If your vacation bucket list is anything like mine, there are more destinations to experience than pages on your passport can document. Next up: Athens and the Parthenon? Egypt and the pyramids? Wherever your next journey takes you, legendary icons like the pyramids will satisfy your craving to see the world's wonders up close. But it's often the unexpected pleasures of a destination that become my favorite travel moments. Don't miss the opportunity to discover your own favorite things while traveling.
1. Saddle Up. Whether I'm on a vacation or planning new Adventures by Disney excursions, I often think of unexplored modes of transportation as experiences worthy of lasting memories. I've always enjoyed riding horses, but climbing aboard a camel was an extraordinary experience. I gave it a try during a trip to the pyramids. My camel had a fun gait, and it's exciting to ride high up with a great view of everything. My leather saddle was decorated in bright colors, and it had a horn that's perfect for kids to hold on to. Even though a handler is on the ground leading with the reins, you feel like you're on top of the world. I'll never forget that half-hour camel ride. Before you book an excursion on a four-legged "vehicle": ask lots of questions about safety, risks and animal welfare. Most reputable tour operators vet each experience carefully before including it on a tour itinerary. Arrive prepared with recommended clothing, shoes, hats and other necessities. Then saddle up, partner.
2. Get Hands-On. It's the interactive experiences that often grab me, and one of those is an opportunity to learn how to make cheese with sheep's milk and goat's milk in Greece. We met a shepherd and walked with him through an olive orchard in a mountain village on the island of Crete. He makes and sells artisanal cheeses in locals markets, and it's a really cool experience to learn how to create this amazing feta cheese — it's the real deal and synonymous with all things Greek! You stir the cheese in a huge cauldron — the kids take turns and love helping the shepherd, who's straight out of the movie Zorba the Greek. The setting is idyllic and beautiful in an outdoor courtyard of a local tavern where a pergola dripping with vines adds to the mystique. Once you choose a destination: Beware of itineraries filled with "panoramic tours," which often means you'll see the sights from a bus seat. If parents really want to expose kids to the hidden gems, they need to dig deep and search for hands-on experiences.
3. Seek Out Sunsets. Who doesn't love a spectacular sunset? Recently, I've had the opportunity to soak up two of my all-time favorite sunsets. The first was during a gondola cruise past the temple ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The kids on the boat had juice while we sipped champagne, and I was pinching myself — the sight of this breathtaking sunset truly touched my soul. In the Galapagos Islands, I was on a deserted beach watching a pod of dolphins against the backdrop of a stunning evening sky. Plan on it: If you've already chosen the destination, do a computer search for best sunsets in that country or locale. There are so many places where sunsets are a big draw, like the Grand Canyon, and there's no price tag on that. If you plan to take photos to record the memory, do so, but then remind your kids to feel the experience through their own personal lens.
4. Shop Local. As I travel, it has become more important to me to know that, when I buy something, I'm putting money back into the local community. Such a souvenir may be a bit more expensive because it's hand made, but then you know that you're buying something of higher quality, whether it's jewelry, textiles or even food products like coffee. When I was in Laos, I discovered a local woman weaving baskets and other containers out of reeds — it took her about eight hours to make one small basket. Every time I look at that basket, it's going to have a very special meaning to me. Before you buy, consider whether your purchase will be a valuable memento and whether it will help sustain an artisan, farmer or the community in some way.
5. Celebrate the Culture. A great way to become truly immersed in the culture of a destination is to strike up a conversation with the locals. Yes, even if you only understand every fourth word they say. I also like to connect with different cultures through music and dance. Most destinations are very proud of their traditions and share them at festivals, in cafes or bistros. In Peru, there's a lot of music from the Andes and the indigenous Quechua Indians. Kids love music, and it's a great way to expose them to a different culture. Latin dances like the salsa and meringue are really popular throughout South America, and you can always find places to learn about the steps and the music. Go where the locals hang out and: Wherever you are in the world, just about anyone will have a few words of English that they know. Attempt a few simple foreign-language words that you've learned. Let your children kicks around a ball with the local kids — they will communicate through their actions and probably pick up more language than you do! If you are traveling with a group, be sure your itinerary allows time for you to enjoy such authentic moments.
The more you and your family immerse yourselves in a locale, its culture and activities that surround you, the more memorable your vacation will be. Ride a camel, make some cheese, see a sunset and embrace your family's experience to the fullest.
Heather Killingbeck is director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, a global leader in guided family travel, and has been helping families live their travel dreams for more than 25 years. She has traveled to 53 countries on six continents (some of her favorite destinations include South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Italy, Alaska and Greece).