occidental Grand Xcaret's Royal Club, which has a separate dining room with better food for dinner.
9. South Seas Island Resort, Captiva Island, FL
Discover Florida's sea creatures during a vacation at South Seas Island Resort, Captiva Island. On beach walks, especially along Sunset Beach and South Beach, known for the thousands of shells brought in with the waves, imagine the critters that once inhabited these shells while collecting your own beach souvenirs. On Captiva Island, several easy eco-adventure outings bring you close to wildlife. For more shelling and bird watching, cruise to nearby Cayo Costa Beach, a part of Florida's state park system. On a 90-minute boat cruise through Pine Island Sound, you're likely to spot dolphins arcing through the water "riding" the boat's waves.
Dedicated to marine conservation, the Sanibel Sea School, located at the South Seas Island Resort, offers a variety of hands-on workshops for children, teens, adults and families. The programs range in length of time from 30 minutes to all day. At the one-and-a-half-hour "Creature Feature," kids focus on one sea animal. Budding marine biologists ages 6 to 13, teens and adults can select from more than 30 courses focusing on fiddler crabs, frigate birds, fish, dolphins, mangroves, manatees and more. During the workshops, you'll spend most of the time in the field snorkeling, seining, canoeing and examining finds. Families can also opt for a private session on a topic of their choice. The 330-acre resort, which includes a wildlife sanctuary, offers a variety of accommodations from hotels to two- and three-bedroom condominiums and homes.
10. Robert's Beach Resort, Placencia, Belize
Reefs, rivers and rainforests abound in Belize, a haven for eco-adventures. Robert's Beach Resort, formerly the Inn at Robert's Grove, is situated in Placencia on Belize's southern peninsula. From there, day trips take you to Maya ruins, where you'll see rainforests as well as many of the spectacular reefs that are part of Belize's portion of the second longest barrier reef system in the world. The resort's top-rated PADI dive center arranges both scuba and snorkel outings. On a snorkel outing to Laughing Bird Cave, you'll float above schools of rainbow colored fish and get close to a big sea turtle who languidly surfaces nearby. For a special family getaway, stay overnight at Robert's Caye, the resort's one-acre island, where sea stars and tropical fish are steps away from your beachside hammock.
Robert's Beach Resort stretches on 22 acres from the sea to the lagoon, a large estuary of mangrove-lined channels and wide bays. On boat trips through the lagoon to Monkey River, known for its troop of howlers, you're likely to see egrets, dolphins and even a manatee. In Placencia, choose from hotel rooms as well as one- to three-bedroom units, a few of which have kitchenettes. Robert's Grove Beach Resort won Tripadvisor's Traveller's Choice Award in 2010 as well as Tripadvisor's Certificate of Excellence in 2011.
11. Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, Orlando
Experience a slice of Africa right in Orlando at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, where you'll be immersed in the spirit of Africa from the moment you step foot on the property. The lodge itself features African-inspired architecture including thatched ceilings, large beams and real African artifacts, and the landscape design, with indigenous African shrubs and grasses, resembles the grasslands of the Serengeti. With special alcoves, glass windows and balconies on select guestrooms, you'll be surprised by up-close wildlife at every turn throughout the resort, including a wide variety of exotic animals such as Sable Antelope, Waterbuck, Okapis, Wildebeests, Ostriches, African Spoonbills and Pink-Backed Pelicans that roam free on the 21-acre wildlife preserve. Kids will also enjoy seeing more familiar friends such as Giraffes, Zebras, hogs and birds. A highlight for guests at Animal Kingdom is the Wanyama Safari led by African wildlife specialists. The tour is offered daily, though reservations are required and best made ahead. This is a property where it is worth your dollar for a room with a balcony or at least a view of the surrounding lush tropical savannas.
When you're worn out from the theme park and activities with the animals, take a splash in the two huge pools featuring a zero-entry section and a water slide. Mom and dad will enjoy the two hot tubs and there's a small wading pool for wee little ones. And kids of all ages will enjoy playing at Uwanja Camp, an animal observation site-themed water playground. Simba's Clubhouse, a supervised activity center for children ages 3 to 12, will keep kids busy (for a fee) while parents relax or enjoy a grown-up night on the town. There are three restaurants on property, offering authentic African cuisine as well as kid favorites; Boma is a family-favorite for breakfast.
12. Hilton Waikoloa Village, Hawaii
Touch, feed, play, learn about and swim with dolphins at the beachfront Hilton Waikoloa Village on Hawaii's Big Island, where your family can enjoy a lifetime experience together: Dolphin Quest. The Quest, an hour-and-three-quarter interactive snorkel-and-swim adventure, is a guided sea adventure led by marine mammal experts who teach you about dolphins' interesting and intelligent characteristics, and take you snorkeling to see Hawaiian reef fish and sea turtles. To top it off, kids will get a thrill on a water-scooter ride in the Hilton's own four-acre protected ocean lagoon. Through the Dolphin Quest, kids gain a personal appreciation for taking care of our oceans and its inhabitants, to preserve the well-being of future generations. The program is for ages 10 and up and is limited to five guests per group.
The huge Hilton resort houses 1,240 rooms on 62 acres surrounded by tropical plants and palm trees, and features endless fun activities for families, including three pools with lazy rivers, interactive waterfalls, caves and a 175-foot waterslide. And it doesn't end here -- the resort also features nine restaurants, a spa with children's treatments, hula and aqua-hula lessons, luaus and dinner shows, a half-mile walking trail along the shoreline, boat rides, and Camp Keiki, a kids' camp for children ages 5 to 12 offered both day and night where among other activities kids can explore tidal pools and learn about wildlife.
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