"If you're looking for a fantastic place to bring a toddler, Maui is it," says Sandy Fox, who went on a vacation there with her husband, Randy, and their 16-month-old daughter, Emma. "It's a tropical paradise waiting to be explored." To cut costs, the Mount Prospect, Illinois, family rented a condo and cooked most of their own meals.
Maui has more miles of swimmable beaches than any other Hawaiian island. "We visited a different beach every day -- including one with dramatic black sand," Sandy says. "And we drove to the town of Hana, near a scenic preserve where we held Emma's hands as she waded in the Seven Sacred Pools -- waterfall pools that cascade into the sea."
The couple even managed to do some snorkeling. "We took turns playing on the beach with Emma," Sandy explains. "Black Sand Beach was our favorite because of all the sea turtles in the water, but we saw brilliant tropical fish off every beach." And by renting fins and masks for the week rather than by the day, they saved money. To share the sea-life fun with Emma, the Foxes visited the Maui Ocean Center in Ma'alaea (800-248-5828), where their daughter was mesmerized by sharks, stingrays, and jellyfish.
The Foxes also loved the Old Lahaina Luau -- a traditional buffet and evening of dance, chant, and song. "It was definitely worth the expense to get a sense of Hawaiian history and the feeling that you're somewhere special," Sandy says. "And this luau is very family-friendly; they even have high chairs." (808-661-5705, www.oldlahainaluau.com).
"We stayed at the oceanfront Kahana Reef in a one-bedroom condo," Sandy says. "One of my favorite memories is sitting on our balcony at sunset, sipping a mai tai and listening to the waves." Condos start at $115 per night (800-822-4409, www.kahanareef.com). The beachfront Ka'anapali Beach Hotel offers a program for children under 13, and kids under 5 eat free. Rooms start at $190 (800-262-8450, www.kbhmaui.com).
For more information, call 800-525-6284 or visit www.visitmaui.com.
When it comes to the perfect family escape, the Nulls, of Glen Allen, Virginia, have a hands-down favorite. "Our best vacation was a trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains," says Rusti Null, who camped there with her husband, Jeff, and kids, Siani, 4, and Savannah, 2. "It was the first time our girls had been camping and only the second time for my husband, which made it unforgettable for all of us."
"There are no phones, no TVs, no distractions, and no stress, so you can enjoy simply hanging out as a family," Rusti says. "We hiked the nature trails and played in a waterfall -- it beats the neighborhood pool any day. We cooked our meals over an open fire and slept in a tent, which was the biggest treat of all. The girls toasted marshmallows, giggled, talked, and played with their flashlights until they couldn't keep their eyes open." The campground also provides a great Junior Ranger program, Rusti says. And in the summer, the park offers night-sky telescope viewing once a month.
The Nulls pitched their tent in Big Meadows Campground, which has shower facilities and boasts three waterfalls within hiking distance ($17 per site, 800-365-2267). If you're not up to camping, try a cabin (from $59) or a room at Skyland Lodge (from $79, 800-999-4714). The lodge features pony rides and a playground and is famous for its blackberry-ice-cream pie.
For more information, call 540-999-3500 or visit www.nps.gov/shen.
Karen Alman, of Springfield, Oregon, is convinced that the Oregon Coast is one of the Pacific Northwest's best vacation spots. So that's where she and her husband, Russell, headed with their kids, Alexis, 6, and Aaron, 5, when they wanted a relaxing three-day escape. "We rented a cozy guest house in the town of Yachats -- about a half hour south of Newport -- and explored the area."
Even though the water's too brisk for swimming, kids will never get bored here. "We watched sea lions from the cliff tops, gathered sand dollars on the beach, and explored rocky sea caves," Karen says. "On our second day, we hiked to a quaint lighthouse and played. And our kids loved visiting the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where they can run and roll down the steep sand banks." The next time the Almans visit, they plan to stop at Newport's Oregon Coast Aquarium to see jewel-like jellyfish and giant Pacific octopuses (541-867-3474).
The family rented a two-bedroom SeaRose cottage across the street from the beach. "We could see the ocean from our window," Karen says. Rooms start at $45 (541-689-1679). Near Newport is the LawrenSea Oceanside Motel, which has a private trail down to a beach (from $50, 888-867-4305).
For more information, contact the Oregon Coast Visitors Association (888-628-2101, www.visittheoregoncoast.com).
When Kim and Chris Bernth decided to surprise their 5-year-old daughter, Megan, with a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for her kindergarten graduation, they hoped the trip would be a success. And it couldn't have been better for this Remsenburg, New York, family. "We arrived with our windows open to catch the delicious chocolate smell -- and what a beautiful park!" Kim says.
What's not to love about an amusement park devoted to chocolate where 7-foot-tall Hershey Bars wander around? Kim was especially impressed with the park's range of rides and welcoming atmosphere, and Megan loved the low-key Wildcat coaster and the water rides. "The first day, we spent about six hours in the park, on the rides and touring the chocolate factory," Kim says. "Then, after dinner, we came back to watch the parade."
During the weekend, the Bernths also visited the adjacent zoo. "It was surprisingly large, shady, and quiet," Kim says. "And it had plenty of animals."
The Bernths stayed in an efficiency unit at the Milton Motel. "We wanted something nearby that had a kitchen," Kim says. Rooms start at $59 a night in season (866-645-8664, www.miltonmotel.com). Family-oriented Hershey Lodge has several swimming pools and restaurants. Rooms start at $209 during the vacation season. Campgrounds are nearby ($31 a night).
For more information, call 800-437-7439 or visit www.hersheypark.com.