Even before I became a parent, I knew how terrible traveling with toddlers could be. “It stops being a vacation and becomes a trip,” a friend said after returning from her first big family getaway. Browsing through social media I found many versions of the same story: “It looked idyllic, but we were actually miserable.”
It was not until our most recent trip that my wife and I cracked the code of enjoyable travel with a toddler: a beach without waves.
The realization came while sitting in the warm shallow waters off Holbox Island, just north of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. As I watched my daughter splash around it hit me that this was both exhilarating for her and relaxing for me, a rare combination. The novelty of the situation was keeping her fully engaged far longer than her 2-year-old attention span typically allowed. Simultaneously, the wave-free shallowness — in any direction, as far as you could throw a Frisbee, the water barely reached her waist — freed me from the worry I’d felt at other beaches. It was as low-anxiety as a baby pool, but rather than tuning out children fighting over water blasters, I was immersed in 83-degree water, enjoying the view.
Upon return, I wondered where else we could find similarly placid waters. The key, I learned, is finding beaches where waves lose momentum before reaching shore. Waves, which are created by wind, grow larger in uninterrupted expanses of ocean, but if there is a harbor wall, reef or a sliver of land around a cove, the waves are forced to break there, explained Bob Guza, an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
Shallowness, in turn, is often related to wave size. Small waves will not carry away sand as effectively as big waves will, said Kevin B. Johnson, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s Department of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences.
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Below are suggestions for beaches in the Caribbean, Central America and Hawaii, all with warm, shallow, largely wave-free waters.
(Parents, please note: Though these shallow spots will likely build children’s confidence, it’s worth remembering that drowning can occur in deceptively safe water.)
Taylor Bay Beach and Sapodilla Bay Beach, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
The beaches of Turks and Caicos are relatively calm thanks to a huge barrier reef system, which impedes waves’ momentum before they reach shore.
For those seeking the sensation of wading through a massive, shallow bath tub, Deanayris Arredondo, the manager of Unique Tours and Rentals, a company based on the island of Providenciales, recommends Taylor Bay Beach. At low tide, you can walk out a half mile before it reaches your knees, and often, even at other times of day. “I’m 5’4” and it takes maybe 10 minutes to get to my waist,” she said.
Nearby Sapodilla Bay Beach is similarly shallow, she said.
Average air temperature in January: 82 degrees
Average water temperature in January: 78 degrees
Getting there: Fly into Providenciales International Airport, then drive 15 minutes.
Anini Beach on Kauai
Hawaii has many gorgeous beaches, but few are placid. Anini Beach in Kauai, which is protected from waves by a long stretch of barrier reef, is an exception.
“The water sort of laps up like it would for a large lake,” said Marcie Cheung, who runs the site Hawaii Travel with Kids. Other benefits, she said, include the opportunity to gawk at kite surfers. There are a handful of rentals directly on the beach, and one hotel (and still more rentals) within a 20-minute walk.
Average air temperature in January: 80 degrees
Average water temperature in January: 76 degrees
Getting there: Fly into Lihue Airport, then drive 50 minutes.
Baby Beach and Mangel Halto, Aruba
Walk straight out from the half-moon-shaped Baby Beach and the turquoise water will barely reach your ankles, even after several minutes. Keep going and it will take 20 minutes before the water hits your waist, according to Chantel Peña, a sales representative for AGW Tours & Services, a company based in Aruba.
Average air temperature in January: 86 degrees
Average water temperature in January: 79 degrees
Getting there: Fly into Queen Beatrix International Airport, then drive 30 minutes to Baby Beach or 10 minutes to Mangel Halto.
Manuel Antonio Beach and Playa Conchal, Costa Rica
To reach Manuel Antonio National Park’s namesake beach you must buy tickets in advance or hire a guide, advised Geri Hinkle, a travel agent based in New York City. But the complications are worth it because of the calm waters, breathtaking views, monkeys, sloths and other animals she said.
If you crave easy, you might prefer Playa Conchal. Sergio Villalobos, a travel consultant with Costa Rican Vacations recommended the beach because of its glass-like visibility. There’s an all-inclusive resort and quite a few vacation rentals and hotels within walking distance.
Average air temperature in January: 89 degrees at Manuel Antonio; 90 degrees at Playa Conchal
Average water temperature in January: 84 degrees at Manuel Antonio; 82 degrees at Playa Conchal
Getting to Manuel Antonio: Fly to Juan Santamaria International Airport, then drive three hours or take a 30-minute flight to Quepos La Managua Airport.
Getting to Playa Conchal: Fly to Guanacaste Airport, then drive about an hour or fly to Juan Santamaria International Airport, take a 45-minute flight to Tamarindo Airport and drive 30 minutes.
Placencia and South Water Caye, Belize
Belize has the second-largest coral reef system in the world, which keeps large waves from nearing the shore. Placencia offers both relatively calm beaches and a fishing village that tends to charm visitors. If you’re willing to journey farther, the water is even calmer closer to the barrier reef, said Leif Sverre, one of the directors of Island Expeditions, a Belize-focused tour company based in British Columbia. He recommended South Water Caye, where the water is so clear you can see colorful fish from the dock.
Average air temperature in January: 82 degrees at Placencia; 80 degrees at South Water Caye
Average water temperature in January: 80 degrees
Getting to Placencia: Fly into Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport then drive three hours or take a 25-minute flight to Placencia Airport.
Getting to South Water Caye: Fly into Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, then take a private shuttle two hours to Dangriga or take a 15-minute flight to Dangriga Airport. From Dangriga, it’s a 30-minute boat ride to the island.
Tahiti Beach in Elbow Cay and Ten Bay Beach in Eleuthera, Bahamas
The Bahamas, an archipelago consisting of around 700 islands, is a superb destination for children because of the shallow waters, said Patrick Bennett, a co-founder of Uncommon Caribbean, a travel site that focuses on off-the-beaten-track locations.
Ten Bay Beach, which is brimming with sand dollars and shallow at low tide, also emerged on the suggestion list provided by Bébé Voyage, an online community for traveling families.
Average air temperature in January: 77 degrees
Average water temperature in January: 76 degrees
Getting to Tahiti Beach: Fly into Leonard M. Thompson International Airport, then take a 15-minute taxi ride and a 20-minute ferry ride to Elbow Cay island.
Getting to Ten Bay Beach: Fly into North Eleuthera Airport, then drive 75 minutes.
Flamenco Beach, Culebra, Puerto Rico
Among Puerto Rico’s many beaches, Flamenco Beach is one of the calmest, according to a representative of Discover Puerto Rico, the official tourism site. Helpfully, Flamenco also has lifeguards.
Average air temperature in January: 83 degrees
Average water temperature in January: 80 degrees
Getting to Culebra: Fly into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, then either take a 35-minute flight to Benjamín Rivera Noriega Airport, or take a 1-hour taxi ride to Ceiba and a 45-minute ferry ride.
Holbox Island and Bacalar, Mexico
There is a saying that Holbox Island, a slice of land roughly twice the length of Manhattan, is just a big sandbank, said Diego Diaz, a guide for Kayak Holbox and Travel, a tour company based on the island. In many spots, you can walk 10 minutes out from the beach without having the water reach your knees. Walking out from other beaches, the water may rise to your waist only to drop again once you reach a sandbar.
Nadia Henry, the owner of Travel with Sparkle, an agency specializing in family travel, also recommends Bacalar, a placid freshwater lagoon that stretches for about 26 miles.
Average air temperature in January: 80 degrees on Holbox Island; 81 degrees in Bacalar
Average water temperature in January: 76 degrees on Holbox Island; 79 degrees in Bacalar
Getting to Holbox Island from Cancun International Airport: Take a three-hour shuttle and a 20-minute ferry ride or take a 35 minute flight to Holbox Aerodrome.
Getting to Bacalar from Cancun International Airport: Drive four hours or fly to Chetumal International Airport and drive 45-minutes.
A note on temperatures: AccuWeather, a forecasting company, provided air temperatures, which refer to the average high at the nearest reporting station. Water-temperature estimates come from SeaTemperature.info, a water-conditions site, and tourism authorities.
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