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When you think of Tuscany, you envision a romantic week of dining and wine tasting in picturesque hill towns or a culture crawl through the museums of Florence — a trip, in other words, without kids. But there is a little-known area of Tuscany that’s perfect for an Italian-style family adventure.
Known for its craggy mountains, deep green forests and tumbling rivers, Tuscany’s northwestern region of Garfagnana is rich with possibilities for family fun, from river rafting and mountain biking to horseback riding and cave exploration. The medieval walled villages of Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana have enough towers and parapets to delight any would-be prince or princess, while nearby Lucca is renowned for its food and for the steady stream of music festivals and cultural events throughout the spring and summer.
How to Get There
Italy’s Pisa International Airport (PSA) is the closest airport to Barga — about 44 miles. More than a dozen airlines fly to PSA, among them Oneworld members American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and Qatar; SkyTeam members Delta, Alitalia and KLM and Star Alliance partners United, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and SAS. Here is a guide to using miles to fly to Europe. If you are starting in another part of Italy, here is a specific mileage guide to Milan and another for Rome.
Where to Stay on Points
Make your home base at the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco, set in a 1,700-acre estate overlooking the picturesque village of Barga, 1,345 feet up in the foothills of the Tuscan Apennine mountains. It’s a Category 4 property with redemptions starting at 25,000 Marriott points per night. However, you may need to book two rooms to house your family. (Rooms either have a king bed or two twins and book early as award rooms sell out.)
Consider picking up one of Marriott’s new cobranded credit cards offering 100k welcome bonuses after completing the minimum spend. Both the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card and Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card offer 100,000 welcome points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months after opening an account. The Amex limited-time offer runs until April 24 and the Chase-issued offer on a Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card is available until May 2.
One of the only points hotels in the region, the Renaissance Tuscany welcomes families with a wealth of helpful amenities, including a playground and free cribs and toddler beds. In-room babysitting and on-site child care are available at an additional charge. Another draw is the hotel’s lavish breakfast buffet, so extensive that breakfast could become your main meal of the day if Tuscan dinners didn’t await you.
The pool has a wide sunny pool deck overlooking the valley. There’s also a heated indoor pool, a well-outfitted gym and a spa featuring steam rooms and jacuzzi.
What to Do
Nearby Barga is one of Tuscany’s hidden gems, regularly listed as one of the country’s most beautiful and historic towns.
On a recent trip, we enjoyed wandering its narrow cobblestone alleys, popping in and out of bakeries and shops and climbing to the cathedral, perched high on a hill above the town. Considered one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Italy, it has spectacular views of the Serchio Valley.
Adventurous kids will love the rafting trips led by outfitter e20Avventure, which range from relaxing float trips to ambitious rapids. Choose the first option and you’ll pass under the 11th-century Ponte della Maddalena, its high stone arches considered a marvel of early-medieval architecture. Its nickname, Ponte al Diavolo, comes from a local legend about outsmarting the devil; kids will enjoy hearing the tale. Choose the more adventurous option, and you’ll start your trip in the stone-walled riverside village of Bagni di Lucca, known since Roman times for its thermal springs. (River rafting trips cost between $35 and $45 per person, with no age restrictions.)
Another nearby must-visit is the Grotta del Vento, or Wind Cave, where you’ll tour limestone caverns swirling with gleaming alabaster formations and bedecked with huge, toothlike stalactites. (Cave tour prices range from $10–$23 for adults and $8–$18 for kids 10 and under.) Thrill-seekers have even more adventurous options, including a zip line that soars above the Lima River gorge ($25 for adults and $18 for kids 10–17; not recommended for children younger than 10), paragliding over the mountains of Garfagnana ($120–$160 per person, recommended for 12 and up) or guided trail rides with Lucca Horseriding (a one-hour tour costs about $30 per person; same price for adults and children and kids must be at least 7 years old to ride).
In Lucca, 45 minutes away, you can ride bikes atop the city’s Renaissance-era walls of fortification, climb to the top of 125-foot Guinigi Tower and listen to live music throughout town in sunny plazas surrounded by cafes. (Expect to pay about $20 for a full-day bike rental.) And of course Pisa, also 45 minutes away, has its famed leaning tower. Join a group tour, book a private guide or explore on your own. Admission is about $20 per person.
The Renaissance hotel itself has plenty to entertain kids, including a chef-taught cooking lesson in which they’ll learn to make authentic Italian pizza, accompanied by traditional Italian desserts. Parents and older kids may prefer the Day with the Chef experience, which includes a trip to Barga’s outdoor farmers’ market to shop for ingredients for whipping up a sumptuous meal.
While Marriott points are a great option for the hotel, we paid for all other expenses on the trip with our Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which we value for its simple purchase-eraser function. If you didn’t have Marriott points available, you could also use the Venture Rewards card’s 10x earning rate at Hotels.com (when booked and paid with your Venture card via Hotels.com/venture) to book the Renaissance Tuscany, assuming you don’t mind not earning Marriott points on your stay with a third-party booking.
Italy is an ideal destination for a family trip but look beyond Rome and Florence to the country’s hidden towns and villages. Even an entire trip devoted to exploring Tuscany can yield a big payout in memorable moments.
Headed to Italy? Here’s some more advice:
- 5 Great Family Summer Camps in the USA
- Destination of the Week: Florence
- Planning a Family Vacation to Italy: Agriturismo
- 5 Foods You Must Try in Florence, Italy
- 6 Reasons to Visit Florence, Italy
- This Tuscan Island Only Admits 1,000 Visitors Per Year
- These Are the Best Times to Visit Italy
Featured image by author.
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