Best Vacations for Kids: Parents' Travel Awards 2021
Our third annual travel awards come at a time when we need them most. Here are the best kid-friendly and COVID-friendly vacations of 2021, and why kids of all ages will love them.
On your family's first trip after a long year of being stuck at home, you may still need to socially distance. But that shouldn't be a problem if you choose one of the 20 outdoorsy getaways selected by the judges of Parents' annual travel awards.
Wondering how we picked our winners? Parents staff and family travel judges (meet them down below!) nominated more than 150 places within the U.S. that offer lots of outdoor activities, plenty of space to socially distance, and enhanced safety protocols for COVID-19. Many destinations also require temp checks and have implemented contactless check-in as well as a reservation system to avoid crowding in public areas like the pool. Staff and judges then voted on the nominations, with an eye on value and wow factor for kids.
The CDC currently advises that only fully vaccinated people travel. Be sure to check cdc.gov/travel for the latest info, then dust off your duffel bags and get ready to go.
Best Adventure Resorts for Kids
Best resort for kids of all ages: Smugglers' Notch, Jeffersonville, Vermont
The huge array of outdoor activities for toddlers to teens swayed the vote for this retreat affectionately known as Smuggs. "Our favorite was the hand-guided llama trek, where we explored the wooded trails with these cute creatures by our sides," says judge Erin Gifford, founder of Kidventurous, who also suggests zip-lining and disc golf. Nestled in the Green Mountains, the resort's condos fit families of all sizes. Starts at $250 per night.
Best resort for decompressing: Kingsmill Resort, Williamsburg, Virginia
Even though it's just a few miles from Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg, this resort with one- to three-bedroom condos feels secluded. You can visit the attractions and retreat here afterward or make the resort your bubble. Trails lead to the marina on the James River, where you can enjoy water sports. A small beach is perfect for the toddler crowd to dip their toes in and collect shells and pebbles. Wooded bike paths and two playgrounds add to the fresh-air fun. Starts at $249 per night.
Best all-inclusive resort: Quisisana Resort, Center Lovell, Maine
The name of this peaceful getaway means "place of healing," and judges couldn't think of a better year to test that promise. By day, families at this 56-acre resort that opened in 1917 build castles at the beach or partake in water sports, and then at night, Broadway-style musical performances (now held outdoors) entertain all. Repeat guests—there are many—rave about three included meals a day. You'll stay in one of 40 wooded or lakeside cottages, all with AC, a private porch, and up to three bedrooms. Starts at $225 per person, per night, including meals and most activities.
Best resort for the whole family: Nemacolin, Farmington, Pennsylvania
Even though this remote 2,000-plus-acre resort in the Laurel Highlands area is widely known as the location for last season's episodes of The Bachelor, there's as much to do for kids as for adults. Your little animal lovers will adore both the resort's vintage carousel and the pony rides. Playgrounds, a kid-size zip line, a climbing wall, and mini golf are all part of the adventure. Two-bedroom townhomes have full kitchens and mod decor. Starts at $599 per night (for townhomes).
Best multigenerational resort: Hawks Cay Resort, Duck Key, Florida
A canal runs through its Harbor Village, where two- to four-bedroom townhomes with gourmet kitchens and grocery-shopping service make it easy for extended families to cook some of their meals. That's what judges Ric and Saj Garcia, Miami-based Instagram travel influencers (@ric.saj_adventures), did when they visited with their boys and Ric's parents, who wanted to avoid restaurants. Their crew saw the outdoor pirate show and hung out on the grassy area with ocean views. "The resort's enclosed beach gives you a sense of security, and it was steps away from the pool," Saj says. Starts at $400 per night (for townhomes).
Best Beach Towns for Kids
Best beach town on the East Coast: Cape May, New Jersey
Time-warped in the best way possible, the southernmost shore point in the state attracts families with its Victorian cottage rentals, red and green trolleys, and saltwater taffy shops. (The entire town is a National Historic Landmark.) But the 16 beaches are the true gems. Congress Beach, across from Congress Hall resort, is wide, has sand perfect for castle building, and holds an old-timey carnival for families. Tides at Sunset Beach bring in colorful quartz crystals—"Cape May Diamonds"—nature's souvenirs.
- RELATED: 10 Best Family Beach Vacations
Best beach town on the West Coast: Laguna Beach, California
SoCal vibes are strong in this seaside spot that's as synonymous for its kid-friendly cove beaches as for its art scene. Across the 7 miles of coastline, Shaw's Cove beach is a local fave because of its gentle waves and tide pools teeming with marine life, while Victoria Beach's 1926 pirate tower provides the ultimate backdrop for kids to pretend they're swashbucklers. The heritage of Laguna Beach, founded as an arts colony, is evident all around town. At Bluebird Park, kids can climb on a 9-foot mosaic tortoise. Along Pacific Coast Highway, Robert Wyland's Whaling Wall mural of a gray whale and her calf may be the town's most famous artsy landmark. "It was magnificent to see it in person," says judge Samantha Nelson, a Nashville-based family travel influencer who blogs at Those Crazy Nelsons.
Best beach town on the Gulf Coast: Seaside, Florida
Stroll down the brick streets past pastel-colored cottage rentals, each more gorgeous than the last, until you reach the white-sand beaches and emerald Gulf water. That's how life goes down in this community in the state's panhandle that was designed so families could walk or bike everywhere. The row of vintage Airstreams serve up all kinds of deliciousness, the amphitheater offers music and children's shows, and the indie bookstore features a lovely children's selection. Paradise found.
Best island: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Active families will be in their element. With 100-plus miles of leisure paths and bike trails, "Hilton Head is one of the most bike-friendly places we've visited. My family even cycled on the hard-packed beach," says Gifford, the author of the forthcoming Hiking With Kids Virginia: 52 Great Hikes for Families. Water-sport rentals abound: Kayakers are often treated to manta ray sightings, while easy-to-operate catamarans are a fun way to explore marshlands.
Best beach town on a lake: Grand Haven, Michigan
Located on Lake Michigan, this charming small town is the beach mecca of the Midwest. Thanks to a revitalization project, its state-park beach doubled in size last summer. The playground at the 7-acre waterfront North Beach Park makes it a local family fave. The town's Musical Fountain, which has a 25-minute light show nightly at dusk, has been wowing kids since the 1960s.
Best Camping Trips for Kids
Best treehouse stays: Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resort, Golden Valley, North Carolina
The charming treetop cabins at this resort near the Blue Ridge Mountains, restored from its days as a rustic lodging for the Girl Scouts, provide a perfect perch for bird-watching and stargazing along with some comforts of home (think AC and a smart TV). They sleep up to four, and some are just down the road from the lake where families can fish, rent pedal boats, and zip-line. There's a pool and a splash pad too. Starts at $98 per night.
Best glamping tents: Sandy Pines Campground, Kennebunkport, Maine
The flexibility for families drew judges to this seaside retreat that's bordered by a salt marsh. Up to two kids can sleep in either daybeds or trundles inside the luxe family tent or get their own smaller tent adjacent to yours, with two twins and a space to play. With either pick, your family scores its own fire pit and mini fridge. Before or after a trip to the nearby beach, kids can play games on the wide-open lawn or enjoy a socially distanced craft session. Starts at $269 per night.
- RELATED: 19 Tips for Camping With Kids
Best cabins: West Glacier KOA Resort, Montana
Near the west entrance to Glacier National Park, deluxe cabins hold universal family appeal. Some sleep up to nine and include large covered porches and bunk beds. You can sit on the patio and enjoy astonishing views of the Rockies before you head out for a long day of exploring the park. Then when you return to the campground, take the kids for a nighttime swim. Starts at $200 per night.
Best beachfront camping: Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Location, location, location. Campsites with beach-access paths that'll put your crew just steps from the water dot the northern end of this alluring wildlife-packed park. RVers have access to electric and water hookups, while tent campers will appreciate that the bathhouse has been newly renovated. Walk a mile along the palm-treelined shore to the historic lighthouse, which you can climb with a reservation. Starts at $40 per night.
Best creative camping: Zion Wildflower Resort, Virgin, Utah
Camping in a wagon that looks like it's from the Wild West has become a thing, and this glamping resort, which opened last summer near Zion National Park, makes it super comfortable and even more fun than it sounds. Sleeping up to six and equipped with AC and heat, the wagons hold a king bed plus one or two sets of bunk beds. You'll get a s'mores kit to use at the fire pits and Wi-Fi so you can post on TikTok. Starts at $299 per night.
Best National Parks for Kids
Best adventure: White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Sledding down hills of rippling sand as far as the eye can see, kids revel in the magic of the surreal landscape at this newish national park in the southern part of the state. Drive past the dunes near the pueblo-style visitors' center (where you can buy sleds) to the larger, uncrowded ones in the back of the park, suggests judge Meg Brunson, founder of the blog Family Road Ventures, who visited last year with her four kids. Besides sledding for hours, she says, "my kids threw themselves onto the ground to make sand angels and loved watching the breeze erase them moments later."
Best for spying animals: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Wherever you go in Grand Teton, animals are close by. "One evening, on the park's Gros Ventre/Antelope Flats Loop, we saw bull moose near the river and herds of bison and pronghorn feeding out on the flats against the spectacular backdrop of the Teton range," says judge Julie Gillum Lue, a former park ranger. "We even pulled over to listen to the grunting bison and watch the sun set." Other animal stomping grounds include Willow Flats and Oxbow Bend, where Lue's crew spotted ducks, geese, ospreys, and bald eagles.
Best for science in action: Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming
Old Faithful is just the beginning. Erupting geysers, bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and steam vents galore create an otherworldly landscape. Resembling a cave turned inside out, "the mineral terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs were far and away a favorite area of the park for us to explore," says judge Amanda Riley, who took an epic seven-week national-park road trip with her family in 2019. They were lucky enough to catch an eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world. Grand Prismatic Spring, bigger than a football field, also stuns with its deep blue waters encircled by bands of green, yellow, and orange.
Best for family hikes: Redwood National and State Parks, California
Surrounded by towering trees, little ones feel as if they're in a fairy tale while hiking the many kid-friendly trails. "On the 4-mile Hiouchi Trail, our kids pretended they were having an adventure in the Ewok forest from Return of the Jedi, which was reportedly filmed nearby," says judge Jeremy Puglisi, author of Where Should We Camp Next? In the southern part of the park, the stroller-friendly 2 1/2-mile Prairie Creek/Foothills Trail Loop takes tots past babbling streams, giant old-growth Redwoods, and restrooms (thank you!).
Best for water fun: Olympic National Park, Washington
The beaches here thrill tiny explorers. At Ruby Beach, kids can play on driftwood and splash around in an inlet with warmer water. The nearby Kalaloch Beach 4 is a tide pooler's dream. Take older kids kayaking or canoeing on the teal waters of Lake Crescent, which was formed by a glacier. "It was windy and the water was chilly when we visited," Puglisi says. "But the Olympic Mountains views were spectacular, and our kids swam at the end anyway."
Meet Our Panel of Judges
- Beth Beckman, founder of LittleKidBigCity.com
- Meg Brunson, founder of Family Road Ventures
- Karen Cicero, travel editor at Parents
- Diane Debrovner, deputy editor at Parents
- Julia Edelstein, editor-in-chief of Parents
- Sajay and Ric Garcia, Miami-based Instagram travel influencers @ric.saj_adventures
- Erin Gifford, founder of Kidventurous and author of the forthcoming Hiking with Kids: Virginia
- Julie Lue, a former National Park ranger and author of a series of national park kids' guidebooks
- Samantha Nelson, Nashville-based family travel blogger at Those Crazy Nelsons
- Jeremy Puglisi, author of Where Should We Camp Next?
- Amanda Riley, a blogger who did an epic national park road trip
- TeAndra Taylor, founder of travelingwiththetaylors.org
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2021 issue as "Pick Your Family's Next Vacation!" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here