Instilling confidence, curiosity, and a love of travel in kids is why parents spend time and money planning the best family vacations possible. Even after the extensive research, the canvassing for recommendations, the hours spent poring over magazines, guidebooks, and websites, a family trip’s success can be shattered by elements beyond parental control: delayed flights, cruddy weather, lost luggage.
Whether it’s a quick weekend getaway or a big-ticket family vacation, control those things you can—starting with where you stay. Choose a hotel that will make your kids fans for life and give them exciting stories to share when someone asks them what they’ve been up to lately. These six kid-friendly hotels offer the kind of smart, fun, and cool amenities for children that can change a good family vacation to a really awesome family vacation.
Chatham Bars Inn, Cape Cod
The success of a vacation at Cape Cod’s Chatham Bars Inn is measured by how much of your time was spent on the water. The resort’s beach sits on a serene cove protected from the Atlantic by a barrier island, so little kids can paddle around by the shore while parents loll on beach loungers watching. The luxury resort maintains a fleet of sailboats, skiffs, and sleek wooden motorboats available to hire. Junior’s first sailing lessons on the legendary waters off Cape Cod? Check. An afternoon spent whale-watching on a 38-foot runabout with the family? Check. A morning’s shuttle run across the cove to North Beach, part of Cape Cod National Seashore, for a day spent picnicking and sunbathing? Check.
One full-bore Yankee experience offered by Chatham Bars Inn is the chance to spend time on the water with a lobsterman. Guests ride along on a morning run on LobStar, a center-console craft in the resort’s fleet, checking traps, hauling in the catch, learning about the other marine life caught along with the lobsters, and then helping bait and reset the traps. And guess what’s on the menu for dinner? Your morning’s haul.
To try another ocean-related job on for size, young science-minded guests can join volunteer researchers from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy on its daily tour of Chatham Harbor aboard the resort’s 29-foot Bar Tender. The scientists collect and log data from shark beacons placed in the water. The data helps the scientists track the current population of great white sharks in the area’s waters, their daily movement, and any predatory behavior toward other marine life.
Stay at Chatham Bars Inn: from $378/night; expedia.com
Montage Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina
Down in the coastal wetlands of Lowcountry South Carolina, Montage Palmetto Bluff offers families an idyllic summer break—staying in a cottage with a breezy front porch, running around barefoot, biking trails through pine forests, taking sunset boat rides through the salt marsh, then walking up to the Main Inn after dinner to make s’mores at the firepit. For younger guests, the resort awards Montage Merit Badges for completing fun activities like climbing up to the tree house, trying archery, or spotting a bald eagle. Kids can go on engaging outings with the conservation staff (the resort and residential community are part of a conservancy dedicated to responsible stewardship of the 20,000-acre property) to identify birds, monitor eagles’ nests, or find the amphibians they can hear croaking and chirping all day.
One genius activity (that Palmetto Bluff stole right from the pages of Tom Sawyer) is to invite teen guests to bike over and help in the gardens. Many middle and high schools require students to log volunteer hours before graduation, and a little time spent harvesting herbs, weeding, or dead-heading flowers in the pollinator garden can count toward that requirement. Along the way, they may learn something about nature and themselves while the garden gets tended. Win/win.
Stay at Montage Palmetto Bluff: from $771/night; expedia.com
The Fife Arms, Scottish Highlands
You know those brisk and happy Balmoral scenes in The Crown? Wherein the Queen and Prince Philip, sporting waxed jackets, tweeds, and boots, tromp across the gloriously heathered hills of the Scottish Highlands or fish for salmon along its gin-clear streams? The Fife Arms is located about 15 minutes away from the royal retreat at Balmoral, and both properties are within the boundaries of Cairngorms National Park, the largest national park in the United Kingdom.
Well-heeled (and Wellie-d) British families have traveled to the Highlands for generations to enjoy the area’s rugged beauty and to get out into nature. The Fife Arms provides an ideal place to rest your head if your people don’t have a little hunting cottage like the Windsors do. The hotel is chockablock with tartans, tweeds, carved wood mantlepieces, antlers mounted on the walls, and some pretty spectacular art (the hotel has a partnership with Hauser & Wirth gallery) with works by the likes of Picasso, Brueghel the Younger, and Louise Bourgeois in the collection.
The Fife Arms also offers a perfect challenge to older kids. This is not a paint-your-own-cereal-bowl activity that lets them know they’re being warehoused with a babysitter while Mum and Dad do a whiskey tasting. Nae, the Braemar Highland Experience takes your wee bairn’s brain into consideration, teaching them lessons they’ll use for life, like map-reading and using a compass. Working with a guide and their newly learned skills, the kids will plot a course through the national park and then follow their own maps to find a treasure. This hotel activity will give them rosy cheeks and instill a love for outdoor life. And you and your royal consort can do a whiskey tasting without thinking twice.
Stay at the Fife Arms: from $1,041/night; thefifearms.com
Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland
The great, wide Atlantic tends to usher a lot of rain into the Emerald Isle, but families flock here anyway, eager to experience the verdant sweeps of land, traffic-causing sheep, and the welcoming locals. Ashford Castle has just the ticket for transforming a drizzly day into something magical. That knock on your suite door heralds the arrival of the staff LEGO butler with a silver tray bearing a castle-themed LEGO kit. (It bears repeating: The hotel has a staff LEGO butler.) The 800-year-old actual castle, once the home of the Guinness family, has other indoor attractions, of course, including a 32-seat movie theater, tons of board games, and abundant opportunities to pretend you live here all the time and wear a crown or a visored metal helmet. (In any kind of weather, the property’s gentle Irish wolfhounds, horseback riding, ropes course, biking, fishing, falconry, 350 acres of forest and field to explore, and a long menu of specialized activities will keep everyone happy.)
Stay at Ashford Castle: from $340/night; expedia.com
Four Seasons Resort Hualālai, Big Island, Hawai‘i
Four Seasons Resort Hualālai has a bit of an advantage on most vacation destinations thanks to its 865 acres of prime Big Island oceanfront. Factor in the calm surf of the Kona coast, scads of Hawaiian beach hotel activities (learn to SUP, paddle an outrigger, take ukulele lessons from a local), and seven (!) swimming pools, and you can basically count on happy guests of all ages. Four Seasons Resort Hualālai, though, manages to elevate the beach vacation experience for families to higher heights with an on-site marine center staffed by six marine biologists. If your kids get excited at a regular field-trip aquarium, imagine one where they can join an ecotour and snorkel around with an expert amid thousands of tropical fish. Imagine their breathless dinner-table conversation after they visit tide pools with a biologist who can point out the octopus camouflaged against the rock or discuss the defenses of a sea urchin.
Stay at Four Seasons Resort Hualālai: from $1,776/night; expedia.com
Kimpton Hotels and Resorts, various U.S. locations
For families that travel, the poststroller years are filled with ambitious plans waylaid by bouts of whining, foot-dragging, and the occasional dramatic full-body collapse onto the museum floor. Parents learn to judiciously schedule gelato breaks into an afternoon or map itineraries with an eye to nearby playgrounds, parks, and beaches.
Families looking to stretch the distance that kids will travel without protest should consider booking a room at a Kimpton Hotel. This past June, the hotel group announced that kid-guests at its 30 participating U.S. properties will be handed the keys to a Micro Kickboard kick scooter for the duration of their stay (and a 20 percent discount rate on the room, to boot). The kick scooters are foldable, lightweight, and come in sizes that suit children from ages 2 to 12. Plus they can change a day’s outing in the city from an exercise in frustration to one of joyous motion.
Try the Kimpton Hotel in Palm Springs: from $129/night; expedia.com
>>Next: The World’s Best Family Hotels