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Five components of a great family travel destination

Matt Villano

After four full days here in Tofino, British Columbia, my wife and I have concluded this is one kick-ass place for families with young kids.

To support our thesis, tonight over dinner we broke out the steno pad and made a list of what we perceive to be the most critical components of a great family travel destination. Here, in no particular order, are our top five.

Vacation rentals
Sure, it’s possible to stay in hotels with young children. But after multiple nights of spendy room service and (unless you live like Posh & Becks) everyone on top of each other in the same room, the relaxing time away from home suddenly can become, well, stressful. Vacation rentals—homes or condos—eliminate this problem. Most come with full kitchens, which afford families the opportunity to cook kids what they want when they want it. These accommodations also usually have multiple bedrooms, which means grown-ups (or kids, for that matter) always can retreat behind closed doors.

Amazing nature to explore
Heralded “attractions” have their place on every family’s vacation itinerary (heck, we’re headed to Disneyland next month), but, in general, Powerwoman and I prefer diversions of the natural sort. Beaches. Forests. Watching wildlife. That kind of stuff. These latter experiences are so unpredictable, so free-form, that it’s hard for toddlers and older kids not to come away with a broader and more informed sense of place. In a two-hour span this week, for instance, our L learned about ravens, bull kelp, tides and Douglas fir trees. She’s been chattering on about all of them since.

A playground
Every kid loves a playground. And as much as I’d like to sit here at my laptop and wax poetic about the virtues of organic learning, there’s something wonderfully comforting and familiar about the same old play structures in a brand new place. We’ve found that the best playgrounds are within walking distance of the town center—that way one parent can escape there with the little ones while the other parent strolls around town. Another bit of advice: Always bring a towel for wiping down wet (or otherwise soiled) slides.

Kid-oriented restaurants
This might seem like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised how many eateries these days lack a) children’s menus, b) changing tables in the rest rooms or c) both of the above. Especially in the U.S. Menus don't have to be fancy—chicken fingers here, pasta with butter there—but  we always are comforted by a restaurant that understands the plight of traveling with picky little eaters. As for changing tables, let’s just say they make everyone’s lives easier; no matter how patient you are, interrupting a nice meal to change a dirty diaper in the car simply isn’t fun.

A trusted babysitter option
For many parents, the notion of a “family” vacation does not include alone time during waking hours. But it should. Provided you can find a trusted (and I stress, trusted) babysitter option for a night or two, date night with your spouse transforms a good getaway into a great one. If you’re staying at a hotel, the concierge usually is willing to recommend sitters (some hotels provide sitters or child care facilities as well). If you’re renting a house, check with the rental agency, or call a local daycare or preschool before your trip and consult them.

What am I missing? What would you add to this list? What, in your experience, are the things that make a great family travel destination so great? Please share your thoughts in the comment field below.