Learn to spin wool and make candles. Spend a night in a tree house. Go gold panning out West or visit the nation's capital in the East. Loll on a palm-sheltered beach on an exotic island. • These are just some of the things families can do on their summer vacations this year. And with the economic downturn prompting deals right and left, family travel columnist Eileen Ogintz of www.takingthekids.com has this advice for parents: "Do your homework. Don't pay rack rates for anything. Ask what more can you do for me? You'd be surprised what they can throw in.'' • Another fillip for families: Air fares have come down, so it may be affordable to range farther away on vacation. • With that in mind, here are some ideas for summer family vacations — some traditional, some creative. Most prices are already discounted, some not. Package terms are subject to change without notice.
For the first time ever, the ski resort of Vail is offering an all-inclusive, guided summer family vacation that will explore adventures not only in the resorts but also elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Participants in Vail's Epic Summer trips will visit Rocky Mountain National Park, go whitewater rafting and gold panning, enjoy a cowboy campfire dinner, take rides on a narrow gauge railroad, in a gondola and on horseback. Minimum age: 7. Lodging, all meals, guides, airport transfers and tour transportation are part of the six-night excursions, which will be held weekly June 6 to Aug. 31. Price is $1,195 per person, $895 for kids 7-12. Toll-free 1-888-538-3742 or www.epicsummer.com.
Never a dull moment
Myrtle Beach, S.C., is blessed with miles of beaches, hotels galore, more than 100 golf courses, and so many attractions that you would spend months visiting them all — everything from water parks and mini-golf courses (50 of them) to roller coasters, a NASCAR race-themed amusement park and an aquarium. Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort has a Family Value Package valid May 29-Aug. 30 that includes accommodations for two adults and two children, passes to both Family Kingdom's Amusement Park and Water Park, unlimited play on the resort's putt-putt course, daily golf on select courses. Cost is $518-$746. Toll-free 1-800-793-6507 or www. myrtlebeachseamist.com.
Who says you can't have fun close to home? The Tradewinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach has a three-night Family Adventure package that includes one pass per child for activities and crafts, two one-day passes to the water slide, a card that provides 20 percent savings on food and beverage at resort dining venues, and unlimited use of cabanas, paddle boats, fitness center and other services. Price for two adults and two children starts at $627. Toll-free 1-800-360-4016 or www.tradewindsresort.com.
• Affordable luxury: Florida's exclusive Boca Raton Resort and Club is putting its Bungalows on sale this summer. Rates start at $129 for a guest room, $169 for a one-bedroom suite and $199 for a two-bedroom. That's a savings of up to 70 percent, valid through Oct. 9. Suites have full kitchens, living rooms, patios or terraces and private parking, and the Bungalows complex has its own pool. Guests have a dedicated concierge, access to all resort facilities and shuttle service throughout the property. Summer Value program: toll-free 1-888-491-2622 or www.bocaresort.com.
• In them thar hills: Activities at the all-inclusive Earthshine Mountain Lodge in Lake Toxaway, N.C., are designed to keep the whole family busy every day. Some days you can go ziplining, rope climbing, fishing or sluicing down a water slide. Kids can learn how to spin wool, make candles, throw a tomahawk or feed barnyard animals. Then there are campfire story sessions, scavenger hunts, old-timey games and mountain music. Price includes accommodations, all meals and activities. Adults $170 per person per night, youths 10-15 $110, children 6-9 $90, under 6, $50. Stay six nights, get seventh free. If you book by Friday, taxes (10.75 percent) will be included. (828) 862-4207 or www.earthshinemtnlodge.com.
• Islands in the sun: At the all-inclusive Almond Resorts in Barbados or St. Lucia, the Kids Club provides supervised activities for children of all ages. Included are lodging, unlimited food and beverages, water sports and golf. Prices are discounted up to 50 percent when booked by June 1 for travel through Dec. 20, so a three-night stay would start at $300 per adult. Child rates vary, usually half the adult rate. Toll-free 1-800-425-6663 or www.almondresorts.com.
• The great outdoors: In western North Carolina, families have been running the rapids on the Nantahala River for years. Combine that with a steam train trip through mountain country and you have a day adventure the kids will never forget. Here's the package put together by Nantahala Outdoor Center: Take the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad from Bryson City in the morning, have lunch, go rafting in the afternoon. Price: $87-$99 per person. If you want only a raft trip, the cost is $23-$51 per person, depending on degree of guide assistance, and that includes shuttle to put-in point, raft and gear. You're on the water for about three hours. Nantahala Outdoor Center: toll-free 1-888-905-7238 or www.noc.com.
• National treasures: Washington monuments and museums — the National Air and Space Museum, Museum of Natural History, Museum of American History and such iconic structures as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials — are easy to visit, free, and are wonderful experiences for families. To make it easier for travelers, Destination DC has brought back its popular Staying Power packages, with rates starting as low as $107 per night. Additional savings of 30 percent are offered on three-night stays including a Thursday or Sunday night. For packages, call toll-free 1-800-422-8644. Washington information: (202) 789-7000 or www.washington.org.
• Geysers and such: A four-night lodging and learning program for families with children 8 to 12 years old is offered by Yellowstone Association Institute and led by one of its naturalists. The family explores Yellowstone National Park's wonders, including geyser basins, waterfalls and canyons, as well as animal tracking, wildlife watching, hiking and other activities. At the end of the tour, children become Yellowstone Junior Rangers. Included are lodging, four breakfasts, four lunches and in-park bus transportation. Cost of the Yellowstone for Families at Mammoth package is $639 per adult, $389 per child. Toll-free 1-866-439-7375 or www.travelyellowstone.com.
• Living the past: Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, restored as it existed as a British colony, offers a four-night Summer Saver package for a family of four starting at $599. Included are lodging at Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel, daily breakfast, admission passes, $200 resort credit that can be applied toward meals, golf, spa and other recreational activities in Colonial Williamsburg. Check-ins on Sunday or Monday for stays May 31-Sept. 3. Toll-free 1-800-447-8679 or www.colonialwilliamsburgresort.com.
• Up the creek: Paddle your canoe 12 miles downstream on the Edisto River in South Carolina to one of three private tree houses in the woods that sleep two to eight people. No electricity or running water, but rechargeable lanterns, a few gallons of drinking water and futons are provided, as well as breakfast fixings in a cooler. Bring in your own sleeping bags, pillow cases, towels and lunch/dinner food, which you cook on an outdoor gas grill on the deck. Cost is $125 per person per night, including use of canoe and shuttle to launch point. Children must be at least 7 years old; those 12 and under are half price. Carolina Heritage Outfitters, (843) 563-5051, www.canoesc.com.
Freelance writer Jay Clarke is the former travel editor of the Miami Herald.