Add some flavor to your family vacation this year with a trip south of the border.
While on vacation in Mexico, my family has done everything from dancing at public fiestas and scaling Mayan pyramids to snorkeling around Technicolor reefs. And every minute of our adventure has been a blast. But what really keeps us coming back is the fact that the culture here really seems to cherish children.
A waiter in Playa del Carmen, for instance, let my son, who was 4 at the time, scribble on his order pad. Then there was the bartender at an Isla Mujeres beach bar who strung up a hammock for him to nap in. And I haven't even mentioned how the hotel clerks in every area of the country spoil him with candy at check-in.
Mexico's coastal hot spots offer sun and sand -- and something even better: genuine warmth. Check out one of these kid-friendly destinations for your family vacation.
Best for Active Families
Spanning an 81-mile stretch of Caribbean coast, this destination on the Yucatan Peninsula is home to Mayan ruins and pristine snorkeling coves.
Family Fun: At the airport, rent a car to explore the area's many attractions. While some of the hotels offer shuttles, you'll save time and money driving yourself. Plus, the top-rate four-lane highway is tourist-friendly and runs the length of the beautiful coast.
Start your Mexican adventure off here by checking out the clifftop Tulum, an amazing Mayan ruin that is perfect for a day trip: You can use it as the backdrop for a great family photo, and there's even a beach for swimming. Just make sure to beat the crowds -- and heat -- by getting there in the morning.
The area is also known for its eco-parks (nature theme parks with recreational rides). Xel-Ha, for example, is developed around a cove that's home to many brightly colored reef fish, and it's great for snorkeling. And the bigger, Mayan-themed Xcaret has an unbelievable underground river that carries swimmers through caverns en route to the sea. It also has a replica of a Mayan village, a butterfly pavilion, and a dolphin swim program. If that's not enough to keep the kids entertained, visit the pedestrian-only Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue) in nearby Playa del Carmen, which is jam-packed with souvenirs, shops, and restaurants.
Hotel Highlights: Gran Porto Real caters to families, with kids' activities daily, all-suite accommodations, and a convenient location. The well-equipped kids' club at Sunscape Puerto Aventuras features a rock-climbing wall, big-screen movies on the beach, and weekly overnight camp-outs. And the Fairmont Mayakoba, which reserves one of its five pools exclusively for kids, features nature trails and takes guests around the property by boat.
Best for Nature Lovers
At the tip of the 1,000-mile-long Baja Peninsula, the towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas collectively make up this destination. Between them lie 20 miles of rugged coastline, complete with ritzy resorts and cactus-studded golf courses.
Family Fun: Resorts in Los Cabos tend to be a bit upscale, attracting vacationers with deluxe spas, designer golf courses, and elaborate pools. But venturing beyond them -- either with a rental car or by taking organized tours -- will introduce your kids to a cool ecosystem where the desert meets the sea. It's also a great place to see gray whales that migrate to the region each fall. Most of the time, your family can spot them spouting from shore, but for a better view, take a whale-watching cruise on a catamaran or powerboat.
Hire a panga, a water taxi, to take you from the beach to El Arco, an arched rock at the end of the peninsula and the region's big landmark. It's home to a fascinating sea-lion colony. For a more adventurous trek, you can also kayak there with Baja Wild, which offers guided outings in two-seater boats.
If you're looking for something a little less strenuous, check out Santa Maria Bay, where the water is calm and teeming with reef fish, which makes it great for snorkeling with kids. Or see the desert (without getting sunstroke) by signing up with Baja Outback for a naturalist-led tour over the rutted roads in a terrain-tough Humvee.
At night, divide your dinner hours between the twin Cabo settlements. San Jose del Cabo is quieter, with a historic church and central plaza ideal for an after-dinner stroll. You may hear that Cabo San Lucas has a party scene, but don't be deterred: A variety of restaurants, a lush marina, and ample shopping make it fun for families too.
Hotel Highlights: Villa La Estancia offers family-ready villas equipped with full kitchens, and a pool with a fountain and hidden grottos. Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort has a protected beach cove for tranquil ocean swimming. It also has games, arts and crafts, and scheduled activities for kids. For a splurge, the exclusive One & Only Palmilla offers a Kids Only Club featuring golf and tennis clinics, yoga classes, Spanish lessons, and pinata-making.
Best for an Authentic Experience
Nestled between the ocean and the mountains halfway down the Pacific Coast, this historic town is both quaint and lively.
Family Fun: Stroll along the vibrant Malecon waterfront, where bands play traditional Mexican folk music and vendors hawk balloons, fruit, and souvenirs in a carnival-like atmosphere. Stop by the Isla Rio Cuale outdoor market to buy authentic crafts and toys. Make sure to find time to take in the old-world Mexican architecture and to sample the local food.
Kids will love the wide variety of vacation activities that are available, including the beaches and the unique dolphin interaction program for children ages 4 to 8 at Vallarta Adventures. Kids who are at least four feet, five inches tall can "swim" with sea lions, and children ages 8 and up can ride zip lines through the tropical rain-forest treetops for a thrilling "canopy tour." And don't miss out on a cruise to the Marietas Islands, a marine reserve made famous by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Your family can also try snorkeling or kayaking -- and perhaps even spot the humpback whales that arrive here annually to breed between December and April.
Hotel Highlights: CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa lets kids take part in the seasonal (from around the beginning of August through December) release of newly hatched sea turtles and offers pottery-painting classes with local artisans. Farther north, 30 minutes from town, the Villa del Palmar Flamingos has a kitchen in each spacious unit. The Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita offers sea-lion snorkeling encounters from its beach and Mexican craft-making.
Best for a Beach Getaway
On a barrier isle that skirts the northern Yucatan coast, this Mexican hot spot is the most touristy of the bunch and also the easiest to reach for most Americans. There are frequent direct flights from New York, Chicago, and Dallas.
Family Fun: If your family is all about the three S's (sun, surf, and sand), this is the destination for you. The white sands and aquamarine shallows here are so spectacular, in fact, that the Mexican government transformed the area from a fishing village into a glitzy vacation mecca.
After basking on the beach, take your kids on a snorkeling outing and see the great Mayan Reef from a dive boat at Aquaworld, or take part in a dolphin program where children ages 3 and up can pet these sea creatures and kids over four feet tall can swim with them; dolphinaris.com. And don't forget to squeeze in a bit of culture as well. Cancun is a cushy base for exploring the Yucatan, including the great Mayan ceremonial center, Chichen Itza.
Hotel Highlights: The JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa caters to families and offers nail and hair services for those as young as 6. The kids' club at Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa offers supervised aquatic games and art and cooking lessons. The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun has "itsy-bitsy" baby rooms with cribs, changing tables, and phones that light up instead of ringing (for your little nappers).