Guest Blog written by Stacie Troutman. Follow her blog for more fun travel ideas for kids.
Over the summer, we took an unforgettable vacation to the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. Because our children were four and sixteen months at the time, there was no question whether we would stay in a cabin or in a hotel.
Separate sleeping areas for all of us? Yes please. A full kitchen to cook our dinner and avoid the restaurant meltdowns? YES. Acres of forest for running around and buffering out the sound of the occasional tantrum from other vacationers? We vote cabin!
Routines and familiarity are so important to young children, and staying in a cabin can be much easier for the entire family.
First, let’s talk about how to choose your cabin. You absolutely must look at pictures to determine if the cabin is a good fit for your family. Look closely for dangers (or annoyances) and prepare yourself for them. If there is room in your car for a baby gate, pack one to avoid a dangerous wooden stair case. Be ready to move the coffee table in front of the stone hearth and to watch kids closely around deck railings. A deck that is completely enclosed by a railing is the best; you can relax while the kids run around without escaping to the great unknown. Our biggest mistake was choosing a cabin without a “yard.”
We made do with the long (half mile!) paved driveway, but a grassy area to play with a ball or a small swing would have been useful. Make sure there is a bathtub and not just a shower. Many cabins have giant jetted soaking tubs, which sent my kids over the edge with fear, but most kids would probably think they are fun. Call and ask the rental company about these details; they can make your stay more comfortable.
When choosing location, that is obviously up to your preference and vacation style. We wanted total seclusion, which is readily available in this area. We stayed a few miles off the Parkway, which was nice when heading out for the day, but our actual cabin was not close to anyone else. It may have been nice to have a shared pool, playground, or yard, but our top priority was a private vacation.
Our favorite part of cabin life is being able to cook our own food. We bring all the dry ingredients from home and only shop for refrigerated items (or items we forgot!) when we get to our destination. Remember, there are thousands of you and only 2 grocery stores. They will be packed. Divide and conquer your list and meet at the checkout. Our favorite cabin dinners are spaghetti and garlic bread, tacos, and burgers and hot dogs. Nothing fancy, nothing requiring too many ingredients or dishes. We always get special breakfasts to eat before we head out for the day. My kids look forward to cinnamon rolls and scrambled eggs.
Pick up a large package of bottled water for the week, so you don’t have to buy it while you are out. And above all, snacks! We usually clear out a drawer where the kids can reach granola bars, fruit snacks, etc. and we can keep them in the car to pull out when hunger strikes.
Cabins are priced by size and bedrooms, of course, but also by amenities. Our cabin had three TVs (with satellite) and a pool table. Our preschooler and toddler obviously aren’t pool sharks, so it became a convenient landing place for all our junk. However, if you have older children, they may be interested in having gaming systems, air hockey, or Foosball tables. I realize we come to the great outdoors to spend time outdoors, but everyone needs a break from the heat and the bugs (or the cold if you go in the winter!) and these items will come in handy. And hey, that will give you a chance to catch up on the book you’ve been wanting to read too.
For the littlest kids, I completely raid the Dollar Spot at Target and Michael’s for their cheap little toys and trinkets. When the kids get bored, we pull out a set of those goofy sponge animal capsules or some plastic soldiers for a few minutes of engagement. They have sticker books, little magnadoodles, we get blind bags to pull out every so often, and we love Play Doh. Take the Play Doh on the deck and go to town, kids! Pinterest is full of nature activities, which are easy to do right out of your cabin’s front steps. Make a scavenger hunt for nature items, pack a picnic, go collect nature items, or hand the camera to the kids and let them search for their own treasures.
Sleeping on a vacation can be less than ideal for children. They are in a new place, and there is lots to look at and lots to worry about. We brought our own pack and play from home (but many rental companies have loaners if you reserve them) so that our son would be familiar with it. He of course had his familiar blankie and stuffed doggie. Our preschooler had her mp3 player speaker, nightlight, and trusty iPad to help her get to sleep. Trust me, I am not a “take your technology to bed” advocate, but on vacation, we do what we can! The first night was a huge disaster with our youngest. The screaming and wailing made us even more grateful that we chose a cabin, because subjecting the rest of a hotel to baby screams is just torture. He settled in by his nap on day 2, and we were good to go. Really, every day in the cabin got better and better as the kids got used to their surroundings.
Before we knew it, our kids who had just adjusted to running barefoot on the deck, splashing in the hot tub, and catching fireflies, were all packed up for home. We tried desperately to book one more day in our cabin, but we were too late. It was time to lock up that door of the cabin that we called home for a week. And we can’t wait to get back.