From gladiator training to mangrove restoration, these family hotels take kids’ activities to the next level

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As much as travel offers a chance to disconnect — for adults, it’s a respite from the grind of work, and for kids, it can be a break from sitting in a classroom — vacations are also an opportunity to use our brains in new ways. Especially for little ones who are like sponges, there’s so much to be gained from learning new skills or indulging novel interests in an unfamiliar setting.

Some hotels and resorts, ranging from tropical getaways to art-filled cities, around the globe have created innovative, kid-focused programming that’s culturally immersive or offers deep engagement with the environment. 

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These are not your standard kids clubs, or even just exemplary ones; they’re full-on next level. From sessions on sustainability and the complex workings of unique ecosystems to lively history and language lessons, these eight family hotels can captivate almost any young mind — even the ones who are stoked that school is out for summer.

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(Photo courtesy of Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort)

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Fiji

With the Bula Club’s diverse offerings, children visiting the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort will quickly realize Fiji is quite different from other tropical islands thanks to activities including lessons on the Fijian language, making spears and planting traditional crops. Many activities also revolve around Fiji’s deep-rooted maritime cultural heritage. The School Under the Sea is geared toward ages 6 to 12 and includes sessions throughout the day peppered into family snorkeling trips, such as reef ecosystem walks and preservation talks, coral and mangrove planting, reef search and rescue mapping and one called “A Drop in the Ocean,” which involves learning eco-friendly practices for water conservation.

There are presentations by marine biologists and a graduation night at the end of the week. For shorter trips, the on-site marine biologist, Johnny Singh, offers Friday afternoon “Connect with Kids” programs where children participate firsthand in the curriculum at a local elementary school, practicing language games, playing sports and trying Fijian cuisine alongside a local buddy of their own age.

Room rates are $960 per night.

(Photo courtesy of Desa Potato Head)

Desa Potato Head, Bali, Indonesia

Created and led by Balinese environmental champion Dewa Legawa, the Sweet Potato Kids workshop each Sunday afternoon at Desa Potato Head is an extension of the “good times, do good” ethos at this creative village that comprises two distinctive design hotels. Each week highlights a unique activity that relates to traditions of the island as well as a regenerative attitude that might inspire future change-makers. Kids construct kites — considered by some to be sacred religious vessels for sending messages or gratitude to the Hindu gods — from bamboo and paper, then fly them as locals do.

Workshops tap into creativity by using natural materials: think drawing with seeds, painting with sustainable plant-based pigments and making small outrigger boats out of coconut shells to sail in the pool. In addition, kids can create beaded bracelets with the leftover recycled plastic material Potato Head uses to make chairs and other guest amenities, learning how not to waste a single item.

Rates for Potato Head Studios start at  $182 per night (including taxes and breakfast); Potato Head Suites start at  $290 per night (including taxes and breakfast).

(Photo courtesy of Hotel Eden)

Hotel Eden, Rome

Rome’s long history comes to life via the elegant Hotel Eden’s captivating kids programming, in partnership with Imago Artis, a luxury tour operator. There are ways for every small person to connect with the Eternal City’s various eras. The Little Gladiator Experience ($210 for one child, $316 for two), for example, takes children ages 7 and older back in time at an ancient arena that resembles the Colosseum, where they learn gladiatura, or the life of the gladiator, by trying on armor, checking out ancient weapons and learning Roman fighting skills, history and the secrets of the games.

Alternately, with Little Artist ($263 for one child, $316 for two), youngsters can visit an artist’s studio and learn from a Roman maestro about sculpture, painting, pottery or mosaic, spending the afternoon making a memento either in the studio or outdoors in one of the city’s leafy parks. Older teens might focus on recreating a masterpiece of Bernini or Michelangelo.

Hotel rates start at $827 per night.

(Photo courtesy of Six Senses Ninh Van Bay)

Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, Vietnam

The team at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay was busy during the pandemic dreaming up not only an all-new kids club, Vooc Village, which boasts toys, play equipment and decor made only of natural materials (think a ball pit with fabric instead of balls) as well as an immersive Climate Warrior program that has now rolled out across the brand.

From cultivating coral fragments that will help regrow nearby reefs and planting a tree at the resort’s fruit farm to games and experiments in the Earth Lab and baking plant-based meals in a solar cooker, visiting children should find plenty to keep them occupied. Beyond giving the next generation active ways to think about climate change, there are fascinating cultural options for little ones, too, including making bamboo wind chimes and herbal compresses, learning about Vietnamese music, playing traditional games and crafting colorful paper lanterns.

Rates currently start at $896 per night.

Cultural activities for kids abound at the Four Seasons Hualalai in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai)

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, Hawaii

Between its Kumu Kai Marine Center and the aquarium-like King’s Pond, which is staffed by marine biologists, and the Kaupulehu Cultural Center, Four Seasons Hualalai on the Island of Hawaii has a full array of ways for kids to gain a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s unique ecology and cultural legacy.

At the cultural center, children are exposed to unique skills such as feather tying to create artificial flowers, Hawaiian quilting of applique pot holders and pandanus leaf weaving. There are all-ages storytelling sessions that share Hawaiian oral history, oli chants and how ancient Hawaiians used indigenous plants. At King’s Pond, even the littlest travelers can participate (accompanied by an adult) in feeding fish as well as the resident spotted eagle ray, and even feeling creatures in the Touch Tank.

There are also paid excursions, such as a tidepool walk and a fishing “derby” that aims to rid the local fish ponds of invasive species. Kids 12 and older can even shadow a marine life specialist, learning how to collect and record data.

Room rates currently start at $1,100 per night.

(Photo courtesy of Six Senses Douro Valley)

Six Senses Douro Valley, Portugal

The hands-on Grow With Six Senses kids offerings at the bucolic Six Senses Douro Valley in Portugal’s wine country now include the Climate Warriors program, including education about climate change, various Earth Lab experiments and learning about solutions like composting and upcycling.

In learning the importance of endemic flowers and pollination, kids make and throw seed bombs of clay, soil and seeds, and play recycling games that clarify confusing practices like what to do with batteries. There are lessons on composting and the science of organic gardening, too. This programming is complimentary for guests staying three nights or more.

Room rates start at $421 per night.

(Photo courtesy of Amanyara)

Amanyara, Turks and Caicos

The spectacular natural beauty that makes Turks and Caicos such an appealing destination for adults holds wondrous lessons for kids, too. In partnership with Miami’s Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, Amanyara offers a lineup of SEEK — Science Explorers and Environmental Keepers — camps priced at $95 per child per day. The camp for ages 5-14 is led by Frost-affiliated educators and geared toward cultivating a generation of conservationists.

The “Coastal Conservation” program includes kayaking or hiking through mangroves, building a coastline model and inspecting sand and plants under a microscope. The “Reef Rescue” program takes kids snorkeling through Northwest Point National Park’s diverse coral formations where they might spot turtles, rays and fish. They can take what they learn to develop their own “Save the Reef” campaign. The third camp theme is “Sun, Moon and Stars,” in which tykes go stargazing, map out constellations and learn about spectroscopy as well as make moon models and learn how to use light to search for life on other planets. Bespoke private camps are also available.

Rates currently start at $3,000 per night.

Learning about baby alligators with a Kiawah Island Golf Resort naturalist. (Photo courtesy of The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort)

The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina

The Junior Naturalists program at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in the South Carolina Lowcountry celebrates the very unique environmental features surrounding the hotel, which include salt marshes, tidal creeks, maritime forests, brackish ponds, dunes and the Atlantic Ocean. Adult naturalists guide four different classes ($30 per child per class), which mix hands-on activities with in-the-field exploration outside.

Parents who are intrigued can participate in their own sessions including birding, wildlife photography and so-called “gator walks.” Kids observe and learn why alligators bask in the sun and learn to identify different sea turtle species nesting on the island’s beaches in the herpetology session. The marsh discovery activity has them using dip nets to find grass shrimp, sponges and sea squirts in creek beds while understanding the roles they play in the ecosystem. Other activities where kids learn about bird and insect species or hike through the surrounding forest are also ways to keep your kids active during a stay here.

Room rates start at $640 per night.

Featured photo courtesy of Desa Potato Head.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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