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.

Moon Dance Cliffs in Jamaica serves as a perfect family vacation destination

I’m standing on a craggy ledge overlooking the Caribbean and debating whether to take a leap. As do most things, the waters tend to run easy here at Moon Dance Cliffs, a luxury resort in Negril that’s usually as serene as its name implies. The 10-foot plunge into pastel-blue surf is inviting—it’s the churning waves slapping against the rocks that make me wonder if I should reconsider.

It’s taking some effort to summon an adrenaline rush after we’ve spent four days moving in blissful slow motion. Moon Dance Cliffs reflects the vacation attitude one should adopt if considering a trip to Jamaica—laid-back. When you arrive at the front desk, you’re greeted with a cold glass of rum punch and a postcard-perfect view through the open lobby, framed by palm trees. The centerpiece of the property is the winding pool that offers plenty of room for kids to frolic while the adults keep a watchful eye from the swim-up bar. If you need sand between your toes, Negril’s Seven Mile Beach is a 15-minute car ride away. But after a few lazy hours of lounging, going anywhere else seems like a lot of unnecessary work.

Families should consider a stay in one of the four villas at Moon Dance Cliffs, the biggest and best of which is Midnight Cove, a five-bedroom palace overlooking the cliffs. Each room has bright walls, teak furniture, and its own veranda with views of the sea. The large first-floor living area offers plenty to do—a flat-screen television with a DVD player, a billiards table, a collection of old-school board games and a stocked wet bar. The hotel is just a few steps away and offers several options for larger groups, including a two-bedroom Prime Minister Suite with a full living room and an outdoor Jacuzzi. (For the young and old who can’t tear themselves away from their i-stuff, free wireless Internet is accessible from poolside to bedside.) Since maximum occupancy here is all of 66, you’ll quickly get to know both the staff (all smiles, fist-bumps and “yah mons”) and your fellow guests (the most entertaining was a guy we nicknamed Captain America, for his tendency to talk loudly about health care and the snow in upstate New York).

After a couple days of rotating between the pool and the Sports Bar, we got the itch for a little off-site exploration. We opted for a quick car ride to Rick’s Café, where tourists line up to take a 35-foot jump into the cove below and locals backflip off a sto­mach-knotting makeshift platform 75 feet in the air. The more sane folks grab a table and watch the action with a bucket of Red Stripe and a plate of jerk chicken and waffles; get there before six for a good view of the action and the sunset. The next afternoon, we boarded a catamaran for a lively day trip that was fully endorsed by my new buddy Nasir, a second-grader from Connecticut on vacation with his family, who showed off some impressive “Gangnam Style” dance moves. The tour began with snorkeling and ended with water-slide runs from the top deck and a breathtaking view of the Negril coast as the sun disappeared from view.

Before my last breakfast of fresh fruit, blueberry pancakes and crispy bacon at Annie’s, it’s do-or-die time (literally?) at the water’s edge. I already wussed out on cliff-jumping at Rick’s, and soon we’ll be on a flight back home. My girlfriend wisely stays on dry land, offering to play the role of photographer and first responder. With a momentary break in the waves, I launch into the blue, trusting that everything’s gonna be alright.

Moon Dance Cliffs at a Glance:

Ages: Family-friendly for all, but know that you have to sign a waiver for kids 12 and under.
Kid stuff: The pool is where most of the action goes down, with volleyball and basketball. The open-air sports bar offers billiards and Nintendo Wii; lawn games include cornhole and croquet.
Grown-up stuff: Catch a ride to Alfred’s on the beach for live reggae on most Sunday nights. Book an outdoor massage at the Kamala spa.
Together time: Grab snorkeling gear from the concierge and explore the cliffs at the resort’s edge. Adventures like river tubing and zip-lining can be arranged by the concierge.
Eats: The Sports Bar offers the most kid-friendly menu.
Quiet time: Nanny service can be arranged ahead of time.
Getting there: Direct flights run from Philadelphia International to Montego Bay. You’ll need 90 minutes for the drive to Moon Dance Cliffs, along the island’s narrow coastal roads.
Stay details: A night in the four- or five-bedroom villas ranges from $615 to $1,700. Children five and under stay and eat for free.

Take your family to:

>>A Ranch in Montana: Paws Up
>>A Manse on Mustique: The Mustique Company
>>A Villa in California: Pelican Hill
>>A Cottage in Upstate New York: Mohonk Mountain House
>>A Village in Tuscany: Monteverdi