Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Courtesy of Alyssa Shelasky/Courtesy Blackberry Farms/Courtesy Brush Creek Ranch/Courtesy Christian Horan/Courtesy Four Seasons Anguilla/Courtesy Maisons Pariente
I can’t remember if it was after my toddler nearly burned down the Parker Palm Springs by knocking over some candle lanterns or when I accidentally shattered a crystal goblet, while trying to shampoo her hair with it, at the Camden Harbour Inn in Maine. But sometime around 2017, I decided to quit hotels. Travel, and travel writing, had been an important part of my life for years. So when I decided to take a break under the banner of “vacations with kids suck,” it felt crushing. But it also felt right.
My hotel hiatus lasted a few years, during which time I had another baby and a global pandemic arrived. But those early months of COVID-19 — replete with lockdown, homeschooling, extreme stress, fear, and, for me, a book deal with a tight deadline — left me desperately jonesing for a hotel escape. And it had to be glam; I felt too depleted for a scrappy adventure. I craved spicy margaritas and chakra massages; I wanted to eat an overpriced Caesar salad with green-goddess dressing by an infinity pool while finally reading Emma Straub’s All Adults Here. And I was willing to shell out for it, on one condition: I had to find a place where I could offload my kids for several hours a day. No exceptions.
In my pre-parenthood travels, I had heard about kids’ clubs but paid little attention to the concept. Like, Cool, whatever, not relevant. When I looked closer, I found out that a kids’ club was a designated playroom of sorts, where hotel guests can drop off their children and leave them in the capable hands of staff; that it’s kind of like summer camp but exists year-round at the hotels that provide them. “Kids clubs have been around for decades, but over the past ten years, they’ve evolved into something mandatory at most family-oriented hotels,” says Alexis Sherry, an agent at AS Travel Pro, which books luxury trips for its clients. “Hotels feel it’s their responsibility to help parents decompress, so they’ve had to up their game with working parents.”
I chose to escape my personal burnout at the Shore Club in Turks & Caicos (from $520), after collecting recommendations from both travel-writer friends and Facebook groups for moms-in-the-know. We flew there late last fall, and when we arrived, I cried. It’s an overwhelmingly zen haven, with the warm turquoise sea almost everywhere you turn. And, crucially, it has the Jungle Jam kids’ club. Every morning, my partner and I dropped our two kids off at the little tropical club, which was part-sand park, part-arts-and-crafts room. The children and the staff wore face masks, and there were only a few other kids there, so it felt okay, Covid-wise. The Jungle Jam opens at 9 a.m. and can entertain little ones until 5 p.m., and it doesn’t require a reservation or signing up ahead of time. The cost is baked into the room rate (whether you have kids or not). For hours a day, my kids painted seashells, crafted jewelry, and made friends. Meanwhile, I was lying on a beach with my eyes closed in bliss.
A few months later, I pitched a story on learning to ski as a 40-something, and my family found itself in Aspen, staying at the Limelight Hotel Snomass (from $600 during peak season and $229 during off-peak. Full disclosure: I got a dirt-cheap media rate). I know a handful of Colorado ski bums, and they all said the Limelight was known for its kid-friendliness — the restaurant menu offers plenty of pizza and chili, and family movies are screened at night. Each day, I checked my kids into the Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center, a massive play zone for kids up to age 7 right off the slopes. Older kids can hang there too, in theory, but usually they want to be outdoors skiing or snowboarding. While I gleefully fell on my ass all day and then joined the après-ski scene, my kids drank hot cocoa, made puppets, and listened to story hour. Rates for the Treehouse vary depending on whether your kids want to ski or not, ranging from about $130 (no ski lessons) to $300 (private ski lessons) per day. Like all things in Aspen, it’s not cheap.
Our next big trip is to Anguilla in February. I’ve longed to return to the Caribbean island since going in 2005 for a juicy reporting assignment after Brad (Pitt) and Jennifer (Aniston) announced their divorce while there. A trusted working-mom friend (with great taste and a healthy travel budget) told me that the best kids’ club on the island is at The Four Seasons (from $625). When I looked it up, I swooned. The Kids for All Seasons club offers complimentary daytime activities such as nature walks, treasure hunts, cooking classes, dance lessons, snorkeling, and crafting for children ages 5 to 12. My son is only 2, but The Four Seasons offers the option to hire a babysitter to watch him at the club, so he can be with his sister. It’s an extra charge, but right now, I’d rather pay for that and cut other costs, like going to nice restaurants. (You can also hire a babysitter to watch your kids in the evening.) My kids, who are now well-versed in the joys of kids’-club travel, are counting down the days, and I’ve already packed a bag with a swimsuit and a new tell-all book promising the “inside story of real housewives.”
An acknowledgment and a disclaimer: It’s expensive to travel like this with kids. My work as an occasional travel writer gives me access to press rates, which I used in Turks & Caicos and will use again in Anguilla. A kids’ club is a high-end luxury item, because “the price of the kids’ club is included in the rate or covered by the hotel resort fee,” Sherry says. “That’s why there’s a correlation between higher-priced hotels and kids’ clubs: You’re paying to get everything you want.” Everything you want — it usually comes at a price. However, there are some more-affordable options out there, along with yet more over-the-top ones. After surveying 50 parents and travel writers, we found a few noteworthy kids’ clubs, from one on a culinary farm in the Smoky Mountains to one in the French Alps.
A resourceful mom friend put Tyler Place Family Resort (from $152) on my radar, to which I responded, “Never heard of it!” But now I’m shocked we’re not all flocking there. The all-inclusive lakefront Vermont property has award-winning kids’ programming featuring pony rides, fishing lessons, scavenger hunts, hikes, splashing in swimming holes, and epic trampoline competitions. It’s as close to the summer camp in The Parent Trap as I can imagine. The kids’-club hours change daily but are essentially available from sunrise to sunset.
A travel influencer we met in Turks & Caicos recently messaged me to tell me about Sensira (from $744), a brand-new all-inclusive oceanfront property on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Her report was that it was chill and breathtakingly gorgeous and that the complimentary kids’ club was one of the best they’ve ever been to. Sensira offers a club for babies, a more action-packed club for kids ages 4 to 12, and a teen program. Counselors take kids to an aqua park with fountains and water chutes, and there’s an on-site nightly “disco” for kids, teens, and adults.
A well-traveled New Englander told me about this “throwback-chic” property because she knows we spend a lot of time in Maine. This year, Sebasco Harbor Resort (from $249) is celebrating its 93rd season as one of Maine’s most iconic family resorts. “It’s verrrrry Vacationland,” the New Englander emailed, mentioning “epic lobster bakes, boat rides — pure, healthy, heavenly Maine.” For kids ages 5 to 12, it offers a robust, nature-rich program called Camp Merritt with activities like camping and canoeing. Unlike other kids’ clubs, Camp Merritt runs only on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; the cost is $30 per child.
My partner worked on a dude ranch in college and is always hungry for Montana. I asked a West Coast travel editor for a recommendation and got glowing feedback on the Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch (from $1,250), an all-inclusive, Über-luxurious ranch set on 30,000 acres in Wyoming’s North Platte River Valley. The travel editor described a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both adults and little ones, thanks to the Lil Wranglers kids’ club. Horseback riding, trail adventures, and various other creative and ecological activities are on the menu here — plus baby goats and butter-churning classes.
Photo: Kreis Beall & Heather Anne Thoma/(C) 2009 Kreis Beall and Heather Anne Thomas +1 865-681-6128. All rights reserved unless specifically granted in writing
Food writer Danyelle Freeman swears by Blackberry Farm (from $950), a resort on 4,200 acres in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. It comes with culinary programs for both adults and kids, and “there is so much pure joy and exploration there,” Freeman says. “Especially for city kids.” Besides cooking classes, activities at Camp Blackberry (the kids’ club) include catching crawdads in the creek, performing in plays, gathering eggs from the chicken house, and picking vegetables. Camp Blackberry is complimentary (i.e., baked into the already super-expensive price of the inn) from Memorial Day to Labor Day, as well as during Easter, spring break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Outside of those holiday windows, the camp is available as an add-on.
Pavia Rosati, founder of travel site Fathom and co-author of Travel North America (and Avoid Being a Tourist), told me the most charming kids’ club she has ever seen is at Le Coucou Hotel and Spa (from $540) in Méribel in the French Alps. “The playroom has a secret fort shaped like a bear’s head (he’s wearing cool sunglasses), a sliding board into a pool filled with green balls, and the most adorable stools shaped to look like sheep and deer,” she said. There’s also a teens’ club with Ping-Pong tables and billiards. “You won’t see the children for the rest of the trip,” she says.
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