Your New Favorite Family Vacation
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Your New Favorite Family Vacation

Yeah, you could go to the beach or go to Disney -- again. Or you can get inspired by three families who planned unforgettable off-the-grid getaways.
Natural Wonders

Elizabeth Halvorsen and her family went into the wild during a one-of-a-kind vacation to the Gal?pagos Islands.

Both of our daughters, Isabel, 9, and Alex, 6, love animals. So my husband, J. P., and I thought the Gal?pagos, the chain of volcanic islands west of Ecuador, would be a perfect place for a family vacation. Where else would we see sea lions, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies (for the uninitiated, that's a tropical seabird with feet of the brightest blue you've ever seen in nature). We went with a Lindblad Expeditions cruise because in addition to its National Geographic partnership (experts are onboard), Lindblad offers plenty of family-friendly activities. We knew the girls would like the "junior naturalist" program, which includes scavenger hunts, and snorkeling, and swimming lessons.

PLAY: The ship stops at six islands throughout the eight-day trip. We were free to hike, go kayaking, or even try deep-water snorkeling at each stop. (The staff provides wetsuits and snorkeling equipment.) Every day after lunch the girls raced to the afternoon science experiments led by naturalists. They even trained kids to drive those inflatable boats called Zodiacs and they explored a cove near the ship.

EAT: The food onboard is super-fresh and fantastic. It's mostly international, but with an Ecuadorian flair -- think ceviche made with shrimp and tomatoes, plantains, fruits like papaya and mango, black bean soup, and local fish. The seafood was the highlight for me, but the girls went crazy for the ice cream sundae buffet (of course!).

STAY: The cabins on the National Geographic Endeavour are small but cozy and all have windows or portholes. We didn't spend a whole lot of time in our room, though; we lounged by the small swimming pool or on the sundecks after an exciting day.

THE TAKEAWAY: The birds -- especially the penguins -- and sea lions we saw are completely unafraid of humans, so you can walk right up to them. I'll never forget visiting Santa Cruz Island, where giant tortoises roam: It was like a cage-free zoo. Those are the kinds of lasting memories I wanted to create with my family. And we absolutely did.

NEED TO KNOW: Be sure everyone takes a camera -- being able to get so close to wildlife is a huge privilege.

For more information: Lindblad Expeditions, 800-397-3348; expeditions.com.

Saddle Up

Ready to (horseback) ride? Atlanta-based mom Stacey Hasler tells you why a ranch in Madison, Georgia, has been her family's go-to vacation spot for eight years.

I'll admit it: Our family's horse-crazy! My husband, Jim, and I think there's nothing like being out in the country on your horse. So when we were planning our first big family vacation eight years ago, we wanted a place where you can really ride, not just follow the leader. We chose Southern Cross Guest Ranch because, in addition to its beautiful facilities and gentle horses, it truly is a family destination. Now we spend a week there at least once a year.

PLAY: Guests typically ride for two two-hour sessions each day. The equestrians at the ranch make horseback riding a cinch, even for rookies. If you've never ridden before, they'll teach you how to do everything (including gallop) and when you're not riding you can mountain bike, swim, or play games. It's definitely a ranch for horse-lovers though. When our daughters Sydney, 16, and Jessica, 15, aren't riding, they like to hang out with the young foals.

EAT: The kitchen is run by a fantastic cook known as Miss Inge -- her food rivals any fancy restaurant I've ever tried. The staff serves three meals a day buffet style in a homey dining hall. I've never had the same meal twice (the fruit smoothies at breakfast are the best). We like to sit in the back room and watch the horses run by.

STAY: We love the fact that every guest room on the ranch is different. When the girls were younger we stayed in the Red River room (it has a bed shaped like a covered wagon and is closest to the pool). In winter we ask for the Cattle Baron or the Charleston because each has a fireplace. And when we go in the spring we book the Savannah room because its porch offers the best view of the sunset.

THE TAKEAWAY: Sometimes the rush of everyday life gets in the way of family time, so taking our annual vacation is like hitting the reset button. We bond by helping one another get our horses ready every morning and then hitting the trails together.

NEED TO KNOW: The ranch is just outside the pretty town of Madison, Georgia. There are great antiques stores and more than 100 big plantation homes nearby (some of which are open to the public).

For more information: Southern Cross Guest Ranch, 1670 Bethany Church Rd., Madison, GA 30650; 706-342-8027; southcross.com.

The Campout

When she took her husband and kids to a family camp in Washington, Maine, reader Theresa Nelsen discovered that the great outdoors has a way of bringing people together.

We like getting outside and being active, so when I heard about Medomak Family Camp I was intrigued. My husband, David, our son Cole, 14, and our daughter Kathryn, 9, love camping with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but -- call me crazy -- I need the luxury of indoor plumbing within stumbling distance of a real bed. Medomak is the perfect compromise. It has every traditional camp experience you could want, plus private bathrooms and hot water. We've been twice already and we'd love to go back next summer.

PLAY: We do old-school activities like arts and crafts, canoeing, and hiking. Our favorite days consist of kayaking or paddleboarding while observing bald eagles and ducks during the day and singing songs around a campfire (s'mores included) at night.

EAT: The food is delicious, thanks to Medomak's on-site organic garden. Almost everything, from the yogurt to the baked goods, is made in-house. If you like seafood, the weekly local lobster and mussel feast will blow you away. My kids go to the so-called Vegetable Shop after lunch. It's actually a front for a candy store!

STAY: The camp is on an inlet of Washington Pond. You get your own rustic cabin-with-bath (bedding and towels, too). It feels like you're really camping -- minus the sleeping bags!

THE TAKEAWAY: There's something special about spending a week without electronics. My kids love TV but I never once heard them say, "Oh man, I'd really like to watch TV right now."

NEED TO KNOW: Treat yourself to a massage with Kim, the on-site masseuse. One hour is just $60.

For more information: Medomak Family Camp, 178 Liberty Rd., Washington, ME 04574; 866-633-6625; medomakcamp.com.

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