Above: Cozumel’s Chankanaab Lagoon has more than 60 species of tropical fish. Isla Cozumel photo
Below: Children experience circus arts at Club Med in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Activities such as these are part of the all-inclusive package. Club Med photo
Paradise for everyone
The sparkling turquoise Caribbean Sea between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s coast is sprinkled with hundreds of beautiful islands. They stretch from The Bahamas to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, then arch south to Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela and westward toward Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Thanks to Christopher Columbus, the islands are sometimes called the West Indies because the explorer thought he landed in Asia when he stepped foot on a beautiful island he called “Hispaniola.” Today two countries–Haiti and the Dominican Republic–share that island.
The Caribbean offers visitors a vast array of cultural flavors from native to African with vestiges of their British, Spanish, Dutch and French colonial days. No matter what you’re looking for in a vacation, chances are you’ll find it here. Some islands are bustling and touristy; others less developed and quiet. Many are palm-tree paradises with long stretches of serene sugar-sand beaches; others offer lush rainforests or the stark beauty of the desert. Some are perfect for a laid-back, lay-on-the-beach getaway, while others offer plenty of soft-adventure activities.
Families with young children need only a few sand toys to keep their little ones happy on a Caribbean holiday.
All-inclusive resorts reduce the stress level for everyone -- no quibbling about which restaurant or beach to go to. And with a dazzling array of buffet food choices, there’s something to satisfy everyone -- even the most finicky.
Most all-inclusive resorts offer structured activities for kids of all ages, another plus for families. Teens can enjoy activities such as kiteboarding, skateboarding or rock climbing, and experience a certain amount of freedom to wander the resort while parents know where they are.
Should your family tire of the beach, there’s no shortage of other activities–biking, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and horseback riding–to keep you busy in the Caribbean. Off the resort, families can experience historic forts, enjoy jeep tours, dabble in caving or explore desert terrain.
Here’s a sampling of what some islands offer.
Located off the Venezuelan coast, Bonaire is the lesser known of the “ABC islands” that include Aruba and Curaçao.
Beach bums may wan to skip this island. While some beaches are suitable for bathing, others are narrow with a coral base. The island itself is a reef.
But other activities abound, making this little island a great choice for families looking beyond the beach experience to soft adventure. Bonaire bills itself as a diver’s paradise, and the reefs surrounding the island make it a favorite destination for divers and a great place for beginning snorkelers.
Bonaire could be the perfect place to vacation with teens as it offers a dizzying array of activities for that hard-to-please demographic. Teens can try windsurfing, kiteboarding and landsailing, a sport where sails powered by the wind propel wheeled vehicles around a specially made course.
Washington-Slagbaai National Park is a haven for hikers with its terrain punctuated by cliffs and valleys. With 189 species of birds, it’s the perfect place to introduce youngsters to bird watching. The flamingo is Bonaire’s signature bird, and a Flamingo Reserve on the island’s southern tip is a special breeding ground for the birds. While the reserve is not open to the public, birds are often seen from the road and at other nearby spots.
For many visitors, Bonaire’s appeal is its size. Just 24 miles long and averaging three to seven miles wide, it’s easy to explore. Kralendijk, the island’s capital, has a mere 14,000 residents.
Visiting Bonaire can be an international experience. Residents are a mix of Dutch, African and South American ancestry. And while English is widely spoken, you will also hear Dutch, Spanish and Papiamentu–a mixture of those languages–as well as French, Portuguese, Caribbean Indian and African.
Many resorts on the island offer dive packages or instruction. Buddy Dive Resort offers a Rangers Kids Club for children 5–14, and a Kids Sea Camp program in the summer. Scuba Rangers introduces kids to scuba, snorkeling and diving. Participants must know how to swim, and an extra charge is incurred.
Plaza Resort Bonaire offers Aqua Kids, a snorkel program for kids 5–12. Children need not stay at the resort but they must be able to swim, and the cost is extra.
The eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula abuts the western edge of the Caribbean Sea, and Cozumel is a bona fide Caribbean island.
Cozumel has its own airport but flights to nearby Cancun may be easier on the budget. A short bus ride gets you to Playa Del Carmen where a 40-minute ferry trip takes you to the island. You can reverse the process for an easy visit to the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula.
The island’s sugar sand beaches, lush palm trees and azure blue sea make for a great easygoing family vacation. The island’s main town, San Miguel, offers lodging , but the all-inclusive resorts are a short taxi ride to the north and south.
Palancar Reef, a mile off the island, draws scuba divers from around the world; snorkeling is great there, too. At Playa Mia Grand Beach Park, visitors can take snorkel tours to the reef, dive, parasail, sail, use wave runners or experience a water trampoline.
Discover Mexico, a new cultural theme park, gives visitors a taste of the entire country with replicas of Mexico’s most important archeological sites and colonial buildings, as well as exhibits on its pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern cultures.
Chankanaab Park, south of San Miguel, is part of Reefs National Marine Park and offers an array of surf-and-sand experiences. Try scuba, snorkeling or Snuba®, a sport that combines the excitement of scuba and the ease of snorkeling.
At the park’s Dolphin Discovery, visitors can swim with the dolphins or simply enjoy a dolphin encounter. The park also has a botanical garden and the Maya Zone, a reproduction of a Maya village.
Visitors can see real Mayan ruins, although minor compared to those at San Gervasio, the island’s largest archaeological site, where ancient Mayans made pilgrimages to worship their deities.
Cozumel resorts make family stays easy with kids clubs and activities specifically for children. At El Cozumeleno Beach Resort, a kid’s camp, game room, kids’ pool, miniature golf course and life-sized chess set are sure to appeal to youngsters.
Guests also enjoy complimentary snorkeling lessons, an introductory scuba lesson, bike tours and kayaking. Scuba diving tours, deep-sea fishing, jet ski rentals and parasailing at an additional cost can be conveniently arranged at the Dive Shop.
While not an all-inclusive property, the AAA four Diamond Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort and Spa offers families the Chiqui Club for children 5–12 at no additional cost. Kids partake in kite making, building sand castles, painting, nature walks, iguana searches, fish feeding, treasure hunts, Spanish classes and Mexican games.
When Christopher Columbus first wandered onto land in the New World, it was this island. Columbus was so taken with the beauty he found in what is now the Dominican Republic, he later told his family he wanted to be buried there.
Today the island is just as beautiful but offers a wide array of resorts and hotels to make any family vacation a breeze. Take Club Med in Punta Cana. This recently renovated resort is on the country’s southern coast. It’s a parent’s delight with activities for children from four months to 17 years.
The resort’s Baby Welcome program provides families with high chairs, baby baths and portable cribs. While there’s an additional programming charge for children under 4, there’s no additional charge for Mini Club Med™ where kids 4–10 can enjoy tennis, soccer, sailing, in-line skating, games, arts and crafts, science and flying on a trapeze. Junior Club Med™ (ages 11-13) offers games, parties, arts and crafts, flying trapeze, trampoline, juggling, beach volleyball, sailing, in-line skating and tennis. An area called The Ramp gives teens a hangout where no parents are allowed and they can enjoy music, relax on the hammock and visit with other teens.
The draw of Punta Cana is its beaches. For other activities, visit Santo Domingo to the west and Puerto Plata on the northern shore. In the capital of Santo Domingo, Zona Colonial is a 12-block area where the early explorers once walked. It is a history lesson itself.
On the north coast, visitors to Puerto Plata can explore Fort San Felipe, the oldest fort in the New World, ride the teleférico (cable car) to the Isabel de Torres observation tower for stunning views of the Amber Coast. The Amber Museum is worth a visit. Ocean World Adventure Park offers families a large dolphin habitat and a chance to interactive with various animals. At nearby Sosua, coral cliffs partially surround a picture-perfect sugar white sand beach. Farther east lies Cabarete with an equally beautiful beach and breezes that make it the windsurfing capital of the Caribbean.
Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.