Active family adventures
Family holidays are becoming about much more than just a beach and a ball, as Andrew Bain discovers.
On the west coast of France, I’m camped with my children beside a monster. Rising more than 100 metres above our tent are the Dune du Pilat, the highest sand dunes in Europe. Take two steps from the tent and we're on them, climbing towards a natural high.
For my kids, the sense of adventure is as substantial as the dunes. This, for them, is holiday happiness: an adventure in the outdoors.
Around the world, the opportunities for such active family adventures are growing. No longer does being little mean you have to miss out when it comes to the outdoors and exploration. Whether you want to trek, mountain bike, raft, mingle with wildlife or scale mighty sand dunes, there are trips and destinations suitable to family travel.
Trekking it out
As a trekking destination, Nepal stands as tall as its mountains, and children need be no impediment to a visit here – indeed, for parents with small children there’s the bonus that local porters can be hired to carry the kids.
You might not want to take your children to the headache-inducing heights of Everest Base Camp, which is 5300 metres above sea level, but there are plenty of lower-level options available. The popular Everest and Annapurna regions will appeal most to families, with regular teahouses and lodges along the trails providing the chance for frequent breaks so you can rest tired little (or big) legs, and to offer options for shorter hiking days.
Around the Everest region, hike to the town of Namche Bazaar, from where there are views of Mt Everest and good options for day walks. In the Annapurnas, trekking through the villages of Ghandruk and Ghorepani will take you to the popular Poon Hill viewpoint and through gnarled rhododendron forests – the sort you expect in a fairy tale. Both of these treks will take you little higher than 3000 metres.
Closer to home, there are short multi-day hikes well suited to families. On Queensland's Hinchinbrook Island, the Thorsborne Trail offers tropical perfection in manageable bites. Most hikers break the 32-kilometre length into four days – only eight kilometres a day – savouring its beaches and waterfalls.
In New Zealand, the private Banks Peninsula Track offers a four-day walk covering just 35 kilometres. This is a great opportunity to see New Zealand’s amazing flora and fauna. There are good chances to see dolphins and fur seals, plus more intimate encounters with penguins as you stroll past their burrows and, at times, watch them nest beneath the very huts in which you sleep.
On your bike or raft or skates
Cycling offers all sorts of opportunities for family travel, but at the Canadian ski resort of Whistler, you can take it a step further with a mountain biking adventure.
Each summer, Whistler’s slopes transform into one of the world’s finest mountain bike parks. A special children’s program, DFX Daily Kids, runs each day through summer. It’s geared towards kids aged six to 12, and teaches the fundamentals and tricks of mountain biking in a safe, controlled and spectacular environment. It’s offered either as a camp program, or just for the day.
In the USA, you can introduce your kids to the thrills of white-water rafting with a family-only trip on the Salmon River. ROW Adventures runs four- to five-day Family Magic rafting journeys on the so-called ‘River of No Return’, paddling in the company of a ‘River Jester’, a specially trained guide entrusted with the job of entertaining the kids with games and walks when out of the raft.
Amsterdam offers the prospect of a winter family adventure without too much icy hardship. At times of deep-winter freeze, the city’s canals ice over, allowing residents and visitors to skate through its maze of waterways. Even if the canals don’t freeze, you can satisfy a skating craving on the frozen pond outside the Rijksmuseum on Museumplein. 02 03 04 adventure 156 volume
Wildlife is a perpetual favourite with kids, but the need to sit still and quiet in a safari vehicle isn't always ideal. The Galapagos Islands present no such dilemma, with animals visible and approachable at almost every step. Giant tortoises, marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies fill the islands, while sea turtles and playful Galapagos sea lions await each time you snorkel. Remind your children that pirates used to visit these islands and you have a sure-fire holiday winner.
As I discovered in France, sand dunes are a reliable source of active entertainment. On the Dune du Pilat, west of Bordeaux, the top of the dunes form a vast, sandy playground set to a backdrop of paragliders over the Atlantic.
Namibia offers even more spectacular dune fun. The red Sossusvlei dunes are among the highest in the world, rising more than 300 metres, and local companies offer sandboarding tours. Some operators take the trudge out of the climb by whisking you back to the top of the dunes on quad bikes.
Adventure-travel companies have recognised the growing interest in active family holidays, with a number of operators now creating a range of trips specifically for families. UTRACKS specialises in active European holidays, and its Mont Blanc Family Walk gives kids the boast of hiking 60 Alpine kilometres while also helping to care for the pack donkeys each day. The Croatia Family Adventure explores the islands of southern Dalmatia by bike, foot or raft, with plenty of swimming options.
Intrepid Adventures’ most popular family trips are in Asia. Its Good Morning Vietnam trip incorporates sailing a junk in Halong Bay with a water-puppet show in Hanoi and a visit to a community-based project providing services to disadvantaged children. Its Borneo Adventure trip ramps up the wild side with soaks in hot springs, camping in a jungle village and a visit to a butterfly farm and rehabilitation centre for orangutans and proboscis monkeys.
Peregrine Adventures’ family trips range across the world. Its East Africa Family Safari goes Big Five spotting through the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, while the Kung Fu Pandas adventure visits a panda research centre and birthplace of kung fu – what more could any little Kung Fu Panda fan want? Click here for more of Peregrine's family tours