Oh, the places you can REALLY go! Take the kids hiking, camping, kayaking, biking, snorkeling without the need for quarantines, vaccinations, or worries.
By Maria De La O & Maryann Jones Thompson
We learned a lot about traveling — and NOT traveling — during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. On the one hand, we confirmed that this virus ain’t nothing to mess with. On the other hand, we realized that staying safe doesn’t necessarily require staying home.
ROAM families are adventurous, not reckless. We want to be explorers, not tourists. But family travel during a pandemic requires more guardrails and research than usual: What destinations will allow American tourists AND have a low infection rate? What locales are welcoming visitors AND have space in their hospital should someone break a bone — or worse? (Click here for our repository of Covid-19 trip planning tips and resources.)
The non-negotiables for pandemic travel? Mask wearing, social distancing, adhering to local regulations and — seems odd to have to mention this but — never traveling with the virus or its symptoms. Some of the destinations we picked require a negative Covid-test before and/or after arrival but none require a two-week quarantine.
To create ROAM’s “21 for 2021,” we tapped into our connections with hundreds of parents who have already traveled during the pandemic to find out what worked, what didn’t and why. We cross-referenced those recommendations with the latest information from government, news, health and travel experts. (Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for daily updates.)
While most international destinations are no-gos, for now, we did manage to find a few that are currently do-able. Luckily, Americans have fifty states-worth of world-class adventures inside our borders. And when’s the next time your kids be free from sports and other extracurriculars so that you’ll have weeks to explore one of our domestic wonderlands?!
Like last year, 2021 will be a year of outdoor adventure. Our list focuses on new places to explore that travelers can fully realize despite the pandemic (though we’re fully in favor of staying home until the holiday season’s stratospheric infection numbers return to Earth). What we’ll miss in terms of buzzing downtowns, indoor dining and cultural festivals, we’ll more than make up for in outside action and natural attractions.
And keep in mind that there’s no better time to book than right now, as many airlines and accommodations are newly flexible about cancellations and rebookings for future travel and because of decreased tourism during the pandemic, they are ready to make a deal.
Need another reason to book now for travel later? Studies show that the best part of travel can be the planning stage, even more than the actual trip. Given today’s tragic and uncertain times, we say “plan away!”
ROAM’s 21 Family Adventures for 2021
RV Across Alaska
Who needs a cruise when you have time to journey Alaska by land. Just follow the state’s rules, get a killer deal on a flight to Anchorage, rent a motorhome, splurge on a fly-in to see grizzlies feasting on salmon, and drive to see Denali and the other wonders of the Last Frontier. Looking for even more frontier? Head to spectacular Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, America’s largest or drive the famed Dalton Highway through the tundra, past the Arctic Circle and to Prudhoe Bay. There’s no shortage of only-in-Alaska sights to behold.
Dive in Moorea
New routes to Tahiti have put French Polynesia atop our map for Pacific island vacation destinations. Each island has something unique to offer, but all offer no-quarantine entry and French medicine if something goes awry.
Moorea is like “Moana” come to life. The dramatic mountains, beach days and snorkeling are epic, as is the scuba diving. Lemon sharks are common in winter, humpback whales in summer and big friendly stingrays visit reefs all year long. And it’s just a ferry-ride away from the main island, which saves money on interisland transfers for families.
Street Walk in New York City
NYC is always a great place to go, and even more so given its infection rates are some of the nation’s lowest. New York’s got enough outdoor attractions to entertain kids of all ages — and their parents — for weeks. And the Big Apple might even be ready to feel appreciation and enthusiasm for tourists and a certain je nes sais quoi over being out of the worst of the pandemic.
Relax in the Eastern Caribbean
While most Caribbean isles are ready and willing to have American tourists return, infection rates are much too high for families to feel comfortable visiting. But several less-touristed isles in the Lesser Antilles of the Eastern Caribbean have managed to reopen to travelers and manage the virus, as well. Specifically, we’re excited about Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent/the Grenadines.
Pauline Frommer (of the Frommer guidebook empire) suggests Barbados for 2021 travel. The island offers many miles of lovely, soft-sand beaches—the sea is calmest and safest for swimming kiddos off the west coast— a full range of water sports and plenty of family-oriented attractions on land. We think Paradise Beach in St. Lucia looks pretty good, too.
Trek the Pacific Crest Trail
There’s nothing COVID-safer than trekking in the backcountry. Have you imagined hiking the PCT with your kids? How about the Appalachian Trail? The Continental Divide? Whatever the “thru-hike” of your dreams, 2021 is the year to get a plan together to get ‘er done. Do a week/2 weeks/1 month per year or do it all in one go. Think your kids are too young? Think again: ROAM interviewed Marc who completed all 2,650 miles of the PCT with his eleven-year-old.
Circle Lake Michigan
The pandemic is a perfect time to spend two weeks driving 1,500 miles on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. Kids and parents will love climbing Silver Lake dunes, riding bikes around Mackinac Island and swimming at the smooth stone Schoolhouse Beach on Washington Island. And Alison Bowman-Salas says every day on the Michigan side of the loop ends with a phenomenal sunset over the world’s fifth-largest body of freshwater.
Stargaze in Joshua Tree
Joshua trees are one of the oldest and most endangered beings on the planet, so go see them in the high desert east of Los Angeles while you can! We here at ROAM are especially excited about a “bubble” hotel, scheduled to open near Joshua Tree National Park in April 2021 (reservations open in January). Heck, this style of hotel even sounds great for a shelter-in-place road trip! Since you sleep in a see-through bubble tent, you can see stars from here to the ends of the galaxy. (OK, maybe that’s a bit of hyperbole.)
As long as you’re in Joshua Tree, you might as well take the fam to Palm Springs, where the kids can play in the pool and you can enjoy cocktails on the water-sprinkled patio. Get a mid-century modern Airbnb and pretend you’re Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Because of the oppressive summer temperatures, visiting in any other season is the play.
Meet Gorillas in Rwanda
If this experience has been on your list of dream trips, strangely, 2021 could be its year! Rwanda is currently the only country in Africa that is safe to visit and allowing U.S. tourists to enter. Sure, getting there on three or four international flights won’t be without exposure but if you’re willing to take a chance, this one just might be worth it.
Rwanda is one of the bases for mountain gorilla safaris. Choosing a reputable operator will give you and your kids aged 15 and older an opportunity to see gorillas in the wild — not to mention other primates, elephants and incredible scenery, too.
Be a Mainer
Would your kids like to go on a moose safari? Rock climb in Acadia National Park? Paddleboard in Portland’s Casco Bay? Drive past historic lighthouses? Spend a day at sea fishing for lobster — or less effortful, eat as many lobster rolls as mom or dad can afford?
Maine is a true land of endless outdoor adventure — OK, there’s some cool history there, too — but its big, so you’ll need time to see it all and make the most of your trip to America’s northeast tip. East Coasters have loved their pandemic escapes to Maine but know that visitors must show proof of a negative Covid test upon arrival. (If not, you’ll be quarantining for 10 days.)
Explore the Redwood/Oregon Coast
The rugged, wild coast of far northern California and Oregon is a misty, redwood-and- salt-scented paradise. Fish the rivers, bash the dunes, see the waterfalls, eat the seafood and even golf like Scotland in Bandon Dunes. Drive through old-growth forests, hike the Lost Coast Trail or watch sunset over the expansive sands of Oregon’s beaches. Make it a longer trip by adding a loop through the best of central Oregon or through Lassen and Shasta on the Volcanic Scenic Byway.
Raft West Virginia
Yep, you heard us. In December 2020, New River Gorge became America’s newest national park. But the 7,000-acre stretch of whitewater is no stranger to rafters: Adventures on the Gorge has been running the rapids since the 1970s, offering a variety of rafting expeditions, horseback riding, fishing and other fun-tivities. The park will be a big draw for rock climbers and hikers, as well.
Camp on Catalina
Catalina Island is a large and mostly undeveloped chunk of land just 26 miles across the sea from Los Angeles. While we love the wide range of family activities in Avalon Harbor and the town’s Classic California feel, the pandemic gives us time to get to its hinterland. Hiking to a site at Two Harbors or Little Harbor puts you at the water’s edge and away from 99 percent of the tourists. But if you want to camp closer to town, tent cabins are now available at Hermit Gulch, at the outer edge of Avalon.
Wildlife Watch in Costa Rica
Costa Rica reopened to Americans in November 2020. The Central American nation is a family-vacation favorite with the perfect blend of beach, jungle, mountains and indigenous wildlife. And Costa Ricans know it. The government has protected a staggering 28 percent of its land in national parks, reserves and wildlife refuges. Its medical system is highly-regarded, too, making it a no-brainer for families who gotta get in a big trip this year. Read more.
Play Outside in San Francisco
There are so many things to do and see in the City by the Bay during the pandemic! It’s surprisingly kid-friendly and a cultural and historical destination for the parents — take it from ROAM, we live here! Another plus? SF has one of the lowest infection rates of all major cities.
A stay at a hotel in the Presidio or an Airbnb in the neighborhoods will set up your family for a huge variety of strolls, hikes, bike rides, stair climbs and park visits. If infection rates dip into normal levels, museums and other indoor attractions will reopen to timed entries. And make sure to book a babysitter so you and your honey can enjoy a night out on the town. Fall (still referred to as “Indian Summer” in the Bay Area) is the best time to visit weather-wise. Read more.
Kayak the Florida Keys
If you love the splashy action of sea kayaking in the West, the warm and calm waters of Florida will float your boat. Families can circumnavigate the state with stops to paddle the canals of Naples, see manatees in Fort Meyers, or head to the Keys for a trip in the Dry Tortugas — all without fear of flipping a boat. Oh, and if you’ve never been to Florida, there’s three or four other things to do along the way — even if Disney World is closed.
Experience Authentic Cambodia
What a difference a year makes: We actually began 2020 by reporting that Angkor Wat had made the list of destinations to avoid because tourists were loving the Khmer temple complex to death. In 2021, Cambodia is making news as one of the Southeast Asian countries that have kept the virus at bay even as it welcomes foreign tourists.
ROAM has long been pro-Cambodia. And though Angkor is amazing, we recommend concentrating your itinerary away from Siam Reap and the other overtouristed areas. Luckily, there’s a number of other authentic corners of the Khmer Kingdom where you can rub elbows with friendly locals and be equally dazzled. Read more.
Snorkel in Bermuda
Not only does Bermuda sits atop its famed “triangle” it also sits above the Caribbean – officially in the mid-Atlantic. Its position means Californians can fly nonstop to the east coast and then hop to the island in an hour or two — a quicker trip than getting to the Caribbean.
Once there, you probably won’t notice a difference: Picturesque coves of white sand, aquamarine waters and excellent snorkeling. Tiny, historic villages dot the entire island nation, which means you can easily and safely stay in a socially-distant Airbnb or other small accommodation rather than being forced into a big resort. Bermuda’s healthcare is world-class, as well. Read more.
Bike the National Parks of the West
Sometimes it pays to hire the experts. Backroads makes it easy and enjoyable for families to bicycle through some of the world’s most picturesque spots. In 2021, Backroads is offering bike days as part of their family “multiadventure” trips in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone as well as Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon. Throw down a credit card, book a flight and your vacation planning is done!
Hunker Down in Hawaii
OK, not a super unique pick but Hawaii is do-able — at least most of it. Sure, the Big Island has an erupting volcano and Kauai isn’t accepting visitors right now without quarantine. BUT Oahu has lots of “staycation” lodging options far from the crowds of Honolulu and Maui is always pleasant. The state’s first-world connectivity will keep you and your kids reliably logged into Zoom so that no one has to know you’re away from home. (Note to self: Wear sunscreen.) The best part? Hawaii pretty much has a nice climate all year long.
The added hassle of Covid-19 testing requirements and general confusion around flying to and staying in Hawaii is keeping demand low, which means fares are cheap. Right now, most airlines have remarkably good deals. For example, as of this writing in January 2021, United’s roundtrips between SFO and several Hawaiian islands are just $177 to $197 in basic economy for April and May flights. First class? It will cost you as little as $577 on Alaska Air right now—cheap.
Go Golden State
We’re biased, for sure, but California’s attractions can take the Pepsi challenge against almost any country on earth. What other destination has world-class beaches, mountains, lakes, deserts, volcanoes and multicultural metro areas? Hmmmm?
If you’re like us and feel blessed to be one of the nearly 40 million folks who call the Golden State “home,” you’ve got dozens of in-state adventures on your to-do list already. But if the pandemic has left you scraping the bottom of the barrel for new ideas, check ROAM’s collection of California love. Our local contributors will take you on dozens of family-friendly trips, including getaways on the coast, weeks in the mountains and days of outdoor fun in the cities.
If you’re still unsure about rejoining the world of travelers, we feel you. It’s a stressful prospect for many parents. Here’s where the “shared economy” comes to our rescue: While everyone knows Airbnb and VRBO facilitated Covid-safe rentals in 2020, some missed the rise of other options like Hipcamp and Outdoorsly. Hipcamp lets you reserve a campsite on private land, with most spots faaaaaar from other people, their RV generators, and their germs. You can reserve a night in a vineyard, along a river or in a friendly host’s backyard garden in some of the most beautiful parts of the U.S. Outdoorsy will let you rent someone’s Sprinter van, RV or VW bus to get there and stay overnight. The combo enables mortal families to feel like outdoor gods — at least for the week.
Maria De La O & Maryann Jones Thompson
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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