Thanks to a group of volunteer organizations now offering ''volun-tourism'' trips to Africa, families can take part in vacations that involve clearing trails, building houses, teaching the young and helping the elderly in tribal villages throughout the continent.
''I think parents are getting tired of the typical beach resort with a kid's club,'' said Kristina Pentland, a spokeswoman for ResponsibleTravel.com, a Web directory of thousands of prescreened vacation operators from around the world who work to ensure that the local communities benefit and the environment suffers minimally from tourism.
''Now they are looking for destinations where they can immerse themselves in the local culture, experience the benefits of giving back, and bond as a family in a more life-altering way. Africa is one of those places that they hear so much about and really want to see,'' she said, adding that a Kenya family volunteer and safari trip (a 10-day trip that combines both community development work, time on the beach and a visit to an elephant sanctuary) is now particularly popular, despite a cost of roughly $4,000 per family for a 2- to 3-bed tent or $5,200 for a 4- to 5-bed tent, not including flights.
David Taylor, a psychiatrist living in California decided to forgo a bar mitzvah for his son, Virgil, in 2006, in favor of a three-week trip to Tanzania with Global Citizens Network, a nonprofit volunteer organization based in Minnesota that welcomes families. ''Part of my motivation was to expose him to what the world is like and make him think about what he can do to shape it,'' said Mr. Taylor, who, along with his son and a team of volunteers, split rocks to help prepare a new school building site in a hill town. ''It was daunting,'' said Mr. Taylor, remembering the lack of books and teachers at the local school, which led to his son's running an art class with the supplies they had brought over with them.
Brandon Wick, a spokesman for Cross-Cultural Solutions, an organization that sends volunteers on a wide range of international community work projects, said the company recently added a second volunteering trip to Tanzania in the coastal area of Bagamoyo, in addition to one it already operates in Kilimanjaro. ''It was our response to demand as there is such a great interest in Africa right now,'' he said, adding that children under 16 work alongside their parents on projects, rather than engage in separate volunteer activities. ''Most parents work in schools so the children can enjoy the cultural exchange.''
Cross-Cultural Solutions' trip to Tanzania costs $2,885 per adult for three weeks and $1,709 for children under 12, not including airfares, and is tax deductible, Mr. Wick said. Programs are run year around.
Luckily for those who actually want something of a vacation while on these trips, almost every African family volunteer program includes activities beyond work, whether it be hiking, taking drum or dance lessons, or learning a few words of Swahili. And though some accommodations are less luxurious (sleeping in tents or in a room shared with your fellow trip mates), that is also meant to be part of the experience.
''Ours was not a fun trip in the traditional sense,'' said Mr. Taylor of his journey to Africa with his son, even though they did add on a safari. ''But it will be in our minds for a lifetime.''
Cave to Casbah: Adventure for All Ages
The family vacation is increasingly taking an adventurous turn, with more parents looking for exotic alternatives to yet another trip to Disney World. Here are three far-flung destinations on some families' to-do lists for 2008:
Vietnam has historic cities (the picturesque French colonial outpost Hanoi; Hue, a Buddhist center and former imperial capital; and the bustling, urban Ho Chi Minh City), as well as beaches, caves, parks, pagodas and museums. Children should love being pedaled around on a cyclo, shopping at the markets, and even eating the food (kid-friendly noodle soups are a Vietnamese specialty). And parents need not worry about finding suitable accommodations -- nearly every major hotel chain now has an outlet in Vietnam.
Rock the casbah in Morocco by first visiting Marrakesh, where the main square is like a circus for kids with snake charmers, jugglers, acrobats and food stalls (lots of child-friendly chicken and couscous here). Then head across the Atlas Mountains and stay in a real 17th-century casbah in the desert. With souks, Berber villages, Roman ruins and even camel trekking, Morocco has something for every age.
Croatia has not only the historic cities of Dubrovnik and Split to offer, but also the ''Dalmatian Riviera,'' where active families can take part in sailing, kayaking and even mountain biking trips around the various Croatian islands. This region has some of Europe's best seafood, though the kids might prefer bureks (pies filled with beef or cheese).