1. Ixtapa on my mind

Flanked by my nine-year-old daughter, Marisa, and my wife, Glenda, I was perched on the stern of the Picante, a 75-foot French-built catamaran. All of us were ready to plunge headfirst into the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Moments earlier, we had seen a pod of dolphins breaking the surface just yards away, a solitary sea turtle floating dreamily past, frigate birds soaring high overhead, and tiny flying fish skittering off the boat’s bow. As I dove into the warm, emerald-colored water, I couldn’t help but think, does it get any sweeter than this?

The half-day sail-and-snorkel excursion was one of many highlights during a four-day visit to Club Med Ixtapa Pacific. Our vacation had started a day earlier. Arriving at the modest Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo airport after a day of traveling on Mexicana Airlines from San Francisco via Mexico City, we were greeted by a team of “GOs,” Club Med’s famous gentils organisateurs. These cheery young people from all points of the globe serve as ubiquitous hosts, activity guides, tennis, sailing and trapeze (yes, trapeze) instructors for resort guests. As the rest of our shuttle-mates gathered, including a French-Canadian family, several Mexican families, and Northern Californians from Los Gatos and San Francisco, we were quickly welcomed into Club Med’s all-inclusive system with clear plastic wristbands—our precious tickets to unlimited fun, food and drinks during our stay. I strapped on my Live It Up (sorry, Lance) wristband eagerly with Yaqui-worthy visions of margaritas and guacamole dancing in my head.

Club Med Ixtapa Pacific is one of 23 Club Meds designed exclusively for families and was named one of the world’s 10 best family beach resorts by Parents magazine in 2010. The recently remodeled 300-room resort is spread over 30 acres on the sandy shore of Playa Quieta (“quiet beach”) on the southern half of Ixtapa Bay between the Capella and Melia Azul resorts. Just offshore, beyond a small reef break between two rock outcrops, lies unspoiled Ixtapa Island, lending a tropical note to the serene setting.

As with all 80-plus Club Med resorts worldwide, this one offers just about everything for its guests—especially those who want to get whisked away for a carefree, activity-filled vacation without pesos or dolares or any other currency in sight. Besides the all-inclusive concept, what intrigued me was the abundance of activities geared to kids and families: archery, tennis, kayaking, sailing, soccer, table tennis, pool games, beach volleyball, even nightly theatrical performances featuring younger guests.

Several hacienda-style buildings dot the length of the property, with options ranging from basic “club” rooms to luxury ocean-view suites complete with personal concierge and private roped-off beach. Our deluxe suite became my cool haven, offering escape from the unfamiliar summer humidity plus a host of creature comforts: a walk-in shower with three oversize showerheads, a wonderful tiled tub, two flat-screen TVs and a spacious sitting room adjacent to the bedroom. Two sliding doors opened to the roped-off private beach featuring recliners and palapas, with watchful, white-clad security officers discreetly viewing the goings-on at the public-access beach. The luxury suites also came with Internet access (great for Skype calls home), a concierge office (with appetizers and a fridge full of cold drinks), and the option of room service breakfast. Non-deluxe suites offer the same layout without the extra services.

For fitness buffs there are “yogalates” and “zumba” in a breezy outdoor palapa, power walking, archery, trapeze lessons, a huge pool, “cardio splash” sessions, and tennis. Salsa dance lessons, culinary classes and deluxe spa treatments are also available, and bar beverages include tropical drinks and draft beer (all drinks, except premium brands and bottled beer, are gratis with the magic wristband). Peace-seeking adults can find some alone time at two romantic oceanside restaurants, a spa operated by Italy-based ComfortZone and a secluded “quiet” pool, as well as those private beaches if they’re staying in the deluxe suites.

Guests hankering to see the outside world can take a short walk to nearby scenic Playa Linda, which has good body-boarding waves and ferries ($5 each way) to Ixtapa Island, where visitors can enjoy snorkeling, island-side lunches or even ocean-side massage. The resort’s Discovery Center can also arrange excursions like the Picante catamaran ride, muddy ATV trips, and swimming-with-dolphins at a complex called Delfinity in Ixtapa. Taxis are available for day trips into Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.

Having never stayed at an all-inclusive resort, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food, the automony we enjoyed and the flexible approach to activities. Returning home, we felt we’d truly gotten the most out of each day—and didn’t have to worry about any “surprises” on the Visa bill.

2. Seaside, Stateside

No need to cross the border for an escape; these renovated resorts are great for family getaways.

Pebble Beach Resorts While a wild, wintry beach fronts the property, golf is the main draw at Pebble Beach Resorts and has been for decades. For families who like to tee-up together, this winter there’s an enticing Stay & Play package that includes two nights at either The Lodge at Pebble Beach or The Inn at Spanish Bay, two rounds of championship golf (the usual fee for one round is $495 a person) and a $200 resort credit per person. Among the extensive room renovations here are new bedding, high-end Serta mattresses and high-tech comforts like free wireless Internet, 32-inch flat-screen TVs (37-inch in suites) and Samsung DVD players. The Pebble Beach Golf Links, which hosted the U.S. Open in June 2010, were spruced up for the occasion; resulting upgrades include enlarged greens, new championship tee boxes and additional fairway bunkers. The Stay & Play offering, available November 21, 2010 to March 31, 2011, starts at $1,825 for a single player and $2,500 for a double player package. pebblebeach.com

Cliffs Resort Miles and miles of wild beaches front the newly remodeled (to the tune of $3 million) Cliffs Resort in Pismo Beach. Ideal for a budget-minded family getaway, rooms here start at $89 a night. Renovations include improvements to the oceanfront swimming pool, restaurant and all guest rooms. Besides long stretches of sand, Pismo also offers golf courses, 80 nearby wineries; Hummer (yep, the car) rides through extensive sand dunes and kayaking. Kids of all ages are fascinated by abundant seashore wildlife including whales, dolphins, seals and otters. Pismo Beach is also a short drive from Hearst Castle, a gotta-go-once California destination. cliffsresort.com

The Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa Situated on San Diego’s famous Mission Bay just minutes from the airport, the recently renovated Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa is conveniently located one mile from Sea World and near the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, Historic Old Town and Legoland—all great kid destinations. Besides the Hilton’s five-star service, guests can enjoy tennis courts, wakeboarding, sailing, biking or just splashing around the pool. There’s a special pool for ages three and under; a Kids Kamp featuring arts and crafts, swimming, beach games, face painting, sand castle building and more; and a slew of resort activities for the entire family, from poolside “dive-in” movies to making s’mores around the fire pits. Oh, and for Mom and Dad, $5 million of those upgrades went into the 7,500-square-foot Spa Brezza. hilton.com/sandiegoresort

Crystal Cove Thanks to a unique partnership between the communities of coastal Orange County, Crystal Cove Alliance and the California state parks, the renovated picturesque and historically accurate Crystal Cove cottages will include more rental units available to the public as well as two more public restroom facilities. Located right onshore between Newport and Laguna beaches, “Crystal Cove is a rare opportunity to experience the architecture of the 1930s through the 1950s,” says Laura Davick, the alliance’s founder and president emeritus. “And winter is my favorite time to visit: even though we are usually at capacity for the rentals, there are far fewer tourists, leaving the beach and grounds for the cottage guests to enjoy.” Besides miles of beachcombing, body surfing and boogie-boarding, families can enjoy the fun zone and rides of nearby Balboa Peninsula, shopping in Laguna Beach or even a visit to Disneyland, 45 minutes away. Open year-round; reservations are first-come first-served. crystalcovealliance.org

Fairmont Kea Lani After a few months of subtle final touches (the jackhammers were gone by September), the Fairmont Kea Lani is ready to show off its updated new rooms, public spaces and most of all new pool area with decks made of quartzite, a material chosen for beauty, durability and safe high-traction surface. Families have loved the place for decades because of the suite-style rooms and large grassy areas between the pools and common areas. And, of course, there’s that seemingly private beach fronting the resort with boogie boards, snorkeling and stand-up paddleboards available to rent. fairmont.com

Grand Wailea While “the Grand,” as it’s been called since opening in the early ’90s, has attracted adults for two decades, its gravitational pull on the tween-and-under set is equally legendary. Just guessing, but perhaps it’s the pool. Stretching for 2,000 feet through a series of nine freeform areas, beginning at 40 feet and dropping to sea level, the pool here rocks, literally. Officially called Wailea Canyon and made of faux lava, it’s all connected by a “river” that carries swimmers along at varying speeds, from lazy currents to whitewater rapids. There are seven tile slides, a whitewater rapids slide, a Tarzan pool with rope swing, the world’s only water elevator, a sand beach, six waterfalls, caves, three Jacuzzis, an infant pool and (of course) a swim-up beverage bar.

Just across the street from the 700-plus-room resort is its recently completed Ho’olei at Grand Wailea, a collection of luxury town homes designed for families desiring larger communal configurations. These 120 three-bedroom units have sweeping ocean views, gourmet kitchens, large great rooms with flat-screen TVs and video games along with full concierge service, 24-hour shuttle to the main resort, and private pool area with a sandy beach entry.

But wait, there’s more: Spa Grande, partnering with organic salt company Hawai‘i Kai, recently added a bath treatment series in which freshly harvested premium Hawaiian sea salt is blended with indigenous minerals, herbs and other elements to epitomize the personality of each island. The Hawai‘i bath, a blend of Kilauea black sea salt and organic kava powder with scents of vanilla orchid and essential oils of rosewood, cinnamon and petitgrain, is said to stimulate the circulation and promote a feeling of balance. The Maui bath, Wailea white sea salt and niu (coconut) oil blended with essential oils of eucalyptus, rosemary and ylang ylang, aims to stimulate the immune system, oxygenate and hydrate the skin, alleviate mental exhaustion, calm nervous tension and ease arthritis and the effects of overindulgence. The Lanai bath, a blend of crystal pink sea salt containing volcanic clay plus extract of pineapple, organic green papaya powder, and essential oils of lemongrass and mandarin, has plant enzymes that help exfoliate and renew the skin. The Oahu bath, with bamboo green sea salt, Hawaiian spirulina, organic seaweed powder and essential oils of lime and grapefruit, contains phytonutrients and enzymes with antioxidant qualities for tightening the skin, minimizing cellulite, detoxifying the body and reducing fluid retention. The Kaua‘i bath has red sea salt bonded with clay and infused with organic passion flower powder, guava essence, and essential oils of orange, lavender, and clary sage, intended to soothe and regenerate cells, tone the skin, reduce anxiety and even serve as an aphrodisiac. grandwailea.com

Kahala Hotel and Resort This longtime posh destination (formerly dubbed “Ka-hollywood”) has just added yet another layer of luxury, with new signature suites ranging from super-comfortable to over the top. The 2,200-sqare-foot Imperial and Presidential suites both have
lanais with vistas that sweep from Diamond Head to Koko Head. The Kahala Kai and Kahala Beach suites are on the beach and ideal for a family getaway. To make sure the keikis sleep well at night, the property is fronted by an 800-foot stretch of white sand. Daytime possibilities include swimming to a tiny island in the middle of the bay; testing out the single and double kayaks, snorkel gear, stand-up paddleboards and boogie boards; and activities like the Dolphin Quest, wherein kids and adults can interact with playful Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the hotel’s 26,000-square-foot natural lagoon. For land lovers, tennis and golf are available. kahalaresort.com