You Took Your Children Where?

The Voelkel Family

Most families spend summers lining up outside the Smithsonian or battling crowds in Southern California. But there is a whole world out there to explore -- and it's never too early to start experiencing with the whole family. Husband-and-wife writer team Jon and Pamela Voelkel have been taking their family into spider-infested jungles and crumbling temples, through caves teeming with bats, and to the tops of remote pyramids in the rainforest since their youngest was just two years old.

The Voelkel's family adventures began as research for their young adult trilogy, The Jaguar Stones, the first of which hit bookshelves in April 2010. Middleworld follows the adventures of 14-year-old Max as he navigates the Mayan world in order to rescue his archeologist parents and save the world from the evil forces of an ancient empire. Packed with intrigue and fascinating insights into ancient and modern Mayan life, many scenarios in the books are inspired by Jon Voelkel's upbringing in the Central American rainforest. The son of missionaries, he survived eating monkey stew, an attack by giant rats, and a plane crash during his childhood. His own children -- now aged 7, 13, and 16 -- are now having their own jungle experiences (so far so good).

While the Vermont-based family's top trips are to Mexico and Central America, the wisdom they have gathered applies to adventurous exploits worldwide. For example, they stress that parents should always stock up on official health and safety travel advice, even if the location doesn't seem that remote. Here is a selection of unforgettable family adventures, including the Voelkels' amazing trips to Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico -- plus the intrepid authors' tips on precautions to take to make sure your kids remember their vacations for all the right reasons.

Portland, Oregon

The best base for water adventures in the west, Portland is only an hour from the frothy waters of the Clackamas River, home to intermediate whitewater rafting. North Santiam River, to the south of Portland, is the perfect water for beginners. Who says you need sea or ocean to windsurf? Get on a board at Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge -- the midday winds are legendary.

Travel Tips: Best for children 2 and up
The Voelkels always traveled with their own life vests when the children were very young, just in case the right sizes were not available at the destination. And when you are out on the water, remember to stay calm. "Our two-year-old's first taste of a kayak adventure was on an underground river in Belize," says Pamela Voelkel. "I was completely terrified and it was only having the children with me that made me act brave and not start screaming. My kids are much braver than I am."

Corsica, France

The kids will think they've dropped into a fairytale as they explore this rugged Mediterranean isle. Napoleon's birthplace has hundreds of tiny, medieval hill towns and dense forest and mountains inland. On the north coast, Calvi boasts an imposing 15th-century Genoese citadel and families can wander narrow alleys between ancient five-story houses. There are also 200 beaches that confetti the 620-mile coastline. Try kite surfing, tuck in to local specialties like wild boar, and clamber up old stone steps in mountain towns too steep for cars to navigate.

Travel Tips: Best for children of all ages
The Voelkels learn local phrases before trips to foreign countries and take a phrasebook so the kids can do their own ordering. "I think it's an essential part of the experience for them to have to communicate in another language," says Pamela Voelkel. "We took Harry to Fiji when he was about 18 months old and at one point in his life he could say more words in Fijian than he could say in English."

Xunantunich and Barton Creek Caves, Belize

An evocative collection of palaces and temples, with vultures wheeling round the 130-foot pyramid, El Castillo, Xunantunich dates back 1400 years. One of the Voelkels' top trips, the children liked Xunantunich better than famed Mayan site, Caracol since the only way to Xunantunich is to load your car onto a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River. Not to mention that the area is populated by huge, eight-feet-long iguanas. It's 90 miles from here to Barton Creek Caves where guides take you canoeing through caves where Mayans once held human sacrifices. Your flashlight might light up skulls peering from the cave walls.

Travel Tips: Best for children 5 and up
After car trouble on the washed out road to a remote Maya site, the Voelkels vowed to always pay extra to rent a car with four-wheel-drive. Bring a guide, a good map, a first aid kit, and a cell phone. "If you get a local guide and stick to the trail, there's not much that can go wrong," they say. "Oh, and if you stand under a tree with howler monkeys in it, they'll pee on you. We learned that the hard way."

Tucson, Arizona

The city of one million is the perfect base for introductory desert adventures. Get eye-to-eye with burrowing owls, bobcats, and wolves at the excellent, outdoor Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, admire the backdrops of Western theme park and working film studio, Old Tucson Studios, and explore the striking Saguaro National Park -- home to 1678 types of plants. Then head back to town and make the most of the slew of Tucson's kid-friendly eateries.

Travel Tips: Best for children of all ages
If you've ever spent time in the desert you know that there are important rules to follow, and this is the perfect time to teach the kids. Be sure they stick to trails, walk with a heavy footfall to warn wildlife, and stay away from piles of leaves (they can conceal sleeping snakes). Just as with adults, kids should be dressed in long sleeves and long trousers, no matter how hot it is, and always wear boots or sneakers, not sandals.

The Highlands, Scotland

Just twenty minutes north of Glasgow (which has an international airport and slew of child-friendly parks and museums), the Scottish Highlands make an easy adventure destination even for those with very young children. All levels of hiking and mountain climbing are on offer. At ground level, the Highlands have plenty of cold, clear rivers to jump into on summer days. Older kids can try rock climbing, rappelling, and land yachting -- racing wheeled "sail wagons" across the sand.

Travel Tips: Best for children of all ages
Even the most intrepid adventurers can have plans foiled by weather. In case the day's exploits are rained out, take books, drawing pads, cards, and audio books. Pamela Voelkel encourages the kids to take photographs, keep a journal, or draw a picture of an event or meal.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Situated deep in the Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg offers all level of hiking from easy trails on the outskirts of town to week-long trekking adventures. Bicycle tours of Cades Cove are another popular way to tour this special bit of the Smokies. For a day off the trails, theme park, Dollywood, offers 125 acres of coasters, water slides, and shows, a few miles away in Pigeon Forge.

Travel Tips: Best for ages 2 and up Remember that sometimes basic bug spray just doesn't cut it. "I usually do a bit of research into local pests and check out what kind of repellant is most effective in each area," says Pamela Voelkel. When putting the kids through tiring experiences, it's worth it to spend a bit more on a hotel room with space for all of you to spread out. Having a nice bathroom makes it a whole lot more pleasant for parents, too.

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque, say the Voelkels, "is the most romantic of Maya ruins -- a misty green site of hilltop temples, beautiful carvings, and mysterious legends." The kids will love the Tomb of the Red Queen, the slightly eerie recreation of the tomb of King Pakal (of "Chariots of the Gods" fame) in the on-site museum. This is number one on the Voelkel kid's list since it houses one of the few remaining examples of an ancient Maya flushing toilet. Within day-tripping distance, you'll find Bonampak's "bloodthirsty murals" in rainforests where the Maya continue to live traditionally. And visit the magnificent ruins of Yaxchilan. Now accessible only via boat, they were once connected to Tikal by the world's first suspension bridge.

Travel Tips: Best for ages 8 and up
In malarial areas such as Chiapas, the Voelkels take meds before, during, and after a trip. When visiting ruins, they advise that steps can be crumbly or very mossy and slippery. "Of course we tell the children to take it carefully and slowly, and we would never allow them to climb on anything that looks unsafe or is posted out of bounds." Always be on the lookout for loose rocks, bats, and snakes. And pack a flashlight. "At Yaxchilan there's a labyrinth of dark rooms that was designed to confuse the senses. It still has the same effect today."

Juneau, Alaska
Juneau perches on the hem of the Gastineau Channel, with steep mountains and the Juneau Icefield at its back. Offering entirely different adventure options to anywhere else in the U.S., itineraries feature glacier-walking, dog-sledding, and paddling into fjords where sea otters frolic and glaciers calve vast slivers into the ocean.

Travel Tips: Best for ages 5 and up
Make putting together the itinerary a family project and be sure the kids know exactly what to expect. It's always smart to stock up on snacks for long car journeys, especially if you don't know how easy it will be to find a restaurant after lots of physical activity leaves everyone famished.

Queensland, Australia

Australia's adrenaline capital, Queensland, boasts 300 days of sunshine, thrilling rainforest adventures, and incredible snorkeling and diving among the Great Barrier Reef's 3,000 reefs and coral islands. Home to possums, bats, bandicoots, turtles, frogs, snakes, and spiders, the Daintree tropical rainforest of Northern Queensland is an area of incredible biodiversity. Wildlife sanctuaries abound -- or you can see local creatures up close on an outback adventure.

Travel Tips: Best for ages 2 and up
"The first time we went into the jungle, I took creams, sprays, itch remedies, and a beekeeping hat for one of my daughters who is particularly prone to being bitten," says Pamela Voelkel. "I've calmed down a bit since then, but I still take plenty of repellant." Another must-pack? A scented candle. "It rains pretty much every day in the jungle and getting wet is par for the course," she says. "All that rain can make the nicest hotel room smell a bit moldy."

Lake Peten Itza, Guatemala

Get a boat to Flores, the island city where the Maya made their last stand against the Spanish, to visit another Voelkel favorite. "This is a beautiful region where howler monkeys roar in the night like demented ghosts and the moon rises orange over the lake," they say. If your children are good travelers, make the one-hour drive over rutted roads to Tikal and see the famous pyramid that was featured in the first Star Wars movie.

Travel Tips: Best for ages 5 and up
If your vacation involves a lot of bad roads, bring travel sickness pills, plastic bags, and wipes, just in case. Pack a few familiar foods, since it's a lot easier to persuade kids to try something new when you have a back-up plan. Also be sure not to underestimate the power of the tropical sun. Bring hats, extra t-shirts for swimming, and something long-sleeved for everyone in the family. Carry lots of bottled water and bring more sunscreen and bug spray than you think you'll need -- it can be hard to find and expensive to buy in remote areas.
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