The New Family Vacation

From glamping in Montana to easy mansion living in Jamaica, today's first-rate family vacation destinations are like your easy, relaxing summers at the Shore, but with way more amenities—and much bluer water. Here, some spots worth exploring together.

Anyone can vacation in Southern California. But living there for a week? Pulling your car into the driveway of your stucco villa lined with olive trees? Pretending that hiking down to the ocean through the rocky terrain of Crystal Cove State Park is your usual morning routine? That it’s not a big deal to see Kobe Bryant on a coffee run? (Okay, the Kobe thing didn’t happen, but he does live nearby.)

Immaculately landscaped Pelican Hill sits high up in the canyon of Newport Coast, and was designed to make you feel just like that. It’s an un-resort resort. Don’t get me wrong; it has all the amenities—glinting saltwater pools, a to-die-for spa, 36 holes, first-rate eateries—but without the imposing hotel tower. It was smartly planned out like a country-club community, so in place of stodgy lobbies and dark halls are winding neighborhood-like streets whose abodes (be they multi-bedroom villas or bungalows) have ocean, golf-course or garden views, plus privacy.

Louis, our butler for the week, waved us into our garage after we checked in at the Villa Clubhouse. He had already stocked our fridge with the essentials (milk and beer); now he gave us a quick tour and left us with his direct line and instructions to call anytime—seriously, he emphasized. He’s around to help with anything from food-sh­o­pping runs to dinner reservations, and though “Let’s call Louis!” became a thing we liked to exclaim all week, we only wound up calling him once, when I needed a few more pots, pans, wineglasses and plates for an impromptu dinner party. Like Louis, everyone we encountered at Pelican Hill had that perfect SoCal aura—well aware that the clientele expects the best of everything, but also polite, casual, and quick to laugh. Pomp and circumstance were left back East.

The villa itself was both comfortable and child-friendly, and included a plush den with a fireplace, a sound system and a flat-screen. Louis had made sure a crib and high chair were there for the little ones. The three bedrooms all had huge bathrooms and closets, and were done up in Mediterranean style. The family room opened up to a large terrace from which we could see Catalina Island floating in the Pacific, and those famed California sunsets. We wound up spending most of our time in the outdoor living room—imagine kids eschewing the TV in favor of humidity-free sunshine.

You’ll think to yourself, “I’ve never seen such a thing” when you first see Pelican Hill’s perfectly round, infinity-edged saltwater pool. And that would be correct—it’s one of the largest circular pools in the world. Getting there—actually, getting anywhere on the property, whether for a house-made gelato at the deli, down to the beach, or to the nearby high-end Fashion Island shopping center—takes zero coordination. By that I mean you only have to press “zero” on your phone and request transport. Before you can say “presidential motorcade,” a black SUV arrives at your door. Since being shuttled around in such a vehicle makes you feel like a badass, it almost doesn’t matter where you’re going.

A rental car gets you everywhere else. To name a few: There’s walking through the bougainvillea-covered beach cottages of Corona del Mar, repeat visits to Bear Flag Fish Co. for tacos and burritos, shopping the art galleries of Laguna Beach, cooling down with a chocolate-covered frozen banana bar (made famous by Arrested Development) on Balboa Island, and watching the surfers wrestle the waves at the Point in Newport Beach. Getting off-property during the day and still logging plenty of pool time is easy. So easy, in fact, that you may be rather incredulous when Louis swings by to say goodbye. Wait, I don’t live here? Sigh. In denial, I told myself I was just closing up the house for the season. See you next year.

Pelican Hill at a Glance

Ages: Thanks to easy accommodations, this trip is great for everyone.
Kid stuff: Amazing pools, kayak tours that get you close to sea lions, boating, hiking and golf.
Grown-up stuff: Condé Nast Traveler rated the spa as the best in California.
Together time: Hikes, water and beach activities, games, and exploring all the Orange County towns made famous by MTV and Bravo.
Eats: Meals at all of the resort eateries are great. The villa’s kitchens are well supplied for at-home dining. Fish tacos at Bear Flag Fish Co. are a must.
Quiet time: Camp Pelican has its own pool and clubhouse.
So you know: A supermarket that sells wine and beer is just minutes away.
Getting there: Virgin America has well-priced direct flights to LAX, which is about a 45-minute drive away. Or connect to get to Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, just 15 minutes away.
Stay details: The starting rate for a two-bedroom villa is $795 per night; prices vary by villa and season.

Take your family to:

>>A Ranch in Montana: Paws Up
>>A Manse on Mustique: The Mustique Company
>>A Cottage in Upstate New York: Mohonk Mountain House
>>A Village in Tuscany: Monteverdi
>>A Manor in Jamaica: Moon Dance Cliffs