About half an hour into the boat ride into Cape Cod Bay, one of my nieces began to look nauseous; my brother-in-law, an avid nature lover who disdains crowds, seemed annoyed with the other tourists on our whale-watching boat; my 4-year-old son crawled into my lap and fell asleep; and my 6-year-old declared that he was bored. I fretted. I had dragged my husband’s extended family — his mother and her partner, and his sister and her family — with my own brood onto this boat, insisting that whale watching was exactly what our summer family vacation needed.
Cassandra, my mother-in-law, had rented us all a house in Plymouth, Mass., near the beach, and I wanted to make the most of our trip, although I would have been hard-pressed to explain exactly what “making the most of it” meant. Creating memories? Having fun? Sharing meals? Relaxing?
Yes, and … after several days of paddleboarding and playing on the beach, our reunion had begun to feel a little sleepy. It seemed imperative to find a uniquely New England experience that went beyond building sand castles and looking for seals in the surf. I landed on whale watching, found an operator at nearby Plymouth Harbor, and soon all 10 of us were standing in a long line to buy tickets for a four-hour whale-watching expedition.
As the sun beat down while we waited to board, my anxiety began to set in. I worried that we might not see whales and that the trip would be a bust. I questioned whether the cost of the trip would be worth the experience. (Although not excessive, whale watching was a splurge.) I feared that the boat ride would be hot. Or cold. Or uncomfortable. Or boring. These worries followed me onboard, and as the boat motored away from the dock and into the beautiful, watery horizon, I was preoccupied with nerves and my own high expectations.
Such can be the dynamic on a multigenerational family vacation. Put 10 related individuals into a rental house, and you’ll get 10 different opinions about what to eat, where to go, how to spend the day and how to spend money.
Some families have established approaches to traveling together. Others figure it out on the fly. My husband, Jeff, grew up in a family of travelers, while my own rarely took vacations when I was a child. As a result, family travel has always made me slightly uneasy. Although I traveled extensively as a young adult, until I married Jeff, my trips were mainly solo or with a friend who shared my tight budget and lowbrow approach to exploring. Back then, we were nimble and cheap. We did free activities, stretched the youth hostel breakfast into lunch, clutched our Lonely Planet guidebooks and were bound by bus schedules.
Traveling with a little more comfort and significantly more people, to whom I’m related by marriage, was something else entirely. More people meant more opinions and logistics, and the fact that we were family had the potential to add complications.
When multiple generations of a family travel together, there is much to consider, including the budget, itineraries and meals. It’s helpful to know how you will divide expenses before starting the trip, as well as what everyone hopes to do or see. As for food, will you be eating out or cooking in? If the latter, who will plan the menu? Who will do the shopping?
There’s also the question of how to best spend time together. On one hand, the very fact that everyone is in the same place is unique and should be savored. On the other hand, people who spend uninterrupted days together tend to get on each other’s nerves. Add in different personalities, energy levels, ages and attention spans, and there’s suddenly a raft of things to negotiate, all in the name of the common goal that everyone have fun.
It can be a tall order. It can also take a lot of mental energy, which is why, for some time, I convinced myself that visits with family did not qualify as vacations. One was an important effort to maintain bonds between relatives, and the other offered a respite from daily life, either in the form of adventure or relaxation. Vacations, I thought, were for chosen family — my husband, my best friends — and, after I became a parent, my kids.
But that logic simply didn’t hold with Jeff’s extended family, a hardy group of adventurers and epicureans. For one, we rarely gathered at our respective homes. Instead, our visits took us to the mountains of Colorado and Vermont, to French wineries and Parisian cafes, and to the coast of Massachusetts. For another, when we travel together, we are almost always on an adventure. We have biked, hiked, swam and boated alongside one another. Along the way, our collective sharing of ourselves and experiences have built lovely friendships and left us rejuvenated, as vacations do.
Whale watching was no exception. With the first slap of a whale tail on the water, the boat’s onboard naturalist announced over the loudspeaker the appearance of a humpback on the port side. The crowd swarmed over. Then came another announcement: Look to starboard for a pod of minkes. And that was just the beginning. It began as a slow trickle, then suddenly whales surrounded the boat. The naturalist narrated what we were seeing, but even she had trouble keeping up with all the activity. It was as if the entire whale population in Cape Cod Bay wanted to come check us out.
They came like a fireworks finale on the Fourth of July. Humpbacks, fins, minkes. Some were enormous, others smaller. Barnacles covered the bodies of some, and as they breached the water’s surface and arced across the clear sky, the whales’ strength and otherworldliness were exhilarating to behold. They held their beautiful tails up and slapped them down. We gaped as a ring of bubbles appeared on the water, and the naturalist explained bubble netting, which happens when a group of whales blows a wall of bubbles while collectively hunting for fish. The bubbles corral the prey and force them to the surface, where they’re snapped up by the whales.
For some of the time, I listened to her and took notes. I learned the difference between baleen and toothed whales. Instead of teeth, the former have baleen plates that trap shrimplike krill, plankton and small fish while expelling seawater from the whales’ mouths. But then I shut my notebook and marveled at nature’s show. The whales were abundant and astonishing in their beauty. There were so many of them. None of us had ever witnessed nature in such a living, breathing spectacle before.
Hours passed, and by the time the captain turned the boat back toward Plymouth Harbor, my earlier worries were gone. Of course the trip was worth it. But even if we hadn’t been treated to such a show, I suspect the excursion would still have been a success. It was so beautiful and foreign out there on the water, far enough from shore to feel the pull of the ocean. For me, the experience was entirely unique, and to be able to share it with family was one more opportunity to forge another bond in our history together. I thought about this on the boat ride back, how the shared moments stack up and how each time we do something like this, it makes me excited to plan the next adventure.
Which is why I no longer differentiate between traveling with family and vacationing. Travel is all about having new experiences and exploring. When you do that with relatives, you’re enhancing the family dynamic, deepening your shared history and working toward a collective future. You get to know one another in a different way, see each other in a different environment. And, if you’re lucky, these efforts will take you somewhere new and astonishing and will expose you to things you don’t see in day-to-day life. A vacation is a vacation, full stop. Add in family, and that vacation can become a wonderful touchpoint in a long and braided history.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
If You Go
Where to eat
30 Town Wharf, Plymouth, Mass.
Waterfront seafood restaurant with extensive outdoor seating and renowned lobster rolls and clam chowder. Open daily 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Entrees from $14.
Martini’s Bar & Grill
50 Court St., Plymouth
A Plymouth staple, Martini’s offers seafood, steak and pasta, as well as a children’s menu. The restaurant sources seasonal and local ingredients. Entrees from $11.
What to do
Captain John Boats whale watching
10 Town Wharf, Plymouth
Four-hour, naturalist-guided whale-watching tours include routes from Plymouth to Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank, a marine sanctuary and primary feeding ground for migrating whales. Tours from about $70 per person ages 13 and up and $50 ages 4 to 12.
Plimoth Patuxet Museums
137 Warren Ave., Plymouth
This complex of living history museums, which has indoor and outdoor elements, teaches visitors about the European settlement of Plymouth Colony and the history of the native Wampanoag people. The organization also offers separate tours of a Mayflower II reproduction tall ship. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; museum open through the Sunday following Thanksgiving. Combined Plimoth Patuxet and Mayflower ticket for museum and ship tour from $39.95 per adult, $36 per senior 62 and up and $24.95 per child 5 to 12.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.