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

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CARA MCDONOUGH travel@wash­post.com McDonough is a writer based in New Haven, Conn. Her web­site is Caram­c­duna.com; fol­low her on Twit­ter at @caramcd.

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.”

AGATHE BRAY-BOURRET FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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