There’s an adage that shows up on far too many travel-themed Pinterest boards, but still rings true: “It’s not where you go, it’s who you’re with.”
However, sometimes it’s who’s not with you that can have the biggest impact.
Although my 6-year-old son, Zephyr, and I have camped together, we’ve never been out of the country without my wife. That changed recently, when I tested my parenting powers by traveling alone with him to Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands for five days. (My wife’s work commitments didn’t allow her to make the trip, but she wholeheartedly supported the venture.)
When I mentioned our plans to friends, they often said, “That sounds like a great bonding opportunity for you two!”
And quickly added, “But won’t it be stressful doing it alone?”
I knew the experience would be a test for both of us. Would he follow directions, stay engaged and feel fulfilled? And would I be able to keep a watchful eye on him, manage the pressure and create a winning itinerary that appealed to both of us? Most of all, would we enjoy ourselves? Any parent who is leaving their partner behind to embark on a solo adventure with their child grapples with these questions. But if the excursion is conceived and executed properly, it will be an enriching experience that will become a treasured memory for both of you.
My overarching goal for the trip was to model positive behavior. After all, I was asking my son to be tantrum-free, go-with-the-flow when confronted with delays or diversions from the itinerary, be unfailingly polite and stay consistently engaged. The least I could do was live up to those same standards. If it worked out, this would be the first of many father-son jaunts around the globe.
Ensuring we had a good vacation started weeks before we left. I chose the Cayman Islands because they are two quick flights away from our home in the Washington, D.C., area (roughly six hours with a layover, though there is a shorter direct flight available) and boast lots of multi-age activities of varying intensities. I don’t recommend your first solo expedition be a hike up to Machu Picchu or sailing out to a remote island in Vanuatu. Save those trips for when you’re both seasoned travelers — and your spouse is more comfortable with a more ambitious outing.
Picking a family-friendly hotel is equally key. We stayed at the Kimpton Seafire, which is oceanfront, sports an epic pool packed with fantastical floaties, and has lots of programming designed for its littler guests. This is not the time to roll the dice and rent an Airbnb with no reviews from fellow parents. Go with a safe option and save yourself the worry (or, worse yet, a housing disaster in paradise).
The author’s son Zephyr Martell, 6, plays in the Caribbean Sea on Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. (Photo for The Washington Post by Nevin Martell)
Packing properly for your child is a must. Bring an assortment of clothes for a variety of scenarios — in our case, swimming as much as possible, hiking at the botanical garden and blue iguana sanctuary, dining out at nice restaurants — plus the necessary health and wellness products. Trying to find a particular vitamin, a tube of reasonably priced sunscreen or a well-fitting pair of swim trunks can be a torturous, time-wasting scavenger hunt.
Diversions are equally critical. My son was in charge of filling his backpack with a stuffed animal of choice, pencils and crayons, and a diary to draw in. I brought individually packaged Lego minifigures, Kinder eggs and coloring books to dole out at slower moments on the trip, like when we were flying or enjoying a longer meal. I generally avoid using a screen as a pacifier, though he was allowed to watch movies on our flights.
Usually, I’m all for leaving my options open and embracing the unexpected when traveling, but having an itinerary is helpful if it’s just you and your child. You can plot out a reasonable number of activities, while building in plenty of downtime. Do not overschedule. I repeat: Do not overschedule. It may seem like a great idea to maximize your time at a destination by cramming in every possible sightseeing stop, cultural destination and “unique experience,” but both you and your child will end up feeling more stressed than #blessed. By the time you return home, you’ll need a vacation from your vacation. Instead, focus on a few of the most meaningful opportunities and really savor them.
My approach when traveling with my son is to book one morning activity and another in the afternoon. I believe it’s important to include both familiar options and new experiences for your child. To expand my son’s horizons, he took a fantastic cooking class for kids at the Ritz-Carlton, we got up close and personal with the island’s native blue iguanas, and we went on a catamaran cruise featuring two snorkeling opportunities. The first time he tried, it didn’t go well. Instead of frolicking with the stingrays present, he ended up swallowing a small percentage of the Caribbean Sea. But at the second snorkeling spot, a helpful crew member offered to pull around a life ring for Zephyr to hold. That way, he could focus on keeping his mohawk-topped head down and breathing through the snorkel. Success! A squad of squid was spotted. There was a sunken ship to marvel over. And we saw Dory from “Finding Nemo” — twice.
I’m never going to forget that time we spent floating over the reef, each of us excitedly pointing out each new discovery. More important, it ignited an interest in Zephyr and from the moment he got back on board the catamaran he has been pestering me to go snorkeling again.
I aimed to keep my son on his usual sleep schedule, because a tired traveler is a cranky companion. This was easier than anticipated. By bedtime each night, he was too tired to want to stay up any later. I made a point of waking up first, so I could have a cup of coffee and a moment to myself before I was on Poppa duty. Some parents might instead opt for a late-night glass of wine after junior is asleep. Either way, you need some me-time amid all the we-time.
Several times every day, my son and I checked in with my wife by video chatting, texting updates or sharing photos. This helped her feel connected and kept her up on our adventures — while reassuring her that neither of us was severely sunburned or gored by a rogue stingray. It’s inevitable your partner will feel they’re missing out, so make them as much a part of the experience as technology (and time) allows. Bringing them a thoughtful souvenir (or two) doesn’t hurt either!
I’m happy to report we arrived back home safe and sound — and enjoyed ourselves immensely. I couldn’t have been prouder of how my son conducted himself and how eagerly he threw himself into every activity. The trip produced so many treasured memories. I can still see Zephyr crouching down next to one of the island’s blue iguanas, the radiant turquoise of his mohawk finding an analog in the lizard’s spiky spines. I could sense the depth of my son’s awe, and it was a privilege to witness a moment of such wonder in his life.
Through it all, we missed my wife. But there will be other opportunities for us to travel together as a family. Regardless, I’m already looking forward to traveling with my son again. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I know I’ll be happy going with him.