“I’ve got a few ideas.”
Who hasn’t dreaded hearing those pre-travel words, or regretted the ensuing advice? It’s how I’ve wasted quality vacation time in the company of mimes, swamp-tour operators, and contemptuous restaurant waiters.
But when the statement comes from my teenage son, Tim, I’ve found it pays to listen. I’ve learned that our most enjoyable, and memorable, family vacations occur when I can solicit his opinion and incorporate this wish list into a compelling – and mime-free — itinerary.
Caveat traveler: There are few tougher audiences than a bored 15-year-old forced to spend an afternoon in a modern-art museum.
Vacation planning allows my son to take some ownership of our visits. I’ve been able to best pique his interest along several general themes: sports; movie and book tie-ins; adventure activities and, of course, food.
If we’re heading to a major American city, a professional sporting event, especially baseball, is always a good option. Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards (where we snagged tickets to see the Boston Red Sox, no easy feat at the perpetually sold-out Fenway Park) and Safeco Field in Seattle (which we hit when the Mariners’ promotional giveaway was a free Ichiro lunchbox) were two winning outings.
Make sure to allow yourself at least an hour before game time in which to wander the environs of these magnificent urban ballparks to soak up the city’s atmosphere, sample hometown food specialties, like Maryland crab cakes and sushi-like “Ichi-Rolls,” and, of course, quaff the local microbrew (at least for you).
After Tim saw the film A Night at the Museum, New York’s American Museum of Natural History became a must-see. To engage him further, I asked him to decide what he especially wanted to see. The AMNH is enormous, I reasoned, and we couldn’t do the whole place justice in a day.
I followed up by handing him Dinosaurs in the Attic, Douglas J. Preston’s wonderfully quirky history of the museum and its incredible collection – who knew that England’s Lord Walter Rothschild sold the world’s largest private bird collection ever assembled (280,000 specimens) to the AMNH in 1932 for the money to pay off a blackmailing mistress?
But if a book seems too old school a resource for your child, there’s always the museum website (www.amnh.org); Tim found it contained helpful sections like “Kids & Families” and “Plan Your Visit,” with plenty of details about Special Exhibitions as well as the spectacular Permanent Halls.
You’d be amazed what a movie placement can do for a place in the mind of a teen. My son was even game for an arduous, 10-mile hike on the mountainous Caribbean island of Dominica when he learned the route would take in Titou Gorge, a location he’d seen in the film, Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest, and end with some serious geothermal activity at the wonderfully named Boiling Lake. (As a rule of thumb, boys love volcanoes.)
On long drives, I’ve also resorted to themed books on tape: Tim even sat through 10-plus hours of the unabridged edition of Anne of Green Gables on our journey to Prince Edward Island, site of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s children’s classic about a spunky orphan. To mitigate charges of road-trip child abuse, it’s best to incentivize these activities with well-earned breaks — the best nearby ice-cream place, for instance. Anne cost me a few sugar cones as we worked our way through the Canadian Maritimes. And there was only so much scenery Tim could appreciate when we hiked the stunning coastline of Italy’s Cinque Terre a few years earlier, but he never complained — at the end of each trail segment, we rewarded ourselves with a visit to that village’s gelateria.
Lastly, there’s the sticky issue of cell phones. What is the proper protocol when you’re striving for vacation quality time? I like to consider their use a negotiation: My wife and I allow Tim to operate his phone or his iPod while we’re driving, particularly along charm-free I-95, flying to our destination or just knocking around a hotel room. But once we’re traveling through a foreign country (no matter how unscenic the route), sightseeing or out at a restaurant, the electronics and the earbuds get stowed away.
It’s not unlike one of our few immutable House Rules: It’s rude to use your phone at the dinner table. Good or bad, my feeling is a vacation needs to be experienced to the utmost.
Just hold the mimes.
View all posts from Christopher R.
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