It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Traveling with my children, I mean.
Stacked next to each other, the hits and misses in their young traveling lives—they’re 9 and 5—reach similar heights. We’ve serendipitously stumbled upon a 1914 Herschell-Spillman carousel in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, found ourselves unexpectedly transfixed by a stunning, fiery sunset on a Sanibel Island beach, and discovered an absolute gem of a children’s theater in Minneapolis. (Separate trips, all.)
We’ve also cut short a trip to Washington, D.C., after my daughter vomited on the airport shuttle, beseeched Siri to point us to an emergency room in Wayzata, Minnesota, when my son came down with a raging ear infection, and unwittingly arrived in New York City the day before Hurricane Sandy.
It’s unpredictable, traveling with kids. It’s rarely relaxing and often expensive, and it’s anybody’s guess whether you’ll have fun. There’s a strong likelihood that, at some point, on any given trip, you’ll wish you had taken the staycation route and spent your money injecting life into your local economy. Or at least your local Chuck E. Cheese’s.
But, man, it’s worth the hassle.
I interviewed Keith Bellows after the 2013 release of his book, 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth. Bellows, who was born in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, has traveled to such far-flung spots as Turkey, Egypt, and Mongolia and views globe-trotting as a means of opening children’s hearts and minds like nothing else can. 100 Places opens with a quote attributed to St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
“What you want your kids to understand is the entire world is filled with wonder,” Bellows told me. “It’s not where you expect it, and it won’t be predictable, and it won’t be there when you want it to. The adult’s job is to instill that sense of wonder and then get out of its way.”
We live in Chicago, a beautiful city with a gleaming lakefront, world-class museums, stunning skyscrapers, storied sports teams, and the majestic Millennium Park. We ride our bikes around Buckingham Fountain. The city is filled with wonder and is, to my kids, the center of the universe.
And that’s OK, to a point. I’m all for civic pride, and I want them to develop a certain loyalty to their hometown—the place that educates and feeds them, the backdrop to their childhood memories, the ground upon which they took their first steps. But I also want them to carry the knowledge that they’re part of something greater. I want to show them places that remind them that the world is vast, gorgeous, and old. That the day-to-day complications we struggle with at home, from spelling tests to squabbles among friends, are universal but also, truly, small potatoes.
I remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time when I was 26 years old. I was newly married, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks had taken place just three weeks prior. My life was unrecognizable to me in every single way. I was terrified for my country and unsure if I’d married the right man.
Something about the sheer size of that canyon centered me in a way that forever cemented my belief in travel. I knew, staring at those craggy outcroppings and undulating lines of auburn and bronze, that I would be fine. That we all would. That we were but the latest group of folks to spend a few decades on the Earth, and that trying to predict or control our time here would be as futile as trying to wallpaper that canyon. Some things are just bigger than you.
Four years later, when I became a mom, I knew I wanted to give my daughter that same sense of place. The knowledge that she is, without a doubt, the center of my world. But she’s not the center of the world.
Her dad and I took her to Muir Woods and Disney World. To Minnesota’s North Woods and the Wisconsin Dells. We wanted her to sample it all and decide, over her lifetime, where she felt most alive. When her brother was born, we ventured far and wide as a foursome.
I’m remarried now, and we’re currently knee-deep in research for a post-Christmas family trip to Tulum, Mexico. We’ve been entertaining Tulum fantasies ever since some friends traveled there one November and graciously texted us daily photos from their beachside villa while we piled on the layers in Chicago. The itinerary will be loose—play in the sand, play in the water, play in the sand, stare at the water—but that’s sort of the point. There’s something so invigorating and calming about extracting yourself from the daily agenda of deadlines, laundry piles, gymnastics lessons, and permission slips and allowing the hours to spread out before you—unplanned, unaccounted for.
In March, we took a four-day trip to Marco Island, Florida. Our only mission was to escape Chicago’s record-breaking cold, so we didn’t do much in the way of planning. We collected shells on the beach. We cartwheeled. We played bingo and watched Singing in the Rain. And I realized,sitting in the cramped, one-bedroom rental condo, 2,300 miles from the Grand Canyon, that travel doesn’t always have to remind you how small you are. When you strip away the usual distractions and spend hours upon hours with the people you love most, you also learn how enormous you are. At least in your own little village.
And that’s breathtaking in its own right.
As you and your brood wander the lush grounds of Tulum, the 13th-century Mayan seaport two hours south of Cancún, stop to admire the hand-painted murals that adorn the Temple of the Frescoes and stand in the sole chamber of the Temple of the Descending God, where a relief of a Mayan deity guards the entrance. The only Mayan city built on the coast, Tulum was also one of the few fortified by an exterior wall—merchants here traded in high-priced turquoise and jade. El Castillo, the tallest and most iconic of the structures, sits atop a 40-foot limestone cliff overlooking the sparkling waters of the Caribbean. Soak up the commanding views, and then take the staircase down to the beach for a swim.
more relics to discover
 Take a self-guided tour of San Juan’s castillo san felipe del morro, a six-level fort built in 1539 to protect the island from invasions. Free
 A top Montego Bay attraction, the rose hall great house is one of the West Indies’ great architectural gems. Hear ghastly tales of the 18th-century plantation’s infamous owner during a candlelit tour. From $10
chart your course
a Nassau, Bahamas b Montego Bay, Jamaica c Punta Cana, Dominican Republic d San Juan, Puerto Rico e Aruba f San José, Costa Rica g Belize City, Belize
h Cancún, Mexico i Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
In Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo plunges his Nautilus submarine deep into the ocean, escaping the realities of land. If that sounds like the perfect vacation—who doesn’t want to escape from reality
every once in a while?—the Bahamas boasts some of the world’s most celebrated scuba diving. Kids as young as 10 can earn their Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) open-water certification from experts at Sandals Royal Bahamian or Bahama Divers. Once they’re comfortable, head for the James Bond wrecks made famous in Never Say Never Again and You Only Live Twice, or the Hollywood Bowl, named for the dozens of film scenes that have captured its inimitable coral gardens. Like Captain Nemo, you may never want to resurface.
more ocean quests
 Off the coast of
Cancún, more than 500 sculptures dot the seabed at the museo subacuático de arte, accessible to both divers and snorkelers. Free
 Prefer to stay dry? Try the atlantis submarine in Aruba to ogle shipwrecks, reefs, and exotic wildlife at depths of 130 feet. From $79
[ 8 ] Ride Like the Wind
fly to: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic here’s why: Watery thrills
“Paradise” is a word people tend to throw around when they describe Punta Cana, a resort town on the far eastern edge of the Dominican Republic. The beaches are ripped straight from a movie set: sugary white sands, impossible shades of blue. Get your fill of lazing about, then strap on a board, grip a kite, and go screaming across the placid waters. Kitesurfing, a combination of paragliding and surfing, has surged in popularity since its invention less than two decades ago, and was nearly included in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. Top riders have exceeded 50 mph and often leap more than 30 feet after hitting a wave, but milder crowds also enjoy the sport. Book beginner’s lessons with Kiteclub Punta Cana ($529), located in the PuntaCana Resort & Club, where waist-high waters make for ideal learning conditions. Kids as young as 12 are encouraged to get their feet wet.
more daring feats
 Channel your inner Indiana Jones and probe Belize’s actun tunichil muknal with Cayo Adventure Tours. Hike and swim through the cave to glimpse ancient Mayan pottery shards and skeletal remains. From $95
 Trek deep into
the jungle and rappel down 140-foot falls near Costa Rica’s famous arenal volcano with Desafio Adventure Co. From $99
For unparalleled undersea exploration with minimal effort, set your sights on the idyllic Dutch island of Aruba. Secluded white-sand stretches like Malmok Beach, Boca Catalina, and Mangel Halto offer easy access to coral reefs and their colorful residents: triggerfish, yellow tangs, damselfish, and parrotfish among them. Simply wade into the shallow azure waters and behold the kaleidoscope of creatures below. Even tiny travelers are sure to enjoy the show. To venture further out to sea, hop aboard one of the daily Jolly Pirates cruises. The 85-foot teak schooners, each equipped with a rope swing, make stops at several beaches and the famed shipwreck Antilla, a 400-foot German freighter that dates back to World War II. Start your day with the morning tour ($60 per person), which departs from MooMba Beach Bar & Restaurant at 9 a.m. and lasts four hours. And because you and your crew are sure to work up an appetite, a barbecue lunch—and an open bar—is included. Cheers!
more wildlife excursions
 Never witnessed avian choreography? Flock to Nassau’s ardastra gardens, zoo, and conservation centre for the thrice-daily flamingo marches. From $9
 Costa Rica’s tortuguero national park, a nesting site of the green turtle, is one of the world’s best places to watch the endangered sea creatures hatch.
Itching to go off the grid? El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, is less than 25 miles from the bustling Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. With the Luquillo Mountains as a backdrop, El Yunque’s 28,000 verdant acres provide picturesque vistas, waterfalls, and 18 well-maintained hiking trails suitable for all skill levels. (Still, little ones will likely need to sit this one out.) If it’s views you’re after, follow the Mount Britton trail, a 45-minute hike along a paved path that leads to a 1930s-era stone tower. On a clear day, ascend the structure’s circular stairway for a stunning panorama of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, as well as the north and east coasts of the island. Once you’ve caught your breath, seek out La Coca Falls, an 85-foot cascade ideal for photo ops and leisurely swims.
more inland adventures
 Drag yourself from the beach for a quick hike up Aruba’s ayo and casibari rock formations (top right). Steps have been carved into the monolithic boulders, granting easy access to the 360-degree island views. Free
 Cancún’s selvatica adventure tours (middle right) combine land and water thrills: Plop into jungle cenotes from an over-head zip-line course. From $44
 Visiting Punta Cana? Take a zip-line tour through a tropical rain forest that concludes at hoyo azul (bottom right), a shimmering blue lagoon. From $65
Once on the ground in Ambergris Caye (less than an hour by ferry or plane from Belize City), you’ll be tempted to hail one of the few cabs operating on the island, but steel your resolve to go local and rent a golf cart instead. Pile the kiddos on the back and let them revel in the breeze.
The vehicle is a statement: Speed is a vice here, timeliness a character flaw. There are plenty of must-dos on your list—hopping in a kayak and tracing the coastline, swimming with swarms of docile beasts at Shark-Ray Alley, haggling for handmade hats and pottery with a street vendor—but first, steer your cart directly to your luxurious, thatch-roofed digs at the beachside Victoria House (from $199 a night), just a few miles from the airport. Plant yourself in a hammock on the private porch. Eventually you’ll wander over to the on-site Palmilla Restaurant and ask for the chef’s special, but for now observe the strange phenomenon of your kids abandoning their iPads and decamping straight into the topaz waters.
[ 21 ] Spice Things Up
fly to: Montego Bay, Jamaica here’s why: Culinary curiosities
The exact origin of Jamaica’s proudest culinary invention may forever go unsolved, but legend has it that escaped slaves, called Maroons, perfected the flavor sometime in the 18th century while fighting British troops from their refuge in the Blue Mountains. “Jerk”—either chicken or pork—is slow-smoked over pimento wood and therefore keeps longer than flame-cooked meat (providing a reliable food supply for people evading capture). Today, follow your nose to any one of the jerk stands found on most every Jamaican street corner (the above is near Jake’s Treasure Beach Hotel, two hours south of Montego Bay). Everybody has a unique family recipe that’s been passed down for generations, but two ingredients are inarguably constant: allspice and habanero peppers. The flavor itself, like a firecracker on the tongue, is the stuff of enduring memories. Yet what your kids will forever recall: the time mom and dad took them to eat at a roadside shack and they learned that national pride takes on all types of flavors.
 caribeans coffee & chocolate, near the surfing mecca of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, offers a weeklong “Chocolate Dream Vacation” in which you craft your own batch starting from the bean. From $1,995
 community tours sian ka’an preserves the ancient Mayan method of chewing-gum cultivation. Munch on a fresh treat after watching its extraction from a chicozapote tree. From $89
Originally published July 2015
Heidi Stevens is a columnist at the Chicago Tribune.