10 Best Vacation Bets for 2011

See recent posts by Carrie Calzaretta

Still trying to decide where to take the family vacation this year? If it’s a dose of inspiration you need, we’ve pulled together some family-friendly vacation ideas that are particularly worthy choices for 2011, in hopes that our suggestions inspire you to dust off the old Samsonite, and maybe even dig out the passports. Some speak to the budget-minded, others to the eco-conscious, and others are just plain, old indulgent fun.

Florida’s Gulf Coast

The devastation from last year’s oil spill wreaked havoc on the environment as well as the tourism industry in the gulf. As Florida’s Gulf Coast continues to rebound, the region’s calm, white beaches, bustling coastal towns and relative affordability make it a great alternative to Orlando’s crowded theme parks and high prices. Many discount airlines, including Frontier, Spirit, Southwest and JetBlue now serve the Gulf Coast.

On the southern coast, Naples, Fort Meyers and Marco Island all offer low-key, relaxing fun for families. A snazzy new children’s museum is scheduled to open its doors in Naples in 2011. The Galisano Children’s Museum will have hands-on interactive exhibits including a Green Construction exhibit, an art studio and gallery, a tree house, and a Journey through the Everglades. Farther north, Clearwater and Tampa are also great options for the whole family. Tampa Bay has Busch Gardens, an aquarium, and a zoo, while Clearwater Beach has a playground, food and souvenir vendors, and free entertainment. The benefit of this area is that it’s relatively close to Orlando (a little over 100 miles), so families who want to visit the Mouse can easily take a day trip or two to Walt Disney World. And on the Panhandle, which recently welcomed a new, international airport, offers quiet, family-friendly beach communities that invite casual leisure like biking, catching a flick on a town lawn, a shell seeking on white-sand beaches.

London, England

What better year to introduce the kids to the history, culture and glitz of London than this, the year of the much-anticipated wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton? While the city is no bargain this year, it’s definitely the place to be. So you’re not likely to get anywhere near the actual ceremony, which will take place on April 29; but you can catch a glimpse of the happy couple in their travels to Westminster Abbey, as they pass by the Mall, Whitehall and Parliament Square. Take the kids to visit Royal Mews of Buckingham Palace to see official wedding carriage, and see the crown jewels at the tower of London.

Royal nuptials aside, London has an amazing array of family-friendly sights. While there, be sure to take the kids for a ride on the London Eye — they’ll be able to see Big Ben and Parliament as they rotate 135 meters into the sky — awesome! (For great views of the London Eye, the Savoy Hotel offers plenty, in a luxurious setting.) Older kids will enjoy a visit to the famous Madame Tusaud’s Wax Museum, and all ages will get a kick out of the double decker bus tour and the changing of the guard. Hyde Park is an excellent place to spend a warm day with the family; there’s a great playground with an enormous ship to climb on, ponds and even a carousel.

Curacao

Curacao’s many, quiet beaches and have always made it an attractive Caribbean destination for families in the know; but lately this new country has been getting more attention than ever. That’s right, it’s a new country. The former Dutch Caribbean island is now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as of October 10, 2010. These recent developments have given rise to new flights, including nonstop service on Continental from Newark, and nonstop from Miami on American, making this little island more accessible than ever. Curacao also has new Hyatt Regency with a kids’ club.

The flavor of Curacao is colorful and unique, and offers the opportunity to introduce kids to several cultures and languages. The heritage is both European and African, and represents more than 50 nationalities. You’ll hear Dutch, Spanish, and English — as well as a local Creole dialect, Papiamentu.

Many of the beaches (there are more than 30) on Curacao are good for families, especially those along the southern coast. Cas Abou has banana boats, tube rides and a water trampoline. Families of young children will love the Curacao Sea Aquarium, while the over-8 crowd should check out the Dolphin Academy, where kids can swim with these amazing creatures.

New York City

The Statue of Liberty turns 125 years old in October, and while it’s technically in N.J., it’s definitely a must-see when visiting the Big Apple with kids. Another popular family attraction, the New York Public Library, celebrates its 100th birthday this year. It’s a marvelous place to spend a rainy afternoon; the Children’s Center at 42nd Street has movies, story hours, and author appearances, as well as the original Winnie the Pooh bear that inspired Christopher Robin Milne to write his beloved stories.

This is a most fitting year to dedicate your hard-earned dollars to the Empire State, as it is the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings. 2011 will see the unveiling of the long-awaited National September 11 Memorial, at the site of the Twin Towers. A visit to ground zero can be a moving, memorable experience for older children who are mature enough to handle this event.

Brooklyn’s Coney Island is expected to complete its much-anticipated (and controversial) $30 million renovation in the summer of 2011. The new Luna Park at Coney Island opened last summer and drew more tourists than the place had seen in nearly 50 years. With plans to add more than 20 new rides and a number of new attractions, the park is returning to its original splendor. Hotel options for families abound, such as the Casablanca Hotel in Times Square, and despite its reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world, deals are there if you look.

Costa Rica

If you’re looking for family resorts with established kids’ programs and supervised activities designed for children, you’ll find destinations with more. So why Costa Rica, and why this year? Families are becoming increasing conscious, not just about how much they’re spending, but also about where their coveted travel dollars are going. Parents looking for an “ethical” destination that’s fun for the whole family will love Costa Rica. At the forefront of the sustainable tourism movement, it’s one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. You’ll find the hotels, like Si Como No and Rafiki Safari Lodge, that go above and beyond to educate guests about conserving natural resources — a great lesson for kids.

While Costa Rica is certainly doable with young kids, older children and teens will get the most out of a visit here. The country’s amazingly diverse and breathtaking landscapes will wow even the most hard-to-impress kids. Visit an active volcano, hike in the rainforest, observe howler monkeys in their natural habitat, or fly down a zip line. Nature reserves abound, including the famous Manuel Antonio National Park, which has hiking trails, beaches for snorkeling, and even surfing lessons for the kids.

Alaska

With its spectacular landscape, breathtaking coastal glaciers and sleepy northern towns, Alaska has always been a fine choice for families, especially those who love nature and the outdoors. And this year there’s another great reason to go: For the first-time ever, Disney Cruise Line will offer Alaskan cruises, from May through August, 2011. The Disney Wonder will depart from Vancouver, BC and sail seven-night itineraries that visit Juneau, Ketchikan, Tracy Arm and Skagway.

Destinations that may have seemed somewhat daunting and tough to tackle with kids become easy and accessible, if a little pricey, with a Disney Cruise. There are exciting and unique shore excursions like a visit to a real dog sled camp in Juneau, where children can help set up the dog sleds, mush their own sled dogs and follow a crew through all their daily activities. For younger kids, there’s a Gold Rush scavenger hunt in Skakway, complete with a visit from Disney characters and an outdoor meal of wild Alaskan-caught salmon. Talk about a vacation to remember.

Riviera Maya

As travel to Mexico continues its slow rebound, you’ll continue to find good deals at family-friendly resorts in the Riviera Maya and Cancun during 2011. The beach resorts in this region are ideal for families: warm year-round, easily accessible, safe, and many are all-inclusive, making them an affordable option. In addition to calm beaches for swimming and snorkeling (you’ll find the second-largest coral reef in the world here) there are eco-adventure parks like Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and Xplor where you can float around in a lagoon, snorkel in underground rivers, ride a zip line or swim with dolphins.

Playa Del Carmen has a clean beach and a long stretch of souvenir shops and restaurants to wander. If you’re traveling with older children, consider a day trip to the Mayan ruins in Tulum or Chichen Itza. While the latter is an ambitious trip, it’s an unforgettable experience. Stick to well-traveled, touristy areas when traveling with the kids.

Charleston, S.C.

If your family hasn’t visited the charming city of Charleston, this is the year to go. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which began April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, in the Charleston harbor. The National Park Service will commemorate the event throughout the year with living history demonstrations, films, concerts and programs at Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, and the Liberty Square Visitor Center in Charleston.

Once the kids have had their fill of U.S. History, there’s plenty of present-day family entertainment around town. Don’t miss the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston Harbor (which has an IMAX next door) or the Children’s Museum of the Low Country in downtown Charleston, which has loads of cool exhibits and activities perfect for kids up to age 12. Older kids and teens will benefit from a visit to The Charleston Museum, American’s first museum. Founded in 1773, you’ll find fascinating artifacts here like slave tags, old weapons from the Civil War. All ages will love the Animal Forest at Charles Town Landing, a natural habitat zoo with puma, bison, alligators, and black bears.

Washington, D.C.

Our nation’s capital has the most outstanding free activities and attractions for families than any other city, and with travel budgets for many stretched thin, this is the perfect year to visit. And we’re not just talking small, hole-in-the-wall sights. Take the family to visit the National Zoo, watch money being made at the National Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or visit the fascinating National Museum of American History, all gratis. The museum’s Spark!Lab, perfect for young inventors, has hands-on activities, science experiments and interactive games to help kids learn about the process of invention.

In August of 2011, a new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., which has been years in the making, will be dedicated on the National Mall. School-aged children won’t want to miss this momentous event, which takes place on the 48th anniversary of King’s “Dream” speech.

Another fun idea for families is the DC Ducks Tour, which is a land and “sea” tour onboard a former World War II amphibious vehicle. You’ll get to see the National Mall, the museums of the Smithsonian, and several monuments before driving into the Potomac River for a quick cruise. Other highlights for kids are the International Spy Museum, and the National Air and Space Museum.

U.S. National Parks

Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” brought these somewhat neglected gems back into the spotlight and reminded us of the importance of maintaining and caring for them. The New National Parks Project is an ambitious plan to complete 100 new and expanded national parks by the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016.

When visiting with kids, consider booking an organized tour, one that works for your family’s ages and interests. Many national parks, including Acadia in Maine and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, offer the Junior Ranger Program, in which children complete a series of activities during their park visit, share their answers with a park ranger, and get an “official” badge and Junior Ranger certificate.

You won’t find babysitting or kiddie yoga at any of America’s national parks; but what you will get is the opportunity to experience some of the most spectacular landscapes and natural wonders the United States have to offer — at a fraction of the cost of staying at that 5-star resort in the Caribbean. And (though you may not want to tell them) your kids might even pick up a little education along the way. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Yosemite, and Redwood National Parks are just a handful of the nearly 400 amazing options to choose from.

For more great family vacations this year, check out:

  • 10 Best Cities for Family Vacations
  • 10 Best Historic Sites for Kids
  • 10 Best Family Beach Resorts
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