My two sons have always been great travellers. In elementary school, they got to miss two months of classes to travel to Havana, where I was working. They were together 24/7, sharing the same Spanish tutor, the same cramped sleeping quarters - and loving it. I was convinced travelling was the ultimate brotherly bonding experience.
Until, that is, the dawn of adolescence.
Antoine was 12 years old and Julien 9. And as an about-to-be-newly-minted single mom, I figured what better place for the three of us to let loose than in Canada's ocean playground: a taste of history in Halifax and Louisbourg, followed by a relaxing jaunt through the wide-open spaces of Cape Breton.
Within hours of arriving in Nova Scotia's capital, we were taking in the Citadel. The boys ran ahead and were soon rolling around on the lawns.
"Isn't that sweet?" I thought, then looked again and realized that what seemed like friendly frolicking actually consisted of aim-to-kill blows.
By the time we reached the Cabot Trail, it was all-out war: "Your feet reek." "You barf like a baby." These were some of the milder insults being hurled in the back seat of the car.
It was the first time we had ever bailed on a trip and come home early - by mutual consent. But we have learned from our mistakes, and over the years, Antoine (now 15) and Julien (almost 12) have taught me lots of ways to maximize the joy of travelling with your children.
Divide and conquer
Since the disastrous "Summer of Nova Scotia," Julien has mountain-biked through the Rockies with me, and me alone. Antoine and I shopped till we dropped in New York's East Village, while little brother hung out at home with his dad.
One is a nature boy, the other is a culture vulture. And, at least for the time being, they're still intent on testing the tenets of Darwinian theory. Fact is, travelling with one child at a time lets me focus on their particular interests, yet I can still be sure that, at the end of the day, I have two progeny rather than one.
Boycott chicken fingers
Enticing as it sounds, you could well end up cursing that ubiquitous "kids stay and eat free" marketing ploy.
After two days of Holiday Inns in the Maritimes, my sons turned positively livid at the sight of another children's menu coming at them. "It's not fair," Antoine griped, with reason. "You get lobster. We're stuck with hot dogs and nuggets."
The recent trend in affordable all-suite hotels is great news for families.
Having access to a kitchen not only saves bundles of cash, it also cuts down on the inevitable tedium of eating out for three meals a day.
And, if you don't feel like cooking even something as simple as pasta, take-out in front of the TV is still less expensive and more relaxing for kids at the end of a long day. The Europeans have known this for a while with family-friendly apartment hotels.
Make a game of groceries
Isn't it weird how something that's a chore at home is suddenly fun on vacation?
Like buying groceries. When Antoine and I were house-sitting on the Upper West Side, we had a favourite supermarket game: "How many Paul Newman products can you count?"
Adults like exotic markets. To kids, they can be smelly and boring. Checking out different brands and packaging of potato chips and pop, on the other hand, is cool.
Living la vida local
Believe it or not, even kids can have too much beach, especially after a week or more at an all-inclusive resort.
Wandering off Cuba's Varadero tourist strip with Antoine and Julien, we stumbled upon a picturesque playground -- right out of the 1960s -- where local children hung out after school.
The afternoon there left my boys with far more lasting memories of Cuba than making a sand mummy out of mom for the umpteenth time.
A no-whine guarantee
Antoine and I could have duelled our way through the streets of Manhattan. Me: The Metropolitan Museum. Antoine: CBGB. Me: Saks Fifth Avenue. Antoine: Tower Records. It helped that he had done his homework -- for once -- and left home with a long list of must-sees.
We talked about this on the plane and agreed the fairest solution was that we each got to choose one outing a day and the other person had to come along without whining.
It's only an au revoir
Encourage your children to stay in touch with friends who move away. With the Internet, there's really no excuse.
Julien now has pals to visit in Alberta, Florida, Belgium and the list is growing.
If your child is invited to sleep over at a buddy's place when you're passing through town, jump at the opportunity and enjoy your well-deserved evening of adult time.
The postscript moment
Don't delude yourself: No matter how well you planned doing Disney World with Daisy, no matter how much fun you had climbing Chichen Itza with little Cosmo, when you get back from travelling with kids, you're going to be exhausted.
Before you even leave home, factor in some quality downtime for yourself -- both in your schedule and your budget -- for the immediate aftermath of your trip.
A couple of hours at your local spa is a cliché for a reason: It works.
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