There’s nothing like family summer travel: Long days; no school to worry about; the ease of packing just t-shirts, shorts, and sandals; ice cream stands open across the United States…. I find that as spring starts to bloom I’m already dreaming of my children’s faces sticky with sunscreen and sweat, of long bike rides and hikes, of cocktails on the porch and fireflies.
With that in mind, today I thought I’d share some of my favorite summer destinations for family travel that you may not have thought of. These are places that fly a bit under the radar – not your typical beach resorts, but each offering ample opportunities for fun in the summer sun.
While Boston and Cape Cod of course make for fabulous summer vacation destinations, don’t forget the western half of the Bay State. Make this lovely small city your home base for exploring the surrounding Pioneer Valley. Hike to the top of Mount Tom and check out the view from one of the fire towers. Or rent bicycles and ride the converted rail trail across the Connecticut River. Nearby Look Park has playgrounds, a small-gage train, petting zoo, mini-golf, and bumper boats.
You’ll find rainy day fun at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which in addition to offering exhibits from some of your childhood favorites has an amazing library of picture books and an art studio where visitors are invited to create different projects every day. Or drive over to the nearby town of Amherst to see the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks at the Amherst College Beneski Musum of Natural History. A bit further up the road you’ll find the Magic Wings Conservatory and Gardens, which offers a chance to get up close and personal with 3000 butterflies.
Downtown Northampton also offers some great boutiques, and even my kids (who are completely allergic to shopping) love to pop into Faces where you’ll find everything you didn’t know you needed from Chia pets to lava lamps to whoopee cushions. There many family-friendly dining options including Pizzeria Paradiso (I highly recommend not only all of their wood-oven pizzas but the Chop Chop Salad) and Herrell’s Ice Cream. And be sure not to miss breakfast or lunch at Sylvester’s, which may offer the best huevos rancheros east of the Mississippi.
Did you know that Milwaukee hosts over a dozen different festivals in the large park that lines Lake Michigan? No matter what your ethnicity, you’re likely to find that your heritage is celebrated there at some point over the course of the summer months. And if it’s live music that you prefer, than the enormous eleven-day Summerfest (which bills itself as the “World’s Largest Music Festival”) will be right up your alley.
Of course, there are plenty of other things to do in the park too, like renting a bike, riding in a paddle boat, or flying a kite from the Gift of Wings store.The Milwaukee Art Museum is worth visiting both for the art it contains and the building itself (arrive when the museum opens to see the iconic “wings” that open and close daily). Other fun attractions for families include seeing Les Paul’s guitars at Discovery World, checking out the animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo, or doing a bit of climbing at the Urban Ecology Center. And if baseball is your game, stop by the completely refurbished Miller Park to watch the Brewers play.
Milwaukee also offers the unique opportunity to stay inside a refurbished brewery, which also has one of the best restaurants for families in town. Be sure to stop for lunch at the Public Market where you can dine on foods as varied as muffaletta, falafel, and of course, that Wisconsin favorite: Bratwurst.
If you’ve got travel to Chicago or other points in the Midwest planned this summer, I highly recommend flying in and out of Milwaukee, which has one of the better airports around (last summer they even had a ping-pong table set up to amuse waiting travelers). While you’re at it, why not stop and spend a few days?
Whether you want to climb to the top of Vermont’s tallest mountain, dip into a river, or spend the afternoon ziplining down the face of Vermont’s highest mountain, Stowe is the perfect place for you and your family. A key part of the fun (and one my family has returned to many times) is the five-and-a-half mile paved recreation path that runs from the center of town up toward Mount Mansfield. You can rent bikes or inline skates along the path or just walk it. There are numerous places to stop for a dip in the small river that runs along it and also opportunities to see outdoor art, get lost in a corn maze, or play miniature golf.
If you’re looking for something a little more exciting, stop by the Adventure Center at Stowe Mountain Resort and choose from a variety of activities including a treetop ropes course, an indoor climbing wall or the zipline. You can also ride the gondola up Mount Mansfield and hike the rest of the way to the very top of the mountain. Or, if you’re feeling a little less ambitious, just enjoy the view over lunch at the Cliff House Restaurant
And if you happen to find yourself there during a rainy spell you can watch ice cream being made (and sample a bite or two) at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory in nearby Waterbury, learn about the history of Vermont’s favorite winter sport at the Ski Museum, or enjoy the indoor pool at The Swimming Hole.
Stowe is chock full of restaurants, many of which line the rec path. Two family favorites are the The Blue Donkey, which serves killer made-to-order burgers and fries and Idletyme Brewing Company, which offers lots of fun munchies like fried Vermont cheddar fritters . We have stayed at both the well-worth-it luxury of the Stowe Mountain Resort (which has one of the nicest swimming pools of any hotel I’ve ever had the pleasure to lounge beside) and Topnotch Resort but there are many other options in Stowe, including the budget-friendly choice to camp in Smuggler’s Notch State Park.
The beaches downstate get all the summer press, but as I thought about it, I realized that my home town would make a great vacation spot. A word of warning: It does get muggy and hot here. But if that doesn’t faze you, than definitely consider this as a summer travel destination. So what summer fun does northern Delaware offer?
Learn about American industrial history at Hagley where you can see an old-fashioned machine shop in action or write with a quill pen; stroll through a fairy garden at Winterthur; or check out an evening concert and illuminated fountains at Longwood Gardens. These world-class museums were all created by different members of the du Pont family; each has its own character and story to tell – and they’re all located within a few miles of each other. Or, if you prefer the artistic side of things, check out the Delaware Art Museum, home to one of the world’s best collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Visit Old New Castle where William Penn landed when he arrived in the New World. Here you can see inside the Old Court House (which used to be Delaware’s capital and also serves as the point from which Mason and Dixon measure 12 miles to draw the semi-circular border between the top of Delaware and the bottom of Pennsylvania). Stroll along the path that borders the Delaware River or through the well-preserved 18th-century town, home to three fine house museums including one built by a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Or if it’s nature that you’re craving, you’ll find easy access – Delaware has 16 state parks and more than half of them are located in the top half of the state. You can hike in White Clay Creek State Park, kayak in Brandywine Creek State Park, or ride horses in Bellevue State Park. And for more natural beauty, check out the Ashland Nature Center, a pristine spot right in the middle of northern Delaware’s famously beautiful “chateau country”.
The other great thing just about any place in northern Delaware is that you are minutes from Interstate 95 and an easy drive to Philadelphia and Washington, DC to say nothing of Lancaster and Baltimore.
Where will this summer take you? I hope I’ve offered some new ideas!
Photo of the Look Park train courtesy of hlkljgk via Flickr.