When my husband, Daniel, and I first moved to London, we were young, child-free and eager to travel. But mere days before we left for our first long adventure — a 10-day train ride from London to Lisbon, with stops in France and Spain — I discovered I was pregnant. Needless to say, Daniel enjoyed the trip far more than I did, with a glass of wine never far from his lips and a plastic bag never far from mine.
Six months after our daughter was born, we took our first trip as parents to Amsterdam for a long weekend. We carried her in a backpack through museums, put her to bed in her stroller in restaurants and coffee shops, and cuddled her on a boat ride through the canals. It never occurred to us not to travel, despite the addition of a new passenger.
I am glad we made that decision, because our two-year stint abroad turned into 20 years in four countries, with two more children eventually added to our brood. And though we made the occasional birthday pilgrimage to Disneyland Paris and Legoland, we typically had little interest in visiting places designed exclusively for children. Instead, we went where we wanted to go and made them “family-friendly” simply by taking the family and being friendly.
Below are four trips that worked well for both generations of travelers in our family.
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Downton Abbey Meets Beatrix Potter
Imagine staying in a castle, a stately home, a gardener’s cottage or a lighthouse in England. Welcome to the National Trust, which protects and maintains some of that country’s historic residences and grounds for public use. On two occasions, we rented one of their cozy cottages, first at Polesden Lacy, a Downton Abbey-like Edwardian estate in Surrey, and then Cliveden, once the home of Waldorf and Nancy Astor and the social gathering place for the British elite for much of the 20th century.
The experience was both educational and elegant. Each day, we visited other National Trust homes in the area, learning from an audio tour the history of the houses and grounds, complete with coloring books for the young ones. Each night, we sipped champagne in the gardens surrounding our cottages (closed to the public at 5 p.m.) and watched our children as they ran through our personal playground of magical pathways.
The National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) now has more than 400 cottages in all sizes and price ranges, as well as hotels, and even glamping and camping sites. Although Hill Top, the Lake District farmhouse where Beatrix Potter spent much of her adult life, is not available for rent, the house is open to visitors every day except Friday, and can be used as the starting point for a regional walking tour suggested by the National Trust as a way to explore the life and work of the Peter Rabbit author.
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The jet-set destination of Monaco has plenty to offer family travelers, including a museum displaying Prince Rainer’s extensive car collection.
Matisse and Marineland
Think of the French Riviera and the first thing that comes to mind are yachts filled with film stars and beaches dotted with bikinis. That is not completely wrong, as we discovered when we took our three children (then 14, 10 and 9) to Nice, Cannes and Monaco. Yet all quickly blended into the landscape from our first day on the beach, where we ate freshly caught fish between dips in the sea. But the Riviera is not just a beach vacation. We visited Marineland in Antibes and a Roman city in Frejus. Add to that a day in Monaco — which included visiting Prince Ranier’s collection of more than 100 cars and seeing live sharks at the Oceanographic Museum — and we had the perfect vacation for everyone in our group.
CV Villas rents houses all along the Côte d’Azur. A villa with a private pool and three bedrooms that sleeps up to six starts at $1,800 for a week, depending on the season.
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A family visit to Athens, including a tour of the Parthenon, is a great way to bring ancient Greek history to life.
Rollicking in Ruins
One of the best vacations for both learning and lounging we ever took was to the Peloponnesus, an unspoiled part of Greece, with an initial stop in Athens to visit the Acropolis. With my children then aged 15, 11 and 10, it seemed the perfect time to bring the Greek gods to life. We visited the archaeological ruins in Olympia, Mycenae, Epidaurus and Corinth; body surfed in the Mediterranean; ate souvlaki and spinach pie at a seaside cafe, and wandered the streets of cities like Nafplio looking for after-dinner ice cream cones. But the bonus was that the children came home from vacation schooled in the classics, from Zeus to Pericles, not realizing we had been on an academic adventure.
We stayed at the Aldemar Resort near Olympia. Located on the beach, it has dozens of pools, a variety of restaurants, and a wide selection of rooms and suites. In season, a beachfront room that sleeps four starts at $500 a night, including breakfast. In Nafplio, a two-bedroom, two bathroom suite at the Amphitryon Hotel overlooking the bay of Nafplion is $460 a night in mid-June with two bathrooms and two private balconies. Ideal for two adults and two children.
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The Croatian city of Split is both a great weekend destination for families and a convenient port for visiting one of the many nearby islands in the Adriatic.
An Island Holiday (Abba Was Here)
This past summer, I took our family to Split, Croatia. Split is a favorite weekend destination for Europeans and the perfect place to use as a base for visiting one of the many nearby islands in the Adriatic. Though my offspring are now young adults, I couldn’t help but notice how many Europeans had their children in tow. No doubt, Diocletian’s Palace (a Unesco World Heritage site, dating back to A.D. 295) is the primary draw. The walled inner-city is full of stone-paved pedestrian paths and is a car-free maze of shops, restaurants, courtyards and centuries-old ruins. You may want to extend your trip by taking the two-and-a-half-hour ferry to the island of Vis (the location of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”), where breathtakingly beautiful beaches await, as well as the Blue Cave, so-called because the sun shining through a crevice in the top turns the water neon blue. Yes, the locals will talk about spotting Colin Firth and Amanda Seyfred at their favorite restaurants and the hostess at Lambek will no doubt confide that Pierce Brosnan told her that its pizza was the best in the world (he may be right), but the hordes of Abba fanatics have yet to materialize or spoil this former outpost of the Venetian empire.
In Split, we stayed at Goli + Bosi, a boutique hostel that had a bar-restaurant in the lobby and was just inside the palace. Rooms start at $100 a night even at the height of summer, and include rooms that could accommodate a whole family of six. There are only two small hotels in the main village of Kut, on the island of Vis, but there are hundreds of apartments and houses for rent on booking.com or visvillas.com, ranging from two-bedroom apartments with striking views of the sea at less than $100 a night to a six-bedroom, 16th-century Venetian seafront palazzo (once the summer home of Tito) that rents for $10,000 a week in peak season.
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