Swap the resort’s kids club for a foray into a totally distinct culture and you are looking at a very different family holiday, one that is filled with adventure and enriching, horizon-broadening experiences. If you are the kind of family that eschews Disneyland in favor of unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences, why not take the kids to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan? Famed for its emphasis on GNH (gross national happiness) – an idea conceived by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth dragon king – this might be the most pleasant and peaceful destination in the world. Additionally, it has recently been officially announced that Bhutan is the only carbon negative nation on the planet, as its forest absorbs more carbon dioxide than what is produced by its sources of pollution, making for lots of opportunities to learn about sustainable living. So get the family together for a trip of a lifetime, discovering all the treasures and wonders this amazing country has to offer. Here are some ideas to inspire you.
Hit the road
Put away the iPhones and Playstations and head for the hills on a luxury road trip to discover cultural and natural gems hidden along the way. Begin in fascinating Paro, home to Bhutan’s only international airport, and get acclimated. The museum here features creative and child-friendly displays, with stuffed animals and birds, traditional costume, battle spears and tribal masks to engage everyone’s imaginations. Marvel at the formidable fortresses and ancient temples surrounding this humble town and venture into the hills to visit a working farmhouse to get a feel for local life. Spend time with a Bhutanese family, enjoy a home-cooked meal and give the youngsters a chance to interact with kids who live a very different lifestyle. Stay in a luxurious family villa at Uma by COMO amid the beautiful natural wilderness of the Paro valley and enjoy Bhutanese dishes made from ingredients picked nearby.
Continue your journey along the scenic road to the old capital, Punakha, stopping off to snap pictures of the sweeping views from Dochu La Pass. Stretch your legs and breathe lungfuls of fresh mountain air as you hike up to Khamsum Yuley Monastery, and get some thrills and (maybe) spills as you hop aboard a raft on the Mo Chu river. Back on the trail, just three hours’ drive brings you to the nature-lovers’ paradise of Gangtey: surrounded by wetlands rich in flora and fauna, your budding biologists will have a blast meeting the rare species at the Crane Center. Find yourselves well and truly off the grid, bedding down at Amankora; here, there is no internet, but the views of the surrounding scenery, hot stone baths and sumptuously cozy suites easily make up for that. Make a stop at the Swiss Farm in Bumthang where the kids can sample fresh Jersey cows’ milk and the grown-ups can get a taste for the national beer, Red Panda, which is brewed on site. Give the kids another chance to meet their Bhutanese peers with a visit to a monastic school, where some of the alumni are as young as 12, and spend time with the sheep and yak herders at Ura village, high up in the hills. For the icing on the cake, head back to Paro to round off your incredible journey with a hike to the legendary Tiger’s Nest Monastery: as you ascend, you can recount the incredible story of Guru Rimpoche, who flew to Bhutan on a winged tigress, landing here and making his home in a cave. It is a challenging hike, but littler climbers can opt to scale the trail on horseback.
Hills and hospitality
Combine nature and comfort with a perfect balance of the great outdoors and the warmth of a true Bhutanese reception, trekking through rolling valleys and foothills by day and staying in luxurious hotels or cozy guesthouses at night. From Paro, you can make easy sojourns into the mountains to get warmed up, and in Thimphu, delve into this country’s fascinating history at Bhutan’s National Museum before a leisurely hike up to the 14th century Zuri Temple. In historic Bumthang, head out into the valley, strewn with ancient and sacred wonders like Tamshing Lhakhang and Kurjey Monastery, where the first three Bhutanese kings lie, and join the lamp-lighting in the evening. At each of these incredible destinations, you can stay at world-class Amankora hotels, beautifully assimilated into the environment. Perfectly located amid the hills, with gorgeous views of 17th century Drukgyel Dzong and snow-capped Mount Jumolhari, Amankora Paro has a cozy library and a spa surrounded by woodlands.
Amankora Thimphu is styled like a traditional dzong and you can dine on classic Bhutanese food while sitting on the hillside terrace. At Amankora Bumthang, you are treated to a performance by local monks of traditional dances around a campfire. Marvel at the scene with a backdrop of Wangdicholing Palace: the oldest in the kingdom, this palace is now a grand and crumbling monastery.
Venture deeper into the magical countryside and leave day-to-day life behind as you head further off the beaten path into true local life as a family. Make your way up to Pele La Pass where the colorful prayer flags decorate the high-altitude road and marvel at the amazing view from your vantage point at 11,647 feet. Head into the lush and verdant valley, looking out for indigenous wildlife including grazing cattle. Discover the brightly-painted palace at Ugyencholing and the village’s yatha weavers, hard at work. Trek into the Tang valley to find the burning lake, Membartsho, where the famous Buddhist saint Pema Lingpa is said to have uncovered sacred treasures. At night, eat, cook and stay with welcoming host families in guesthouses in the pretty villages, where the kids can play happily, trying out the local sports of archery and darts, and the grown ups can enjoy the views and some fascinating cultural exchanges.
Fun that’s in tents
Sharpen up those old summer camp skills and team up for a camping trek along the Druk Path. There is nothing better for family bonding than spending time together in nature and going on a true adventure. Hike through beautiful apple orchards and forests up to the lofty fortress of Jili Dzong, a resting place for travelers since the 16th century. Traverse mountain passes and find yourself skirting the waters of the scenic, glassy alpine lakes of Jimi Langtso and Simkota, where you can make your cozy camp beneath the stars. Trek through forests of rhododendron trees, across meadows and fields tended by yak herders, and enjoy vistas of soaring Mount Gangkar Punsum – the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Pay a visit to the Motithang Preserve to meet the kingdom’s national animal, the horned, yak-like takin. Camp next to Phajoding monastery and cook up hearty, warming food to enjoy with a view of the Thimphu Valley, surrounded all the while with natural Bhutanese beauty. Conclude your tour of the outdoors with a little treat and stay in a luxury hotel in Thimphu. The Taj Tashi is the perfect place to re-assimilate to civilization, its architecture blending the traditional dzong with modern design and its rooms offering all the creature comforts you might have missed. Here, the kids can swim off any aches and pains in the heated swimming pool and the adults can relax and unwind at the spa.