The oh-so-organized neighbors have been bragging all winter about their June Grand Canyon reservations. The cousins and their kids are blathering about bears and bald eagles as they finalize plans for an August trip to Alaska. A business partner, meanwhile, can't stop talking about the incredible children-go-free deal her family got by booking their July cruise in February.
Suddenly your kids are complaining that everyone in the world has "awesome" summer vacations lined up--except them. Don't worry--a lot of families are in the same boat. Last year, according to a Better Homes and Gardens Family Travel Survey, 60% of family vacationers booked hotel and travel reservations within a month of their trip--despite the fact that 40% of those families were traveling during the peak summer season. That's not to say you can go everywhere and anywhere this summer. You can probably forget about booking a room at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, reserving a houseboat rental on Lake Powell or rafting through the Grand Canyon--unless you happen to call immediately after someone else has canceled. But there are still plenty of terrific options available, from national parks to down-home ranches to posh Caribbean and Hawaiian resorts.
Some are even downright bargains. For one thing, the list of kid-friendly properties is growing rapidly, and each must work harder than ever to snare the value-conscious family market. At the same time, it's considered low season in destinations such as the Caribbean and the Rockies, though the weather is great, and there are just as many family-oriented activities.
So grab the calendar and get out the credit card. It may take a few phone calls, but it will be worth the effort to line up one of these last-minute escapes:
1. Through the Woods
Last year, according to the National Park Service, visitors spent nearly as much time in the 10 most popular national parks as in the rest of the service's 367 sites combined. The less-crowded parks and national recreation areas, meanwhile, offer just as many chances to hike, see wildlife, camp and swim--as well as more peace and quiet and a better chance of landing a nearby campsite or motel room.
Take North Cascades National Park 80 miles northeast of Seattle. It's got heart-stopping mountain scenery, biking and back-country hiking. Operated jointly with Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas, it's also a terrific spot for boating, kayaking, fishing and float trips.
No city-sized crowds here: "Most weekends in July you could arrive and get a campsite in a beautiful campground or get a permit for backcountry camping," says park spokesman Tim Manns (for information, telephone 206-856-5700).
The National Park Service also can help steer you to other lesser-known--and invariably less crowded--parks, such as Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, Great Basin National Park in Nevada, or Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. Call the National Park Service at (202) 208-4747 or write Office of Public Inquiries, National Park Service, P.O. Box 37127, Washington, D.C. 20013-7127. Or send $1.50 postpaid for a copy of "Lesser-Known Parks" to Supt. of Documents, U.S. Govt. Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325. Ask for Stock Number 024-005-00911-6.
2. Ride 'Em Cowboy
Billy Crystal and his pals aren't the only city slickers who've discovered that saddling up at a Western dude ranch offers an ideal antidote to the pressures of dodging semis on Interstate 5.
According to Dave Wiggins of American Wilderness Experience, which represents more than 50 ranches across the West, bookings shot up at least 20% when "City Slickers" came out in 1991--and Wiggins is expecting another burst of reservations when "City Slickers II" is released this month.
At this point though, you can can still wrangle a booking throughout the summer, although the most space is available in June, early July and the end of August, says Wiggins (tel. 800-444-DUDE, 800-444-3833). Most ranches require that kids be at least 6 to participate in riding programs, though baby-sitting and other activities increasingly are offered for younger children. Fishing, hiking, nature programs, even tennis courts and swimming pools are available at some properties.
The price is right, too--typically $3,000 to $3,500 a week for a family of four, including all meals, accommodations and activities.
3. City by the Bay
Go ahead. Talk to the sea lions. They're sure to bark back.
Your kids can chat with plenty of the critters at Pier 39 in San Francisco or at the Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit hospital for sick sea lions and seals near Sausalito in the Marin Headlands. Here medical staff and hundreds of volunteers nurse sick and injured sea lions back to health and return them to the ocean. (Call 415-289-SEAL, 415-289-7325.)
Of course, San Francisco offers children much more than gregarious sea lions. Kids love the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, the Exploratorium with its hands-on science exhibits and the curio shops on Fisherman's Wharf. Outdoor festivals are a summertime draw, too: The Soapbox Derby July 17 at the newly expanded Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, the Street Performers Festival June 11 at Pier 39 or the Festival of the Sea Aug. 26 to 28 at Hyde Street Pier. Information: tel. (415) 391-2000.
San Francisco Reservations, a private reservations service, offers savings of 20% to 50% on area hotel rooms and the rundown on the latest family packages (tel. 800-677-1550).
4. Campfire Time
More than 200 camps across the country run family programs where both parents and kids take part in an array of camp activities from swimming to archery to arts and crafts. Even better than the ambience is the price, typically under $1,500 a week for a family of four. And there's not a meal to prepare or a dish to wash.
Unlike many camps that only offer a week or two for families and are booked months ahead, Montecito-Sequoia High Sierra Vacation Camp in Sequoia National Forest, about 65 miles east of Fresno, operates all summer as a family camp. A children's program guarantees parents get a break too. "There's still room for June and July," says director Virginia Barnes, a former educator (tel. 800-227-9900).
For a complete listing of camps and family camp programs in Southern California, call the American Camping Assn. office at (818) 223-9232. For Northern California listings, call the ACA Northern California office at (415) 453-1832.
5. Hit the Slopes
Ski resorts from California's Mammoth Mountain to Park City and Snowbird in Utah to Keystone and Vail in Colorado are working hard to sell families on summer sunshine as well as winter snow.
There's hiking amid wildflowers, mountain biking on the ski slopes, horseback riding, golf and tennis for mom and dad, and day camp for the kids at some places.
Even better, lodging prices have been slashed as much as 60% from high-season winter rates. For example, a two-bedroom condo at Keystone goes for as little as $60 a night (tel. 800-222-0188). Hotel rooms in Park City can be had for $49 a night (tel. 800-222-7275) while Mammoth Adventure Connection offers several mountain-biking packages (tel. 800-228-4947).
Thanks in part to recently introduced air fares as low as $219 round trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu and $239 to Maui (prices go up this month to at least $319 round trip to Honolulu, $349 to Maui), Hawaiian hotels and condos are attracting more summer business than they have in several years. But resort and condo spokesmen say there's still plenty of room--and lots of nature hikes, hula lessons and native storytelling sessions to keep the kids amused while parents golf, swim or snooze by the pool.
Many hotels and condos offer "kids stay free" deals, or 50% discounts on a second room when parents occupy the first. Ask about other specials too: the Sheraton Waikiki is offering a free children's program this summer (tel. 800-325-3535), as is the Aston Kaanapali Shores, for ages 2 to 10, after a $10 registration fee, which includes a T-shirt (tel. 800-922-7866). The Embassy Suites Kaanapali Beach Resort's "Family Suite" deal includes four nights stay at the hotel with daily breakfast, a mid-sized sedan with unlimited mileage and admission for two kids to the Beach Buddies program, for $895 per family of four (tel. 800-362-2779).
7. Land of Enchantment
Oh-so-trendy Santa Fe, which prides itself on its galleries and restaurants, still can't decide how it feels about pint-sized visitors. But Santa Fe's neighbor 67 miles to the north welcomes kids with open arms. It's easy to understand why artist Georgia O'Keefe was so mesmerized by the landscape here. Go hiking or mountain biking in Carson National Forest, or head out on a day-long llama trek into the Sangre De Cristo Mountains ($75 for adults, $50 for kids 6-12 through Wild Earth Llama Adventures; tel. 800-758-LAMA or 800-758-5262).
"Except for the week after Christmas and July 4th, there's no problem getting a place to stay in Taos--as long as you call two weeks in advance," says a spokesman for the Taos Chamber of Chamber (tel. 800-732-TAOS or 800-732-8267). Be sure to ask for a free copy of the "Kid's Guide to Taos."
8. White Water
You don't need to tackle rapids with names like Widow Maker to have a great time on a family rafting trip this summer. Most companies require participants to be at least 7, but some will take kids as young as 4.
"Rivers are rated on a scale of one to six, depending on the size of the rapids," explains Kay Metherell, a spokesman for OARS, a major West Coast rafting company (tel. 800-346-6277). "Families can head for rivers where the rapids aren't that dangerous, Class 3 or less."
On the West Coast, popular family rivers include the South Fork of the American, the Lower Tuolumne, the Sacramento and the Rogue. Other favorites include the Green River in Utah and the Salmon River in Idaho. Many outfitters offer special "family trips" with child-oriented games and activities and discounted rates for kids. Count on spending about $100-$150 per day for adults, including meals; about 10% to 15% less for kids. America Outdoors, a professional association of river outfitters, offers a free directory listing of its 260 members ($5 if you want it mailed first class.) Contact America Outdoors at P.O. Box 1348, Knoxville, Tenn. 37901; tel. (615) 524-4814.
9. On the High Seas
By offering their steepest discounts up to a year before the sailing date, cruise lines have prompted many vacationers to book ahead. But there are still a few last-minute deals, if you're flexible about dates, ships and itineraries. A family of four can still cruise the Caribbean on a low- to mid-priced ship for under $4,000, including air fare from Los Angeles, says Rick Kaplan, president of Los Angeles-based Family Cruise Club, a division of Cruisemasters (tel. 800-242-9000). Closer to home, kids under 2 sail free and kids 2-16 pay $49 (subject to availability) for a three- or four-night cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines' Southward, which sails every week from Los Angeles to Ensenada. Call (800) 327-7030.
Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade also sails to Ensenada and charges $49 rates for children 12 and under; tel. (800) 327-6700. In Hawaii, a child can cruise free on American Hawaii with two adults. Best availability for family-size cabins is in mid- to late August. Call (800) 765-7000.
10. No Worries, Mon
Caribbean resorts aren't out of your financial reach--in summer anyway. Prices typically are 30% less than in winter.
For Southern Californians, Jamaica is only about 5 1/2 hours away on nonstop charter flights. Tower Air flies to Montego Bay each Saturday from July 2 through Aug. 27; Rich International leaves Sundays from LAX (stopping at San Francisco) and returns nonstop to LAX the following Sunday.
Some families opt for renting condos or villas. (Call the Jamaica Assn. of Villas and Apartments at 800-845-5276.) Others prefer all-inclusive family resorts such as the Franklyn D. Resort, which provides a Girl Friday to help entertain the little ones, plus an array of morning-till-evening children's activities. FDR currently is offering each parent a $350 air credit from Los Angeles. Weekly rates average $1,600 an adult; kids under 16 are free (tel. 800-654-1337).
For more information, call the Jamaican Tourist Board in Los Angeles at (213) 384-1123.