When my husband, Darrin, and I were planning our family vacation last year, we were looking for something different from our annual trip to the beach. Since our son, Sam, came along four years ago, we haven't had as much time to devote to volunteer work as we did in our pre-parent days. We wanted to use some of our downtime to do just that yet still get in some much-needed R&R.
Our friends told us about "voluntourism" vacations, where families help out a good cause during part of their trip. While there have long been opportunities to devote your entire vacation to lending a hand, a growing number of hotels and resorts offer packages that have a few hours of volunteer service built into each day. And, in many cases, the volunteer activities are even toddler-friendly, such as picking up trash on hiking trails or watering plants in a garden that feeds a homeless shelter.
There are opportunities all over the country, but we chose to stay at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, in Solvang, California (alisal.com), because it's just a three-hour drive from our home in Los Angeles and it has an amazing children's program that is broken into four age groups: 3 to 5, 6 to 10, 11 to 12, and 13 to 17. We liked that Sam would be with other preschoolers rather than mixed in with older kids. Another plus of Alisal: It reminded Darrin and me of our favorite childhood vacations -- mine on my uncle's ranch, his in New York's Catskill Mountains.
Our large studio room at the resort cost $550 per night, which seemed pricey at first. But because meals and many activities like fishing, pool games, and kid's crafts were included in the price, we weren't reaching into our wallet every minute as we'd been doing on other family trips.
We did worry that Sam, who is full of energy, would think that the volunteer work was boring and beg to go to the pool instead. Our fears were allayed on the first day when we spent about two hours feeding and tending to abandoned and abused animals at the barnyard -- which houses pigs, cows, goats, miniature horses, dogs, and a rooster. We had to coax Sam into leaving. He was also a great helper on the mornings we picked up trash and debris from the nature trails.
Even with volunteering two or three hours each day, we still had plenty of time to kick back and relax. Sam caught his first bass with Darrin, we splashed in a pool that has a big shallow end, and we dropped Sam off at the kids' camp so Darrin and I could sneak in a little alone time. While we were gone, Sam made nature collages (still hanging in our kitchen!) and learned about water conservation. I was pleased at how the kids' camp matched the spirit of the resort.
On our return drive to Los Angeles, Sam began pointing out all the litter along Route 405, and we had to explain why we just couldn't pull over to pick up trash on the highway. But my sweet son's willingness to do so was proof enough that our trip made an impact. What's a better souvenir than that? I'm already planning for next year's trip at one of these other family-friendly spots.
Feather Down Farm Days at Kinnikinnick Farm, in Boone County, Illinois; Stony Creek Farm, in Delaware County, New York; and Ambrosia Farm, in Otsego County, New York
What you give: You and your little farmhand pitch in by collecting chicken eggs, milking goats, harvesting produce, feeding barnyard animals, and other chores for two hours a day.
What you get: A weekly treasure hunt, tree swings, a giant sandbox, bike rentals, and enough squirt and soaker guns to reenact a Civil War battle. Your kids will probably think that staying in the safari-like tents (complete with wood-burning stoves for cooking, canopy beds, hand-cranked coffee grinders, and even oil lanterns) is pretty cool.
Rates Start at: $189 per night. Tents come with a cooler for groceries (you can pick vegetables from the private garden), a full private bathroom (in the two New York locations), and a cooking stove (featherdown.com).
The Heathman Hotel's Voluntourism Package, in Portland, Oregon
What you give: This historic hotel has teamed up with The Forest Park Conservancy to create a three-hour voluntourism package that helps with cleanup across the park's 5,000 acres. Called discovery hikes, these tours include education about the park's unique environment as well as removal of invasive plant species and trash on its scenic trails.
What you get: When you're not helping out, enjoy Portland's family-friendly activities. You can jump on the easily accessible MAX light-rail system to get to the Portland Children's Museum, Oregon Zoo, or other attractions, such the world's largest independent bookstore (powellsbooks.com).
Rates Packages start at: $309 per night and include transportation to and from the park. Bonus: One hundred dollars of the cost of the package goes to the Forest Park Conservancy (heathmanportland.com).
Playa Viva Resort and Residence Community, in Zihuatanejo, Mexico
What you give: The whole family can go on fun night patrols to find eggs of endangered leatherback turtles (think an eco-friendly egg hunt) and carefully bring them back to the sanctuary to guard against night predators. Everyone will get an even bigger kick out of returning to the beach the next morning to release baby turtles that hatched.
What you get: Pretty beaches, a great pool, family kayaking, and a kid-friendly hike through a coastal forest -- need we say more?
Rates Start at: $395 per night for two adults and two kids, including meals, airport transportation, yoga classes, spa services, and a donation to the turtle sanctuary (playaviva.com).
Sierra Club's Family Archaeology Program in Dixie National Forest, Utah
What you give: Your clan can live out an Indiana Jones-style fantasy while helping to restore a national forest. You'll work with a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and crew on a real historic excavation and survey to look for Paleo-Indian stone tools and other thousands-of-years-old artifacts. Most of the exploring is done in parts of the wilderness that are off-limits to the public, so count on this being a "once-in-a-lifetime" trip. Kids have to be at least 8 years old to participate.
What you get: Your evenings and free time allow for swimming at the nearby lake, fishing, mountain biking, or hiking to see spectacular waterfalls. The club also has special events planned, including arts and crafts, campfire sing-alongs, stargazing with telescopes, and checking out the volcanic-lava tube caves.
Rates: $495 for adults and $395 for kids for a trip taking place July 10 to 16. The price includes all meals and snacks and equipment for work projects (sierraclub.org/outings/national/brochure/11221a.aspx).
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.