After two weeks at Singita Grumeti Reserves in Tanzania, Melissa Biggs Bradley's children didn't just come away knowing about the "big five." Her nine-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter had learned some of the basics of tracking those lions, leopards, buffalos, rhinos and elephants. They could identify animals by their dung, read the stars, rhyme off names of medicinal plants and dish tips on surviving in the bush. They even learned to cook bacon over a traditional bush fire.
This was exactly what their parents had in mind. While Biggs Bradley and her husband took part in safaris, lion-darting and horseback riding, their children were being similarly entertained at the lodge's Mini Rangers Course, an example of the new breed of "kids clubs" appearing in mainly upscale hotels, resorts and cruise ships around the world.
"You never know when there's going to be that teachable moment," recalls Biggs Bradley, the founding chief executive officer of high-end travel advisory service Indagare. "A tracker at Singita told me, 'What your children see now is going to grow with them like a tree,' and I believe it's true."
Aiming to attract parents who want an enriched holiday experience for their children, kids clubs have begun offering far more than toys, video games and supervised dips in the kiddie pool. In the past five years or so, many have become de facto schools with carefully designed curricula, expert-led seminars, skills training and activities that promote community service or local culture.
Not all of them require a family safari to Africa. There are indigenous Hopi crafts to make at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch. Four Seasons resorts offer dogsledding in Whistler and Dhivehi-language lessons in the Maldives. And five-year-olds at Acqualina, near Miami, memorize whale species and peer at seaweed under a microscope as part of a marine biology-themed program. Kids can also learn that least childish of activities - golf. In South Carolina, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort plunks pint-sized guests on its internationally renowned golf courses as early as the age of 6. The list goes on.
Such activities provide added attractions to families in a year when destinations and cruise ships are competing hard for your vacation dollar. Experts agree that it's shaping up as a busy year for family travel. A new TripAdvisor survey of 1,500 North Americans found that despite the recession, 92 per cent are planning family vacations in the next 12 months - more than last year. And the push to reinvent kids clubs has intensified as hoteliers recognize their marketing value; the same survey found kid-friendly hotels and attractions were parents' top priorities in choosing where to go.
Enter the premium clubhouses now filled with modern furniture, expensive gadgets and other unique benefits. The new club at Rosewood Little Dix Bay, in the British Virgin Islands, features a Caribbean-style wooden house and dress-up parlour. The newly opened kids club at Hyatt Regency Monterey is equipped with modern Argington children's furniture and Fatboy bean bags, HD television and Blu-ray player.
But children aren't confined to daycare-style facilities as they used to be; the best kids clubs venture into every corner of the property, and out into local communities.
Campers at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort tour the local market in the town of Savusavu. At Acqualina, they can head to the kitchen of the posh in-house restaurant for a pizza-making master class with executive chef Michele Mazza.
Though such programs are generally limited to toilet-trained three-to-five-year-olds, there are notable - and increasingly popular - exceptions: Beaches, Almond and some Rosewood resorts offer daycare or private "vacation nannies" for infants and toddlers.
And the youngest family members are well served by the cruise industry. Disney's nurseries, with private babysitting for those under 2, have proved extremely popular ever since they made their debut with its first ship in the late 1990s. Likewise, cruise ships excel in tempting finicky teenagers to take part in organized fun - not least as a means of keeping them from congregating all over the ship, says Eirini Demetelin, a travel agent with the Montreal office of The Travel Network.
"You get the best of both worlds. Every day, your kids are learning something new and seeing something different, and by 4 o'clock you're all sitting by the pool again relaxing as a family," Demetelin says. "You don't have to worry because they're on board, and you know something terrible hasn't happened to them."
For families, she recommends Princess Cruises for overall value and Regent Seven Seas Cruises - an up-and-comer - for their oversized accommodations, Jacques Cousteau-themed kids club and deals this summer that include free unlimited shore excursions and free airfare.
Just as parents shouldn't pay anywhere near resorts' published room rates in this economy - better to ask about discounts, freebies and credits before booking - they can afford to be picky when it comes to how their children will be entertained.
The advantage of places like Beaches, Rosewood and Four Seasons is that kids clubs are complimentary, so children come and go as they please, and parents who want to spend more time with their kids have an opportunity to join in the fun if they choose. It's a model that is catching on: This year, more resorts are waiving kids club fees (which can run $30 to $100 daily) or reducing the price of admission.
With so many choices for meaningful programming for kids, Biggs Bradley argues that it's worth seeking them out rather than settling for ordinary daycare. "It's investing in them, to better them as human beings and prepare them for life," she says. "I'd say that's a positive way to spend a vacation."
Special to The Globe and Mail
SINGITA GRUMETI RESERVES Children learn the basics of bush survival and animal tracking. Free; ages 11 and up; www.singita.com
FOUR SEASONS Cultural and environmental activities. Free; ages 3 and up. www.fourseasons.com
ACQUALINA RESORT & SPA Marine biology-themed games and activities. From $40half-day; ages 5 and up; www.acqualinaresort.com
KIAWAH ISLAND GOLF RESORT Lessons from golf pros and in-house naturalists. From $49 half-day; ages 3 to 11; www.kiawahresort.com/accommodations/the-sanctuary
HAWKS CAY RESORT Adventure day camp for teens. Ages 5 to 17; www.hawkscay.com
HYATT REGENCY/ GRAND HYATT Various activities. Minimum $35 per session; ages 3 to 12. www.hyatt.com
REGENT SEVEN SEAS CRUISES Activities on the theme of sustainable oceans. Free; various ages; www.rssc.com