Some vacations are packed with such unique cultural experiences and thrilling adventures that they change how you see the world. Sharing a home-cooked meal with a local family, learning about cultural customs and exploring a country’s natural attractions are enriching opportunities.
Here are three destinations I think will help you create amazing family memories.
You can learn a lot about Thailand by visiting Buddhist temples, royal palaces, vibrant street markets and famous cultural attractions in the capital city of Bangkok. But it would be a shame to take an 18-hour flight and not include a visit to Thailand’s beaches, jungles and sustainable villages in the eastern province of Trat.
In Bangkok, I was in a small tour group led by Tippie, who brought us to famous temples, ruins, Chinatown, street markets and her favorite restaurants. She introduced us to foods such as blue rice topped with coconut cream, and a traditional dessert that looks like colorful cotton candy wrapped in thin bread. Mostly, we traveled in a van, but we also navigated Bangkok’s public transportation, including a skytrain and small open-air taxis called tuk-tuks.
A devout Buddhist, Tippie informed us of proper etiquette when visiting palaces and temples and was quick to correct those committing an offense. “Please kneel or sit with your legs crossed when you’re facing Buddha,” she whispered to a group sitting in a temple with their legs outstretched.
Our itinerary with Tippie also included the Grand Palace, a complex of buildings serving as the official residence of Thai kings since 1782; and the Wat Pho royal monastery and temple with its famous 150-foot long reclining Buddha.
We also visited the nearby city of Ayurthaya, Thailand’s former capital, where we explored Bank Pa – In Palace and the ruins of temples from the Siamese kingdom, and enjoyed sightseeing on the Chao Phraya River Cruise.
A fun place to shop is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. You ride a speedboat through canals dotted with homes and shrines, then climb into narrow boats to reach waterfront merchants selling locally made toys, clothing, silks, art and other goods. I paid about $40 for six small elephant-print purses and two shawls. About 10 minutes from the floating market is Elephant Village where you can ride elephants for 30 minutes through a jungle. Tippie assured us that the money spent on riding elephants is used for food and medicine for the animals.
Our itinerary in Trat, an hour flight from Bangkok on Thailand’s east coast, included three unique ecotourist villages.
Our first stop was the Ban Nam Chiao Ecotourism Community where Buddhists and Muslims coexist harmoniously along a scenic canal with colorful fishing boats. In a large, open-air community space, locals taught us to write our names in Thai (mine was Mah-Nee) and how to make kao griab ya-nah (rice chips topped with shrimp paste) and tangme krop, a stick-shaped crispy caramel. We rode in small fishing boats in the Nam Chiao canal to watch local teens scoop up tongue shell, a delicacy typically used in soup. We also planted small trees at a nearby mangrove. Back on land, we peddled bicycles on dirt roads through the rustic village, stopping at one home to learn how to weave traditional ngop hats from atap palm leaves.
The second village we visited was the Chong Changtune Live Eco-Museum, where we made fresh herbal balm to take home and were pampered with mini Thai massages. The most unique was a chicken coop herbal steam, originally designed to purge impurities after childbirth. We sat inside a steamy basket with just an opening for our heads. Lunch was served family-style with platters of banana stalk curry, fish, rice and fruit. Afterward, we rode salengers (a motorbike with an attached passenger cart) to the Klong Ang River, where a Chong woman showed us how to pan for Siamese rubies in the riverbed.
The last of the three villages we visited was the Huai Raeng Ecotourism Group, on the banks of the Khlong Huai Raeng River. The community is called Land of Three Waters for the combination of fresh, brackish and salt water nearby. We made small lunch packs from betel leaves that we stuffed with rice and chopped veggies, and saw demonstrations of mangosteen rind soap and coconut oil making. The soaps and oils are sold at modest prices and make good souvenirs.
If hiking a volcano, rafting down a river and zip lining through a rainforest sound like fun, then Costa Rica is for you. Our journey started in the capital city of San Jose, in the Central Valley region, and ended in Liberia, in the Guanacaste region. In San Jose, on our two-day rafting trip down the Pacuare River, our guide, Rey Vargas, showed us the correct way to sit on top of the raft and paddle through class III and IV rapids. When sections of the river became more technical and rapids especially strong, Vargas instructed us to sit inside the raft and hold on tight while he did all the paddling as water gushed over us.
The next morning, we paddled past stunning waterfalls. Where the river was placid, Vargas told us to stand on the raft’s edge, hold hands and take a step to the right. Soon we fell laughing into the water and floated between towering canyon walls. “Notice none of the locals are in the water with you?” teased Vargas.
Two days of paddling helped prepare us for hiking in Arenal Volcano National Park, home to the active Arenal and the dormant Cerro Chato volcanoes, and La Fortuna waterfall. The popular, half-day Cerro Chato hike is strenuous but worth the climb through the lush rainforest. “Look at this blue-jean frog,” said Vargas, pointing to a tiny frog with a red head and blue legs. After a day of hiking, it was soothing to soak in warm spring-fed pools at the Arenal Paraiso Resort and Spa.
Zip line tours are a signature Costa Rican activity. The Blue River Resort (www.blueriverresort.com), located on the north side of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, offers an exhilarating nine-line zip tour through a forest and over a river and waterfalls. At the end, there’s an optional Tarzan swing. Still harnessed, we climbed a high platform, held onto a long rope and jumped, dangling back and forth over a river. “I did not think she would do it,” I heard Vargas say on my video.
The tropical-themed Blue River Resort in the Alajuela province bordering Nicaragua has four natural hot spring pools, a freshwater pool with a water slide and botanical gardens, including a blue morph butterfly garden. Especially fun was a mud bath followed by a soak in the hot springs.
Our last stop was at a beach in the Guanacaste region in the Papagayo Peninsula. We had day use of the facilities and beach at the Casa Conde del Mar, a beautiful oceanfront resort. After an elaborate lunch buffet, we lounged at the beach, enjoying the calm water, and on a natural high from our exhilarating visit to Costa Rica.
My first glimpse of Bermuda was the azure blue ocean and white frilly waves dancing on pink-hued sand, giving the beach a freshly scrubbed look. With ocean water so clear, it’s no wonder people come from all over the world to explore Bermuda’s reefs and 300-plus shipwrecks. There’s also a network of caves.
A sense of mystique permeates Bermuda partly because of the Bermuda Triangle (Florida and Puerto Rico form the other two vertices). “There’s a misconception that Bermuda is in the Caribbean, and that it’s for newlyweds and those nearly dead,” laughs Bermudian Jill Dill.
As we drove on narrow roads past homes and buildings with white, cone-shaped roofs, tour guide Larry Rogers explained that the only source of fresh water in Bermuda is rainfall, collected on roofs and piped down to tanks.
At Grotto Bay Beach Resort, the resort’s general manager showed me two onsite caves. Prospero’s Cave is open for swimming, and Natura Cave Spa has massage tables near cave pools so you can hear soothing dripping sounds during your treatment. Walking distance from the resort are more caves nestled in the 12-acre Tom Moore’s Jungle, also known as The Walsingham Nature Reserve. Longtail Tours Guide Lynn Thorne led us to jungle lagoons, caves and a sheltered beach. “Mangroves are integral to protection from coastal erosion,” said Thorne. She plucked New Zealand spinach, allspice and rouge plants for us to taste, and we took a dip in the Walsingham Cave.
Near the jungle is Crystal Caves, a major tourist attraction only accessible on 30-minute guided tours. Mark Twain was among the cave’s first visitors after it was discovered by two boys playing cricket in 1907. Visitors walk on floating pontoon pathways to see fascinating formations with names like Grinch and Lighthouse. “Kids’ imaginations are outstanding,” said tour guide Mike Musson. “Some see SpongeBob SquarePants features like the pineapple and Squidward’s house,” he said.
Situated on Bermuda’s east end is the Town of St. George, first inhabited by shipwrecked survivors of the Jamestown-bound Sea Venture in 1609. A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site is a step back in time. Buildings are painted in bright blue, pink and green, and narrow streets wind through the 18th century homes, colonial landmarks, shops and restaurants. Kings Square, the pretty waterfront, is center stage for humorous historical re-enactments of public punishment in 17th and 18th century Bermuda. During the interactive show, a “wench” is dunked in the bay. On the day we visited, the town crier (wearing a kilt and white knee socks) stood watch during a funeral service at St. Peter’s Church, the oldest operating Anglican Church outside the British isles.
In contrast, the capital city of Hamilton has upscale shops, fine restaurants, art galleries and museums. The Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute features interactive exhibits about shipwrecks and sunken treasures. Displays include coins encrusted with coral, gold toothpicks, belt buckles and china. Another kid-friendly attraction is the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, containing interactive exhibits about the island’s formation.
Enroute to see a shipwreck in Daniel’s Head on the west end, we visited the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, one of the oldest cast iron lighthouses in the world. The 185 steps lead to the top platform for expansive views. From there it’s a short drive to Crystal Clear Kayaks. Guided tours start in the bay, home to numerous sea turtles, and, unless it’s too windy, you can paddle to the Vixen shipwreck.
Nearby, the Royal Navy Dockyard is a fun place to peruse shops, grab a bite to eat, ride a ferry, and putt a round at Bermuda Fun Golf. On my last day in Bermuda, I explored rural landscapes and empty beaches on horseback with a Spicelands Equestrian Centre guide.
Places to Stay
Bangkok: The downtown, contemporary Pathumwan Princess Hotel (www.pprincess.com) is conveniently located adjacent to the MBK Center, an eight-story mall with about 2,000 shops, restaurants, ATM machines and currency exchange facilities.
Trat: Hotel Toscana Trad (www.hoteltoscanatrad.com), a 29-room Tuscany-style hotel, has a pool, free WiFi and air-conditioning.
San Jose Costa Rica: At Rios Tropicales Eco-Lodge (www.riostropicales.com) in the jungle, we walked on a suspension bridge and swam in a natural pool under a waterfall.
Blue River Resort (www.blueriverresort.com)
Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa (www.arenalparaiso.com)
Bermuda: Grotto Bay Beach Resort (www.grottobay.com) offers a wealth of caves to explore.
Bangkok: Trikaya Travel, (www.trikayatours.com) customizes tours peppered with fun facts. For example, Thai people ask “Where are you going?” instead of “How are you?”
Trat: Local Alike (www.localalike.com) partners with villages to offer programs that immerse travelers in Thai culture and customs while generating income for locals. Visitors can stay in homestays or hotels.
San Jose Costa Rica: Rios Tropicales (www.riostropicales.com) organizes rafting, hiking, biking and kayak experiences, some specifically for families.
Bermuda: The tour guides I met in Bermuda did not have websites, and were most easily reached through email. They included Lynn Thorne (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Larry Rogers (email@example.com).
Mimi Slawoff is a mom of three who writes about travel and family fun.