My, how times have changed since the writer Robert Benchley said that "there are two classes of travel: first class and with children." In recent years cookie-cutter accommodations, endless chicken fingers, and ubiquitous water slides have given way to a superlative array of vacation choices for parents who want family time and creature comforts in equal measure.
, from the turquoise waters of Indonesia to the far reaches of the Arctic Circle, for everyone in your tribe (even Grandma). So scuttle plans for that all-too-familiar 27,000-acre theme park in central Florida and head instead to a 37,000-acre dude ranch in A River Runs Through It territory. Or sip a frozen daiquiri in a winter wonderland on par with Elsa's kingdom in Frozen. Let the memories begin!
River Maya: The Five-Star Fiesta
Mexico is no stranger to kid-friendly properties, but most are as distinctive as the grains of sand onto which they're crammed. Enter Zach Rabinor of , who arranges exotic, adrenaline-fueled family trips for everyone from billionaires to mere mortals. Our suggestion: Have him plan a vacation to the Riviera Maya. Why? In part because it's a snap to reach from most major U.S. cities, which is no small matter when you're traveling with kids. Then there are the one-of-a-kind experiences he can pull together: spelunking in caves held sacred by the ancient Maya, snorkeling with 600-pound manatees, even parachuting to your villa. Too adventurous? There are also private catamaran excursions, lunch on a lovely stretch of beach off limits to the public, and dips in secret cenotes. Depending on your preferences, he may book you at Nizuc, a resort on the former estate of the president of Mexico that has a spectacular spa and a kids club. Or, if your pockets are deep enough, splurge on Casa Naiik and Casa Ikal, side-by-side beachfront villas in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve with four bedrooms apiece—enough space to include that uncle you stopped talking to last Thanksgiving.
Best ages: Five and up.
When to go: Midwinter vacation, for beautiful weather and smaller crowds than at Christmas.
Getting there: Many U.S. cities offer direct flights to Cancún; then it's just 15 minutes to Nizuc.
Wow moment: On a private tour of Tulum before opening hours, wondering how the Maya could have built such astonishing structures without the wheel.
Bonus for kids: Minecraft skills will improve dramatically after seeing the real deal at Tulum and Chichen Itza.
To book: Contact Zach Rabinor of Journey Mexico ([email protected], 800-513-1587).
Cost: From $700 per person per day for a family of four, all inclusive.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE ...
For a taste of 21st-century Mayan culture, check into the Yucatan's first destination spa, on 750 forested acres near Mérida. Everything from the decor to the organic cuisine to the spa treatments nods to the past—the pleasantest ancient history lesson ever. For you: two spa suites dramatically situated within the resort's cenote, and the world's largest tequila collection. For the kids: Minionese a little passé? Sign them up for a Mayan language lesson.
Finish Lapland: The Five-Star Teepee
For the ultimate in cool — as in 35 degrees below zero — pack your thermals and fly to Finnish Lapland to see the Northern Lights. The company is offering teepee accommodations that, while not quite up to glamping standards, are remarkable given the harshness of the Arctic terrain. Even more unusual: They're movable and can be pitched far from city lights, increasing your odds of viewing the elusive night show. Each is outfitted with two twin or double beds and comes with butler service, a private chef who whips up eight-course meals that might feature juniper-smoked local game, and heat (thank God), so you'll be well fed and warm as you and the kids huddle to watch the inky sky start to dance in waves of otherworldly color. Come daylight, there are wood-fired saunas, reindeer sleigh rides, husky sled safaris, and snowmobile excursions over the tundra. And if the thought of sleeping in an ersatz reindeer herder's tent leaves you, um, a little cold, you can choose one of Luxury Action's Christmas Chalets, which have a fir tree in the living room, holiday decorations galore, a chef who bakes gingerbread cookies with the kids, and, of course, Santa. "Lapland is the last remaining wilderness in mainland Europe," says Luxury Action CEO Janne Honkanen. "Our superfoods come from there. We have the Northern Lights, we have darkness, we have silence. Those are the elements we are rich in."
Best ages: Five and up. Nappies and subzero temperatures, we're told, are something you don't want to combine.
When to go: Christmas or midwinter vacation, to catch the light show.
Getting there: From Helsinki it's a 75-minute flight to Luxury Action's terminal at Rovaniemi Airport.
Wow moment: Mush across the ice, then work out the kinks by repeatedly hopping between icy lake and wood-fired sauna.
Bonus for parents: Frozen souvenir choices are minimal, since Elsa comes from Norway.
To book: Contact Janne Honkanen of Luxury Action ([email protected], 358-44-5151-796).
Cost:Five nights, from $14,940 per person (two nights in a teepee, two in a wilderness lodge, and one in Rovaniemi).
WHILE YOU'RE THERE ...
Just 135 miles from the Russian border, Helsinki, Finland's under-the-radar capital, is a quirky East-meets-West charmer with food and architecture to match. Even in the depths of winter the focus is on the outdoors, with residents strolling the frozen Baltic and swimming in open-air pools — heated and not. For you: The luxe is in the middle of the city's best shopping district. For the kids: An ice rink with rental skates is a snowball's throw from the hotel.
Africa By Private Jet: The Five-Star Safari
Remember the flight scene in Out of Africa where Kenya's savanna landscapes unfold in frame after exquisite frame for three solid minutes? You won't be in a biplane — this is, after all, a family vacation — but the thrill of viewing Africa from the sky has become a lot easier to attain thanks to 's new Private Jet Excursions. What sets these trips apart from most other safari-by-air offerings is that the company uses aircraft that carry just six to 12 passengers, which means it's pretty easy to take over the entire plane and customize your route down to the very last detail. If your daughter wants to save endangered rhinos, you can fly to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where she might tag them with an ankle collar or aerially track them via telemetry. If your son fancies gorillas, off you'll go to Rwanda. There are plenty of sundowners in the meantime (mocktails for the kids), even when the sun is blazing. Most nights you'll be bunking down at one of the company's lodges, which are known for combining understated luxury with serious conservation efforts. Like Karen Blixen, you'll be thinking, "Here I am, where I ought to be."
Best ages: 12 and up, as some activities are not available for younger children.
When to go: Summer vacation for southern Africa; midwinter vacation for East Africa.
Getting there: Starting points are usually Nairobi, Cape Town, or Johannesburg.
Wow moment: Leaving the past behind during your helicopter flight to Cape Town after a tour of Robben Island with Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned there for 18 years.
Bonus for parents: There's only so much Snapchatting kids can do on a small private plane.
To book: Contact Sharleen Smith ([email protected]).
Cost: Price on request.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE...
, an 11-suite Tuscan-style villa filled with antiques, oversize chandeliers, and Persian rugs, is a great base for exploring the vineyards and historic towns of the Cape Winelands, South Africa's culinary capital. (Families with children under 10 stay at nearby Vineyard Suites.) For you: The huge bathrooms alone are reason enough to go. For the kids: Frequent guest Elton John's over-the-top bedroom is downright goals (translation: awesome).
Indonesia: The Five-Star Sea Voyage
One of the most beautiful superyachts to launch in recent years, the also happens to be ideal for families. With just seven staterooms, 18 crew members (who can babysit if your nanny can't make it), and, most important, gunwales high enough to keep the kids from falling overboard, the teak and ironwood ship slips among the 17,000 islands that comprise Indonesia, making stops at remote villages, secluded coves, and Raja Ampat, the richest coral reef on earth. Owner Mark Robba spent nearly eight years building the $7 million boat primarily as a floating pleasure palace for his family. The result: a showcase of craftsmanship and practicality, from the intricately carved window latches and Balinese-inspired interiors to the expansive galley, where families can hang out. In addition to a slew of water sports equipment (jet skis, kayaks, paddleboards, scuba gear), there's an onboard dive master and plenty of beach toys — though plastic pails and shovels may be greeted with puzzled looks from the friendly seaweed farmers onshore, most of whom have had little contact with the outside world. The two chefs can prepare almost anything, from nasi goreng for the kids to sashimi made from the tuna you caught earlier in the day. Then it's off to bed under soft bamboo sheets, and dreams of where those maroon sails will be taking you tomorrow.
Best ages: One to 101.
When to go: Summer vacation for Komodo; Christmas vacation for Raja Ampat.
Getting there: It's a killer, but it's worth it. Komodo: 80 minutes by air from Bali. Raja Ampat: one to two days by air from Bali due to infrequent connecting flights.
Wow moment: Locking eyes with a 150-pound Komodo dragon, the heaviest lizard on earth.
Bonus for parents: The poop deck is not what you think (it's for lounging in the sun).
To book: Contact Ashton Palmer of Expedition Trips ([email protected], 877-412-8527).
Cost: From $87,500 per week for up to 14 people.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE ...
Spend a few days at , the thatch-roofed resort owned by Chris Burch (Tory's ex) on the island of Sumba. For you: barefoot chic that lives up to the hype and a nearly deserted 1.5-mile beach. For the kids: making chocolate and a terrific lefthand surf break to hang 10 on. For everyone: the sweet Sumbanese staff. Plus, a portion of the profits goes to the Sumba Foundation, which has set up medical clinics, water stations, and a children's malnutrition program.
Big Sky Country: The Five-Star Dude Ranch
Shortly after Larry Lipson coined the term glamping in 2005 to describe , his new 37,000-acre ultraluxe dude ranch in Montana, the term—and buzz about the resort — spread faster than a mountain wildfire. Eleven years later, city slickers and megastars alike continue to flock to this West of their dreams, drawn by the rustic-chic interiors and overall insane level of pampering. (The Rolling Stones booked the entire resort when they were performing in nearby Missoula — with the proviso that they be housed as far from one another as possible, which on 37,000 acres is saying something.) Though there are plenty of first class group activities like cattle drives and chuck wagon dinners, the emphasis is on bespoke experiences. Through an app on your phone, virtually anything can be arranged, from whitewater rafting and ATV excursions to skeet shooting, or even an icy beer if you get thirsty while fly-fishing. Among the accommodations are five campsites (soon to be six) spread across the grounds, each with six one- or two-bedroom tents, a butler, and a chef—just the right size for a multigenerational mini-resort of your own. As you sit around the campfire, glass of Macallan in hand, and gaze at your kids' faces, which are smeared with exotic varieties of s'mores, the refrain "Home, home on the range" may not seem so hokey after all.
Best ages: One to 101.
When to go: Summer vacation, for the biggest array of activities.
Getting there: A 40-minute ride in the resort's van from the Missoula airport.
Wow moment: Surveying the wilderness from atop Lookout Rock, where Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) once stood.
Best tents for families: River Camp, which has a beach on the Blackfoot River, the biggest star in A River Runs Through It.
Bonus for kids: Ax throwing is encouraged.
To book: Contact [email protected]; 877-588-6783.
Cost: Tents from $598 per person, double occupancy, including meals.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE...
The two-hour trip from the ranch to the is "one of the most spectacular drives in Montana," according to Paws Up owner Larry Lipson. After a day of hiking in nearby Glacier National Park, take the gang out on one of the lodge's pontoons to catch the justly famous sunset. For you: The string of high mountain glacier lakes will have you wishing the drive would never end. For the kids: They can learn to paddle board — if they ever get out of the pool.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Town & Country.