by Mike Unwin, The Telegraph, March 16, 2017
Imagine: your children protesting as you wake them in the pre-dawn chill and then, just one hour later, their eyes wide open in wonder as your camels crest the last dune to greet the Sahara sunrise. Or their gasps at the hydraulic exhalation of a pod of orcas, whose dorsal fins break the surface right beside your kayaks. Or their shrieks of glee as, donning safely harness and helmet, they step off the zip-line platform into the void and are whisked away over the lush green carpet of Costa Rica’s rainforest canopy.
The world’s most exciting natural environments make for perfect adventure playgrounds. And, be it a coral reef in Borneo, a bubbling mudpool in Iceland or a glacier in Patagonia, experiencing these playgrounds en famille not only thrills younger travellers but also offers a fresh perspective to their more travel-hardened parents.
Children are less bothered by guide book “must sees”: take them on safari in Africa and you may find yourself looking beyond the Big Five to poke around in termite mounds; drag them around the buddhist temples of Sri Lanka and you may find that bicycles inject some fun into the history lesson.
Families come in different shapes, sizes and budgets. Today’s family adventure travel market caters to all comers, offering anything from private lodges to guided cycling tours or camping under the stars. You can take cookery classes, learn bush tracking or brave the kind of thrills and spills – dune buggies, abseiling and river tubing – that should rouse even the most recalcitrant teenager.
And however wild the wilderness, a refreshing pool or beach is seldom far away. An adventure, embarked upon together, offers escape from the pressures and challenges of daily life; a moment to focus on the family. And the season for extraordinary travel – for family trips that will form lasting memories – is about to begin.
Adventures such as these are not for very young children. They also take a bit of planning, both for you and for the operators, which is why you should be booking them now, ahead of the January rush. The following are just a few ideas for how your family can build memories together in the coming year.
1. Animal education
A safari in South Africa usually means Kruger Park. But the smaller reserves of KwaZulu-Natal province offer a perfect wildlife playground for the nature-loving family – a chance to get hands-on as well as ticking off the big game.
This 11-day tour is divided between a lodge in the Big Five country of Hluhluwe and a camp among the lakes, reefs and beaches of the Indian Ocean coast. Family-orientated activities include a course in animal tracking and bush skills, hands-on visits to cheetah and elephant conservation centres, kayaking, snorkelling and mountain biking. There are also visits to a Zulu village and crocodile farm.
- Cost: From £2,570 per person for a family of four, including international flights (London to Durban).
- Timing: While the dates are flexible, the cooler weather from May to October would be the ideal time to visit.
- Details: Rainbow Tours (rainbowtours.co.uk).
2. Camping in the Wild West
The towering canyonlands of America’s south-west provide the stirring backdrop to this family adventure, which includes four nights camping under the stars.
Travelling in a small group with a private guide, the tour takes in five national parks and such epic landscapes as Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, the Valley of Fire and the Grand Canyon.
The emphasis is on lacing up your hiking boots and hitting the trail, but the itinerary also includes water sports, optional horse rides and a dose of Navajo hospitality – including one night in a mud hut.
A free day in Las Vegas, where the tour starts and ends, offers a glitzier kind of family fun, from gondolas to Madame Tussauds.
- Cost: From £1,539 per person, not including international flights.
- Timing: Various fixed dates in July and August.
- Details: Grand American Adventures (grandamericanadventures.com).
3. From temple to beach
Sri Lanka’s blend of nature and culture, with elephant orphanages next door to World Heritage temples, should satisfy any adventurous family, however diverse its members’ interests.
This 11-day family tour – with a personal guide throughout – allows ample time to pack in most of the island’s key attractions, from the imposing rock fortress of Sigiriya to the misty tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya and arguably the world’s most obliging leopards at Yala National Park.
Accommodation is in comfortable lodges and resorts – and the tour ends with four days on the beach.
- Cost: From £1,952 per adult, including international flights.
- Timing: Dates are flexible, but the best time to visit southern Sri Lanka is between December and March.
- Details: Western and Oriental (westernoriental.com).
4. Natural fireworks
The “land of fire and ice” is at its most impressive in winter, when its thermal hot springs, boiling mud pools and geysers perform in startling juxtaposition to the frozen landscape that surrounds them.
This seven-day family break takes in all those geothermal attractions, and includes bracing hikes to waterfalls and over glaciers.
Optional outdoor adventures include saddling up on Icelandic horses or taking to sea in search of killer whales; downtime in Reykjavik offers a chance to explore the quirky cafés and excellent museums. Keep an eye out for the Northern Lights.
- Cost: From £2,360 per adult and £2,128 per child, including flights.
- Timing: Dates in December and January.
- Details: Family Adventure Company (familyadventurecompany.co.uk).
5. Cycling through history
Bicycles are integral to life in the lush green countryside of northern Vietnam. This 12-day activity holiday takes in national parks, villages, temples and caves, all by bicycle, on its route south from Hanoi to the World Heritage city of Hoi An.
Bikes do have their limitations, of course, so you will dismount to enjoy other adventures, including one night on a houseboat among the limestone islands of Halong Bay and another in a traditional tribal longhouse.
The trip also includes water puppet shows, raft trips, a train journey and a cookery class – with ingredients fresh from a shopping trip to the local market.
- Cost: From £1,729 (adult) and £1,4399 (child) per person, including flights.
- Timing: Trips in April, July and December.
- Details: Families Worldwide (familiesworldwide.co.uk).
6. Culture, sport and nature
Few countries offer a more original mix of family activities than Argentina. Culture-wise, there’s colourful and cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, where you can stroll the historic Plaza Mayo, tour Bombanero Stadium – home to football club Boca Juniors – or saddle up on an out-of-town estancia for a polo lesson in the noble sport of polo.
For a dose of nature, you could hike a jungle trail to the breathtaking Iguazu Falls, kayak around the sheltered shoreline of Patagonia, don your crampons for the ice panorama of Los Glaciares National Park or cruise the wild wetlands of Ibera, home to caiman and capybara.
- Cost: From £5,780 per person, including international flights.
- Timing: Flexible, but the Easter holiday would be ideal.
- Details: Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk).
7. Mountain trek
There’s more to Morocco than lounging by a pool or haggling in a souk: the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas form the heart of this small-group guided family adventure.
The itinerary starts and ends in Marrakesh, with time to explore the celebrated medina and soak in the sensory bombardment of the Red City on a walking tour. It then winds up into the Atlas, with hikes through the steep valleys and orange groves and visits to traditional Berber villages.
Finally, it moves west to the Atlantic coast, with its colourful fishing communities and the resort town of Essaouira, where water sports aplenty offer a chance to wash off all that Sahara dust. Accommodation throughout is in comfortable hotels with swimming pools.
- Cost: From £945 per person, including flights.
- Timing: Trips at June and October half-term
- Details: Explore (explore.co.uk).
8. Hiking through history
It takes a particular kind of family to hike the Inca Trail, involving as it does four full days of hiking – reaching altitudes of 4,200m – and camping on mountainsides. But for active, adventurous types with older children, Peru will thrill.
This tour from Exodus comprises not only the Inca Trail, with the celebrated wonders of Machu Picchu and Cuzco at either end, but also a stint down in Tambopata Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon, where boat trips, jungle hikes and canopy towers give you a shot at spotting some of the elusive rainforest wildlife, including howler monkeys, macaws, caiman and – if you’re lucky – giant river otters.
Activities along the way include paddle-boarding, mountain biking and zip-lining in the sacred valley.
- Cost: From £2,889 per person, including flights.
- Timing: Various dates throughout the summer holidays.
- Details: Exodus (exodus.co.uk).
9. Tigers and the Taj
Northern India can be a daunting prospect for the first-time visitor, but in a relatively small circuit you can get to grips with some of the country’s most impressive attractions – from gawping at the Taj Mahal or Jaipur’s Amber Fort to tracking down the wild tigers of Ranthambore to watching the sun rise from a boat on the Ganges.
This family tour covers all those highlights while taking in a host of quintessential Indian experiences en route, including a school cricket match, a Bollywood movie and a course in cooking the perfect curry.
Transport is by express train and private vehicle, but also includes rides on camel, elephant and rickshaw. This is suitable for children of all ages, with swimming pools at each hotel.
- Cost: From £1,575 per person, including international flights.
- Timing: Departures in January, April, June, July, August, October and December.
- Details: KE Adventure Travel (keadventure.com).
10. Wildlife bonanza
Costa Rica crams a rich variety of wildlife adventures into one conveniently small geographical package. From cruising the canals of Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast to trekking the primary rainforest of Corcovado and surfing the reefs of Caño island on the Pacific, this two-week private family tour affords ample evidence of why the country is hailed as the most biodiverse on earth.
While parents crane into the canopy for sloths, monkeys and macaws, children will be rummaging at ground level for poison-arrow frogs and other bizarre mini beasts. Zip-lining and river-rafting up the excitement quotient for thrill-seeking family members – although parents may prefer to steam gently in the natural hot springs of the volcano slopes.
- Cost: From £1,850 per person, excluding international flights.
- Timing: Dates are flexible, but the best time to visit Costa Rica is during the dry season, from December to April.
- Details: Natural World Safaris (naturalworldsafaris.com).