We asked five experts from TravelingMom.com to give us their insider picks for the best under-the-radar spots that make for an awesome escape. These destinations are sure to thrill no matter your travel style.
1. Ventura County, California
Sandwiched between glamorous Malibu and chic Santa Barbara, the seaside cities of Oxnard and Ventura offer the quintessential laid-back California beach vacation—without breaking the bank, says TravelingMom contributor Mimi Slawoff of Los Angeles. You’ll find secluded beaches with free parking and smaller crowds than their big-name neighbors, a clean boardwalk for riding bikes or skating along, and an array of kid-friendly water sports. There’s a pirate ship at Marina Beach Park in Ventura where little ones can play while older kids kayak through the sea caves at the nearby Channel Islands. (The water is so clear you can see colorful fish without snorkeling.) Ventura is also the gateway to Channel Islands National Park. There, you can catch a wave in the surf or a ride on the Ventura Downtown-Harbor Trolley.
Where to Eat and Sleep: Both cities have downtowns filled with mom-andpop shops and restaurants. Oxnard’s agricultural history translates to diverse culinary options and farmers’ markets. In Oxnard, the oceanfront Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Hotel & Resort (starting at $189 a night) offers spacious rooms and free breakfast. The Ventura Beach Marriott (starting at $188 a night) is a three-minute walk from the beach. Or, to live like a local, rent a beach house from a realty agency.
2. San Antonio, Texas
This city is big enough to offer lots of activities, but its deep Southwestern culture also gives it the charm of a small town. And spring is the best time to visit, says TravelingMom and Texas native Catherine Parker, because you avoid summer’s peak temperatures and crowds. Anytime you need entertainment, just head to the River Walk! Stroll or bike this urban thoroughfare that follows the San Antonio River from the mission areas south of the city through downtown’s restaurants and hotels to the Pearl, a complex with shops and restaurants. Stop often for fun along the way: There’s everything from mariachi bands to art installations to enjoy. Don’t miss the Yanaguana Garden, a four-acre activity park with a climbing structure, fountain area, and sand discovery center. No trip to San Antonio is complete without a visit to the city’s biggest tourist draw: The Alamo. Originally built as a mission, it became the center of the fight for Texas independence from Mexico in 1836. Today, families can take formal tours of the site, follow the building’s nearly 300-year journey on the Wall of History, or pick up an activity book at the gift shop that helps kids understand its importance.
Where to Eat and Sleep: Grab an outdoor table at Casa Rio, a Tex-Mex joint on the River Walk. Share a plate of nachos and watch the boats float by. The Hotel Contessa (starting at $229 a night) is an all-suite property. The location can’t be beat— it’s just steps from the La Villita Historic Arts Village, HemisFair Park, and the Briscoe Western Art Museum.
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Don’t know where the island of Curaçao is? Or even how to say it? You’re not alone. That’s part of its charm. This southern Caribbean island (pronounced kewr-ah-sow), 40 miles from Venezuela’s coast, is new to most American tourists. It was a Dutch colony until 2010, and many natives speak an astonishing four languages—Dutch, English, Spanish, and Papiamentu (their own Creole mix). The island is clean, colorful, and friendly. Curaçao’s best beaches are located on the west end. Check out the free Big Knip Beach, where you can relax under one of the thatched huts that line the cove or rent snorkeling gear. Also worth it: a day trip to the city. The pastel buildings of Willemstad, the island’s capital, look so picture-perfect, you’ll think you landed on a movie set, says TravelingMom Andrea Guthmann, who’s visited plenty of Caribbean islands in her family’s quest to escape Chicago’s long winters.
Where to Eat and Sleep: Do as the locals do and head to the budget-friendly food stalls of Plasa Bieu, also known as the Old Market. Sample the popular goat stew or traditional Tutu, ground-up beans with sugar and seasonings. Picky eaters can choose simple chicken and rice. The Kura Hulanda Lodge & Beach Club (starting at $259 per night) sits right on the beach.
4. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL
Located on the small stretch of Alabama land along the Gulf of Mexico, this vacation spot is adjacent to the better-known resort areas of Florida’s Panhandle. But it’s a destination that stands on its own thanks to its 32 miles of sandy beaches and special perks like an awesome state park and wildlife refuge, as well as the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Head to the beach for volleyball, skim boarding, sand castles, and more. Or soak up the sun from the water—and spot some wildlife—with a Dolphins & Blue Angels Sail or a kayaking tour around the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge suggests TravelingMom Desiree Miller of Atlanta. Spring weather here can be a bit unpredictable. If you get a cold day, head about an hour northwest to Mobile, home to the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. Opened in September 2015, it’s actually designed as a replica of a container ship, with hands-on exhibits covering all things ocean.
Where to Eat and Sleep: Get your fill of shrimp and grits at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina, a restaurant with relaxed open-air eating. Where to stay? Go for a vacation rental. A three-bedroom condo at The Wharf rents for about $1,500 a week in the spring.
5. Sedona, AZ
A city known for luxury spas, mystical spirituality, and a high-end hippie vibe may not seem like an obvious destination for family travelers. But the outdoor adventures and kid friendly activities make it a great pick, says Leslie Harvey, a TravelingMom contributor from San Francisco. Spring break is exactly the right time to visit this high desert. The air is cool enough for a long walk but still warm enough for a refreshing dip in the hotel pool. Start by getting the lay of the land—and some local history— aboard a Sedona Trolley tour. Be sure to stop at the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village where you can browse for local art while the kids hit up the toy store. Or, for a more adventurous look at the area, book an excursion with Pink Jeep Tours; you’ll head off-road to see some of Sedona’s most famous rock formations, like Bell Rock, Chapel Butte, and the Rock of Gibraltar. (Car seats available!) Want more of those amazing red rocks? Drive out to Slide Rock State Park. Just north of town, it features a natural waterslide that a creek carved into the rock bed. There are also other nearby swimming holes to explore, or throw some shoes back on and hike among the cliffs. Another not-to-be-missed spot nearby is Montezuma Castle. This 20-room pueblo dwelling is carved directly into the side of a limestone cliff!
Where to Eat and Sleep: Try Cowboy Club, where kids can opt for classics like mac ’n’ cheese or burgers while parents get a taste of wild game like buffalo and elk. When looking for a hotel, be sure it has a pool! The kids (and you) will want that after a day in the desert. Sedona Real Inn & Suites (starting at $135 per night), west of the city center, features spacious suites.
TravelingMom.com is an online family-travel magazine with more than 60 contributing writers from around the world. Cindy Richards, who wrote this story, is the site’s editor-in-chief.