By Luke Hanson
School holidays are the pits. Snotty kids, pushy parents, cranky guests and frustrated staff make for a few weeks of fast-paced misery.
Yes, sometimes the stars align and we have happy families who play nice, but mostly, we have bloody noses, tantrums and the occasional bout of gastro.
And to be honest, I think we host school holidays better than most places. Am I selling you on Lord Howe Island? Hopefully. Am I selling you on school holiday travel? Absolutely not.
It may surprise the staunch school holiday traveller that despite the pink lemonade, second scoop of ice-cream, and preloaded iPad to ensure a blissful romantic dinner for two (and sometimes three or four depending on the battery), there is a better kind of trip. And it’s not to any particular place, but during a particular time – school time.
Granted, leave from school can be hard to come by, particularly for high school kids. Think, however, of the families you know who’ve disappeared for a term or two on a circumnavigation of Australia. They return with kids who seem worldly beyond their years.
Where should I go?
‘School of life’ trips are one of the best school time holidays and even the grumpy headmaster gets it, at least off the record.
We had a late-July escape to Austria last year and walked through the Otztal Alps from Innsbruck to Merano.Along the way, our kids discovered:
Startling facts about climate change -melting glaciers
Anthropology- Otzi the Iceman
History- bullet shells and barbed wire from World War I
Quirks of religion -wayside shrines draped in Buddhist prayer flags
Before our walk, we stayed with family friends in Innsbruck and watched their kids go to school each day, after drinking chocolate milk for breakfast, and then picked wild blueberries together after school. There were no kids’ clubs, shopping malls or theme parks in sight, but we still had the best holiday. The kids even learnt a bit of German.
On the same trip, we extended our leave from work and school and went sailing around the islands of Croatia. While Split and Dubrovnik were nothing short of feral, the island towns and villages were deserted.
We walked around cobble-stoned medieval streets without the circus of T-shirt stalls, gelato vans, Roman soldiers touting for photos and other purveyors of useless junk.
Instead, we watched locals going about their daily routine and talked to everyone from old ladies sweeping the streets to local businessmen who had cousins in Melbourne; “Ivan – do you know him?”.
The engagement was wonderful, and their interest in us – an Australian family – was as authentic as their backyard tomatoes. A few weeks later, when the school holiday crowds were around, we’d never have seen those people.
Family travel during school time doesn’t have to deliver worldly experience and education to justify the time off. You may just want to spend some quality time together.
We often see families holidaying in a kind of parallel existence with the parents on holiday from parenting and the kids on holiday from any rules-based order.
The one thing they have in common is that they’re all on their devices, at the local café, communicating with anyone other than each other. Clearly, this ends badly and so does the holiday (if anybody tunes in to notice).
We’ve kicked the device addiction by going to places without power and wi-fi (and other families with devices) and share some serious quality time.
Our annual trip, in the first week of December, to Mount Aspiring National Park in New Zealand involves a helicopter flight into the heart of the mountains.
Then we spend a few nights in a backcountry hut surrounded by enormous mountains and glaciers.
But what will the kids do for fun?
Despite the location and mode of transport, the kids are most excited about the top bunk and the freedom they have to explore the nearby forests without the risk of snakes.
At night, we play games by candlelight and talk to each other. It’s amazing how developed the brains of kids are when you talk to them about the big stuff – life, death, love, betrayal and the best fart jokes.
At the end of our backcountry hut experience, we always stay in Wanaka and enjoy another benefit of school-time travel – no crowds.
Wanaka is the Byron Bay of New Zealand and if you dare to visit during school holidays, you’ll share the place with tens of thousands of people.
Instead, if you visit just a week before school holidays, you’ll have the place to yourself. You’ll get a table at the café, a 6.30pm booking at your preferred restaurant, front row standing space next to the busker, and without the hordes of children around, the locals will be nice to you.
You’ll also get discounted accommodation and cheap flights. Supply and demand – it’s amazing what one week can do. If you choose your week carefully, the kids will only miss some end-of-term Christmas craft and perhaps the school play.
It’s not a bad trade-off.
Suggestions for your next Family Trip
But you don’t have to travel to New Zealand, Austria or Croatia to share an educational experience in a quiet, affordable and friendly destination.
Why not try…
Hobart in April
Eden in May
Uluru in June
Lamington National Park in July
Byron Bay in August
Albany in September
Kosciuszko in October
Lord Howe Island in November
The options are endless.
You can even camp in your local national park and sit around a campfire every night.
There’s richness in the experience that you won’t get from a 9am to 5pm itinerary of commercial activities, side-by-side with a thousand other stressed-out families.
If you break the routine of school holiday travel, despite the collective frown of the people who don’t, then you may just have your best family holiday, ever, and still come home with spare change.