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Six Great Summer Destinations for Families

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Across America, children are eagerly counting down the days until school’s out for the summer. For them, Memorial Day signals “no more teachers, no more books.” For parents like TPG Contributor Kara Williams of The Vacation Gals, though, it means nearly three glorious months of no carpools, homework help, or packing daily lunches—and instead, ample time for making memories and sharing adventures on family vacations.

If you haven’t yet finalized your own summer family vacation plans, this mom of two suggests that you consider these six spots sure to please both kids and adults.

Panning for gemstones at Breck's Summer Fun Park. Photo by Liam Doram, courtesy Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Panning for gemstones at Breck’s Summer Fun Park. Photo by Liam Doran, courtesy Breckenridge Ski Resort.

Breckenridge, Colorado

Ski and snowboard enthusiasts flock to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the winter for their stellar slopes and sublime powder. But locals (like me!) know that Colorado summers bring arid temperatures, sunny skies, and oodles of opportunities for outdoor fun—an ideal time for families to visit the state’s high-altitude hamlets.

While Aspen, Vail and Beaver Creek rank high among my favorite family-friendly Colorado destinations, I’d say the historic town of Breckenridge is best for school-age kids. The town’s ski area features an amazing Summer Fun Park with alpine coaster, alpine slide, zip-line, mini golf, human maze, bouncy house and bungee trampoline. There are also plenty of biking and hiking trails; a well-done interactive museum/visitor center on historic Main Street; and the Country Boy Mine, where families can not only tour the cavernous mining site, but also pan for gold and slide down a super-steep ore chute.

Breckenridge is about 90-minute drive from Denver International Airport (DEN). Consider accommodations at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Breckenridge, where standard rooms start at $183 a night or 40,000 HHonors Points. Or, for lodging with a kitchenette, check out Marriott’s Mountain Valley Lodge at Breckenridge, a Category 8 property with studios starting at $189 or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night (note this lodge has next-door construction going on through summer 2015).

Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Photo by Kara Williams.
Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Photo by Kara Williams.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Escape the heat of summer in the United States by hightailing it across the pond to Edinburgh, Scotland, where average July temperatures reach only 66F. This city filled with incredibly friendly inhabitants offers several attractions for the school-age set: ancient Edinburgh Castle, touristy shops along the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (Her Majesty the Queen’s Scotland residence), and the Edinburgh Zoo, to name a few. Teens can easily summit Arthur’s Seat, a dormant, verdant volcano on the edge of town with a small network of hiking trails, and science enthusiasts need to check out Our Dynamic Earth, which tells the story of the formation of our planet. And if music, theater, art, books or military history are your family’s thing(s), be sure to check out Summer Festival Fun in Edinburgh.

Set right in the heart of things, the Residence Inn Edinburgh has summer rates starting at $179 or 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. Also check out The Points Guy’s review of the Sheraton Edinburgh.

LEGOLAND California is filled with fun rides for young children. Photo by Kara Williams.
LEGOLAND California is filled with fun rides for young children. Photo by Kara Williams.

Carlsbad, California

If you have children under the age of 8 who are obsessed with those wildly popular primary-colored plastic building bricks, LEGOLAND California Resort is the place to visit. This easily navigable park is a haven for young children, as rides are geared toward the preschool and early elementary-school-age set—I’d say best suited for those 3 to 7. Kids can drive LEGO cars, man a working fire truck, ride mellow rollercoasters, get wet in two different water parks, and build with LEGOs to their hearts’ content. Even parents get a kick out of the intricately built Miniland USA, with models of seven areas of the United States (i.e., Las Vegas and New York City), all constructed with 20 million LEGO bricks.

Besides LEGOLAND theme park (where two full days are plenty), visitors to Carlsbad can enjoy seven miles of expansive beaches, and the hands-on Museum of Making Music is worth an hour or two. For more on what to do in the area, see Destination of the Week: Northern San Diego.

Fly into San Diego (SAN) then overnight at the modern Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa, with its own private LEGOLAND entrance. Rates here start at $339 or 10,000 Starpoints per night. Located six miles south of Carlsbad, Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort & Spa has an outdoor ocean view swimming pool and a full-service spa; rates start at $269 or 70,000 HHonors points per night.

Bilbao, Spain, is home to the Guggenheim museum, which has programming just for kids.
Bilbao, Spain, is home to the Guggenheim museum, which has programming just for kids. Photo by Kara Williams.

Coastal Basque Country, Spain

With the favorable dollar, it makes sense to plan a last-minute European family vacation this summer. My (perhaps surprising) pick: the Basque Country coast of Spain. My family spent three days in Bilbao last summer and would suggest it for 1) its wide and expansive area beaches (specifically Pletnzia and Sopelana); 2) the Guggenheim Museum, if you have tweens or teens interested in modern art (or if you have younger children, the next-door playground is an excellent place for them to let off steam); and 3) the fact that children are welcomed in the convivial bars that serve traditional pintxos, or the Basques’ version of tapas. My children (then 12 and 14) had a ball sampling the little pieces of toast and bread topped with meat, seafood, cheese and vegetables—so much so, we now regularly create the yummy little foods at home.

Bilbao Airport (BIO) is the region’s largest airport. Aside from the Holiday Inn Bilbao, which is set in the historical city center and starts at €129 ($139) or 15,000 IHG Rewards per night, the city has a few properties that are part of smaller, European-focused points programs, like the five-star Melia Bilbao ($195+ a night) and the mid-range Hotel NH Deusto Bilbao, which starts at €62 ($67) a night.

When we revisit the Basque Country, I’d like to explore San Sebastián, with its incredibly scenic beach on the bay. The city’s upscale Hotel Maria Cristina, built in 1912, is both historic and grand, with rates starting at €515 ($557) or 25,000 Starpoints per night.

Swim with whale sharks on a family vacation to the Rivera Maya from June through August. Photo courtesy Kara Williams.
Swim with whale sharks on a family vacation to the Rivera Maya from June through August. Photo courtesy Kara Williams.

Riviera Maya, Mexico

I won’t mince words: It’s hot in the summer months along the Riviera Maya, Mexico—a stretch of coast from just south of Cancun to Tulum on the Caribbean Sea. But, it’s also chock full of water-based activities, not only on the ocean, but also in unusual underground rivers (aka cenotes). Beat the heat by snorkeling and paddling through a cenote at one of three ecological water/theme parks: Xplor, Xcaret or Xel-ha. Each has its own personality and varied water- and land-based activities.

Another draw: Summer is the only time of year that whale sharks make their home in the algae-rich waters off of Cancun, and children as young as 5 can actually snorkel with these gentle giants. I count swimming with whale sharks among the most extraordinary adventures my family has ever experienced. Outfitters will conveniently pick you up from your Riviera Maya hotel.

Fly into Cancun (CUN) and head to Cancun’s Hotel Zone, where family-friendly points properties include the AAA-five-diamond JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa (rates starting at $229 or 40,000 points per night) and the adjacent CasaMagna Marriott (starting at $149 or 35,000 points per night).

About a 45-minute drive from Cancun, downtown Playa del Carmen has a new oceanfront Hyatt resort. Accepting reservations for June 1, 2015 and beyond, the brand-new oceanfront Hyatt Playa del Carmen is within short walking distance of the shops and restaurants along La Quinta, Playa del Carmen’s main drag; rates start at $220 or 20,000 Gold Passport points a night.

Serene scene from Maui's Wailea Beach Walkway--a paved oceanfront recreation path, great for walking with a baby stroller. Photo by Kara Williams.
Serene scene from Maui’s Wailea Beach Walkway—a paved oceanfront recreation path, great for walking with a baby stroller. Photo by Kara Williams.

Maui, Hawaii

Honestly, I think families can find fun on any of the Hawaiian Islands, but I have a soft place in my heart for Maui since it’s the first island we visited soon after my daughter was born. When my family returns (someday!) with our now teenage children, I’m keen to take them to Haleakala Crater at about 10,000 feet to watch the sun rise. Also on the agenda: traipsing around lush Iao Valley State Park. Maui offers all of the typical tropical water sports found throughout the islands, including excursions and lessons for snorkeling, surfing, scuba diving and stand-up paddleboarding; and what kid doesn’t like indulging in Hawaiian favorites like chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and shave ice?

Maui’s main airport (OGG) is a straight-shot 30 minutes from the Wailea area, which has a few points-property options.

For upscale accommodations, I recommend the oceanfront Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort. Its Wailea Canyon Activity Pool is every kid’s dream, with rope swing, waterslides, lazy river, and even a water elevator! There’s a lounge just for teens, plus supervised Camp Grande for little ones, and waves are quite gentle in the beach cove. Featured in Nick Ewen’s post on awesome Hilton redemption properties, rates at this Category 10 resort start at $559 or 70,000 HHonors points per night.

Also take a look at The Points Guy’s review of the Andaz Maui at Wailea and see Nick Ewen’s post on great Marriott redemption properties, which includes the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.

Planning to take the family to one of these spots this summer—or somewhere else? We’d love to hear about your plans in the comments below.

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