By Karen Hendricks
Every year around February, it hits me. The winter blues. Time to start thinking about summer and reminding myself that it’s right around the corner—hopefully—before any more snowstorms hit. Planning and dreaming about a summer vacation help to get me through the winter blahs! That is traditionally the time our family plans, makes reservations, and marks the calendar for our summer destination(s).
When Memorial Day weekend comes, “the unofficial start to summer,” we know those vacation plans will soon be here, whether we’re headed to the beach, mountains, cities or amusement parks, and whether travel is for a day trip, weekend and/or vacation week. I loved fellow writer Jennifer’s post earlier this week about “Summer Fun in Your Own Backyard.” Lots of great, money-saving tips! I realize not every family has a vacation budget, but there are some wonderful, thrifty ways to “get away” without breaking the bank. My husband and I feel that taking a vacation is a priority so even during times when finances were tight for us, we found a way to make getaways a reality. We even keep one specific scrapbook specifically for vacation highlights through the years—and they are some of our fondest memories.
I recently conducted a family poll and we made a list of some of our favorite, family-friendly destinations through the years. Hopefully some of our tips and ideas will inspire you! (Please note, as is the case with every article on Off the Merry-Go-Round, we do not accept compensation for reviews or endorsements—of products, services, events, other websites, etc. All ideas and suggestions are truly our own.)
Footprints in the sand, in Bethany Beach, Delaware
1. Bethany Beach, Delaware
This family-friendly beach has everything we love: clean beaches, a boardwalk, cute shops and plenty of activities nearby such as mini-golf, restaurants, museums, etc. The beach is not a huge sprawling beach, which we like because you don’t feel lost in a sea of people, and it’s easier to keep track of the kids. We like to stay in South Bethany, which is quiet and mostly residential. There’s a good mix of affordable rental houses just a short walk to the beach, and we always come prepared to cook dinner in-house several nights so that we can splurge and go out to dinner several nights as well. Entertainment and dining options are close-by in two larger beach towns–Rehoboth Beach, DE and/or Ocean City, MD. The town of Bethany is simply charming, with a style similar to Cape May, NJ. (Click here to visit the Delaware Tourism website for more info on Bethany).
One of our favorite spots in Bermuda: exploring Horseshoe Bay
We splurged and took the family on a cruise to Bermuda several years ago to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We chose Bermuda on the advice of our travel agent at AAA and it turned out to be excellent advice. Bermuda is not only beautiful, but very family-friendly with numerous gorgeous beaches and things to do. The cruise itself was wonderful—I highly recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines. Leaving out of New York City was an awesome experience! We took the train from PA directly into NY (and avoided parking fees), then cruised out of Manhattan past the Statue of Liberty and other NYC landmarks. It started the vacation with a bang! We stuck to our budget as planned and did not opt for add-in packages such as additional guided excursions; we still had plenty of fun, both on-board the cruise and during our stay in Bermuda. We purchased 3-day bus passes (for pink buses!) to get around Bermuda, which was an ideal, affordable way to travel and see the entire island, visiting different beaches and landmarks every day. My son was thrilled to enjoy at least one (sometimes two) ice cream cones a day on the cruise ship… that was one of the highlights of the vacation for him! (Click here to visit the Bermuda Department of Tourism’s website… the photos are breath-taking.)
I think it’s important to plan a “big” trip every few years, especially to celebrate milestone moments. We celebrated our 15th anniversary with a family trip to Disneyworld which was incredible and still very affordable. That will have to be a separate blog post for another day!
Family pic after climbing to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Racing down the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Kitty Hawk
Learning how to ride the waves along the Outer Banks
3. The Outer Banks, North Carolina
From Duck to Kill Devil Hills, Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks are dotted with lots of family-friendly beach towns. Prices for vacation rentals and/or hotels vary widely but there are plenty of affordable options. When our children were younger, I preferred staying near beaches that were patrolled by lifeguards; lots of the smaller beach towns do not have lifeguards on duty. Cape Hatteras is an example of one beach where lifeguards are present. There are plenty of things to do nearby, if you have a rainy day or if you need a break from the beach. One excursion I highly recommend is Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Kitty Hawk, where you can not only learn about the Wright Brothers taking flight, but you can trek across and run down the huge sand dunes. Fun and great exercise! There are plenty of great restaurants and touristy areas, but many of the towns along the Outer Banks also retain their quiet, residential status for a true “getaway.” (Click here for the official Outer Banks tourism website.)
The Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park
4. Shenandoah National Park
Renting a cabin for a week at Shenandoah was a great way for my family to experience “camping” without truly roughing it with tents, etc. (We have stayed in cabins/lodges at a number of national and state parks and both are fun, affordable options.) Located in Virginia, the Skyline Drive through the park is literally beautiful at every winding turn. We saw plenty of deer and even several bears during our trip a few years ago. Our family really enjoys adventures such as going on nature hikes and there are plenty of trail options at Shenandoah. One specific hike will remain a topic of conversation for years to come, because mid-way through a 10 or 12 mile hike one day, it began raining. A gentle shower turned into torrential rains and a “shortcut” trail turned out longer than our original route. Once we reached a key road, my hero of a husband ending up running two miles (still in the rain) to the car in order to pick us all up. We were drenched, several times over, but we can laugh about it now. Events like that are never “planned,” but they sure do make memories… and we can laugh about it now. (This link will take you to the National Park Service’s website for Shenandoah.)
The classic carousel at Hershey Park is the one pictured at the top of our website!
5. Hershey Park / Knoebel’s Grove
It’s hard to imagine summertime without a trip to an amusement park! Two options in our “backyard” are Hershey Park located in Hershey, PA and Knoebel’s Grove located in Elysburg, PA. Our family has enjoyed a day trip to Hershey every year for as long as I can remember—it must be 15 summers now. We always spend a full day there, from opening to closing. There are plenty of kids’ rides, family-friendly rides such as the park train, and then thrill-seeking rides (for the teens and brave adults). When the kids were younger, we especially enjoyed taking a break from rides by visiting the zoo that’s located in the park for a change of pace. There are also performers here and there throughout the park—my family really enjoyed a rhythm performance similar to “Stomp” a year or two ago. There is also an entire section of the park devoted to water slides which we’ve enjoyed on super-hot days. Since it’s an expense for those of us with larger families, we usually look for discounted tickets available through area grocery stores, and we usually pack a lunch (picnic facilities are available near the parking areas) but purchase dinner inside the park. (Here’s the link to Hershey Park.)
You’re never too old for a photo with the Hershey’s characters!
Knoebel’s Grove is the quintessential old-fashioned amusement park with lots of charming rides. A huge, old-fashioned ferris wheel at the park entrance sets the tone. Mixed in with plenty of kiddie rides for younger family members are thrilling rides to keep teens on the edge of their seats. They offer a twist on admission and pricing: Admission to the park is free, with several options available for ride tickets. There are special days when you can “pay one price” to enjoy all/any rides, or you can purchase ride tickets in batch quantities to use them as you go through the park (but don’t put the tickets in a shirt pocket and ride an upside-down roller coaster as your first ride of the day… as one of my family members learned, you WILL lose your tickets… oops). There is a large picnic grove where you can enjoy lunch or dinner if you’d rather pack your own meals. Knoebel’s is especially a good option if you have family members who want to join you for a day at the park, but really don’t enjoy riding rides. Since admission is free, it’s easy for them to still get “in” on the family fun. (Click this link to visit the Knoebel’s Grove website.)
Knoebel’s classic ferris wheel lights up the night
What are some of your family’s favorite vacation destinations? Feel free to share your ideas and tips below and join the conversation. Wishing you a fun-filled summer!