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Travel Smart: How to create memorable family vacations

Elizabeth still remembers the Spanish moss that hung from the trees in St. Augustine, Florida, and created a deliciously spooky evening atmosphere for a 7-year-old.

Paul recalls staying up late in a desert campground near California’s Joshua Tree National Park and watching the shooting stars silently slice through the night sky. To a 10-year-old, the gangly-armed Joshua trees barely visible all around seemed eerily comforting.

Childhood vacation memories last a lifetime. And while theme parks can be exciting, the most indelible impressions often come from more authentic excursions. Here are some fresh ways to create memorable family vacations.

Go natural.

Our country’s national parks enthrall young minds. For instance, at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, youngsters can wade in streams to study salamanders, and at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, families can hike part of the Appalachian Trail. nps.gov.

Head for the past.

At living-history museums, you’ll find authentic dwellings and docents demonstrating period skills ranging from cooking to carpentry. Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation reveals the harsh pilgrim life in the 1620s. A woman hoeing weeds around her vegetables might talk about how the settlers couldn’t have survived that first year without the American Indians’ help. plimoth.org.

Soar to the future.

At Huntsville, Alabama’s Space Camp, kids (and adults) can learn astronaut skills. At Texas’ Space Center Houston, families can tour NASA’s working facilities. Not as well known, the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey salutes the place where the Apollo space capsules were born. Kids can launch air-powered rockets, operate a robotic arm, and try a simulated shuttle landing. columbiaspacescience.org.

Allow for serendipity.

Elizabeth’s memorable St. Augustine visit was an unplanned stop on the drive from Indianapolis to Fort Lauderdale. It turned into an overnight stay that included visits to the oldest U.S. schoolhouse and an American Indian burial ground. Oh, and of course, the Fountain of Youth.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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