What, exactly, is a “real” family vacation?
I think I know what it’s not. It’s not every one in the family going somewhere together but remaining ear-phoned and wired to his or her various electronic devices so they can shut out distractions; i.e. brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and dads. I also think I know what it is. I know about a family vacation that is really different. It is for all ages. It guarantees quality family time. It’s an expedition, an adventure, summer camp, summer school and even manners school all rolled into one. Plus, it’s real in a way that Disneyworld and Busch Gardens could never be.
The perfect family vacation? A cruise. Wait. I’m not talking about a cruise on a big impersonal ship with a thousand cabins. I mean a cruise on a private yacht with just two or three cabins. Instead of crossing an expanse of ocean to dock at foreign shopping districts, imagine your family cruising the sheltered Gulf Intracoastal Waterway past Southwest Florida’s gulf barrier islands and wild mangrove sanctuaries where herons, egrets, pelicans and ospreys roost. Leave the earphones, cell phones and laptops at home. This is an expedition into the wild. This is not the family vacations that I recall with my brother, sister and me fighting for the best seat in the family station wagon. On the bridgedeck, there is no such thing as a bad seat.
- You’ll see dolphins surf your wake, take note of a magnificent frigatebird soaring overhead, and see a giant ray in the clear water below, half-buried in the sand, thinking you don’t see him. Then, when the ray knows his hiding place is exposed, he’ll blow out of there in a puff of sand. Disney could fake that, but you’d know it was not the real thing, and your heart wouldn’t take the same kind of leap.
- Drop the dinghy in the water one morning and paddle to a pristine Gulf beach. You may find the paddle marks where a loggerhead struggled up beyond the high tide mark to lay her eggs.
- On the beach, maybe you’ll find a coquina shell with a tiny, smoothly-rounded hole in it. This is the hole made by a snail or a whelk with a tongue-like part called a radula. The predator drilled that hole and ate the animal inside. Keep it as a reminder that the natural world is not always kind, but is endlessly fascinating.
- Toward the end of the day you’ll anchor up in a remote cove and organize a family fishing tournament on the stern. Maybe somebody will volunteer to take the dinghy to shore and gather up some clams and the family chef and his/her assistant will make a one-pot fish stew satisfying to all. As dark gathers, the family will gather on the fly-bridge and watch a sliver of a moon appear over the mangroves and stars emerge against a black sky. Out here, on a clear night, without the glare of city lights, you can see 5,000 stars. But look at one. Now, imagine; you could be looking at the light of a star that no longer exists. You’re seeing light that took a million years to reach you.
The best lessons are learned like that, not from a textbook.
- Be sure to schedule some family events like a beachside picnic, a dinghy race, a diving contest off the transom. Memories are made of this, memories as compelling as anything except for perhaps ghost stories around a campfire at Girl Scout camp. Oh, what the heck, tell some ghost stories, too.
- Here’s another bonus: in September, if a teacher should assign the dreaded what-I-did-on-my-vacation essay, the student will have something to write about.
- For safety’s sake there are some serious dos and don’ts on a cruising yacht and the captain insists they be followed. You might say the atmosphere is lighthearted, but disciplined. When you think about it, you could say the rules for a successful cruise are probably the same as the rules for the successful life.
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