Suggestions for a family vacation — good balance of relax and activity?
December 19, 2015 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Hey all, I'm looking to take a short vacation with my family somewhere next year, and we're looking for places that are a good balance of relaxing but still has some great activity options. Would like to relax on the beach (or a similar alternative) and also see some culture and do some activities. Any suggestions?

Some places we were looking at were the Cancun/Tulum area in Mexico (great beaches and neat historical sites) and Cartagena (already been to Colombia and it's great), and have been eyeing Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and some other places, but looking for other suggestions.

— Departing from San Francisco.
— Usually I can only take a few (3–4) days off from school, so places that don't require 24 hours in transit and visa/immunization preparations are preferred.
— I don't want to state a budget since I'd like to leave it open for people to put in suggestions without worrying about how much it costs to get from A to B, and I also want to use this list for future trips :)
— Let me know if you would like any clarifying info.
posted by markbao to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
How old is your family? My in-laws and I did a family vacation in Belize and I thought we accomplished the blend of cultural activities plus beach time. We had a tour of where indigenous people live, learned to make tortillas, caught fish and made ceviche, saw howler monkeys, did a night tour on a boat, snorkeled, and had a great time. The country was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. It's a little more rural than Costa Rica and less popular so flights were a little more expensive but that was my experience a few years ago.
posted by kat518 at 11:30 AM on December 19, 2015

That sounds awesome, kat518! Those are the kind of activities I want to do. I'll check out Belize – thanks for the suggestion. I'm in my early twenties and my parents are in their forties, and it's just us three traveling.
posted by markbao at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2015

Maui! Virgin just started direct flights from CA and has some decent deals at the moment.
posted by melissasaurus at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2015

melissasaurus – I checked out Maui airfare and it's surprisingly reasonable. Have you been? Any favorite things to do / places to stay?
posted by markbao at 11:35 AM on December 19, 2015

Oaxaca. It's like an older Mexico, more of the Indian, pre-Columbian side of things. Great color, mezcal, food. Friendly, more laid-back people. Capital city's nice, but the villages are under-explored wonderment. Lots of history. Fly to the Oaxacan coast ($100 last time I checked, safe plane, regional airline) and there are sensational beaches with big dunes to climb, and tree-house style hotels on the cliffs near beach. Don't buy mezcal in town or in shops. Only from old people shlepping largely un-labeled bottles around markets for like $2. That's the good stuff. Or in villages. But nothing fussed over, nothing expensive, nothing with impressive lablels. That's not real mezcal.

PM me if you need more.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:38 AM on December 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

For Maui specifically I recommend getting the Maui Revealed guidebook. It'll tell you everything you want to know. I've been several times and Maui and the other Hawaiian islands make for a wonderful vacation. The Hawaii Revealed book series does one for each island and are way helpful.
posted by FireFountain at 11:39 AM on December 19, 2015

Other option: impulse vacations via crazy low fares found on sites like

We spend so much time reigning in our kids' impulsive er impulses, I think we overdo it. Wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to instill some whimsy.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:40 AM on December 19, 2015

Have you been? Any favorite things to do / places to stay?

I actually live on Maui. Look into VRBO listings for places to stay, that's what friends/family usually do since it gives you more flexibility for meals and such. West Maui (Lahaina, Ka'anapali) and South Maui (Wailea, Kihei) are the more touristy areas to stay (lots of restaurants, hotels, beaches, less windy/rainy, more walkable). But the North shore (Paia, Kuau) is great too if you're looking for a more local/rural/surfer vibe.

Maui Revealed is a good guidebook. You'll want to do the Road to Hana and Haleakala. You could also do snorkeling (incl. whale watching, depending on the time of year), hiking (bamboo forest and lahaina pali are great trails if you're in good shape), a luau, zipline, sit on the beach, eat delicious fish, drink mai tais, eat the best pineapples ever, etc. SO much to do here for people of any age (plus you don't have to deal with visa, currency exchange, customs, etc.).
posted by melissasaurus at 1:42 PM on December 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Probably too far for a short vacation- but Barcelona has a lovely beach area on the edge of the city and an amazing amount of free or cheap art, amazing architecture and food. Can;t recommend it highly enough.
posted by TenaciousB at 2:32 PM on December 19, 2015

I adore Costa Rica. I went to Manuel Antonio for a week. We flew into the capital, and took a coaster (small bus) to our place. I think travel time was 4 hours? But its got a beach, and cloud forests, and the spectacular national park. And swimming pools and cervasa, of course.
posted by Jacen at 3:06 PM on December 19, 2015

Puerto Rico is great for what you want because you can get both laid-back beach and culture right in San Juan. I stayed in the Ocean Park neighborhood and loved that beach - pretty and quiet.

The only problem with PR for this trip is that it's going to be a long trip from SF.
posted by lunasol at 3:21 PM on December 19, 2015

My partner and I just got married in Maui. I would NOT recommend VRBO -- we rented a condo that had received five 5-star ratings. Come to find out between those ratings and last month, the condo developed a mold problem which the owner was aware of, but went ahead and continued to rent it out anyway. There are other ways to rent condos where you have a property manager on site who will return your calls and address problems. We were able to make the condo work, but I will NEVER rent thru VRBO or the like again.

That said, on to happier things... I recommend hitting Haleakala for sunrise on your first day there (while you are still on mainland time). Take some warm clothes and wind-breakers -- it is darn cold up top. The road to Hana is great if you like waterfalls, lush scenery, and taking your time. You can get a taste of the scenery without the time commitment by going up to Iao Valley. Molokini Crater has some awesome snorkeling. We saw a whale breaching on the way back to the harbor -- that was very cool. If you like sushi, try poke at Eskimo Candy Seafood Market (only open M-F, go early for the poke bowl).

Another good Hawaii option is the Big Island. There's good snorkeling, Volcano National Park, Place of Refuge, and a lot of other stuff to do.

Hope you and your folks have a great vacation, wherever you go!
posted by elmay at 1:31 PM on December 20, 2015

Spendy but amazing: pool villas at Banyan Tree on Koh Samui.

My favorite.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:24 AM on December 22, 2015

Some places we were looking at were the Cancun/Tulum area in Mexico (great beaches and neat historical sites)

I'd fly into Cancun, but head south right away to Playa del Carmen (1/2 way to Tulum). Stay at the Mahekal Beach Resort. Can't recommend it enough. It's right on the beach and has three unique pools, but looks and feels more like a village in an oasis than a megaresort. All of the accommodations are standalone one or two story houses with palapa roofs and balconies/patios with hammocks, all connected by winding paths through beautifully landscaped gardens. It's sort of boho-chic, very chill. Food is great. Service is great. While it's laid back, it is a very short walking distance from 5th Ave, the pedestrian-only main tourist drag in Playa del Carmen. Tons of great bars, restaurants, etc. there if you feel the need to party it up a bit. From PDC you are close for day excursions to Mayan ruins, natural cenotes swimming holes, check out one of the Xcaret/Xplor adventure parks, or hop on a ferry to the island of Cozumel.

Another possible option for you, a short ferry ride from Cancun, is little Isla Mujeres.
posted by Kabanos at 12:04 PM on February 22, 2016

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