Instead of the cost, count the reward
For New Englanders in February, swapping snow for sand in Key West takes the edge off traveling en famille
A couple of years ago, observing the endless snowfall in tandem with glorious warm-weather vacation pictures posted by friends, I vowed I would never again spend the entirety of a February in Connecticut.
I made good on that promise last year, and booked our family on a 10-day trip to Key West, Fla. My husband and I, with our three young children, joined my parents, who had rented a house there for the month.
Now, looking toward our children’s winter break once again, I face the annual question: do we swallow the costs and anxiety associated with packing up the entire family for a trip?
The most obvious hurdle is financial, starting with the sticker shock you’ll encounter buying airline tickets for everyone. This is money you could otherwise put into college savings. Or toward purchasing a home.
But traveling with children is rewarding, even though it may not be the kind of vacation you had before you became a parent. Sure, you’re spared making lunches or doing the laundry, but you’re still changing diapers or calming the meltdown that occurs when your 5-year-old becomes overtired from late bedtimes five nights in a row.
For me, the benefits clearly outweigh the difficulties. Perhaps the trip — like ours last year — is simply an escape from the relentless cold, a much-needed break in the slog of daily routine or a chance to connect as a family in a way you can’t during harried weekdays at home.
Most important, I think that for those who value travel, doing so with your children — especially to a location just as exciting for adults as for youngsters — illustrates the importance of exploring the world and imparts that parents, too, like to have fun.
As for our winter adventure, well, Key West isn’t exactly uncharted territory. But that vacation was our first big trip as a family of five — my youngest, at 18 months, hadn’t yet been on an airplane — and in February, South Florida might as well be a different country to us New Englanders. In the weeks before we left, we talked about the pools, palm trees and wearing shorts — shorts! — with a downright giddy anticipation.
Also, this particular trip was easier than many thanks to my parents’ presence and gracious willingness to help by staying in with the baby during her afternoon nap so we could take the older kids to the pool and allowing my husband and me to have a few date nights.
Although we like dining with our kids, a few lengthy, winedrenched, adult-only dinners — minus the ever-present anxiety that the toddler is going to lose it — were good for our souls. We toasted the sunset, as the locals do, and enjoyed beers and live music at the famed Green Parrot bar. Plus, my parents got time with their grandkids. Win-win.
Of course, there were challenges. Although our flights weren’t long, wrangling our youngest on the way down and back took considerable energy; she wasn’t too keen on the whole “staying in your seat” rule. I was relieved to get her off the plane.
But most issues we encountered were minor, some an inevitable product of choosing for our getaway a boozy enclave that attracts daily throngs of cruise passengers and a steady roster of bachelor parties.
We passed the Bull and Whistle, a large bar filled with middleaged revelers at all hours of the day, on walks from my parents’ rental in the historic Truman Annex to the commercial district. The obviously popular hangout advertised its “clothing optional” third floor, called the Garden of Eden, on a sign depicting a modern-day Adam and Eve. I wondered, anxiously, how I’d describe the appeal to my curious 7-yearold daughter, an enthusiastic reader, should she see it. The same went for the bawdy T-shirt slogans plastered across the front of so many souvenir shops. Thankfully, she was distracted enough by the colorful personalities roaming the streets not to notice the curse words and invitations to debauchery. Or if she did, she didn’t mention them.
There was the night that my husband and I went to the Bull and Whistle — second floor only — overindulged and awoke the next morning with base-of-the-skull headaches. Our children, of course, did not sleep in that morning, but arose with the sun, bounding down the stairway from their third-floor bedroom and inquiring about breakfast.
That painful morning and throughout the trip, despite our moods or urgent desires to take a late afternoon nap — the children were insistent that we complete the list of both mundane and exotic “vacation to-do items” that we had gleefully penned and posted in the rental kitchen upon our arrival: Drink from a real coconut; go swimming.
One morning, keeping their interests in mind, we visited the much-recommended Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, strolling through the humid glass enclosure while hundreds of butterflies — 50 to 60 different species at any one time, the management claimed — floated above our heads, occasionally descending to perch delicately on the tropical flora or even on our shoulders and the tops of our heads.
We quickly discovered that while they enjoyed the idea of being so close to nature, our children were terrified at the prospect of live butterflies, with their miniature legs and probing antennae, alighting on their bodies. Their shouts invited sharp glances from the more mannerly families wandering the premises and set off the response loop my husband and I have struggled with since having children. He tends toward easy embarrassment and a quick exit strategy. I, instead, view these moments as an opportunity to leaven the situation with our supposed well-honed parenting skills and often offer a bout of loud, nervous laughter meant to inform the general public that I recognize our poor behavior.
“We’re going to stay here and enjoy this,” I insisted. We stayed. But I would not say we enjoyed it.
Overall, island life suited our family. The kids played for hours on the pristine beach of Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park while I read magazines and my husband — a birdwatcher when he has the time — scouted for new species. I took daily walks downtown to the Cuban Coffee Queen for an afternoon caffeine lift while the rest of the gang lounged on the patio at the rental house. We window-shopped and always ordered the Key lime pie. Spotting the chickens that freely roam the streets never got old.
There were the usual struggles. But our Key West vacation, as with most vacations, was a success.
So this year, as my children talk about an upcoming trip to Florida as though it were fact, and I tell them while scanning the exorbitant airline fees that plague all New England families who want to fly south each winter that “we’ ll have to see,” I think back to our final night in Key West last February.
We dined at an Italian restaurant called Salute! On the Beach, which promised, as its name implies, dining adjacent to the lapping waves and a wide expanse of white sand. From the patio, we could easily keep an eye on our children as they played while my husband, my parents and I ate one last vacation meal: seared tuna and orzo, stone crabs and sautéed calamari.
The conversation drifted to the philosophical. We talked about work, family life and the prospect of having children at all, in light of extended family members making that very decision. “Everyone talks about the challenges,” I said. “I understand why people worry about becoming parents.”
But it wasn’t ever a question for me, having kids. My mom agreed. “It never cramped our lifestyle,” she said. “We did the things we wanted to do. We went the places we wanted to go.”
“It can be hard,” she continued. “But it’s the kind of hard you forget.”
I pondered that while remembering looking at my children playing by the deeply blue ocean and thinking about the week: the feel of a sandy toddler in my arms, bare feet on the patio and the moment we exited the airport in Fort Lauderdale and entered the temperate air under bright sunshine.
The fleeting disagreements and tantrums didn’t tarnish the memory.
“That,” I said to my mom, “is exactly it.”