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From Alaska to Antarctica: 5 Fantastic Family Travel Adventures

Shelley Fry

From Alaska to Antarctica: 5 Fantastic Family Travel Adventures

Shelley Fry

When did you start building your legacy? Have you been pursuing it purposefully for decades? Did you wake up and discover it one day, or are you still searching for how to make your mark on the world?

For me it began in Paris—as many love affairs do—on a whirlwind high school graduation trip. We wandered the Louvre’s courtyard, illuminated by the not-quite-finished glass pyramids, and my mother and I dashed through the Musée D’Orsay for a glimpse of Impressionist masterpieces. I was smitten. I had inherited the travel bug my mother caught on her own graduation trip to Corsica in the late 1960s, and an insatiable desire to explore the world began.

Europe family vacation in 1988

Travel can be a powerful, transformative experience.
Having felt the chill of an Antarctic glacier, watched a polar bear lumber across the Arctic sea ice, and been welcomed to a village in Papua New Guinea by a gaggle of bright-eyed children, I have become a wiser and more compassionate person. Your experiences may have been different from mine, but as a fellow traveler I imagine you can relate.

It is a tremendous gift to share your sense of curiosity and adventure. My mother has also shared her sense of adventure with my daughter through their annual “Gramma Camp.” What started as summer sleepovers with day trips to the beach culminated in a graduation trip to Iceland.

Iceland family vacation in 2017

And the tradition continues. My daughter and I have snorkeled with salmon in a chilly Pacific Northwest river (really!), awoken to the sound of scarlet macaws in Costa Rica, had a Galapagos sea lion blow bubbles in our faces, and—most recently—shared an adventure to South Georgia Island and Antarctica during her senior year of high school. She turned 20 this year and is pursuing a degree in Oceanography, and for the first time I’ve recognized a legacy starting to take shape.

Having made a career in the expedition travel world, I’ve had the great joy of helping countless travelers explore the far corners of our planet. I have been excited for every single one of them, but I have a special place in my heart for the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who share the world with the young people in their lives. The world will be a better place for it. As Sir David Attenborough said, “No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Do you have young people in your life who might benefit from seeing the world through a new lens? The investment in their global education beyond the classroom will not only bring you closer, but travel with family will pay dividends for years to come.

Inspiration to get you started
Just what are the best places to travel with kids? I’ll share a few of my family travel favorites below. Though they might not all appear in mainstream travel guides, lucky for you they are to destinations accessible by small ship—which makes planning your family holidays a breeze.

Alaska family vacation in 2006

Alaska Family Vacations
One of the best destinations for multi-generational families, Alaska’s Inside Passage is best explored aboard a small vessel. I worked with a grandmother who took each of her grandchildren anywhere they wanted when they turned 8, and two of them chose Alaska.

From the iconic bald eagle to coastal brown bears and humpback whales, Alaska’s wildlife is abundant and the glaciers are impressive as well. I suggest choosing an Alaskan cruise focusing on wilderness instead of ports. Having multiple activity options is important, especially when traveling with kids, so make sure there are opportunities to hike, kayak, and explore by Zodiac.

The National Geographic Sea Lion and National Geographic Sea Bird, along with the newer National
Geographic Quest, 
are ideal for exploring secluded inlets. The stand-out benefit of the small National Geographic Alaska cruise ships is the expedition staff—including an undersea specialist—who will help bring the destination to life for you as well as your young traveling companions.

This is easily the best “starter” expedition cruise for kids from grade school through high school… and beyond!

Baja's desert landscape and sculpted serene bays

Baja Mexico Cruise
Need a dose of sunshine during the winter months? Put Baja and the Sea of Cortez on your list for a warm winter vacation. A few small expedition ships migrate south for the winter, taking in the best of both sides of Baja. The draw is two-fold—the Sea of Cortez, once called “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau, and the Pacific lagoons where gray whale mothers give birth to their calves. A few years ago a client sent me a priceless photo from the trip she took with her 7-year-old. Her daughter was thrilled to be looking into the eye of a gray whale calf who was looking right back at her. A lifetime passion began in Baja, and that inspired more trips to other great places for whale watching since then. 

For this destination, timing is key. The ‘Among the Great Whales’ itinerary is not only well-timed during the birthing season, but it also allows for three full days in the lagoons. Some ships stay in the Sea of Cortez and bus their passengers over to the lagoons for just one day, so be careful when choosing a Baja trip. If gray whale watching is your focus, opt for an itinerary that spends at least a couple days in Bahia Magdalena.

Galapagos Island family vacation in 2007

Galapagos Islands Vacations
This is among the best “big” trips for lovers of nature and wildlife, but Galapagos travel is easier than you might think.
Mainland Ecuador can be reached from Miami in less time than it takes to fly from New York to Los Angeles, then it’s a quick flight out to the archipelago after an overnight stay in Guayaquil or Quito.

I took my daughter to the Galapagos Islands when she was 9, and I’ve helped dozens of families plan their own Galapagos cruise adventure: parents plus kids from about 5 through young adulthood, grandparents and grandchildren, and even extended multi-generational families celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary. As long as you pack your sense of wonder, sunscreen, and sturdy footwear to navigate rocky, uneven paths, you cannot go wrong with this destination.

Since tourism is tightly controlled in Galapagos National Park—in order to protect the unique wildlife and environment—most licensed vessels will afford you the opportunity to have a front-row seat to the incredible animals. It’s important to know that among those vessels, though, there is a vast range of guide quality, comfort, and overall experience.

All Galapagos ships carry 100 passengers or less, but smaller does not mean better here. From first-hand experience on three different ships of varying sizes, I can tell you that guests feel the effects of the weather and swell much more aboard a 16-20 passenger yacht. Unless you and your young traveling companions are accustomed to fairly open ocean aboard a small yacht, I suggest selecting a vessel carrying 40-100 guests. The kids will likely meet other travelers their own age, too, which adds a fun dimension.

And finally, I have worked with many single parents and grandparents who were nervous about taking this trip on their own. I did that myself—with a 9-year-old who spoke better Spanish than I did—and I found it to be a very easy trip. Language is not an issue when you choose a program that includes hotel nights and transfers on the mainland, as the National Geographic Endeavour II, National Geographic Islander and Silver Galapagos do. There is someone with you every step of the way, which helps you feel safe while you’re having a grand adventure.

Bonus tip: If you have the time, travel on to Peru and visit the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. This combination of natural history and culture is one of the best overall itineraries in all of South America.

Arctic cruise polar bear watching in 2013

Norwegian Arctic Cruises
With so many incredible places to explore, it can sometimes be difficult to prioritize a lengthy travel wish list. If you haven’t been to Svalbard yet, I would without a doubt recommend prioritizing the Arctic. The “cold coasts” may seem impervious to change, but the Land of the Ice Bear is in flux.

Svalbard—sometimes referred to as Spitsbergen, after the largest island in the archipelago—lies well above the Arctic Circle and is home to a few thousand polar bears. While polar bears haven’t been hunted in this region for several decades, environmental changes are a threat. In all my travels, few things compare to the thrill of watching these massive creatures cross the sea ice. This is one experience you cannot miss!

Though any wildlife-loving, well-traveled child could enjoy this family adventure, my recommendation is to wait until the tween or teen years to tackle an Arctic adventure. There can be plenty of activity, including kayaking and hikes across the tundra, but this is not a non-stop action destination.

Polar bears are generally spread out, and it takes skill to spot a creamy white animal on the white sea ice from a couple miles away! Because of that, young travelers on this trip must be content to watch for whales from the bridge, play games, work on puzzles, or read in between wildlife sightings and going ashore. If wildlife is nearby, the staff and officers aboard the small expedition ships will find it—and they will announce it, even in the wee hours of the morning!

Though some Svalbard trips depart well into July and August, I recommend early to mid-June—before the ice has receded too much—for the best chances of seeing polar bears.

Antarctica photography tour and cruise

Antarctica Cruises & Travel
If the Arctic is a subtle art gallery of ice sculptures and majestic beasts, Antarctica is a hit Broadway show. The ice is massive, raucous but well-dressed penguins are everywhere, and you’ll have bragging rights for years. Oceanographer and National Geographic speaker Jennifer Hayes once said in a talk I attended, “If there’s one place you should go in your lifetime, it’s Antarctica. It will change the fabric of your life.” She’s right.

Even in my early 30s, my first Antarctic experience changed the course of my life. My mother took me on a National Geographic cruise aboard the now-retired National Geographic Endeavour after my father passed away, and it remains one of my most precious memories. Later I was thrilled to help a dad book an Antarctic expedition for his daughter as a college graduation gift. While it becomes more difficult to schedule travel with older teens and young adults, with some advance planning you can snag the perfect option over the winter holidays.

I recently had the great fortune to be able to pay it forward to my own daughter. Just 18 at the time, she already loved the ocean but was deciding on her own educational path. We left the day after her finals, the two of us celebrated Christmas aboard the Ocean Endeavour in the Southern Ocean, and we returned the day before the next semester started. Every single penny I invested in that trip was worth it, because she will carry that experience—our shared experience—forever.

Antarctica family vacation in 2015

My fellow traveler, what do you hold most dear? Whom can you share it with, and how can you inspire them to experience the mind-boggling beauty of our planet? If Sir Attenborough is right, sharing your passion for the world with others is an investment with immeasurable positive returns.