Archives for Travel

Laughs at Sea: Cruise Ship Comedy Clubs

by Candyce Stapen
Cruise ship comedy clubs

For many cruise passengers, one of the best parts of their voyage isn’t the elaborate buffets, the casino bets or the booze. It’s the belly laughs. These days, several major lines are showcasing more humor by way of their comedy clubs. Forget about the stuff-food-in-your-face jokes; the performers and the material are better than ever.

“Back in the day, being labeled a ‘cruise ship comedian’ certainly carried a negative connotation, as it was believed that performing on a cruise ship meant it was either the beginning or the end of your career,” says Mark Tamis, Carnival Cruise Line’s senior vice president of guest operations. “That is certainly not the case these days.

“Now, many shipboard jokesters come aboard between appearances in top clubs and on late-night television shows. Second City, the noted sketch and improvisational group, has garnered guffaws on certain Norwegian Cruise Line ships since 2005. When Carnival Cruise Lines, a longtime leader in late-night laughs, launched Punchliner Comedy Clubs presented by George Lopez in 2011, even more passengers packed the clubs.

To meet the expectations of today’s savvy audiences, the routines riff on topical trends. “In terms of the sophistication of the audience, standup comedy is everywhere these days — there’s even a 24-hour cable channel devoted to comedy — so consumers are much more attuned to what sort of comedy options are available,” says Tamis. “It goes without saying that comedians [include] more of the pop culture landscape than ever before.

“But not all lines and ships use comedy the same way. Smaller vessels and those carrying many international, non-English-speaking passengers skip the jokes or schedule the visual humor of jugglers and mimes. Follow this primer to find the ships that sail with the kind of laughs you crave.

Carnival Cruise Line

What’s Offered: Punchliner Comedy Clubs presented by George Lopez are available on all Carnival ships, averaging 20 shows per ship, per week. Cumulatively, the fleet’s clubs present more than 20,000 shows a year, making Carnival the largest operator of comedy clubs in the world, according to its executives.

Even before Carnival’s connection with George Lopez launched in 2011, the line’s comedians shined. Lopez’s “curation” has meant even more engaging comics come aboard, both up-and-comers and well-known performers. Another plus for Carnival’s clientele: Each of the 20 shows presents new material, thus keeping “laughaholics” happily coming back for more each night.

Style of Show: At Punchliner, a standup comic takes to the stage each night for two or more shows. While families may attend the earlier set, much of the material will come across as funny to those around age 14 and older. Only passengers 18 and older can grab seats in the later show because performers might use R-rated language or comment on sex and other adult topics.


Comedy Club


What’s Offered: Celebrity Cruises’ solution to the “what’s funny to different nationalities” conundrum mixes standup with visual humor that transcends language barriers and cultural norms. Celebrity opts for the adult eyeful of burlesque. Its Sin City Comedy, an award-winning Las Vegas revue, currently appears on Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Reflection. The comics who add the jokes have appeared on such popular television networks as Comedy Central, VH! and HBO, and on well-known programs like the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman.

Style of Show: The adults-only Sin City Comedy blends standup comedians with dancers doing burlesque. Think feathers, fans, sequined bras, sexy moves and jokes.

Crystal Cruises

What’s Offered: Entertainment on the luxury line runs to production like as DIVA and iLuminate. Although these contain comic elements, they’re more centered on music and dance than laugh-out-loud jokes. A comic might be scheduled to perform in one of the lounges or in the showroom.

Style of Show: Standup comedians do sometimes perform. For in-cabin viewing, the line broadcasts “Five o’clock Funnies,” comedy clips selected by the cruise director.

Disney Cruise Line

What’s Offered: Disney Cruise Line keeps comedy family-friendly and apolitical. To do that, Disney relies heavily on humor that comes with a physical or visual element. Disney Cruise Line is also known for its excellent quality Broadway-style shows, some of which are quite funny. A few late-night shows target adults only.

Style of Show: Various theaters and lounges feature ventriloquists, jugglers and others using visual humor. “Villains Tonight!,” a song-and-dance comedy revue on Disney Dream and Disney Magic, gets kids and their parents snickering at the antics of Captain Hook, Scar, Cruella De Vil and other villains.

Holland America Line

What’s Offered: Like other major lines, HAL may feature a comedian as part of the main show on ships carrying mostly English-speaking passengers, but the line also elicits laughs through visual comedy acts. On ships geared to multinational passengers, HAL stages only visual humor.

Style of Show: HAL’s comics must be funny without spewing foul language or presenting adults-only content. That means no raunchy sex jokes, and the multinational crowd precludes piquant political commentary. The visual humor, which can be engaging, comes from magicians, jugglers, impressionists, ventriloquists and musical acts.

Comedy Club


Norwegian Cruise Line

What’s Offered: Norwegian leans in to comedy but, interestingly, not on all of its ships. In 2005, the line contracted Second City to perform on Norwegian Dawn. Over the years, the troupe took to the stage on other ships, including Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Breakaway. Second City currently holds forth on Epic, Breakaway and Getaway.

The line’s commitment to comedy is apparent on its newest vessels, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. Along with Epic, these ships showcase humor in Headliners Comedy Club with two comedians, who perform about 12 shows total per week. While comedians still take to the stage as part of the main show on other ships, Headliners offers a more intimate venue than the big theater. On Getaway, NCL partners with Levity Entertainment Group, one of the world’s largest comedy producers, to sign comedians.

Style of Show: Standup comics entertain in Headliners. Typically, the earlier show is family-friendly, and the later show targets adults. Only those 18 and older are admitted. Second City offers its trademark sketches and improv onboard Epic, Breakaway and Getaway.

Princess Cruises

What’s Offered: The Vista Lounge on Princess Cruises hosts a variety of nightly entertainment. A comedian might be among the weekly lineup, which also includes live bands, theme parties and illusionists. A comic might also be booked in the Princess Theater. Royal Princess and Regal Princess have Princess Live!, a 280-seat television studio that showcases culinary shows, concerts and sometimes live comedy.

Style of Show: Standup comics might perform family-friendly material as part of the main show and comedy that has more of an edge in the Vista Lounge or Princess Live!, depending on the sailing.

Royal Caribbean International

What’s Offered: Royal Caribbean, a leader in so many onboard activities — deckside surfing, rock climbing, ice skating — focused more attention on comedy with the launch of its Oasis-class vessels. Both Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas ignite giggles at Comedy Live, lounges inspired by New York’s standup clubs. On other ships, when the majority of the clientele hail from North America, comics might perform in one of the lounges or headline in the main theater for several evenings on smaller vessels.”

Comedy on ships has changed over the last 5 to 10 years in much the same way cruising has changed,” said RCI spokeswoman Janet Diaz. “The industry has become increasingly more and more global, not just with ship deployment but with guests. While before there was a consistent North American clientele, we now have guests from around the world, and while laughter is universal, what’s funny is not. Our team works diligently to secure the best comics that will appeal to global audiences as well as regional audiences, such as with ships based in China or Brazil, for example.”

Style of Show: Standup comics perform on Oasis-class vessels in Comedy Live and as part of the main show on other ships when the passengers are primarily from North America.


15 Water Parks to Make a Splash at Near Washington

by Candyce Stapen
Water parks near Washington DC

Summer in the city sizzles. At these water and splash parks—our picks for the area’s best—you can cool off by splashing in wave pools, twisting down slides, getting soaked by bucket dumps, and running through sprays.

Best Water Park Close to Home

Yards Park Waterpark

Yards Park Waterpark, photo: Jacquelyn Martin

At SplashDown Waterpark in Manassas, kids can zip down the four-story-high water slides, float on the “lazy river,” step across the pool on logs and lily pads, or play volleyball at the sand beach. With 13 acres of water features, SplashDown is one of Northern Virginia’s largest water parks. On Thursdays from 9 to 10:30 am, kids ages five and under and their adults get into the park early.
$14.95 for guests 48 inches tall or more; $11.25 under 48 inches. Free for ages two and younger. 703-792-8200.

Best Water Park Worth a Drive

WaterWorks at Virginia’s Kings Dominion, about 85 miles from DC, offers 20 acres of ways to get wet. Tots can cool off at Lil’ Barefoot Beach’s pool, while families float on the gentle current of a quarter-mile river. For more splash, jump through the surf at the two wave pools or try Tornado, a funnel ride that drops you and then rocks you from side to side.
$54 adults; $41 for those under 48 inches tall or 62 years or older. Free for ages two and younger. Admission includes access to all rides, wet and dry. 804-876-5000.

Best Water Park for Teens and Adults

As Maryland’s largest water park, Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro gushes with adrenaline-pumping possibilities. Tune up by swimming in the nearly million-gallon wave pool. Next, swirl up the slope and then down at more than 20 miles an hour on Halfpipe. Follow with fun on Shark Attack or with a six-story plunge on Bonzai Pipelines.
With online discounts, admission starts at $39.99 and includes access to all rides. 301-249-1500.

Best Splash Park for Getting Soaked

While there are a few fountains to run through at the Yards Park in DC, kids generate their own splash in an 11-inch-deep, 66,000-gallon pool with views of the Anacostia River. A waterfall at one end is a popular place to stand. Allow time to stroll on the boardwalk, relax in wooden chaises in the shady garden, picnic on the lawn, or dine at one of the park’s restaurants. At Ice Cream Jubilee, grab a cool and tasty cone. Part of the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, the Yards is a short walk to Nationals Park.
Free. 202-465-7080.

Best Splash Park for Young Kids

At SplashPark & MiniGolf in Boyds, 280 water jets dance in three concentric circles, enticing tots and bigger kids alike. You can also get doused by a waterfall as well as “rain” from two giant mushrooms. Dry off by playing 18 holes of mini-golf at the adjacent course. South Germantown Recreational Park—where the splash park is located—also has a playground, tennis courts, a driving range, and an indoor swim center.
Splash park: $4 ages two and up. Mini-golf: $3. Combo ticket: $6.50. 301-670-4680.

Local Water Park With the Best Wave Pool

One highlight that packs in the crowds at Great Waves Water Park in Alexandria’s Cameron Run Regional Park is jumping through the “surf.” At the Reef—another must-do—get screamingly wet by zipping down twisting water slides. You can up the excitement by selecting an enclosed—i.e., dark—tube versus an open one. For young kids, the Lagoon play pool features mini-slides, Splash Zone offers sprays, and Paradise Play tempts with crawl-through fish, climbing equipment, and a sandbox. The park’s 20 acres include 18 holes of miniature golf, too.
$14.50 for Alexandria residents 48 inches tall or more; $14.75 for nonresidents; $11.50 or $11.75 for those 48 inches or under; under two years old, free. 703-960-0767.

Water Parks With the Best Bucket Dumps

At Ocean Dunes Water Park in Arlington, stand under the big blue bucket, one of the region’s largest water dumps, and wait for it to tip, drenching you with 500 gallons. Tamer sprays and fountains, as well as a wading pool, cool off little ones. Swimmers can stroke through laps at one of the park’s other pools. Part of Upton Hill Regional Park, Ocean Dunes also features miniature golf and batting cages.
$8 for children 42 inches tall or more; $6.75 for those 42 inches or shorter; under two years old, free. 703-534-3437.

At Volcano Island Waterpark’s play pool, kids slip down short tubes or wade through the one-to-three-foot-deep water to face the park’s jewel: a 500-gallon dumping bucket. Bigger kids enter the main pool by twisting down a 230-foot open slide or curling down a 170-foot dark slide. Tots can build castles in the sandy area and then rinse off by running through the splash pad’s sprinklers and sprays. An 18-hole miniature golf course is adjacent to Volcano Island, part of Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling.
$8 for children 48 inches tall or more; $6.75 under 48 inches. Free for ages two and younger. 703-430-7683.

Best Splash Parks for Shopping Breaks

An oasis of greenery, Georgetown Waterfront Park, at the foot of busy M Street, Northwest, gives shoppers with tag-along children space to relax on the grass and admire the Potomac River views. Kids cool off by running through the sole water feature, a row of synchronized sprays that form an arcing tunnel of water. Take hesitant little kids by the hand and walk through the highest point of the arc so that only the tot’s feet get wet or go for it, and dance through the jets.

At Silver Plaza Fountain in Silver Spring, kids hop through the water jets that ring the circular blue, green, and yellow mosaic that defines the splash area, dodging or dashing into the geysers that bubble up every few minutes. The splash fountain is not large; it lies within a brick courtyard with tree-shaded ledges and outdoor cafes that make it easy for parents to watch their children. To further insulate tots from traffic, a pedestrian mall of shops and eateries borders the area, and on Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and all day Saturday and Sunday, Ellsworth Drive from Fenton Street to Georgia Avenue closes to vehicles.
Free. 301-203-4184.

Best Local Indoor Water Park

As an indoor water park, Cub Run RECenter Aquatics in Chantilly is a boon to both sun-sensitive water lovers who wilt at outdoor facilities and to those seeking year-round fun. Older kids can drop into the leisure pool via two tall, twisting slides and also spin in a swirling vortex. Younger children glide down smaller slides and splash through water curtains, spurting pipes, and sprays. The facility also has a 25-yard-by-25-meter pool offering swim classes for tots to adults, as well as a fitness area with cardio equipment, weights, and exercise classes.
$8 for adult county residents, $10.50 nonresidents; $6.50 residents ages 5 through 18, $10.50 nonresidents; free ages 4 and younger with a paying adult; $16 resident family rate for up to five people (one or two adults and up to four children); $30 nonresident family rate. 703-817-9407.

Best Water Park for an Overnight Getaway

Virginia’s largest water park, Water Country USA in Williamsburg, also known as Water Country Busch Gardens, features a mix of wild, mild, and family-friendly rides. For thrills, try Colossal Curl, a funnel ride that twirls you before flushing you down 46 feet, enough to propel you over wave-like hills. On Vanish Point, you pick how to experience the near-vertical drop: Either stand-up to feel the floor disappear beneath you or lie down and let go. At the wave pool, Surfer’s Bay, float over ripples near “shore” or fight through bigger breakers in the deep end. Tots can splash through sprays and fountains at Critter Coral.
$38.99 for those 48 inches tall or more (or $32.99 for a seven-day advance ticket); $26.99 for those 48 inches and shorter and for ages 65 and up. Combination tickets provide access to Water Country and nearby Busch Gardens. Open daily through September 1. 757-229-9300.

Best Year-Round Water Park for a Getaway

It’s always 84 degrees at Great Wolf Lodge America, a 79,000-square-foot, indoor water park in Williamsburg. Highlights include a wading pool, mini-slides, a wave pool, plus a Flowrider that creates surf for kneeboarding. At Fort Mackenzie, the four-story centerpiece treehouse, kids climb cargo nets, cross rope bridges, slip down slides, and get doused by the 1,000-gallon water bucket. Soak in the sun and the water at Racoon Lagoon, the outdoor pool area, where sprays and geysers as well as an 18-hole miniature golf course add fun. A family resort, Great Wolf Lodge features a kids’ spa, an arcade with more than 100 games, on-site dining, and regular and themed suites.
Room rates in July and August start at $200. Admission to the water park is free but for overnight guests only. 757-229-9700.

More Water Fun

At Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole in Reston—a park with a loose western theme—families can float on inner tubes along Rattlesnake River, a “lazy river” dotted with small bucket dumps and sprays that encircles the one acre-plus park. Kids wriggle down “Big Pete” and “Little Pete,” two sets of slides that land them in a pool whose deep end bottoms out at about four feet. Youngsters climb through a covered wagon to glide down a slide and tots romp through Tenderfoot Pond, a splash area with pint-sized slides and geysers. The Water Mine is located in Lake Fairfax Park, home to a 20-acre lake, marina, carousel, and skatepark.
$14.50 for those 48 inches tall or more on weekends and holidays, $13.50 Monday through Friday; $11.25 under 48 inches. Free for ages two and younger. 703-471-5414.

At Lane Manor Splash Park in Hyattsville, kids can enter the 25-meter outdoor pool by slithering down two enclosed slides, and then “walk on water” by stepping on lily pads or pulling themselves across the surface by hanging onto a rope net. Little ones can splash in a wading pool. Lane Manor Splash Park is part of the Lane Manor Community Recreation Center in the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park.
$5 adult residents, $6 nonresidents; $4 residents ages 3 through 17, $5 nonresidents; free for ages 2 and younger. 301-422-7284 (summer); 301-853-9115.

Header photos from stock

Where to retire: Cape May, NJ

by Candyce Stapen

With one of the nation’s best collections of Victorian ‘painted lady’ homes, Cape May has cultural and dining superlatives to help it rise above a typical Atlantic Ocean beachfront locale.

Cape May, NJ

Cape May, New Jersey

THE SETTING IS PERFECTION for the snooping around of the internationally known Victorian-era crime-solving duo Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Cape May, where some of the country’s most popular Sherlock Holmes events happen every year, has an abundance of Victorian homes, enough to land it on the National Register of Historic Places. Several blocks of the New Jersey shore town bloom with gabled and gingerbread-trimmed houses. Many serve as bed-and-breakfasts, welcoming guests with tea or lemonade offered in parlors decorated with Queen Anne sofas, velvet drapes and fringed lamps.

As locals know, Cape May, on the southernmost tip of New Jersey, is much more than another seaside retreat. “Cape May is a nice Victorian town,” says Michael Potts, 55. “It has terrific restaurants, great beaches and is laid-back. It has exactly what we were looking for.” After his retirement in June 2013 as vice president of marketing for a food company, he moved with his wife, Mary McArdle, 55, a former financial coordinator for a law firm, to Cape May from Newtown Square, PA, about 15 miles outside Philadelphia.

For Robert and Jean Parente, Cape May provides the perfect mix ob beaches and Victorian ambiance. “I like being outdoors,” says Robert, 53. “There’s endless walking in town and a path along the beach. The beaches are clean; the architecture is beautiful.”

The Parentes moved to Cape May in January from Middlesex County, NJ, about 145 miles away. “I like history,” adds Jean, 55. “It’s great just to walk down historic Columbia and Washington streets where there are beautiful old homes that are well-maintained.”

Washington Street Mall, Cape May, NJ

Though summers in Cape May bring thousands of visitors, the city maintains a small-town feel, evident in the family-owned shops along pedestrian-friendly Washington Street Mall

The architecture and the historical designation are only a part of what distinguishes Cape May from other shore towns in Cape May County, a region stretching 30 miles along the Atlantic Ocean south from Ocean City to Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Wildwood and finally Cape May.

“It’s the town that makes the beach special,” says Susan Krysiak, communications coordinator at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities in Cape May. The organization supports the town’s many festivals and events, offers guided trolley tours and manages three historic sites — the Cape May Lighthouse, the World War II Lookout Tower (once used to protect American shores) and the gussied-up grande dame, the Emlen Physick Estate, a restored Victorian mansion regularly open for tours.

“There’s a lot of interest in the arts and there’s a lot more activity in Cape May year-around than in many other Jersey shore towns,” says Scott Griffith, 69, a former Philadelphia attorney who retired in late 2005 and moved here in 2006.

Among Cape May’s charms is the fun it finds in its heritage. Holmes and Watson, in the form of witty impersonators, headline the March and November Sherlock Holmes weekend getaways. A murder-mystery dinner tests the clue-finding skills of attendees during the Victorian Weekend held each fall. Participants also tour homes, indulge in wine tastings, watch plays and browse crafts and antique shows. The spirit of another prominent Victorian, Charles Dickens, enlivens Cape May each December with a lecture series and feast. Other holiday events include candlelight tours, Christmas ghost tales and musical trolley rides to meet Santa.

Trolley tours wind through the historic district, with a guide pointing out the postcard-pretty properties, both public and private, and the differences among styles such as stick (Emlen Physick Estate) or Italianate (The Mainstay Inn). Riders also learn about two disastrous fires, on that forever changed the town.

In the 19th century, the rich and famous traveled to Cape May by steamboat and railroad from Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Notables included Presidents James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Ulysses S. Grant.

Spurred by such high-society tourism, entrepreneurs built large hotels, including the Mount Vernon, which could accommodate 2,100 guests. The mammoth hotel, however, burned to the ground in 1856.

But the worst fire started on Nov. 9, 1878. By the blaze’s end, the flames had destroyed about 40 acres that stretched from Congress Hall to Ocean Street, consuming many large and small hotels as well as businesses and bath houses. Hurriedly rebuilding for the coming season, the locals eschewed the costly and long construction time required for big properties, instead building smaller inns and cottages that had plenty of spare rooms for summer guests. Many of these are the painted ladies admired on trolley tours.

The town also supports two stages. Last season the East Lynne Theater Co. hosted plays March through December, and the Cape May Stage had productions May through December. Music is celebrated at the Cape May Music Festival held each spring, featuring chamber ensembles, jazz bands and musicians from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

Cape May Beach Promenade

Cape May Beach Promenade
Photo: from stock

Then there’s the beach — wide, white and edged by a paved promenade that stretches for some 2 miles. “Cape May draws people who enjoyed summers here as kids and come back to live the lifestyle as adults,” says Carol Menz, a specialist in retirement relocation and the broker-owner of Coastline Realty.

The Parentes, who vacationed in Cape May for 10 years before purchasing, devised a retirement strategy. “Rather than wait another 10 years and hope we can afford to retire here, we decided to plan to grab the dream,” Jean says. “If we found a dream home with an appropriate layout that we can see ourselves living in into our old age, then we would buy that house.”

When they found the right house — a 1980, three-bedroom, two-bath ranch, 8 blocks from the coast in the Village Green neighborhood — they purchased it for $515,000 and then put about $300,000 into the renovation.

To afford their retirement dream, the Parentes plan to work for a few more years. Jean manages a three-doctor practice in nearby Stone Harbor. Robert, a computer systems analyst for AT&T Inc., works from their home in Cape May.

In 2009, Michael and Mary bought a 1939 Craftsman-style bungalow 3 blocks from the shore as a vacation home. “We wanted something with good bones and a comfortable layout on a wooded lot with a garden and we wanted character, and not a cookie-cutter home,” says Mary, who retired in 2011. They began renovations on the house last year and then moved in.

Cape May Shore

Cape May Shore
Photo: from stock

Cape May, situated on a major flyway, also draws bird-watchers. In spring and fall, people with binoculars visit Cape May Point State Park, a prime place for spotting thousands of Canada geese and other migrating birds that rest here either before or after crossing Delaware Bay. At Cape May National Golf Club, in nearby Erma, NJ, people enjoy the 50-acre sanctuary or the property. Wildwood Golf and Country Club, in the community of Cape May Court House, is another course in the area.

Like all popular seaside getaways, Cape May draws summer crowds. The census lists the population at 3,607, but Bernie Haas, owner of Cape Publishing, a company that produces Cape May Magazine and, estimates that the summer population swells to 40,000 on weekends and roughly 25,000 during the week.

That’s why savvy retirees choose the location of their home carefully. Michael and Mary wanted to be able to walk to the beach, walk or ride their bikes to downtown and park their car easily. “We are about a mile from the center of Cape May’s historic district,” Michael says. “The beaches are wide open here.”

Cape May Beach

Cape May Beach

Residents also need to understand the summer traffic flow. “Saturday is typically the changeover day for rentals, with the last week’s renters leaving in the morning and the new renters arriving in the afternoon,” says Jim Ridgway, a real estate agent with Wilsey Realty in Cape May. Most locals know to avoid the sands on Saturdays.”

Another potential negative: Cape May’s winters. “It’s chilly and it can be windy in December, January and February,” Haas says. Some retirees don’t mind the weather and like the quiet, but others leave town. “We have many retirees who have second homes in Florida or go south for three months in the winter when it’s cold,” he says.

Some visit their relatives or friends elsewhere in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland. “We both have siblings as well as eight nieces and nephews in the Philadelphia area,” Mary says. “We like that we’re only two hours away.”

Along with proximity to the Mid-Atlantic’s big cities, Victorian architecture, wide beaches, cultural programs and festivals, Cape May has another draw: food. Arguably, Cape May has the best restaurants in New Jersey — the Washington Inn, The Ebbitt Room, 410 Bank Street, Oyster Bay, Peter Shields Inn,” Ridgway says. “Some people drive an hour just to eat in Cape May. The Lobster House, right on the harbor, does 2,000 dinners a night in season.”

Peter Shields Inn, Cape May, NJ

Peter Shields Inn, Cape May, NJ
Photo from Stock

Many of the area’s fine restaurants are in or near the historic district, which is Cape May’s downtown. 410 Bank Street offers a mix of New Orleans French and Caribbean flavors, and the Washington Inn serves American cuisine in an 1840 plantation-style house. Waterfront Peter Shields Inn and Restaurant, located in a 1907 Georgian Revival mansion, gets high marks for its innovative American fare.

Not all restaurants are expensive. “One of the beauties of being here is that many of the restaurants do not have liquor licenses, so you can bring your own wine and have a very good meal with wine without paying a lot,” Mary says.

Residents purchase that bottle in town or at one of Cape May County’s handful of wineries. The annual Cape May Food and Wine Celebration showcases the region’s culinary delights. This year’s event in September includes a gourmet brunch walk, winery cellar tour and tasting, chocolate lover’s feast, bourbon tasting dinner, chefs’ dine-around and Cape May lobster bake.

Downtown shopping is good, too. Washington Street Mall, a 3-block pedestrian walkway within the historic district, features scores of shops, including T-shirts, beachwear, toys and books, plus pizzerias, ice cream parlors, a cafe and bakery and other eateries.

The city is big enough to offer many volunteer activities. Robert has joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, assisting with graduation ceremonies and dinners for the families. He looks forward to giving boating courses and doing search-and-rescue work.

Scott, a widower, joined the Episcopal church choir and became a Kiwanis Club member. What else does he like about Cape May? “I noticed that people here do things that they always wanted to do,” he says. “I signed up for three different literary groups. I got motivated and wrote a legal thriller, ‘Cold Spring.’ It has sex and violence and takes place in a fictional version of Cold Spring Village, a town in Cape May County.” He is happy to report that the book was published.

Good things happen in Cape May, says Scott, who remembers coming to the city as a child to visit his grandparents. “In the 1980s, I brought my wife and kids down in the summer for the beaches,” Scott says. “Whatever retirement plans I had went in the bucket. I came back to Cape May and love it.”

Get free admission to national parks on Monday

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 3:25 p.m. January 17, 2014

Assateague Island National Seashore.

Photo: National Park Service

Some of the best views in the U.S. look even better when they’re free. Take advantage of nine days of complimentary admission to America’s national parks—the first is Jan. 20—so you can savor the spectacular scenery and discover the history of these unique places.

“The entrance fees aren’t that expensive, but the National Park Service wants to eliminate any barrier to enjoying the parks,” says spokesperson Kathy Kupper. Typically, children younger than 16 enter without cost and adult fees range from $3 per person to $25 per vehicle for everyone in the car. The get-in-gratis days eliminate those charges at 133 facilities; the remaining 268 parks and monuments of the 401 in the national system never charge entrance fees.

“Most Americans live within an hour or two of a national park,” says Kupper. “Yosemite is not too far from San Francisco, Olympic National Park is reasonably close to Seattle, Joshua Tree is near Los Angeles and the Everglades are easy to reach from Miami,” says Kupper.

The National Parks Trolley, which debuted Jan.4, makes it even easier to access both the Everglades and Biscayne National parks from the Miami area. The shuttle departs from Homestead’s Losner Park every Saturday and Sunday through April. As part of a partnership between Homestead and the parks (separate from the National Parks free days initiative), trolley riders always receive complimentary transportation and admission to the Everglades and Biscayne National parks.

Along with making access more affordable, another goal of the National Parks free days is to remind people of the dramatic views, history and engaging activities available in the parks. (Although free days waive entrance fees, activity fees may apply).

At Florida’s Everglades National Park, a 1.5 million acre subtropical wilderness, for example, you can paddle through mangrove – lined creeks and look for alligators as well as view manatees, bald eagles and dolphins on a naturalist led boat trip through the 10,000 islands.Admire river- carved canyons, desert vistas and keep an eye out for black bears in Big Bend National Park, Texas; learn about the ancestors of the Puebloan people as you view 700-year-old cliff caves at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, N.M.; and admire the wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore, Va. and Md.

The free entrance days for the National Parks are:

*Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day

*Feb. 15-17, Presidents Day Weekend

*April 19-20, opening weekend of National Park Week

*Aug. 25, National Park Service Birthday

*Sept. 27, National Public Lands Days

*Nov. 11, Veterans Day


10 memorable museum sleepovers for kids of all ages

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 12:48 p.m. January 7, 2014

Museum Sleepovers, Field Museum, Chicago

Photo: Field Museum

Bond with your kids — or grandkids — on a real night at the museum. You can go undercover on spy missions, learn the secrets of caves, discover the science of igloos, meet live baby bears and beluga whales and take flashlight tours through exhibits filled with fierce dinosaurs, huge walruses, mysterious mummies and much more.

Many sleepovers include big-screen movies or planetarium shows plus the chance to sleep near a T-rex, robot, coral reef or a real tiger. Budget-friendly, exciting, and easy to do, these overnights make great parent/child and grandparent/grandkids getaways. Just remember to reserve these popular programs way in advance as they sell out quickly. Here are 10 top museum overnights.

American Museum of Natural History, New York City, AMNH Sleepovers.

On a flashlight tour of the dinosaur exhibits, wend your way among such glowering creatures as the fierce-looking Tyrannosaurus rex with its 4-foot long jaw edged by 6-inch teeth. Get up close to live bats, wolves or even baby bears, depending on the evening’s Audubon Society presentation. Crafts may include creating a totem pole or making moon scratchings. Afterwards, watch the 3-D movie, Mysteries of the Unseen World, before bedding down beneath the iconic big blue whale.

Ages: 6 to 13. One adult required for every three children.

Cost: $145 per person, $135 for members.

Dates: Jan. 10; March 7, 15; April 5, 11; May 2, 17, 41; June 13, 21.

Contact: American Museum of Natural History.

Busch Gardens Tampa, Summer Nights Family Sleepovers, Jack Hanna Family Fun Sleepover

Close encounters with animals and guided hikes at night, a time when the critters tend to be more active, are signature elements of both the Summer Nights and the Jack Hanna Experience. On each you sleep in Tiger World, an indoor area with floor-to-ceiling window views of the tiger habitat. Owls, flamingos and alligators are some of the wildlife showcased by handlers on the Summer Nights Sleepovers, which also give you access to SheiKra, a gut-wrenching coaster with a 200-foot drop. Hanna, for his once a year event, has brought creatures as diverse as aardvarks and zebras to ogle. Listen to the famous animal ambassador’s tales and in the morning, learn about training and feeding tigers from the tiger team.

Ages: Kids in grade 3 or higher. One adult required for every two children.

Cost: 2014 prices are not yet firm. About $80. The fee does not include park admission, 10% pass member discount.

Dates: Summer Nights Family Sleepovers take place in June, July and August. Date to be determined for these and the Jack Hanna Family Fun overnight.

Contact: Busch Gardens Tampa.

Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Science Sleepovers

Build structures from marshmallows and Dixie cups, then test your item’s durability on an earthquake table during engineering overnights. Create snow dough igloos and figure out the essentials of electric currents, fog and bubbles on Polar Express sleepovers. General overnights cover the science — and importance — of sleep. Get a sense of how exhaustion impedes tasks by donning blurry goggles before completing a challenge and investigate ultraviolet light in a glow room. All programs include an OMNIMAX movie. Sleep near the space station, the robots, the coral reef or anywhere there’s carpet.

Ages: 4-10. One adult required for every eight children.

Cost: $35 per person.

Dates: Feb. 14 Engineering; March 15, 21, 28; Apr. 11,18; May 2; Oct. 24 Spooky Science; Nov. 21 Light Up Night; Dec. 13 Polar Express.

Contact: Carnegie Science Center,

Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati, Caves!, Explore!

Choose from two overnight programs at this complex of museums. With Caves! learn about bats, beetles and other nocturnal life at the limestone caves in the Museum of Natural History & Science. Meet turtles, snakes or tarantulas at the docent-led talks. In the morning, watch the OMNIMAX film A Journey into Amazing Caves. With Explore!, you and your kids browse both the natural history facility as well as the Cincinnati History Museum on your own, pausing to talk to a steamboat captain, set type at the print shop, practice weaving with a pioneer woman and get hands-on at more work stations. In the morning view Tornado Alley, an OMNIMAX movie.

Ages: 8-12. One adult required for every four children.

Cost: $28 per person.

Dates: Caves! Jan. 10, Feb. 8, March 21, May 9. Explore! Jan. 25, March 22, April 18.

Contact: Cincinnati Museum Center.

Field Museum, Chicago, Dozin’ with the Dinos

Walk through an Egyptian tomb, past the sarcophagi and mummies on a flashlight tour of Inside Ancient Egypt and go on a night-time safari past mounted giraffes, hippos and lions in the African savannah exhibit. Depending on the worshop, touch monster-size bugs or uncover fossils. With a premium package and tour ticket, you also get a behind-the-scenes look at fossils, fish or other specimens with a museum scientist. Sleep on the main level with a standard pass, or bed down next to the dinosaurs with a premium pass.

Ages: 6 to 12. One adult required for every three children.

Cost: Standard $63 per person, $55 Field members; Premium package, $75, $65; Premium packages with tour ticket, $87, $77.

Dates: Jan. 10, 31; Feb. 7, 21, 28; March 14, 28; May 9, 30.

Contact: The Field Museum.

International Spy Museum, Washington, D.C., KidSpy Overnight: Operation Secret Slumber.

Morph into a secret agent to complete a clandestine mission. After you and your budding spies choose aliases, create disguises and memorize your new identities, the adults go undercover in one group while the kids work together in another. See which team does better at decoding messages, locating dead drops (where spies hide things in plain sight) and unmasking the mole in your midst.

Ages: 9 to 13. One adult required for every two children.

Cost: $115 per person, $105 for members.

Dates: Nov. 8-9, 2014. (The March session sold out months ago).

Contact: The International Spy Museum.

Milwaukee Public Museum, Overnights

By flashlight, trek past a Masai lion hunt in Africa, walrus and polar bears in the Arctic, fierce masks made by natives in New Guinea and other exhibits. Each overnight also includes a planetarium show or a giant screen movie plus themed hands-on activities. On the Mummies sleepover, make a mummy wrap or learn to fashion a figure according to the ancient Egyptian canon of proportions. Sleep near the forests in the Wisconsin Woodlands or the colorful figures in a modern powwow that’s part of A Tribute to Survival.

Ages: 6 to 12. One adult required for every five children.

Cost: $47 per person, $37 for members.

Dates: April 11 Safari; May 16 Raiders of the Lost Artifact; June 20 Wildlife Adventures; July 25 Mummies; August 15 Streets of Old Milwaukee.

Contact: Milwaukee Public Museum.

National Aquarium, Baltimore, Sleepover with the Sharks, Sleepover with the Dolphins.

Both the shark and the dolphin overnights feature hands-on labs and the chance to venture onto the Shark Alley catwalk so you’re inches above the toothy predators. On a shark sleepover, listen to the squawks and screeches of the nocturnal animals during a no-lights tour of the aquarium’s rain forest and touch real shark jaws, teeth, skin and egg cases in the Shark Discovery Lab. On a dolphin overnight, watch the clever mammals speed swim, jump and splash with their flukes in the dolphin amphitheater; and handle dolphin, seal and sea otter skulls in the Dolphin Discovery Lab. In the morning watch a trainer teach a dolphin to play ball and learn how to signal the intelligent creatures for a blowhole whistle or a fluke presentation.

Ages: 8 and older. One adult required for every 10 children.

Cost: $114.95, $102.95 members

Dates: Sharks: Feb. 14, 28; Mar 14; Dolphins: Jan. 3, 17, 31; Feb. 7, 21; Mar 7, 21, 28

Contact: National Aquarium.

Saint Louis Science Center, Camp Ins

Geared to a theme, the family camp ins feature science demonstrations, an OMNIMAX film or a planetarium show, free time to explore the museum and activities targeted to both older and younger kids. Teens construct an animatronic dinosaur while younger kids fashion the big critter’s teeth out of resin during Dinosaurs in Motion. Build rockets and use simulators to fly a plane as part of the Planetarium camp in. Learn about fingerprints, analyze germs in the Life Sciences Lab and solve a crime as part of the Sherlock Holmes sleepover.

Ages: Kids in grades K through 12 for Dinosaurs; K through 8th grade for Planetarium; 3rd grade through 12th for Sherlock Holmes. One adult required for every five children.

Cost: $50 per person; $45 members.

Dates: April 25 Dinosaurs in Motion; Sept. 19 Planetarium; Oct. 24 Sherlock Holmes.

Contact: Saint Louis Science Center.

SeaWorld San Diego, Father’s Day and Halloween Sleepovers

Polar bears, beluga whales and big walruses star in the Wild Arctic, Father’s Day overnight. Find out how these animals fit their environment, learning about their food, fat and, for the bears, their thick fur and powerful paws. Then roll out your sleeping bag near the viewing window to the polar bears’ habitat. On the Halloween Spooktacular, tour a special Animal Connections open house to find out how trainers care for the park’s turtles, lizards and birds and view snakes, spiders and other “spooky” creatures. Last year’s Halloween event, included breakfast with Shamu.

Ages: 4-14

Cost: June, $145, $115 for Premium Pass members; Oct. $165, $135 for Premium Pass members. Fees include park admission after breakfast.

Dates: June 14, Father’s Day; Oct. 25th, Halloween Spooktacular

Contact: SeaWorld San


The best gifts for family travel

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 1:48 p.m. December 17, 2013

Polaroid 2 tablet

The Polaroid 2 tablet keeps kids happily occupied with games, videos and drawing apps.

Families on the go have special needs. These products either cleverly engage kids, making travel time fly by, or the items offer simple solutions to big worries.


Polaroid Kids Tablet 2 For the product’s second generation, kid critics pointed Polaroid toward such improvements as increased speed, two cameras—front and rear facing—and more games. Bumpers add durability and the 1024 x 600 resolution for the 7-inch display makes the content look good. The tablet comes loaded with more than 70 books, apps, games and videos from the Cartoon Network, Marvel and Disney. Our kid testers, ages 6 and 8, especially liked the games and the art app, Drawing Pad, an award-winning app created by Darren Murtha Design. Ages 4-9. Polaroid, $150, sold exclusively through Toys R Us.

ALSO ONLINE: Coolest travel gifts for Christmas

Nabi Jr. At about 6.5 inches by 4 inches, the Nabi Jr. by Fuhu, fits into pre-schooler’s hands. The 5 inch display with 800 x 480 resolution, while not as crystal clear as other tablets, is fine for little ones. The home screen’s six squares represent six main options, making it easy for kids to choose. Along with a camera and a photo gallery, kids can pick sing-along ditties under Music, storybooks to read or hear aloud with MeeGenius, or complete basic math, reading and writing exercises with the Wings Challenge. Parents can add tasks to a chore list and reward kids with points. Tap the home screen’s row of dots to select from 30 simple games and apps. Kids can color, match animals, solve dinosaur-shaped puzzles and more. (We noticed some misspelled words in the Car, Ship & Rocket game). Despite that, the Nabi Jr. is a good basic tablet. More apps can be downloaded through Wi-Fi. Although Fuhu pitches Nabi Jr. for ages 3-6, the sweet spot is more likely ages 3-5. Fuhu, $100; $140 Nick Jr. version has games and videos with Nick Jr. characters.

Sensu Brush

Photo: Sensu Inc.

Fingers are often too fat for fine line creation and a regular stylus can create drag. The Sensu brush prevents these problems.


Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus This digital brush feels, looks and moves across a tablet or smartphone screen like something Monet might have used for his plein-air paintings. Fingers are often too fat for fine line creation and a regular stylus can create drag. The Sensu brush prevents these problems. Pair the easy- to-take-along tool with a kid-friendly artist’s app such as Drawing Carl, Finger Painter, or Fresh Paint and your children can create magical drawings to document your trip. The Sensu Solo has only a brush tip. The compact Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus has a brush on one end and a stylus for sketching, writing and erasing on the other end. Both Sensu products, definitely not just for kids, will delight painters, drawers, doodlers and dabblers of all ages. Sensubrush, $25 Sensu Solo brush; $40 Sensu Portable Artist Brush & Stylus.

Light My Way Nightlight

Kids can carry the Light My Way Nightlight by Munchkin with them.(Photo: Matthew Fried)


Light My Way Nightlight Tots unaccustomed to sleeping in hotel rooms or even in grandma’s big house might worry about monsters that lurk in dark corners. But not with the Munchkin nightlight standing watch. The owl-shaped light, 6.25 inches high from base to top, looks like a friend and uses batteries. So instead of being stationary in an electric outlet, the big-eyed critter functions like a lantern, complete with easy to grasp handle. Your child can place the Light My Way on a night stand or take the owl with her to the bathroom. A timer turns the nightlight off after 20 minutes, but kids—or parents—can switch it back on for more sessions., $16.99 at Toys R Us, Walmart, Target and other retailers.


SafetyTat It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child too young to talk or to remember your phone number, goes missing at the amusement park, the airport, the museum or the shopping mall. Created by a mom, SafetyTats are temporary tattoos with your cell phone number that you can place on your tot’s arm. That way the kindly stranger who finds him will know whom to call. Online you can order the customized versions, applied with water, that come printed with your information (these last one to three days). The Quick Stick Write-on version, applied like a band-aid, comes with a marking pen, lasts longer and is available online and in stores. Safetytat, $6.99-$16.99.

More: Tips for stress-free family holiday travel


The best gift for families? A trip together!

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 3:02 p.m. December 15,2013

Best gift for families

A family on a guided safari outing from Davison’s Camp, Zimbabwe, view a herd of Cape buffalo.

Forget flat-screen TVs, robotic toys and even tablets. The trendy gift this season is a trip together, especially for families.

“Materialism is taking a backseat to experiences, ” says Darren Humphreys, owner Travel Sommelier, a safari and gastronomic travel company.  “The giver — the grandparent or the baby boomer — realizes that what’s important is spending time in a special environment with people who are important to you.”

That’s why trips trump other gifts for families. “Our busiest travel week is now Christmas week, “says Dan Austin, Austin Adventures president. “A big and increasing segment of our business is multigenerational travel.  Our multigenerational travel over the holidays has doubled,” says Austin.

Austin credits the bump to several things.  “We first started seeing an increase in gifts of multigenerational trips and grandparent/grandchild vacations in 2008-2009 when the economy was struggling. Adults were looking hard at what they were gifting. Giving time together is much more valuable than anything else. And we’ve seen double-digit growth for these trips every year since 2008/2009.”

Wilderness Safaris‘ North American manager Craig Glatthaar notes that the company’s family travel business has increased 20%-25% in the last five years. “With the technological revolution, we’ve become more and more detached from nature,” says Glatthaar. “The older generation wants to give the younger ones an appreciation for nature. We see more and more families with young children age 6 and older as well as more multi-generational trips with grandparents, their children and grandchildren.”

After all, think about what’s remembered fondly at family gatherings.  Last year’s big TV purchase may not even be mentioned. “You’re more likely to relive the adventure trip you took together,” says Austin, who sees Yellowstone as a stepping stone for a grandparent/ grandchild trip.

“Maybe the grandparents went there as kids and now want to show their grandchildren, “says Austin. “The next year that family is adding going further away so they might do the Canadian Rockies or Costa Rica and then the Galapagos or cycling trips in Europe.”

REI Adventures has also experienced a rise in holiday family trips. “A lot of times grandparents will take the whole family as a holiday gift, “says manager Cynthia Dunbar. ” The Galapagos and Costa Rica are popular over the holidays,” says Dunbar.  “We launched our family trips seven years ago and the number of departures has increased an incredible amount.”

Not only does adventure add fun, but it encourages interaction. “Out of your home environment, out of your comfort zone, you converse, you interact, “says Humphreys. ” On a safari a family is in a vehicle a couple of yards away from a lion.”

That gets families talking to each other.   Nancy Ozizmir, Greenwich, Conn., calls the South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe safari Travel Sommelier arranged last year for herself, her husband Dan, and children Daniel, 16, Annika, 13, and Charlotte, 9, “the best family vacation we have ever taken.”

Says Ozizmir, “On a ski trip, we ski at different levels so we’re apart a lot. A safari is very much about togetherness. We were together in the jeep with our guide. We were excited seeing the zebra, leopard, lions and rhinos. The kids learned so much.”

And not just about the animals. Humphreys arranged for the Ozizmirs to visit a small village in Zambia.

“The people were so happy to see us because they were curious and excited. We were too, ” says Ozizmir. “The villagers lived in mud or straw huts. There was one well for the whole village. Some kids didn’t have shoes, but the kids were smiling and laughing. My kids gave them piggyback rides. My kids were impressed by the villagers’ warmth. The people were lit from within. My kids realized that you do not need things to be happy.”

And that’s a timeless gift that can come from traveling together.

Who are the most annoying fliers? Survey says

Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 6:58 a.m. December 14, 2013

Most annoying fliersSky misdemeanors continue with the audio insensitive who speaks or cranks his music up too loudly, 19%, and tying for seventh and eighth place with 13% each are the seat-back guy who reclines his chair full tilt, and the carry-on baggage offender who totes too much luggage onboard. The back seat grabber, that person behind you who launches himself upright by clutching your seat back, and the queue jumper, the one who elbows down the aisle to deplane before everyone else, each received 12% of the bad behavior votes.

According to Expedia, 10% of the 1001 surveyed reported engaging in sex with a fellow flight mate. Nonetheless, respondents deemed inappropriate levels of affection a social breach when it involved someone else, giving the amorous, a 9% disapproval rating.

However, the actions at 30,000-feet are not all etiquette disasters.  More than three-quarters of respondents — 79% — report experiencing the kindness of strangers. Most often, the  good deeds were switching seats, 32 %, helping with luggage, 12%, and sharing food or drinks, 8%.

So have you been naughty or nice?

Airplane etiquette

Expedia’s guide to violations of airplane etiquette. (Photo: Expedia)

Former Robben Island inmate leads memorable prison tour

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY 6:19 p.m. December 6, 2013

Robben IslandWe stood in the yard of Robben Island Prison, looking at the tennis court that some prisoners were allowed to use for exercise.

“We would take a tennis ball, cut a small opening in it, put a note inside and hit the ball over the wall,” said Patrick Matanjana, who spent 20 years jailed at the facility. “That’s how we communicated with prisoners in other cell blocks.”

Matanjana’s personal recollections and his dignified presence, made the tour vivid, powerful and memorable. Former prisoners escorting visitors through prison buildings were common more than a decade ago when I visited. Some former prisoners still lead tours.

At age 19 in 1967, Matanjana became prisoner 7067. “They gave you a number because the wardens could not pronounce your name,” said Matanjana, housed in the same cell block as Mandela for some of the time. Pointing to Mandela’s cell, Matanjana said “For a time he had a cot, but Mandela was tall so when he would go to sleep his head and feet would touch the walls.”

How did Matanjana get through 20 years of prison?

“The first day I walked through the door I was worried. I didn’t know if I could do it. How was I going to stay 20 years in this prison?,” said Matanjana. “But when I was inside two or three days, I saw Mandela and some others who were doing a life sentence. I thought ‘What is 20 years compared to a life sentence?, ” said Matanjana.

Mandela served as a leader, a coach, and an inspiration for the prisoners.

“In the beginning there were no doors on the toilets, no privacy. We smuggled a petition to request changes. Mandela told me ‘When you go and talk to the guys, face the man. He is a man and you are a man.'”

Through hunger strikes and other actions, the prisoners, led by Mandela, fought for the right to be educated.

“Education sustained us. You could not think about your family, your girlfriend. You had to in some way forget those people because there was nothing you could do. But when many came here they could not read or write and some left with university degrees.”

What did he feel when being released in 1987? ” I cried tears when I left because I was leaving behind Mandela and the others who were doing life sentences,” said Matanjana.

As we made our way to the exit, I asked him if he was angry.

“There is no bitterness. You cannot take Apartheid out the door and bring it back in the window. As Mandela (told us), we cannot correct a wrong thing by doing that very wrong thing. I am proud in the sense that all that we have been fighting for we achieved.”

I thanked Matanjana for his tour, telling him that I didn’t think I could ever be so forgiving. He smiled at me, squinting in the bright light, a result of years of chopping salt mounds in the glare of the South Africa sun. “We were creating the foundation for the next generation. In spite of all that happened, I forgave to rebuild our country.”

Photo from stock


Best Caribbean resorts for families

by Candyce Stapen

The Caribbean has some of the best sands and the friendliest family resorts. At these six diverse properties, you and your children can encounter dolphins, ride horses in the surf, snorkel through schools of tropical fish, learn sailing and simply sit and chat.

The Bahamas: Atlantis Paradise Island

Atlantis in the Bahamas

Atlantis in the Bahamas is comprised of six resorts (three shown) and a water park.

This mega-resort has 3,414 rooms spread out in six locations on its sprawling property. Not just for families, Atlantis attracts gamblers to its casino and foodies to fine dining at Nobu and Mesa Grill. These items also play well for parent date nights and for multi-generational families with twentysomethings who want nightlife.

Atlantis’ show-stoppers are the marine life and habitats (among the largest open-air aquariums in the world), and the 141-acre waterpark. Both are free. More than 250 species and 50,000 critters live in the 14 lagoons and the 8 million gallons of salt-water tanks. View spiny lobsters, spotted eagle rays and schools of tropical fish in the Ruins Lagoon or dive (for an extra fee) the habitat with scuba-certified family members. Hammerhead, blacknose and reef tip sharks zig zag above you as you walk through an acrylic tunnel in Predator Lagoon. At The Dig indoors, ogle lionfish, 6-foot-long Moray eels, iridescent jellyfish, tiny seahorse and groupers weighing hundreds of pounds. Special experiences (get out the wallets) include petting stingrays, interacting with dolphins or sea lions and becoming a trainer for the day. Kids won’t get bored at the water park — home to 11 pools and 20 swimming areas. Young kids like the tube slides and water cannons at just-for-them Splashers and the mini-slides at Ripples. The Mayan Temple pool attracts families with its waterfalls and the Baths pool has a large deck. Don’t bother saving a lounge chair for your tweens and teens as they’re likely to be too busy plunging down the slides: Leap of Faith is a 60-foot nearly vertical drop, and the Serpent Slide is a twisting ride of dark moments and descent through a clear tunnel cut into the shark lagoon. At the Atlantis Kids Adventures Club, ages 3-12 engage in a variety of activities that include cooking classes, creating virtual postcards and directing and acting in their own movies. The caveats for this Bahama behemoth: cheap eats are hard to find and some of the wished-for experiences can be costly.

Dominican Republic: Club Med Punta Cana

Club Med Punta Cana

Club Med Punta Cana, winner of Trip Advisor’s 2013 “Top Family Hotels in the Caribbean” award, offers both ocean fun and a lagoon pool on the resort.

Club Med was there in the beginning, both as a pioneer of the all-inclusive concept and as an early devotee of the Dominican Republic. That accounts for the well-executed concept and for the Punta Cana resort’s ample setting on 75 beachfront acres along the eastern tip of the country. As the chain’s flagship in the Caribbean, the Punta Cana resort draws praise for its wide and long stretch of sandy beach, its reasonably good food, its comprehensive children’s program and its family suites. In August 2013, Punta Cana enhanced the Mini Club (ages 4 to 10) with three new themed rooms. At the Music Academy kids dance using Wii video games and play Dominican-inspired instruments. The Art Studio is the place for crafts and paintings and the Game Factory adds a digital and creative play space. Younger kids romp through the splash park’s fountains and slides. Ages 4 and older try the trapeze, play tennis, learn Zumba moves and — at week’s end — put on a show for parents. For an extra fee, nannies care for tots 4 months to 23 months at the Baby Club. With Club Med Passworld for teens, this hard-to-please group has its own hang-out. They can try island dancing, learn video editing and find out how to be a scratch DJ. Teens also keep busy sailing, windsurfing and playing tennis. All of Punta Cana’s 553 rooms can accommodate two adults and two kids under age 15. Some offer a separate bedroom off the main bedroom for the kids. For more space and service, consider one of the Tiara rooms — a two-bedroom, beachfront unit with 753 square feet. Guests have their own check-in area and a separate pool.

Jamaica: Half Moon

Half Moon Resort

Half Moon, owned by RockResorts, lines a two-mile-long beach. Families can enjoy water activities like kayaking, snorkeling, pedal boating and even interacting with dolphins.

In 2014, Half Moon, a 400-acre upscale property in Montego Bay, celebrates 60 years of operation — a testament to its combination of charm, service and setting. Managed by RockResorts since 2011, the resort exudes a British jewel-in-the-crown feel. The staff is welcoming, pools anchor the low-rise buildings, and the lush grounds bloom with bougainvillea and hibiscus; palm and seagrape trees shade the beach. Half Moon offers much to do without going off-property, an advantage for work-weary parents. You and your tweens and teens can swing through a round of golf on the 18-hole course and horseback ride along the beach — an outing highlighted by heading your mount into the surf for a swim. Young kids can go on pony rides (not in the water). For more animal interactions, get to know the resident dolphins at a beach encounter, best for little kids, or swim with the friendly critters at group or private sessions. Half Moon’s beach, although not wide, stretches for 2 miles. Kayaks and pedal boats are free; windsurfing and sailing on a Sunfish cost extra. At the grassy and gated Anancy Children’s Village, 3- to 6-year-olds go on crab hunts, have their faces painted, do gardening and get kissed by the dolphins. Seven- to 12-year-olds snorkel, make s’mores and learn reggae dancing. At the Hype Zone, teens sing karaoke and dance at the disco. Activities outside include mini-golf, water polo and tennis. After busy days, parents and college-age progeny can relax at the Fern Tree Spa, a 68,000-square-foot oasis with indoor and outdoor pools and treatments that employ coffee, herbs and other Jamaican elements. For families wanting more space and privacy, ask for the villas along the beach or the two-bedroom, oceanfront Hibiscus suites. Only some of the Royal Villas at the far end of the property have been recently renovated. Half Moon’s food is good and the service attentive at its several restaurants. Meal plans and packages are available. Families looking for a bit of luxury in a gracious setting with plenty of activities will enjoy Half Moon.

Mexico: Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Mexico

Grand Velas Resort

The Ambassador Class Pool is one of three separate infinity pools at the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Maya

The Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort is for those who like all-inclusive resorts and, especially, for those who don’t. Situated on more than 80 acres in the Riviera Maya — not far from Playa del Carmen — Grand Velas is a rarity: an all-inclusive property that’s earned AAA’s highest rating of Five Diamonds. The accommodations, located in three areas called “ambiances,” rank as suites, not for their multiple rooms but because of their size. At 1,000 to 1,200 square feet, the rooms are larger than some city apartments. The adults-only Grand Class is beachfront. Of the two family options, the Zen units, set amid the tropical trees and mangrove thickets near the spa, require a shuttle ride to the beach and main buffet. The oceanfront Ambassador section is much more convenient. At the supervised children’s program, ages 4 to 12 make piñatas, fly kites, fashion jewelry and pair up for Wii tennis and bowling. Outdoors, teens play beach volleyball, swim and sunbathe. The new teen hangout features air hockey, foosball, billiards, Xbox and other games. During holidays and summer, the resort ramps up the teen program. Grand Velas works well not just for families with grade-schoolers, but for those with college-age and adult children and for grandparents accustomed to luxury resorts with upmarket amenities. At the 89,000-square-foot spa, among the Caribbean’s top-rated facilities, you and your family members age 16 and older relax first with a water journey. Soak aching shoulders under waterfall jets and soothe tight muscles with water sprays. Inhale calming herbal mixes in the steam room, slather on medicinal clay in another area, then shower and cool down in the ice room. Afterwards, indulge with a healing massage or treatment. Unlike at many all-inclusives, the food is not only abundant, it’s also good. Cocina de Autor, the resort’s signature restaurant won a AAA Five Diamond award. Serving Spanish fare, the chef’s inspiration for flavors and sauces comes from the items’ chemical composition. Other good choices are Frida, the Mexican restaurant, and Sen Lin, the Asian restaurant. Grand Velas isn’t perfect. While the umbrella-shaded beach stretches for 1,000 feet, the swimming area is relatively small. Most families congregate around the large Ambassador pool with its ocean view. Those wanting luxury and an all-inclusive price in Mexico’s Riviera Maya will like Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

St. Lucia: Coconut Bay Resort

Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa

Spanning across 85 acres, St. Lucia’s Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa reopened in 2005 after it took a serious hit post-9/11. Now it’s back and has a family-friendly side — Splash, which includes adventures such as paintball and water slides.

Not all noteworthy family resorts are costly. Moderately-priced Coconut Bay Resort, an all-inclusive strung along 85 acres of green lawns and palm tree-lined sands on St. Lucia’s south coast, features all the components for a child-friendly beach getaway. Those vacationing without kids stay in Harmony, the adults-only area fronted with a quiet pool. Families lodge and lounge on the resort’s Splash side, whose crowning jewel is the water park — a wetscape of twisting slides and a lazy river that’s great for floating via an inner tube. In Cocoland, home to the Coco Kidz Klub, youngsters cool off by dancing through spouting fountains and getting drenched by a bucket dump. For dry play, there’s a kid-sized zipline. The resort offers programs for wee ones to those 12 years old. Nannies watch infants to tots (up to 23 months old) in an air-conditioned nursery. Two- and 3-year-olds paint coconuts, bake cookies and watch puppet shows. Four- to 7-year-olds and 8- to 12-year-olds, careen down the water slides, go on nature hikes and play tennis. Teens have targeted activities during holidays and summer. The Coco Kidz Klub staff chronicles your kid’s activities in photographs so that your child can gift you with an album of these special moments at the vacation’s end. Renovations in 2011 and 2013 freshened the décor, upped the number of Splash premium rooms to 64, as well as rehabbed the pools. Kids can now swim up to their own pool bar to order fruit smoothies and other kid-friendly, non-alcoholic drinks. What don’t you get? Marble bathrooms, turn-down service, luxury furnishings and memorable meals. Although the food is reasonably good, recycled entrees do appear. Nevertheless, Coconut Bay Resort delivers a fun family vacation, especially for those on a budget.

Turks & Caicos: Beaches, Providenciales (Provo)

Beaches Resort

Beaches in Turks and Caicos offers enough family activities to have earned the Travel and Leisure’s award for #1 Hotel for Families in the Caribbean.

The three Beaches resorts lure families with all-inclusive prices, engaging children’s programs and meet-and-greets with favorite Sesame Street characters. At the 223-room Ocho Rios, Jamaica, resort kids can practice putts and swings at the chain’s only children’s golf program. However, the beach is relatively small. The 220-room Beaches Negril, also on Jamaica, features Pirates Island, an 18,000-square-foot water park, and stretches out on a long swath of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach. Although both Jamaica resorts deliver family fun, the 614-room Beaches Turks & Caicos is best for both its location on a swath of 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach and for the choices. At the 45,000-square-foot Pirates Island Waterpark, tots can play in their own pool, preschoolers climb a pirate ship and jump through water jets, and older kids zoom down water slides, body surf and catch their breath by floating along a lazy river. If you can get your kids off the sand and out of the waterpark, they’ll have plenty of things to do at the supervised children’s program that offers care for infants to 2-year-olds, as well as activities for ages 3 years through teens. Preschoolers and grade-schoolers delight in digging for seashells with Zoe, turning trash into treasures with Oscar the Grouch, learning about feathered friends with Big Bird and baking cookies with Cookie Monster. Tuck-ins, tea time and other special one-on-ones with a favorite Muppet cost extra. Teens learn to spin discs at the Scratch DJ Academy and meet and mingle at Liquid, the under-21 nightclub. Turks also offers more lodging options: 30 categories as opposed to the Jamaica resorts’ 11-12. When the Key West Village debuted May 2013, it upped the luxury by offering butler-serviced suites and villas, just in case you want additional space, privacy and pampering amid the happy family madness of this mega-resort.

Click here to see a lot more resort pictures.


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