Next time you’re dreaming about jetting off on a family adventure, think closer to home! North America has so many incredible destinations that will live up to your globe-trotting fantasies. These five spots are worth the trip.
1. Fantasy: Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Reality: Los Cabos, Mexico
Jacques Cousteau, the late French explorer, dubbed this area’s Sea of Cortez the “world’s aquarium” because of the variety and abundance of marine life, according to Kristi Marcelle, family vacation consultant at Ciao Bambino! Los Cabos is a lively area of upscale resorts sitting at the tip of a peninsula between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Boojum, odd-shaped trees that look like they sprang from a Dr. Seuss book, abound, alongside roadrunners, jackrabbits, and quails. Plus, “direct flights into Los Cabos make this an easier and less expensive alternative to the Galápagos,” says Marcelle.
Must-Do Fun: Snorkeling is a top family activity. You’ll spot huge schools of colorful fish, plus whale sharks, stingrays, and Christmas tree worms (which look like brightly colored fir trees). “These encounters are magical, and it’s fun to hear the kids chatter excitedly about what they saw in the water,” recalls Marcelle. Book a three hour tour from the Cabo San Lucas Marina, most of which will also stop at the famous Cabo Arch (pictured here). La Princesa Sailing Catamarans is geared to first-timers, anchoring in calm waters. Horseback riding along the Pacific side of the peninsula takes you past towering and blooming saguaros cacti on your way to the beach, where you may glimpse a whale breaching, especially during the migrating season, December through March. Rancho Carisuva offers horseback tours for ages 6 and older. A camel safari that has you taking in both desert and beach is another only-here experience; Cabo Adventures runs them for ages 5 and up. (Keep an eye out for the huge Crested Caracara, aka the Mexican eagle.)
Where to Drop Your Bags: The Westin Los Cabos Resort Villas & Spa, with its kids’ club, private beach, and three pools, is a great place to stay. Rates start at $246 per night.
2. Fantasy: Australia
Reality: Texas Hill Country
“The Australian Outback makes me think of Texas—rugged, dry, with friendly, outdoorsy folks and fun accents!” says Kim Orlando, founder of TravelingMom.com. And the south-central Texas Hill Country region is unique, even within the state. Though it’s famed for hillsides covered in bluebonnets, you can just as easily spot yucca and prickly pear cactus. Explore caverns belowground, and the massive granite dome, Enchanted Rock, above. Austin, with its music-festival scene, is the heart of hill country, so you can get city excitement along with your outdoor adventure. And Texas, similar to equally outsize Australia, contains regions with surprisingly different feels. The food, drink, architecture, and dance performances of Texas Hill Country are distinct from the more iconic southern/southwestern parts of the state. Both Australians and Texans have an independent spirit, and take pride in the exceptional diversity of their communities. And in both places, the landscape is as varied as the people.
Must-Do Fun: To many, Australia is synonymous with unique native animals and plants, such as wallabies and eucalyptus. Texas is actually much the same. The Frio Bat Cave in Concan is home to the second-largest bat population on earth. Every evening at sunset from mid-March to September, 10 to 12 million (!) bats fly out of the cave overhead. In case that’s not enough proof that everything’s bigger in Texas, take the Champion Big Tree Tour in Rio Frio. These baldcypress trees are nearly 100 feet tall, with crowns that spread out over 110 feet. After an evening and morning of looking up, splash down in an inner tube in the Frio River in Concan for a lazy-river ride that’s actually in a real river.
Where to Drop Your Bags: Families can check into Chalk Bluff River Resort and Park in Uvalde for rustic lodging in an Instagram-worthy setting. The property sits right along the Neuces River, where you can kayak or fish. You’ll also make friends with Samson the Clydesdale, sheep, and miniature donkeys. No koalas...but the alpacas are pretty darn cute. Cabins run $99 to $169 per night, depending on dates.
3. Fantasy: Spain
Reality: St. Augustine, FL
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral and explorer, founded St. Augustine in 1565. And it was, in fact, ruled by Spain for the next 200 years, which explains the striking Colonial Spanish architecture just about everywhere you go. The combination of history, pretty beaches, and a low profile compared to other Florida destinations makes St. Augustine a hidden gem.
Must-Do Fun: “The history and cultural influences were what surprised me most. I loved making it a teaching moment for my children,” notes Kelly. The best area to experience that old European feeling is the Historic District along St. George Street. The Mediterranean architecture, especially the balconies and terra-cotta roofs, and the old Spanish fort give the impression of being in Spain. Here, the Colonial Quarter offers History Adventure Tours that provide hands-on living-history lessons. You can also stop at Taberna Del Caballo for tapas and flatbread pizzas in an 18th-century setting.
Where to Drop Your Bags: Keep the Spanish dream alive at Jaybird’s Inn, influenced by the old Spanish design of downtown. Rooms are around $100 per night.
4. Fantasy: Prague, Czech Republic
Reality: Québec City
Does your child love fairy tales? Then Québec City could well be her vacation happy ending. Québec City is the only fortified city in North America with walls that are still standing. “You never even have to go inside to understand how different the capital of Canada’s Québec province is,” says Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum. “Its 17th- and 18th-century architecture and St. Lawrence River views are just captivating.”
Must-Do Fun: During a winter visit, the Carnaval de Québec is the hands-down highlight. Meet Bonhomme, the seven-foot snowman who is the celebration’s ambassador, in his ice palace. An international ice sculpture competition, dog sled and ice canoe races, and the classic wooden toboggan run, with its burlap bags to ride on, round out the excitement. A night parade ends the day with smiles.
Where to Drop Your Bags: The grandeur of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac Hotel will wow you. (The rates match the splendid surroundings at roughly $450 per night.) There’s also the Hôtel Château Laurier Québec, where rooms start at $121.
5. Fantasy: African Safari
Reality: Yellowstone National Park
“Our first national park is often considered America’s Serengeti. It’s a sweeping landscape that is home to bears, bison, and birds of prey,” says Lynn O’Rourke Hayes, family travel columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Incredible views, big sky, fresh air, and that no-fail kid pleaser—animals they rarely get to see in real life— make Yellowstone a forever memory on par with any exotic locale. With everything from fly-fishing to grizzlies to wolves, “visiting Yellowstone launched my children’s interest in the natural world,” O’Rourke Hayes says.
Must-Do Fun: A drive through Lamar or Hayden Valley can feel like a safari, as elk, bears, and bison drift by. During the spring and early summer, you may catch sight of a red dog. No, not Clifford. Bison babies are called (and look like) red dogs. Everyone stops by Old Faithful, but don’t miss the Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin, the largest hot spring in the country, just a few miles away. Its rainbow colors, caused by microbes, look like they can’t possibly be natural—but they are. Speaking of colors, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is arguably the most memorable site in the park. See it from Artists Point, where you can snap a photo with the pink and yellow walls of the canyon as the backdrop.
Where to Drop Your Bags: The area right around Yellowstone books well in advance during peak season. In Cody, WY, 50 miles from the east entrance, comfy digs are more affordable. At the K3 Guest Ranch Bed & Breakfast, rooms sleep six and have beds in the form of a sheepherder’s wagon, a chuck wagon, and more. Rates range from $179 to $219 per night, depending on the style of room. A package that includes a two-night stay and an eight-hour tour of Yellowstone runs $430 per person.