A family holiday should be a rewarding experience for all, providing a time to relax together and enjoy each other’s company, which is often so difficult to do when you’re faced with the competing demands of work, school, music lessons, sports matches and dental appointments. But creating a good family holiday takes some thought and planning by parents. The tour operators of Slow Travel Tours can offer practical advice from their experiences.
I’ve been running family gastronomic holidays for four years. Most of them have been positively delightful for me and all the family — I learn so much from the imaginative questions children ask and have had some successes in encouraging children to try foods they think they hate.
Tip No. 1: Know your children
Attention span is really important. If your child can concentrate on something for an hour or more, then organized activities will keep them from getting bored. But if your child loses interest after 10 minutes, don’t sign up for a visit to a cheesemaker that takes an hour and a half or an art course that lasts all morning. If your child loves animals, a farm stay could be perfect, but if the child can’t live without TV, electronic games and hourly visits to the gelato shop, then better to stay in town. For how to have your cake and eat it, see Judie Burman’s example below.
Tip No. 2: Know yourself
Think about your aspirations for your vacation and be realistic. Do you want to get away from the rat race and have some much needed rest — you from the demands of work and your children from school and homework? Then rent a house in a quiet location and chill out. I’ve noticed that three generations travelling together usually works well (see Bill Steiner’s experience below); the adults can share the job of looking after the children and everyone gets some time off . If your idea of relaxation is learning something completely new, then sign up for a family course or activity holiday (always heeding Tip No. 1). If you do commit to organized activities, be prepared to collaborate with the tour leader to keep your child interested and engaged. It’s tempting to view a tour organizer as a babysitter or a fairy godmother who will transform your children into better beings. Unfortunately that wand hasn’t been invented yet.
Now for some helpful insights from our group.
Kathy Wood — The Luberon Experience
Our family started traveling in Europe with our daughter when she was only 14 months old, and we strongly recommend international travel for any family. Our daughter is now 17, and her life and view of the world has definitely been shaped by her travel experiences. European travel is a great way to be together while providing your young child a living classroom. He or she can experience at first hand geography, history, language, art, architecture, literature, and nature; and develop a real appreciation for other cultures. But it’s critical to plan your trip with your child in mind! Think carefully about where you go, how long you stay, your accommodations, your meals, and your activities based on your child’s needs. Certain destinations or activities may work better for children at different ages.
For comprehensive practical advice from Kathy see:
Judie Burman — Caves & Castles
I think the best example we can quote is the family who booked our house for a self-catering Cave Art & Castles Tour mainly because the parents really wanted to see the caves, etc., but the children were quite small and therefore, likely not to be so interested. They ‘did a deal’ with the children — today is ‘our’ day so we’re going to do what we want, tomorrow will be ‘your day’ and you can choose. It worked out great and in fact the children enjoyed visiting the caves and castles too — almost as much as the parents.
Bill Steiner — Adventures in Italy
We did a family trip to France with my parents, brothers, sister and our various kids aged about 7–12. One of the things my Mom did was to research the Louvre and find pieces that had something each of her grandkids liked — say a cat. She then had us go on a treasure hunt for each piece, allowing us to see other pieces of art, learning about them along the way as we searched. We also rented canal boats on the trip. It was a great chance to teach and involve the kids in operating and handling the boats, shopping for groceries, being engaged in the process.
Alasdair Wyllie — Saint Louis Hotel Barge
We welcome children on the boat and have developed a system that works well, which parents could try in other circumstances. I make it clear to the parents that they must take responsibility for their young AND that we must also have the “power of authority” over the young (on a boat the Captain has to have ultimate authority over everyone) — and I then set out to engage with the children, checking back with the parents whenever there are potential issues in order to keep them “on side”, and for the parents to develop confidence in the responsible and thoughtful way in which their young are being looked after by us.
We do have all sorts of children’s entertainment ideas — games, colouring books, etc., but most often I find that the children really enjoy having the one-to-one attention that Barbara and I, and the other two crew, are able to provide them from time to time. Since they are sharing an essentially adult holiday, it is important not to patronise them — this is to some extent my philosophy for bringing up children anyway, so for me it is a natural approach. We encourage them to be observant, and to take in some of the special things around them — birds, plants, crops. Often I introduce children to some simple knots, and they usually come up to the wheelhouse and try steering the boat (adults are too afraid of failing to even try!).
Cheryl Alexander — Italian Excursion
Kids need to explore and use their creativity. We have an obligation, in my opinion, to teach them about art early on. I’m taking my grandsons to a local gallery exhibit tomorrow to do some simple education in appreciation. They love going to museums already and are just 4 and 5. Allowing other figures in authority to instruct is also a good way to teach and get kids interested in new things.
We had 3 boys, ages 7-10 and all related on one trip. The parents brought their nanny which made it a bit easier, but we also provided lots of games, the swimming pool and a soccer match for them, as well as Bomarzo, which is great for kids. They did well during the week without TV, though I noticed they did some phone/computer stuff. We also engaged them in helping with a cooking class. Kids like to feel like can contribute to the family or group so asking for their help with things is very useful in the engagement process.
Heather Jarman — Sapori e Saperi Adventures
If you’re coming to Italy with children consider renting a house or apartment in a tiny village, preferably with a shop. Most travellers think they want a villa isolated in its own gardens, but that assigns to the parents the full-time job of entertaining the children. If you choose a village with steep cobbled streets, there won’t be any cars, and children will be perfectly safe wandering around on their own.
Don’t worry about having your own garden. You and your children will get to know the locals if you go to the main piazza. You can plonk yourselves at a table outside the bar with a cool drink, and the children can play with the fleet of tricycles, bicycles and pedal cars, the tennis rackets, ping pong and football tables that belong to the Italian children who in July and August return in droves with their parents to their ancestral homes. No one seems to notice that they’re speaking different languages. The local shop will probably sell everything you need, so you don’t have to spend half your vacation in a car, and if you’re lucky, there will be a village festival or two at which you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won’t find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.