If there’s one surefire kid-pleaser no matter where you go, it’s the chance to interact with animals — especially those that your children don’t get to see every day. Hotels, resorts and local communities are spearheading a wealth of family-friendly wildlife conservation programs that allow children to be participants, not just observers, in helping animals survive and thrive.
From monkeys to turtles and bees to hummingbirds, here are five wildlife conservation programs available at (or near) hotels that will make an everlasting impression on budding naturalists.
1. Turtle Release Program, Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa
Watching a baby turtle emerge from deep in the sand and take its first awkward steps toward the sea is an experience no child will forget. And Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta is ground zero for efforts to protect sea turtles, which have an unerring instinct to return every year to nest in the same spot. Those native to PV include olive ridleys, leatherbacks, hawskbills and green turtles — all of them endangered or threatened by extinction.
At Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, turtle rescue is a 24/7 operation, with the hotel maintaining an enclosed beach-side turtle rescue nursery that’s open for viewing. Under the careful supervision of a full-time wildlife biologist, program staff dig up nests threatened by thundering feet on the popular beach and move them into an enclosed “nursery.” There they are labeled by date and monitored during their 45-day incubation period. If you let the hotel know you’re interested, they will alert you when nests are about to hatch, and invite you to a release ceremony, which typically takes place in the evening when the beach is quiet. Your child will also get the chance to name a baby turtle before helping it slip safely into the Pacific.
Of course, this is just the beginning of the Marriott Puerto Vallarta’s family-oriented fun; the resort has a full spectrum of children’s, teens’ and tweens’ programming and also maintains an entirely separate pool for families of small children, complete with an in-pool climbing fort and loungers for watchful parents. Budget-friendly family packages include not only all meals and bar, but free child care in the kids club. This Category 5 hotel costs 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night or use your Category 5 certificate available with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
2. Hummingbird Banding in Cochise County, Arizona
The US has 17 species of hummingbirds, and in a good year 15 of them visit Southeast Arizona, making it an easy contender for the hummingbird capital of the country. Cochise County, south of Tucson, celebrates this fact with a host of hummingbird viewing and conservation events, all accessible from family-friendly hotels in the towns of Sierra Vista and Willcox.
Under the auspices of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) and the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, visitors can get up close and personal with the tiny, whirring-winged creatures while helping to band them for tracking.
From Sierra Vista’s Holiday Inn Express (from 20k IHG Rewards Club points per night) or Candlewood Suites (from 10k IHG Rewards Club points per night) and the forthcoming Best Western Plus, bird-loving families can join hummingbird banding programs on the San Pedro River and visit the Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve. This preserve is so renowned for its birdwatching that birders come from every corner of the world with binoculars in hand. Willcox makes another good stop, with Holiday Inn Express and Days Inn by Wyndham both excellent choices. Parents won’t mind the fact that the Willcox Wine Region just gained coveted AVA status (designated grape growing region), with several excellent tasting rooms open for service.
3. Monkey Refuge, Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel, Petén, Guatemala
How many hotels are situated on their own private lagoon, with an island monkey preserve in the middle? That’s what you’ll find at Las Lagunas Boutique Hotel in Guatemala’s Petén province near the famed Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Surrounded by a 200-acre nature preserve, the hotel offers ATV rides to an on-site wildlife sanctuary housing a variety of birds and animals, including ocelots and tapirs rescued by ARCAS and CONAP, two local wildlife rehabilitation groups. Best of all, guests can take a boat ride to the lagoon’s Monkey Island and help staff deliver food to a colony of rescued spider monkeys, who come down to the shore to take bananas by hand, even sometimes jumping on the boat.
While the elegant boutique hotel may not be the best match for tots, it’s perfect for school-age kids, tweens and teens, who will love the tree-house feel of the over-water bungalows, the dock stacked with kayaks and the jungle alive with howler monkeys and exotic birds. The hotel even maintains its own museum with a stunning collection of Mayan artifacts, providing the perfect introduction to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal National Park and its splendid pyramids. In addition to Avianca, United Airlines now serves the Guatemala City – Flores route, flying into Mundo Maya International Airport, which makes access to the hotel and all the region’s splendors that much more convenient — and miles-friendly.
4. Beekeeping and Baby Animals at Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
The Fairmont Hotel group was among the first to get on the beekeeping bandwagon, joining efforts to combat colony collapse as far back as 2008, when they first began establishing rooftop apiaries. The first at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, harvests an average of 450 pounds of honey from its hives every year. At the Fairmont Mount Kenya Fairmont Safari Club, families can get in the beekeeping spirit with help from local beekeeper Stephen Macharia, who oversees eight hives housing 16,500 bees and invites visitors to participate in their apiary program in a wide variety of ways.
Even more thrilling for kids, though, is the hotel’s Animal Orphanage, maintained in cooperation with the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, where on any given day you might be able to see a baby ostrich, laugh at long-legged baby antelope or even watch a young cheetah play. Kids will also appreciate the availability of horseback riding, and there are even two canine ambassadors, Tusker and Grammy, ready and waiting to play fetch.
5. Elephant Rescue Sanctuary, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elephant rides are easy to come by in Thailand, but it’s isn’t as easy to find an ethical experience (without the ride component) where you and your kids can participate in a true rehabilitation effort. At Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, they do all of this and more. The park operates as a sanctuary to provide healing and rehabilitation for elephants that have been abused or exploited. During half-day and daylong immersions, you can learn about elephant behavior and witness how volunteers help them to heal and feel safe again. The center operates with funding from the Save Elephant Foundation, which supports several elephant rescue centers in Southeast Asia.
Stay at the Shangri-La Chiang Mai, located within five minutes’ walking distance of the Night Bazaar. Kids will love that the hotel’s pool is the biggest in town, while parents will appreciate the spacious suites and affordable family packages that include an extra bed at no additional charge, complimentary breakfast, and discounts on at the hotel’s three restaurants. If you’ve got a boatload of Marriott Rewards points to spend, book at Le Meridien Chiang Mai for 35,000 points per night or use a Category 5 free night certificate.
Sometimes on-site hotel programs are the easiest way to begin a conversation about animal conservation with our children. What ethical animal programs has your family participating in? Would you recommend it to other families?