This year, for the first time in memory, my family does not have any winter travel planned. I know that doesn’t sound all that shocking, but we are a big travel family. My husband is originally from Key West, so typically every winter we head down to the Keys for a week or so. Yes, it is a very rough thing but the kids need to know their Florida family, so we make the sacrifice. Last year we mixed things up and went to visit my sister in Phoenix, Arizona, which was also a big hit.
But not this year. 2015 was a heavy travel year for us, so we’ve decided to protect our budget a bit and stay put for this winter. We’re (mostly) okay with that decision, especially since the winter so far has been pretty mild, but we will miss getting out and seeing a different part of the country.
We’ll also miss remembering what sunlight feels like on our arms. We’ll miss that, too.
But I know much of Maine will be traveling to warmer locales in the next two months, so I thought it might be helpful to share what we’ve learned about getting some nature into your vacation experience. It’s so easy to surround yourself with nothing but man-made environments when you travel–hotels, pools, amusement parks, zoos–and so often these days all of those places look the same. Having been to both, I can tell you that a zoo in Naples, Florida is remarkably similar to a zoo in Phoenix, Arizona. However, the ecosystems outside the zoos are completely different. What’s the point in traveling if you don’t experience a bit of the landscape?
Here are three steps to making sure you get the most out of your trip to a different place:
Step one: Prep before you go
We always head to the library and gather up some books about our destination. Generally we get one that covers the history and culture of where we are going, one or two that covers the animal and plant life of whatever ecosystem we are headed to, and, if possible, a story based in the area (hint: Native American tales are great for this). Getting your kid thinking about where they are going and excited about what they might see is half the fun. It can also help give you some goals for your trip, like when my son got obsessed with seeing a roadrunner in Arizona and we were able to focus several adventures around that goal.
Step two: Scout your travel
I have found that tourism sites, which are generally supported by member businesses, are notoriously lousy for finding outdoor activity. For example, when I tried to find some examples of trails or other adventures on an Orlando tourism site, the options were all things like indoor go kart tracks and machine gun ranges. Now, maybe that’s what you want out of your family vacation and if so, more power to you. However, if you want to remember that Florida is more than amusement parks and concrete, I recommend the Florida State Parks site, which has lots of great options within a short drive of the amusement hub.
The point is: you might have to dig a little deeper. I always recommend state parks, which typically are well suited for day trips. We also have had good luck with botanical gardens and local preserves, which provide refuge for lots of native species. I have found the forums and reviews on Tripadvisor to be particularly helpful in determining whether a particular spot is family-friendly, has well-maintained trails, and is otherwise worth a visit. Type your location into the search bar and then either select “Outdoor Activities” or “Nature and Parks” to browse some options. For example, again using Orlando as my example, I was able to easily find Tibet-Butler Preserve, a great looking option just a few miles from Disney.
Step three: Record your memories
Any teacher will tell you that writing and drawing an experience is an excellent path to understanding it. We always try to have the kids take some time during the trip to create some visual or written record of their adventures. This can be as simple as picking up a junior ranger booklet from a state park to color or as complex as a full-on travel journal. Whenever the kids in our family visit Arizona, my sister creates a experience called Cactus Camp, which includes a travel journal they fill in with surprise trips, animal identification challenges, and writing prompts. By the end, they have a complete keepsake of their trip. It’s amazing, mostly because I don’t have to do it, and they love to look through it after they get home and relive the trip.
There you have it, three steps to bringing the outdoors into your vacation. But most of all: relax and enjoy your trip. Family travel can be stressful, so slow down, take some time to experience where you are, schedule in some downtime outdoors, and make some memories.
Oh, and one more thing: bring us back t-shirts.