When it comes to choosing a destination for a family vacation, there are so many aspects that need to be considered. From total travel time to overall family-friendliness, it can be daunting trying to narrow down the right place to go.
If there's one thing that's universal, it's that kids love wildlife and even more, love the element of surprise. So consider skipping the beach and amusement parks and heading out in nature to one of these wildlife-rich destinations instead.
From frolicking with penguins in the Galapágos to watching lions roar on a safari in Kenya or snorkeling with sea turtles in the Cayman Islands, these trips will be packed with incredible moments the whole family will treasure. Not only that, each destination offers ample opportunities to learn about the dangers these wildlife species face, and will further educate your kids — and you — on ways you can continue to help protect and conserve these amazing creatures and their habitats.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
Sepilok Nature Reserve, Borneo
Boasting tropical climates, lush vegetation and dense forests, Borneo is rich with wildlife. Additionally, it’s one of the few places on earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants live together. For families, a trip with Borneo Eco Tours offers a visit to Sepilok Nature Reserve, which touts an incredible collection of orangutans in their natural environment.
Kids will love the chance to watch a baby orangutan feeding, and they will learn about these rare apes and their habits at the conservation center. Beyond orangutans, Borneo is home to many other spectacular species, including proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, clouded leopards, marble cats and pygmy elephants. You can also book a special expedition with Wild Planet Adventures to view the famous Sunda flying lemurs and the gliding frogs, which move at lighting speeds.
National parks and reserves throughout Africa
Home to some of the world’s most coveted and endangered wildlife — like elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffes, zebras and cheetahs — a safari at one of the many national parks in Africa is a dream come true for most animal-loving kids. They will understand so much more about the species and their habitat when seeing them in the wild.
In addition to wildlife, safaris offer unique and exciting activities and accommodations for kids, including camping beneath the stars, staying in lodges overlooking zebra herds and private guides who serve as teachers on the ground. If you’re not sure where to start, Tanzania’s famed Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara tout incredible chances to view the Big Five. For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, visit Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia and witness one of the largest wildebeest migrations.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
This wildlife-rich archipelago off the coast of Ecuador features pristine isles which double as World Heritage sites and are home to an astounding collection of rare wildlife — from barking sea lions to blue-footed boobies to bioluminescent plankton, sea turtles and penguins. Additionally, Sanibel Island, Santa Cruz, Florena and Santiago Island are home to bright pink flamingos known for standing on just one leg and eating upside down.
In addition to flamingo spotting, kids will love snorkeling and diving in the crystal-clear waters of Wolf and Darwin islands, looking for sharks, and hiking near Tagus Cove in search of the Galápagos penguins and giant tortoises. For the best chances at wildlife viewing and a truly intimate experience, vacation with Quasar, which offers 8- and 15-day all-inclusive cruises designed specifically for families on Grace Kelly’s restored honeymoon yacht.
Located in the mint-hued waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Cayman Islands have long been a popular vacation spot for families. Beyond the beaches, however, is a vast wildlife population that lives on both land and sea. Introduce older kids to one of the world’s most preserved coral reefs with a scuba dive off Seven Mile Beach, which will highlight vibrant coral heads, multicolored fish and sea turtles — not to mention over 100 shipwrecks.
On land, indigenous and rare blue iguanas can be seen at the Blue Iguana Safari, where breeding programs are helping to restore the population that was once native to Grand Cayman. Spotts Beach is a popular public beach and favorite feeding spot for turtles. People snorkel and swim near them, but these are wild animals, so keep your distance and don't touch them.
Lapland, Finland – in the Arctic Circle – is home to a Santa Claus Village claiming to be Santa's North Pole Residence. Not only will kids be thrilled by the prospect of visiting Santa Claus’s homeland in Rovaniemi, but there's also the opportunity to observe elusive lynxes, grey owls and massive brown bears. During summer, you can catch and release Arctic char and rainbow trout in one of the country’s 200,000 lakes, and in winter you can meet native huskies and then ride on reindeer-drawn sleighs through the snowy wilderness.
Wild Finland offers safaris that’ll introduce your kids to the native wildlife species, and give them expert photography tips. If you're lucky, you may even spot the breathtaking aurora borealis (northern lights), which are sometimes seen during the winter months.
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Article first published in February 2020, and last updated in February 2021.