1. Bulls Island, South Carolina
The alligators were hard to spot at first. But as soon as my nine-year-old twins, Cooper and Addie, saw one, they couldn’t stop seeing them. Sometimes it was just their eyes and snouts poking out of the water. Other times the lazy dinosaurs were full-out tanning on the sand. In theory we came to this uninhabited barrier island 25 miles north of Charleston for its beach, seven miles of undeveloped white sand facing the Atlantic Ocean. But it was this inland hike, where suddenly we weren’t the top of the food chain, that had the biggest impact on us.
2. Johns Brook Lodge, Keene Valley, New York
Early in her life, my daughter Oaklee’s refusal to sleep in a tent meant that my wife and I couldn’t either. But two summers ago, we discovered Johns Brook Lodge, a nearly century-old refuge in the Adirondacks’ High Peaks Wilderness. Operated by the Adirondack Mountain Club, the four-bunkroom outpost sleeps 28, offers meal service in the summer, and is accessible by foot from the hamlet of Keene Valley. After a rolling 3.5-mile hike up the Phelps Trail, the forest opened to reveal the unassuming lodge. Inside, the great room was abuzz over a family-style dinner of barbecued chicken and roasted veggies.
3. Zion National Park, Utah
“It’s virtually flat,” I told everybody. While that was true, what the description of Zion’s Canyon Overlook Trail failed to mention was that the footing can be dicey and the mile-long route skirts an airy ledge. At the midway point, I could tell that my kids, Lily, Beck, and Nina, ages seven, five, and two, would rather be back at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, with its zip line, climbing wall, mini golf, pool, and hot tub (suites $513; camping from $34). But I also knew that the final view was one of the most stunning in the park.
4. Punta Mita, Mexico
The easy flight into Puerto Vallarta and the hourlong drive to the quiet beach town of Punta Mita felt like a manageable undertaking with my daughter, Nora, then age two, and our nine-month-old son, Otis, in tow. We rented beach toys and floaties from a company called Baby Vallarta, so the kids were too busy building sandcastles with my husband to notice me wading out to a waiting boat. It was my turn on the shuttle we’d arranged through local surf shop WildMex to chauffeur us to La Lancha, a mellow offshore break just minutes from Punta Mita’s taquerias.
5. San Diego, California
In December, my wife and I had just -welcomed a third child, Zevi, and we were looking for an easy destination with something for the wholefamily. That’s a concept San Diego has been marketing successfully for decades. It’s got the world-famous San Diego Zoo, gorgeous kid-friendly coastal hikes in Torrey Pines State Park, and a string of beaches that cater to everyone from beginner boogie boarders to expert surfers. But if you’d asked my oldest kids, Olive, 11, and Cash, eight, we were visiting for one reason only: Legoland. To children it’s a heavenly theme park with massive Lego installations and scary-fun roller coasters.