Bluebonnets have begun waving their happy heads along the Texas Hill Country roadsides, so we're assured that spring's arrival is imminent. The calendar tells us, too, that kids will be out of school for a whole week before long. If you haven't planned your family's getaway yet, it's time to get cracking.
We've come up with a list of six picks to inspire your trip thoughts. A few invite you to hit the highway for a road trip to save a little money, but some intriguing destinations mean hopping a plane.
Don't waste time. Reservations are just a click (or phone call) away. Happy travels!
Back to nature at Texas state parks
Where to go: Two Texas state parks beg a visit this spring. Down in the southeast Texas region known as the Big Thicket, 715-acre Martin Dies Jr. State Park on B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir attracts nature fans to deeply forested waterways and hiking trails. And about 90 minutes west of Fort Worth, Possum Kingdom State Park wants you to come see that all's well, even after last summer's terrorizing fires in the area. This Palo Pinto Mountains retreat, in fact, is better than ever.
Who goes: Parents with kids ages 8 and older can have fun in the dense forest at Martin Dies, and it's a great chance to get everyone away from video games and TV. At Possum Kingdom, you can enjoy a day on the lake and an evening of watching for wildlife, such as armadillo, deer and the occasional (and not scary) skunk.
What to do: In Martin Dies State Park, four paddling trails along rivers, sloughs and the lake let you kayak and canoe in the enormously diverse ecosystem for a total of 21 miles. The park offers basic canoeing programs for novices, too. You'll want to bring hiking boots to scramble over limestone bluffs and mountain bikes for following rocky trails throughout the Brazos River Valley. A few fishing poles will be handy, too, for pulling bass, catfish and crappie from the huge Possum King Lake. The park store rents canoes, rowboats and Jet Skis, as well.
Here's the deal: Cabins, screened shelters and campsites are your choices at Martin Dies Jr. State Park, or you can find lodging in nearby towns, such as Jasper and Woodville. At Possum Kingdom, there are cabins and campsites, and you can also find lodging around the lake through the lake's chamber of commerce (www.possumkingdomlake.com). Call Martin Dies Jr. State Park at 409-384-5231; call Possum Kingdom State Park at 940-549-1803; and visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us to review all parks information.
Beach time in Galveston
Where to go: Galveston is always a favorite for the quick beach getaway. Although it's a five-hour drive from Fort Worth, it's the closest beach to home. Once you're there, however, you may find that the mix of updated Victorian architecture, a little New Orleans flavor and a lot of wide, open views of the Gulf and crashing wave serenades make the island city a tough place to leave.
Who goes: The sandy shores bring out the sand-castle architect in everyone, as beach parks and public beaches line the 32 miles of coastline. The history buff will find sightseeing enough to fill a weeklong stay, and kids have more diversions than they will know how to handle.
What to do: Newest is "Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast," a downtown Galveston destination where you will learn the myths and stories of the last buccaneers to sail the Gulf. The interactive experience lets you roam the pirate ship's deck and captain's cabin, plus you will meet the infamous Jean Lafitte and his brother, Pierre. Schlitterbahn Galveston Island remains an über-popular water park; Moody Gardens, with its Aquarium, Rainforest and Discovery pyramids keeps everyone busy for a few days; and the 19th-century-style paddle-wheeler, called the Colonel, takes you on a sightseeing cruise.
Here's the deal: All Galveston attractions are thoroughly detailed at www.galveston.com. You can search and book lodging on the website, and read a dining blog here, too. Contact the tourism office at 409-763-8676.
Family activities in Oklahoma
Where to go: Bartlesville, Okla., about 51/2 hours north of Fort Worth and north of Tulsa, comes as a big surprise to Texans who haven't bothered to learn much about their neighbor across the Red River. The blend of natural history, American-Indian culture, architectural interest and outdoors fun surprises even the jaded traveler.
Who goes: Families ready to venture into new territory will be delighted to find unexpected scenery and diversions. This trip will entertain little and big kids, alike.
What to do: Downtown's Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright's only skyscraper and a National Historic Landmark, features a cantilevered design that the architect chose to resemble a tree overlooking the Great Plains. The Price Arts Center offers "Greta Grossman Magnusson: A Car and Some Shorts," through May 6. The exhibit chronicles the career of a Swedish woman who is considered to be a trailblazer in design. Tours of the historic tower are offered, too.
Nearby, Crossroads Raceway, open since 1956, is thought to be the oldest continuously operating go-kart track in the United States. On March 21, the popular Woolaroc Animal Barn in Bartlesville opens for the season, letting you pet baby goats, donkeys, chickens, zebras and Scottish Highland cattle, and the onsite Mountain Man Camp opens March 31 to show your family what living off the land (i.e., sans electronics) was like a century ago. Kids can dip candles at Keepsake Candle Factory, too. On pretty days, make time to hike, picnic and fish 14 miles west of the city at Osage Hills State Park, built on an old Osage Indian settlement in the hilly countryside.
Here's the deal: For lodging, the Inn at Price Tower has a sophisticated selection of rooms and suites (877-424-2424; pricetower.org/innatpricetower), and Osage Hills State Park offers cabins and camping (800-654-8240; www.stateparks.com/osage_hills
Elvis and more in Memphis
Where: Spring is the most beautiful time to visit Memphis, reached by car from Fort Worth in just under eight hours and by plane in less than 90 minutes. Bloomberg Businessweek listed Memphis in the top 25 "most fun, affordable cities" last year.
Who goes: Anyone looking for plenty of inexpensive and free attractions will find more than enough to fill a good, long weekend. There's much for the music fan to enjoy, between the Elvis heritage spots and Beale Street, the latter known for its rich rhythm-and-blues tradition. And, of course, Memphis is where everyone, whatever age, gets a big kick out of watching the duck parades at the Peabody Hotel.
What to do: To visit Memphis without a tour of Graceland, Elvis Presley's legendary mansion, is unthinkable. On top of that, places of interest on Memphis' music scene include Sun Studio, Stax Music Academy, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum and the Gibson Guitar Factory. For kids studying American history, there's a wealth of it at the National Civil Rights Museum, a great place for learning about Martin Luther King Jr.
The Memphis Zoo wins you over with its pandas and polar bears, and again, the duck doings at the Peabody add to the amusement. You can easily fill several days just trying to decide which of Memphis' barbecue joints is the best.
Here's the deal: Packages at the Peabody Hotel remain among the most popular in the entire South.
The Elvis Blue Suede Package includes lodging, Graceland and other Elvis attractions admission, from $235; the Family FUNcation package includes lodging, buffet breakfast, free kid meals for those under 12, a carriage ride and kids' welcome pack, starting at $255; and the Ducky Day Family Package, which includes lodging and duck goodies and allows someone in your family to be an honorary duckmaster, leading the duck march in the morning or evening, starts at $340 (800-PEABODY; www.PeabodyMemphis.com).
For citywide lodging, touring information and planning, call 888-633-9099 or visit www.memphistravel.com.
Adventures in Santa Fe
Where: Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, offers much more than the artwork that put this place on the map. Yep, the art museums and galleries attract many travelers, but its American-Indian culture, skiing and dining bring in a wider audience than many people realize.
It is a 10-hour drive from Fort Worth, but you can fly to Santa Fe or Albuquerque (an hour from Santa Fe) in less than two hours.
Who goes: Ski lessons at Ski Santa Fe are for ages 3 and older, and snowboard packages start for ages 6 and older. The ski resort has child care for kids as young as 3 months, too. All ages can enjoy touring the American Indian pueblos near Santa Fe.
What to do: Besides the snowy action up at Ski Santa Fe, there are plentiful programs and events at the Santa Fe Children's Museum and at the Santa Fe Public Library. Various museums offer art classes and workshops for all ages, and the pueblos just north of the city offer tours and dance programs, too.
The Santa Fe Southern Railway offers the Scenic Day Train experience; you can travel in vintage cars from the historic Santa Fe Depot to the village of Lamy three days a week.
Here's the deal: Among good packages, there's Family Friendly Santa Fe Getaway at the Lodge at Santa Fe, with two nights in a suite, free meals for kids 12 and under, shuttles to the Plaza, free Wi-Fi and parking, starting at $185 (www.lodgeatsantafe.com). Look for other options at www.santafe.org, and check out the family activities at santafe.org/Visiting_Santa_Fe/Things_to_Do/Kids_Activities/index.html.
Rocky Mountain heaven in Colorado
Where: Near Winter Park, Colo., YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch is a 5,000-acre spread offering as much in winter and spring as it does in summer and fall for vacationing families. The drive to Winter Park takes almost 15 hours, or you can fly to Denver and drive about 70 miles northwest to Winter Park.
Who goes: Anyone who loves the outdoors will enjoy this part of the Rocky Mountains.
What to do: Bundle up and head out to explore freebies, such as cross-country skiing, ice skating, sledding and snow tubing. For downhill skiing, the slopes of SolVista Basin, Mary Jane and Winter Park resorts are nearby and offer good lift-ticket packages and lessons.
Indoors at Snow Mountain Ranch, there's a pool with a waterslide, rock-climbing wall, roller rink, basketball and volleyball courts, a craft and design center for leatherwork, mosaics, painting and ceramics. For simple relaxation, curl up by a fireplace with a good book.
Here's the deal: YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch offers lodge rooms that sleep up to six for $79-$149. Cabins, some sleeping up to 10, start at about $240 (800-777-9622; www.ymcarockies.org). For skiing details, visit www.winterparkresort.com.