Are you looking for a vacation destination where you and the family can avoid the crowds? Where you can stretch out and roam free? A quiet place that’s perfect for family time together, but with enough activities to keep everyone happy? Why not throw in some stunning natural landscapes, too? Well, believe it or not, such places do exist, and here are five of the best.
The Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
While you won’t find any palm trees, tropical birds, or sandy-white beaches in the Smoky Mountains, they still qualify as a paradise for family vacationers. The endlessly rolling ridges of the ancient mountains are bursting with tree species, wildlife, and breathtaking scenery – qualifying Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an UN-designated unique world ecosystem.
The small towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, nestled on the edge of the park, are crammed with attractions and fun for families, with the famous Dollywood theme and water parks, a ski area, mountain lifts, and coasters, and activities enough to get the kids exhausted with fun. The towns offer a variety of nightly shows and annual festivals. Thousands of luxury rental cabins hide among the trees with amenities such as hot tubs, arcade games, and gourmet kitchens – and stunning views. People fall in love with the Smokies and book a Pigeon Forge cabin as an annual event. The area offers hundreds of miles of trails, waterfalls, streams, and easy scenic drives.
The Florida Key of Islamorada offers gentle trade winds, pristine beaches lined with palm trees, and endless ways to relax and unwind. Situated about halfway between Miami and Key West, Islamorada (pronounced “aye-lah-moh-rah-dah”) offers access to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, making it popular with sport fishermen.
The warm climate and abundant sunshine mean that swimming, boating, snorkeling, and napping on the beach are always in-season. If the kids insist on going to a theme park, the family-owned aquatic park, Theater of the Sea, offers a unique experience where you can swim with sea lions, dolphins, and even sharks. Whether you picnic in a tiki hut at Founders Park or get a table with a water view at one of Islamorada’s dozens of seafood restaurants, be sure to try the Key Lime pie.
Kauna’oa Bay, Hawaii
Located on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, Kauna’oa Bay (aka Mauna Kea Beach) features a crescent-shaped beach with clear, calm blue water and the whitest sand in Hawaii. Its secluded location and gentle slope make it perfect for sunbathing, building sandcastles with the kids, or curling up with a good book. Mauna Kea’s two coral reefs and calm waters also make it perfect for swimming, snorkeling, paddleboarding, and body surfing.
For a break from the sand and surf, head over to Parker Ranch, one of the nation’s largest privately-owned cattle ranches. Nestled between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes, the sprawling ranch produces 15 million pounds of grass-fed beef every year from its 20,000 head of cattle. There are plenty of family activities at the ranch, including wagon rides, tours, and rodeos (during the summer months). Of course, no trip to Hawaii would be complete without a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park is home to Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano and among the world’s most active.
Palm trees, colorful cottages, powder-white beaches, and teal-green waters give Seaside, Florida, its paradise feel. Tucked away along the Emerald Coast between Panama City and Destin, Seaside earned the title “The Best Beach on Earth for Families” from Travel + Leisure Magazine. The beach and the town never get overly crowded thanks to themed rental cottages of all sizes making up the majority of lodging options, in a walkable town designed for visitors to feel like locals, and with most streets offering fun stroll to the beach. Seaside restaurants cook up everything from steak to smoothies, and most offer outdoor or beachside dining. You might also recognize Seaside as the location for Jim Carrey’s 1998 hit movie “The Truman Show.”
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
You may not associate glaciers, beluga whales, and snow-covered mountains with the word “paradise.” But those are just a few of the attractions that make Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, a paradise in its own right. Situated at the edge of the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska, Kenai Fjords boasts crystal-clear mountain lakes, lush rainforest ecosystems, and abundant wildlife.
The park’s greatest attraction is the Harding Icefield, comprising almost 40 glaciers, and flowing water down to the gateway town of Seward. Area wildlife cruises for half or full days offer an easy way for families to spot beluga and humpback whales, as well as otters and sea lions. One of the national park’s main attractions, Exit Glacier, is accessible by car and also has many short and easily managed trails with spectacular views. The Exit Glacier Nature Center offers a short film detailing the park’s history, along with a bookstore and rangers on site who will answer questions about the park.