Monday, January 21, 2013

Warm up in Panama, perfect for teens

Let's face it.  By January, those of us living in the Northern parts of the planet are getting pretty tired of the dark and the cold.  A winter getaway boosts our Vitamin D levels to help us beat those winter blues, naturally.

If you are looking for a new destination that is both family friendly and affordable, why not give Panama a try?

We found daily flights routed out of the major airline hub of Houston, TX which connected daily to our home airport.  Though long in travel time, the direct routing and good connections actually reduced our time spent in transit.  We landed in Panama City, but in the next couple of years international flights will become available at the new airport closer to the resorts, now under construction.  A taxi service offers at the airport shuttled us safely across the (very busy) city to the resort area of Decameron.  Resorts by Sheraton, Riu, Hilton and all the majors offer many economical choices, several 5* with inclusive options, depending what your family craves.  Most are located on uncrowded sand beaches where searching for shells is just as enticing as playing in the gentle waves.  There are also privately owned condos and houses available, and grocery shopping is easy.

Rent a car

We had no troubles with driving in Panama.  The highways are mostly new, and though can get crowded with trucks and buses, it is easy to navigate and enjoyable to explore.  Once in Decameron, there are a couple familiar rental agents to choose from, without the stress of driving through the unbelievable traffic of Panama city (we saved that for the experts!)  If you have a smaller group, or prefer to leave the driving to others, the local bus system is every efficient and economical, but a basic knowledge of Spanish would make it easier.

What to do with teens?

Ziplining through the jungle canopy was at the top of our list.  When in Hawaii a couple of years ago, Katie was too young to participate and has never let us forget it.  This time, she sailed above the trees and over the waterfalls with the guidance of our guides.  We drove up to the mountaintop to El Valle de Anton - Cocle province, a beautiful scenic drive in itself.  The tropical rainforest was lush and musical with birdsong. 

If your teens are into extreme sports, then a visit (or even a stay) at Nitro City is a must. We enjoyed our late lunch in the chilled atmosphere of the outdoor patio and watched as a quad towed wake-boarders across the infinity pool. Skateboarding, jet skiing, kitesurfing and a realm of other outdoor adventures are available, and the pool tables and video games entertain on rainy days.  Though we didn't choose to stay long, our teens were happy to have visited even for a short time.

Diving with whale sharks in the right season (November to Feb) and world class surfing (Feb - May) are other options unique to Panama.  A few hours to the village of Santa Catalina.  A day trip to the island of Coiba offered top notch snorkeling with the biggest fish in the sea, followed by a geography lesson at the National Park on Coiba, the island that was once a penal colony and is now one of the best diving locations in the world.  We managed to swim with sea turtles, schools of fish of every size and color, and even spotted a seahorse while floating in the calm, clear waters of the Pacific.

A trip to Panama would not be complete without visiting the Canal.  The Panama Canal museum had an interactive exhibit where visitors can steer their ship through the locks, controlling the throttle and the wheel in an attempt to not smash into the sides and sound the alarms... it was great fun, like a shipping game of Mattel's "Operation."  Next, in Panama Viejo (Old Town), a follow-up visit to the international version of the canal museum explained the construction of the major shipping channel from another perspective.  The contrast allows visitors to see two sides of the same story, a valuable lesson about history in itself. 

With the best of beaches, history, sports activities and cultural exposure, Panama offers families a safe, relaxing winter getaway at affordable prices.  Oh yeah, did I mention beer costs about 70 cents... #goLearn.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jasper in January, Alberta Canada

Since the release of our family adventures, many folks have asked me for recommendations of the perfect destination for an educational trip with their kids.  The world is full of opportunity, but I am going to start with something right in my own backyard...

Jasper Alberta Canada 

A three hour drive west of the city of Edmonton, Jasper National Park is nestled along the Alberta -  British Columbia border in Western Canada.  And in January, it is a winter wonderland.

To get there:  Our family travels in our SUV, equipped with 4 wheel drive and winter tires.  This allows us enough space for luggage, and makes for a safer, happier trip.  It also allows us the freedom to explore independently once we arrive.  ViaRail offers a passenger train service, and there is the MagicBus ski transfer, but we prefer the freedom of our own vehicle.

What to pack:  Think winter in the mountains... the temperatures are unpredictable and can fluctuate more than 40 degrees Celsius in 24 hours.  Seriously.  So be prepared for anything: ski pants, warm coats, hats, mitts and boots.  We always add a swimsuit for the hot tub.  And bring whatever gear will match your planned activitiy: skiing or hiking, skating or sledding.  First plan your "to do" list, then pack what you'll need to do it.

Family Fun:
SKI:  Marmot Basin offers downhill skiing for all ages and abilities.  It is a world class resort, with high speed quad lifts and chalets. Rental packages are available on the hill.  Lessons are offered for kids, and there is babysitting service for younger ones.  Our kids started skiing at about age 3, and there are many children on the lower "bunny slopes."  It is a great place to learn to ski.  Teens will be challenged by the double-black runs and terrain park, and the many trails through the woods.  The snowboarders in the family will have a lot of options as well.  Rentals plus lift tickets and a hot lunch for our family of 5 was about $500.  Pretty high for multiple days, but was okay when the next day, we planned to do something "free."

HIKE:  Maligne Canyon is frozen, and a walk from Bridge No.5 will take you along the frozen river up to the waterfalls and caves.  Tours are available, complete with ice grips for your boots.  Your family will learn the geology of the Rocky Mountains, and may even spot ancient fossils imbedded in the canyon walls.  Deer and elk frequent the area, so keep your eyes open for wildlife, and experience the beauty of nature.  Make sure to take your camera!  Check Jasper Trail Alliance on Facebook for current trail conditions, cross country ski trails and other hiking locations.

SKATE:  At the JPL and Pyramid Lake Resort - free.  There are a couple of lakes where the snow is removed, revealing the smooth ice surface of the mountain lakes... skates can be rented, and hot cocoa is available to share in front of a roaring bonfire.  You can even challenge your kids to pond hockey, or a quick game of curling once your feet get sore.

Other ideas:  Dog-sledding is something we have always wanted to try. There is also a wonderful Day Spa at the Sawridge Hotel for a Mom's Time Out, and our kids always love the hotel pools.  If you go mid-day, you will probably have the whole place to yourself!  The town of Jasper offers unique gift shops and restaurants of every price... try Fiddle River for a taste of elk or buffalo, with kids menu offered as well.

Where to stay:  With our family, we prefer a kitchenette suite with a wood-burning fireplace.  This trip we found the Jasper Inn for $140/night.  It has a great pool and indoor hot tub, and a restaurant with breakfast buffet for $10/person.  If you'd like a secluded mountain experience, the Jasper Park Lodge is unbeatable (though pricey) and Pyramid Lake Resort is now open year round.  Check out for our reviews.

Jasper in January - many special deals offered by hotels, and free activities planned for family fun.  It's a great time to explore the Rockies, whether you live just up the road or continents away.


When we think family travel, we don't have to go far.  Some of the best destinations are only an hour or two (or maybe three!) from home.  The biggest thing is to take the time, whether it is for a week or just a couple of nights, and spend it with your kids.  Play together, learn together and build the relationships that will carry forward with the best memories of time well spent.