The Priceless Gifts of Family Travel
In four decades as a travel writer and editor, Wanderlust’s Editor in Chief Don George has traveled with his family around the world, from Australia to Japan to the Galápagos and beyond. Family travel expert Shelly Rivoli recently sat down with Don to talk about the role family travel has played throughout his life, starting with his own childhood and continuing on through the upbringing of his now-adult children. Here’s a transcript of their interview.
What kinds of family trips did you take as a child and teenager? Was there a “usual” kind of vacation your family would take? Or one special trip that stood out from the rest?
Every summer my parents would take my brother and me on a family vacation for a week or two. The earliest trips I remember were staying in a very home-style inn on a beach in Nag’s Head, North Carolina; then for many years we rented a cabin on the shore of Lake Ontario in New York state; and when we were older, my parents would take us to the Keltic Lodge on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. The memories that stand out include exploring shipwrecks on Nag’s Head; rowing onto Lake Ontario and fishing early in the morning when the world was all quiet; and golfing and hiking on Cape Breton. My parents loved to travel and they passed that love on to me.
As you were growing up, what kinds of images did the word “travel” conjure up for you? And was it something you aspired to do one day?
I always loved my family’s trips, but I don’t remember the word “travel” having a special resonance for me until the spring of my junior year in college, when my parents took my brother and me to London and Paris for a week. That was my first trip overseas, and it was exhilarating. Actually, I guess “travel” must have had an allure for me before that trip, because the main reason my parents took us to Europe that spring was because I had been accepted into the Princeton French Department’s Summer Work Abroad program, so I was going to be spending that summer in France. My parents wanted to give me a taste of Europe with them before I went there on my own.
I definitely wanted travel to be an ongoing part of my life, but I don’t remember aspiring to do travel as a profession until I graduated from college and was living in Europe for a year. That’s when the seeds that were first planted the spring and summer of my junior year really began to bloom.
Do you remember your first trip on an airplane?
I don’t remember my first trip on an airplane, but I do remember when I was very young, my mother telling me that I had to wear a coat and tie because we were going to fly on an airplane. And I also remember being utterly enchanted by the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland when I was about five years old. I’ll never forget the moment at the beginning of the ride when we were flying away with Peter Pan and I looked over the side of our gondola and saw the tiny lights on in the nighttime village below. That was a moment of pure magic for me. In many ways that was my first flight.
What was the first trip you took as a parent traveling with a child in tow and how did you feel about it?
As soon as our first child, Jenny, was old enough to fly, we took her to meet her grandparents in Japan. I remember that trip as an extremely wonderful—and extremely stressful—experience. There were so many things to prepare, so many possibilities to anticipate, so many things that could go wrong. Happily, nothing did go wrong—or at least, nothing went so wrong that I remember it three decades later. And after that, travel with Jenny and then with Jeremy became a fundamental part of our family life.
Were there any significant lessons you learned from that trip?
Yes! I learned that it is entirely possible to travel with very young children and that travel could continue to be a part of our lives as parents as it had been before we had children. I learned that children, even extremely young children, are very resilient. And I learned that children are amazing icebreakers, not just with in-laws but also with all manner of strangers, from kids to seniors.
You often travel alone, which has clear benefits for the traveler as well as, in your case, the writer. But do you think traveling with kids has any benefits that solo or adults-only travelers are missing out on?
Absolutely! As I just mentioned, we learned over and over in our journeys that children are amazing icebreakers. We got to know families in Greece, Mexico, and France because our kids befriended their kids on beaches and playgrounds. Kids also confer a different perspective, which can be quite wonderful. The things they notice—butterflies, flowers, a myriad of little, ground-level details that adults overlook—would slow me down and make me pay attention in a new way. And when they got older, they would ask all kinds of questions that made me stop and think, or look more deeply into the history of a place, or the traditions of its people. Their curiosity and openness deepened my own.
Did you ever travel with your family while on assignment? Did you find you wrote or took notes differently when you traveled together?
I became travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle the year my daughter was born. I was travel editor for nine years and in each of those years we took at least a couple of trips as a family. So I was very often traveling on assignment with my family. Happily, many of the newspaper’s readers were also parents, so I was able to write many articles that focused on family travel. The difference between the articles I wrote as a solo traveler and as a papa traveler are immense. As a solo traveler, I was able to follow serendipity and get into all kinds of adventures, and write about what ensued. These stories tended to be much more reflective and philosophical as well. My family travel stories tended to be more practical: Is this a good place to bring kids? Why or why not? What are the best things to do as a family here? What are the things to look out for? But I still managed to work some philosophy into those family travel pieces too, and I was always hugely grateful to be able to travel with my kids. That was a blessing and a priceless gift.
I know some people feel that international family travel is wasted on young children because they won’t remember—or appreciate—it. Do you think that’s true? Or do you think there’s a “right age” for taking kids on a first trip overseas?
We brought both our children to see their in-laws in Japan as soon as they were allowed to travel. They can’t recall specific incidents from these trips, but I firmly believe that these trips still live inside them, and that the discoveries, connections, and experiences they had on these trips helped mold them into who they are today. As they got older, it was easier to understand and quantify what they were getting from a specific trip, but I believe very passionately that our children gained something from every trip we took them on.
What kinds of trips or vacations do you think are most valuable for families?
I think two kinds of trips are equally valuable for families: One is the complete vacation getaway, where everyone is just relaxing together and having a good time. This kind of trip is tremendously important for families where everyone is working very hard on a day-to-day basis. For a family whose members are normally too busy to have a lot of interaction with one another, this is an irreplaceable opportunity for bonding and relaxed enjoyment together, just walking down a beach or running into waves or sitting at a café or hiking through a forest. The other valuable family trip is the learning experience—the Yosemite camping experience or the African safari or the Galapágos journey where some precious lessons about life and the world are shared. These lessons and experiences forge bonds that last a lifetime. Now, decades after our early trips with our kids, when we get together with them, we still laugh over and marvel at adventures we shared when they were young. And three summers ago, just before my daughter got married, the kids wanted to do one more family trip together, so went to a Mexican resort where we had often vacationed when they were young: That seven-day reunion/celebration was inexpressibly poignant and proof for me of the power of those bonds we’d built when they were young.
That answer segues into my next question: Now that your children are grown, do you feel that your family travels together have influenced their lives or the people they’ve become? Do any particular moments or memories stand out?
Absolutely! The example that immediately comes to mind is my daughter, who is a marine biologist. She tells us that she firmly believes she became a marine biologist because of an experience she had in the Galápagos when she was a teenager. She spent an afternoon swimming with sea lions—basically, a group of sea lions adopted her for an hour and she pretty much became one of them, diving and somersaulting and generally having an interspecies play date. It was amazing. And it clearly had a profound effect on her. Now that they are young adults, both of our children are avid travelers who feel completely comfortable in the wide world. I think this is a direct result of the traveling we did when they were young. Those travels introduced them to other cultures, foods, traditions, and landscapes, taught them that strangers are friends and not to be feared, and also taught them that the world is full of wonder and grace, and that these sometimes appear in places where we would never expect to find them. I think our trips together gave them an invaluable perspective on the world and their place in it, and a sense of gratitude and wonder, that have shaped and enriched their lives.
Do you have any family travel advice for families planning their next big—or small—adventure?
I think it’s critically important to involve your kids in the planning process, to share brochures, maps, photographs, and websites with them so that they have a sense of engagement with and investment in the trip. And I think it’s important to create a kind of transition between home and the place you’re going, whenever possible: If you’re going to Thailand and there’s a Thai restaurant in your community with Thai staffers, take the kids there and talk to the staff about where they’re from, what they love about their country, and what they would recommend you be sure to do when you visit there. Ask them to teach you a few simple phrases in Thai. This way Thailand won’t seem quite so foreign when you actually land there. If you’re traveling on your own, be sure to include plenty of age-appropriate time and activities in your itinerary. When we went to Paris with our children when they were ages five and nine, for example, we balanced a trip to the Louvre with an afternoon getting ice cream and playing on swings and slides in a park. If you’re traveling with a tour company, make sure you choose a trip that is oriented towards children and that has an age-appropriate itinerary; companies will help you choose the trip that is best for you all based on your children’s ages and your interests as a family. Traveling with children can certainly be challenging but it is also extraordinarily rewarding. My life has been full of amazing and transformative adventures, but nothing is so precious as the memories of unforgettable moments shared with my wife and kids. These are threads that weave deeply through all of our lives, connecting us forever and deepening our enjoyment of life apart and together.
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Shelly Rivoli is an award-winning travel author and blogger who penned the guidebook Travels with Baby between diaper changes spanning three continents. Now with three kids along for the ride, she’s taken her brood on a quest for proof of panthers in Big Cypress National Preserve and orchestrated encounters snorkeling with sea lions and whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez. Her travel photography has been published in the National Geographic Daily Dozen, and she manages two family travel sites: TravelswithBaby.com and FamilyTravel411.com.
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