While summer vacation stretches on seemingly forever, spring break is compressed, usually into one week or less. The challenge is on: How do you and your family make the most of this limited window of time to relax, discover, let loose or learn? Here’s a range of ideas to help you plan.
Educational fun. The National Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C., is preparing to reopen in a new location close to the National Mall after closing nearly four years ago. The 30,000-square-foot space integrates fun and learning with interactive exhibitions designed to be inclusive for children with sensory or physical disabilities. Kids can explore science, art and technology at stations aimed at different learning levels, toddler through age 12. But there are also opportunities to learn through baseball and basketball. The showpiece is the 30-foot-tall Dream Machine, a three-story structure with rope ladders, netting, climbable balls and a slide. Watch the website for the opening date announcement. (National Children’s Museum, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. $10.95 per person, children under 1 free. 202-844-2486, www.nationalchidlrensmuseum.org)
Wild horses. Straddling Virginia and Maryland, Assateauge Island National Seashore is a pristine barrier island made famous by the classic children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague.” Magical encounters with the island’s 300-plus wild horses are pretty much guaranteed. They gallop on the beaches and graze in the high grasses. There are plenty of kid-friendly ranger programs, and boat rentals and tours are available off island. Semi-primitive tent and RV camping (no hookups) is available on the island, but you can also visit as a day trip from neighboring Chincoteague Island, where there are various accommodations to choose from. If you come in the summer, time your visit for the annual pony swim on July 29, when the Saltwater Cowboys herd the ponies through the water to Chincoteague Island. (Assateague Island National Seashore, 8586 Beach Road, Chincoteague, Virginia. There is a second entrance at 11800 Marsh View Lane, Berlin, Maryland. $25 per vehicle. 410-641-1441, www.nps.gov/asis)
Camp in comfort. If you’re not sure camping is your family’s thing, give it a test run with the stylish, high-comfort alternative — glamping. In spacious tents (or “suites” with adjoining tents), Under Canvas Glamping offers real beds, private bathrooms, bath products and daily housekeeping at its 182-acre site. You can order breakfast, lunch or dinner that goes beyond traditional camp fare — French toast for breakfast and mushroom ravioli for dinner, for example. End the day at the fire pit with complimentary s’mores. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are minutes away. (Under Canvas Glamping, 1015 Laurel Lick Road, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. $149 and up. 865-622-7695, www.undercanvas.com)
Fairy tale forest. Less than 45 minutes south of Louisville, Kentucky, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is a magical forest inhabited by giants. Inspired by Grimms’ fairy tales, Danish artist Thomas Dambo created three site-specific wooden giants, each one about 25 feet tall. Situated within walking distance of each other in this 16,000-acre forest, these spectacular trolls, as the artist calls them, are made from recycled wood and meant to inspire wonder. The Olmstead-designed arboretum is a lovely place to spend the day, with 40 miles of trails and kid-friendly educational programs. After the kids explore, parents may want to make a stop at the Jim Beam Stillhouse across the road or head into Louisville where more kid-friendly fun awaits at attractions such as the Louisville Zoo and Louisville Slugger Museum. (Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, 2075 Clermont Road, Clermont, Kentucky. $10 per car suggested donation. 502-955-8512, www.bernheim.org)
Down home theme park. Like its founder, Dollywood gets better with age. The park is celebrating its 35th year with a Flower and Food Festival starting May 8, featuring large-scale flower sculptures throughout the park, seasonal menus and a colorful “umbrella sky” canopy installation over Showstreet, the main drag for the park’s live performances. Dolly Parton’s hometown theme park is a more relaxed Disney alternative, a four-hour drive from Atlanta. It’s got the roller coasters, water park and live entertainment, but the scale is manageable and the energy is surprisingly laid back. Dollywood might just be a great “gateway” theme park for families with small children to see if they’re up for it. There are oodles of accommodation options in the area ranging from cabins to resorts and numerous vacation packages. (Dollywood, 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. $79 for adults, $69 for kids; multi-day tickets available. 800-365-5996, www.dollywood.com)
Living history. Old Salem Museum and Gardens draws comparisons to Colonial Williamsburg, but this living history museum has its has its own distinctive character. It preserves the history of the Moravian community that settled here in the 1750s. Slightly less than a five-hour drive from Atlanta, Old Salem is easy to navigate and gets high marks for authenticity. There are ticketed and unticketed experiences, plus access to the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has a growing downtown food scene, and there are other history attractions in the area, including Reynolda House Museum, home of Reynolds Tobacco founder Joshua Reynolds. (Old Salem Museum and Gardens, 900 Old Salem Road, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. $18 and up. 336-721-7300, www.oldsalem.org)
Unspoiled beaches.Gulf Islands National Seashore boasts 150 miles of undeveloped coastline along barrier islands spanning the coast of Florida and Mississippi. Attractions include Santa Rosa and Perdido Key beaches, Cat Island wilderness area, salt marshes on the Mississippi end of the park, and the ruins of several pre-Civil War brick forts. Recreation in the park ranges from kayaking to snorkeling, and there are kid-friendly ranger programs daily. While camping is the only option for staying in the park, there are myriad choices for accommodations nearby. Create a best-of-both worlds beach break with daily activities in the national park and evenings on the town in Pensacola, Florida. (Gulf Islands National Seashore, 1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze, Florida. $15 per person, 850-934-2600, www.nps.gov/guis)
Ahoy, mateys! This year brings a new addition to Florida’s Legoland Resort. If your timing is right, your Lego-obsessed child might get to be one of the first guests at the new Pirate Island Hotel, opening April 17. Close to the main gate of the theme park, the hotel has its own pool, a pirate-themed restaurant and, of course, a giant Lego pirate ship out front. Boat-shaped bunk beds, separate in-room entertainment areas, treasure maps and in-room Lego treasure boxes promise a swashbuckling adventure. There’s also a pirate-themed bar in the lobby for the grown ups. (Legoland Florida Resort, 1 Legoland Way, Winter Haven, Florida. $199 and up per person, including admission to Legoland Theme Park and Water Park. 888-690-5346, www.legoland/florida)
Down on the farm. A farm stay is the ideal way to get your city kid back to nature. Located about three hours from Atlanta in South Georgia, White Oak Pastures has made a name for itself with its regenerative approach to agriculture, specializing in grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and a zero waste production system. The operation has done much to revive the tiny town of Bluffton, too, establishing a rustic chic general store and a top-notch restaurant. You can stay in the farm’s cabins, ride horses or bikes, and fish in the farm pond. This is a working farm, not a petting zoo, but there are plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with turkeys, sheep, cows and more. The farm tour is educational for kids and grownups alike. (White Oak Pastures, 101 Church St., Bluffton. $99 and up a night. 229-641-2081, www.whiteoakpastures.com)
Caribbean on a shoestring. With direct flights from Atlanta clocking in at about three hours, a resort stay on Ambergris Caye, Belize, is closer than you might think. And it might be more affordable than you expect, too. Kid-friendly activities and tours abound, and family accommodations range from hotels with multiple pools to eco-friendly villas. San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is a short, inexpensive flight or water taxi ride from Belize City. Here you’ll find lots of resorts and hotels to choose from. Belize is an English-speaking country, and while there’s regional variety in the cuisine, menus typically include familiar dishes suitable for picky eaters. ($969 and up, fly-and-stay tour packages for family of four on www.CheapCarribean.com. Start planning at www.travelbelize.org)
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