FOR HORSE WHISPERERS
The place: Santa Barbara
Why go now: Sorry, you won’t find Robert Redford here to play the handsome horseman to your Kristin Scott Thomas. But you will find a great equestrian vacation. The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, just northwest of Santa Barbara, lures equine-minded families with warm-weather riding through 10,000 acres of rolling green hills, gin-clear creeks, and alisal (Native American Shumash for sycamore trees) in the Santa Ynez mountains. Kids 7 and older hit the trails with a horse that’s assigned according to their riding abilities (most of the mounts are quarter horses); younger children ride in pony corrals.
Don’t miss: On Wednesdays and Saturdays, wranglers host two-hour morning rides to an adobe camp, where a singing-cowboy duo do their thing and serve flapjacks around a campfire ($60).
Where to eat: Classic Western grub like biscuits and gravy, chicken potpie, lamb stew, and steak are served under wrought-iron chandeliers in the Ranch Room, along with some nice Napa reds.
FOR GETTING SWEATY
The place: Hawaii’s Big Island
Why go now: Just once, we wish our parents had said: “To hell with Colonial Williamsburg. Let’s go mountain biking in Hawaii!” This December, adventure outfitter Backroads (800-462-2848; backroads.com; $2,398 per person) offers several multi-sport family trips to the Big Island. On each of the trip’s six days, you’ll be offered different sporting options—biking, hiking, kayaking—with vans shuttling you from your hotel to (and from) the launching point for the day’s outing. Activities include exploring Parker Ranch, the largest privately owned ranch in the U.S. (about 225,000 acres); hiking in lush rain forests and around the Kilauea crater; biking through black lava fields and macadamia orchards; and paddling kayaks among sea caves. On the tamer side, there’s snorkeling, tennis, and golf. Or stay behind at the hotel for a day of lounging by the pool and spa treatments.
Where to stay: As you make your way around the island, you’ll switch hotels several times, laying your weary head at the Volcano House, perched on the edge of the Kilauea crater; the Fairmont Orchid, set on a secluded beach and private lagoon; and the Ohana Keauhou resort, which offers tennis courts, an oceanfront pool, and those spa treatments we mentioned.
FOR FLORIDA (SANS DISNEY)
The place: The Everglades
Why go now: A cartoon mouse is neat, but if you really want to see your kids’ eyes go wide, show them a live alligator. Southwest Florida’s Everglades National Park offers 1.5 million acres of untamed flora and fauna, from gators and rare bald eagles to the famed ghost orchid.
Don’t miss: Ranger-led swamp walks (you’ll be up to your knees in muck) through the Big Cypress National Preserve (239-695-4111) are free. If you’d rather do your sightseeing a bit farther from the critters, call Everglades Island Airboat Tours (239-695-2333). Glades Haven Marina (239-695-2579) arranges fishing tours for snook, tarpon, and redfish. The trading post and post office at the Historic Smallwood Store Museum (239-695-2989) date to 1917.
Where to eat: Try the Ghost Orchid Grill (239-695-3299), which opened last year to raves for its gator chowder, or Moore’s Everglades Kitchen (239-695-3474), specializing in fresh seafood—like grouper straight from the water to your plate.
Where to stay:The Rod & Gun Club (239-695-2101), established in 1925 as a gathering place for hunting and fishing enthusiasts (Ernest Hemingway, Dwight D. Eisenhower), oozes lodgey atmosphere. The Ivey House (239-695-3299) in Everglade City is popular with paddlers; the owners operate a guide-and-canoe-rental service.
The place: Club Med Crested Butte
Why go now: Club Med usually calls to mind sex and the beach. But Club Med Crested Butte was built for snow and families. Recently remodeled, the ski-in, ski-out facility at the popular Colorado ski resort offers all-inclusive four-day, three-night family packages starting at $576 for adults and $176 for kids; meals, lift tickets, and ski lessons included (800-clubmed; clubmed.com).
Don’t miss: Crested Butte’s fourteen lifts provide access to 85 trails, a half-pipe, two terrain parks, the experts-only Extreme Limits (a 450-acre park with serious steeps), and a brand-new tubing hill for kids. Off the hill, check out the dogsled tours and horse-drawn-sleigh rides, or hire a private guide to lead your family on a snowshoeing tour. Mini Club Med offers puppet shows and snow-sculpting contests for the 4-to-10 set. Junior Club Medders (ages 11 to 17) have access to pool tables and an arcade.
Where to eat: Since the cost of your trip includes huge buffet spreads, you’ll probably want to take advantage of the resort’s food. If not, Timberline (970-349-9831) in the village serves high-end New American cuisine worth leaving the club for.