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5 Great International Family Eco-Lodges

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

If you're looking for a family vacation surrounded by nature and wildlife, consider choosing a family friendly eco-lodge as your family's next travel destination. These lodges offer family oriented accommodations and meals, as well as a wide variety of activities, tours and adventure opportunities. Here are five of our favorites:

1. Gamboa Rainforest Resort, Panama: This 340-acre destination resort is located in the heart of Soberania National Park along the Panama Canal. Wildlife is abundant here, with over 250 species of birds identified at the resort. Gamboa Rainforest Resort provides outstanding opportunities for close encounters with nature with its aerial tram and lookout tower, day and nighttime wildlife safaris on the Panama Canal, hiking and birdwatching excursions, a butterfly house and serpentarium, and a variety of other tours and exhibits. The monkey watching tour along the Panama Canal and Gatun Lake is a standout. You're likely to see sloths and toucans, as well as have close encounters with loads of curious white faced capuchin monkeys. Some of these inquisitive creatures may even jump onto your boat! Kids will enjoy seeing the turtles and the crocodiles and watching ships cruise down the Panama Canal as they dine at Los Lagartos, an open-air restaurant located next to the marina. Highly memorable unique cultural experiences are also available at Gamboa Rainforest Resort through their resident tour company, Gamboa Tours (www.gamboatours.com). Journey up the Chagres River by dugout canoe to visit a native Embera Indian village or venture out to the palm-studded San Blas Islands to stay with the Kuna Indians. When you're looking for even more action, the attractions of Panama City are only 17 miles away. Here, you can visit or transit the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks, shop for colorful molas and other crafts at boutiques and artisan centers, and tour the old and new sections of Panama City. For more information, visit the Gamboa Rainforest Resort's website at www.gamboaresort.com, contact the resort directly at 011-507-314-9000, or call the resort's reservation number at 1-877-800-1690.

2. Tortuga Lodge, Tortuguero, Costa Rica: Set on 50 private acres in the lush jungles of Tortuguero, this river front nature lodge offers incredible opportunities for viewing wildlife. This is particularly true during the summer months, when thousands of Atlantic Green Sea Turtles come to lay their eggs at night along the beaches of Tortuguero. Turtle watching tours are offered nightly from June to October. Daily boat tours along winding rivers and canals offer excellent opportunities to see monkeys, macaws, toucans, iguanas, sloths, and a variety of other wildlife. Visit the little town of Tortuguero, and stop in at the Caribbean Conservation Corporation's center and turtle museum if your children would like to adopt and name their very own sea turtle. Tortuga Lodge is well-suited for families, with a lovely pool, comfortable rooms, and delicious family-style meals. For more information on Tortuga Lodge and its various vacation packages, visit their website at: www.tortugalodge.com.

3. Heritage Hotels, Kenya: Heritage Hotels serves up a wide variety of family friendly options for families interested in experiencing the wonders of Africa on a magical East African safari. The hotel group provides extensive safari programs for families at their Intrepid and Voyager properties, offering their Adventurers Club for children ages 4-12 (available at all Voyager and Intrepid properties) and their Young Rangers Club for teens (available at selected locations). Families may choose from a range of locations and accommodations including a private safari camp at the edge of the wildlife-packed Tsavo wilderness, camps and lodges in the heart of Samburu's elephant country and in the legendary Maasai Mara wilderness, and a flagship beachfront property on the Indian Ocean. The hotels' youth programs allow families to get the most from their safari experience. Families can take their morning and evening game drives together, then the kids and teens can spend the afternoons or evenings learning about the bush through a fascinating "bush school" with excursions to historical sites, conservation work, and cultural and sports exchanges with local Maasai and Samburu communities. Both the Adventurers Club and Young Rangers Club programs are free to all guests. For more information, visit the hotels' website at: www.Heritage-EastAfrica.com.

4. Kingfisher Bay Resort, Fraser Island, Australia: Located on the world's largest sand island, Kingfisher Bay Resort is the winner of numerous eco-tourism awards. Located at the southern end of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island is known for its seventy-five mile long stretch of beach, ancient rainforests, pristine freshwater lakes, huge sand dunes, and an abundance of birds and wildlife. Here you can see wild dingos, look for more than 350 species of birds, take whale watching and dolphin cruises, go on a night walk to spot rare acid frogs and bats, rent a 4WD vehicle and take the kids on a family eco-tour or take a guided tour with a ranger, and go fishing or canoeing. Kingfisher Bay Resort has over 150 hotel rooms and 109 villas which are well-suited for families. The resort offers a kids' club for children under five from 8:30 to 4:30 p.m., as well as a Junior Ranger Program for kids ages 5-14. Dinner and evening programs for children are also available. For more information, visit the resort's website at www.kingfisherbay.com. If you're visiting Kingfisher Bay, try to squeeze in a visit to another exceptional family friend eco-destination along Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island Resort. Heron Island Resort and Kingfisher Bay Resort complement each other well. While Kingfisher Bay's eco-attractions are mainly on land, Heron Island's are predominantly underwater. The resort is located on a true coral atoll on the Great Barrier Reef, providing excellent opportunities for diving, snorkeling, and guided explorations of the coral reefs. Here you can swim right off the beach and be immediately surrounded by endless gardens of coral teeming with colorful fish and marine life. From November through February, wildlife is abundant on the island, with turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs along the beach and thousands of Black Noddies and Mutton Birds nesting in the trees. Humpback whales are frequently sighted in the area from June through September. This low-key luxury eco-resort offers comfortable family friendly lodging in several different low-rise buildings and three meals are included daily. A Junior Rangers Program is available for children ages 7-12 during school holidays. For more information, visit the resort's website at www.heronisland.com.

5. Belize Lodge and Excursions, Southern Belize: Four magical nature lodges await you in Southern Belize, each with their own distinctive attractions and charms. Three of the lodges, Indian Camp, Ballum Na (House of the Jaguar) and Jungle Camp are located deep within the remote jungles of the company's private 13,000 acre Boden Creek Nature Reserve. The fourth, soon to be completed Moho Cay Lodge, is set on its own tiny Caribbean island in the middle of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Indian Creek offers individual thatched roof cottages, miles of nature trails, and interesting Mayan sites nearby. Ballum Na overlooks a beautiful 2-acre jungle preserve that is home to two jaguars, and this lodge's suites are particularly well suited to large family groups and reunions. Once you're rested and relaxed, take a canoe or kayaking trip deep into the jungle for your stay at Jungle Camp, an elegant eco-lodge made from rich Belizean hardwoods, overlooking tranquil Golden Stream. Parents and kids will love this isolated safari-type lodge with its individual bungalows and raised wooden walkways overlooking the jungle. Here, there are numerous opportunities for kayaking, hiking, and watching for monkeys, colorful birds, tapir, and other animals. From Jungle Camp, you can journey down the river to the Caribbean Sea, where you'll find Moho Cay Lodge on its own 2-acre island with a small white sand beach. Three delicious meals, as well as a wide variety of tours and excursions, are included as part of your stay at each of these lodges. For more information on Belize Lodge and Excursions, visit their website at www.belizelodge.com or call 888-292-2462.

If your family is seeking an adventure-packed eco-vacation and is willing to venture off dry land for lodging, check out Galapagos Network's voyages of exploration in the Galapagos Islands (www.ecoventura.com), American Safari Cruises's intimate yacht trips to Mexico's Sea of Cortes (www.amsafari.com), and Cruise West's Costa Rica and Panama cruises (www.cruisewest.com). All of these companies offer exciting itineraries and provide incredible opportunities for observing and interacting with wildlife aboard their family friendly ships.

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