What might sound like a relaxing getaway to a grown-up – lapping waves, warm sand, sunset cocktails – can be anything but when you've got kids in tow. The dulcet tones of a suave waiter taking your drink order gets drowned out by the shriek of 'Mum, I got sand in my Nintendo!' and you begin to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.
But with some careful planning, a beach vacation can be fun – and relaxing – for every member of the family. These suggestions will help you to have a great time at the shore, no matter how old you are.
Think of beach time the way you'd think of a long car trip. After a while, the kids are going to need some extra amusement. Try the local toy store for novelties for the younguns to play with. Think magnetic puzzles, kites or colouring books. You could even bring an iPod loaded up with their favourite audio storybooks.
Go beyond the beach
Most larger beach towns have a wealth of family-friendly activities nearby. Wherever's there's a long boardwalk, there are often shops or kiosks renting bikes, scooters or rollerblades. Many beachside holiday spots host sunset markets or have esplanades teeming with intriguing buskers.
Being pummeled by waves can quickly lose its charm for kiddie swimmers. Make the water more child-friendly by buying inflatable rafts, inner tubes or ride-on animals at the local beach shop. They'll probably deflate after a day or two of splash-and-tumble, but it's still worth it.
Meet the creatures of the sea
Dolphin- and whale-watching tours are a major hit among the junior crowd. Even if you don't spy any sea life, the boat ride alone is a blast. Some tours really cater for kids, with snack bars selling ice creams, and indoor video lounges for the long ride back to shore.
Most larger beach towns will have their fair share of cultural activities, from art museums to nature parks to historical centers. Keep an eye out for brochures on local offerings. Consider splitting your day – morning at the beach, afternoon at the museum, just to mix things up and keep those kiddoes interested.
Calling (s)Andy Warhol
Forget those traditional 'tip the bucket upside down' sandcastles. Really push the boat out and build a sand shark, or a sand Ferrari or a sand Pyramid of Giza. Collect crazy shells and build a fairy village with sand cottages and shell roofs and pathways. Have a contest to see who can find the craziest piece of driftwood. (Although it is hard to beat the old 'dig the world's biggest hole' game.)
Most beach towns have a glut of wickedly delicious local treats that can be used as excellent incentives for good beach behaviour! A box of saltwater taffy, a wand of fairy floss or a stick of rock candy should keep them occupied just long enough for you to finish your magazine – or margarita.
This article was originally published in May 2012 and refreshed in January 2013.