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Best family-friendly vacation spots to visit in the fall

Plan an autumn vacation that puts spooky Halloween fun and a kaleidoscope of fall colors on your itinerary. | By Joanna Tweedy | September 24, 2021

When summer hands the seasonal baton over to the fall, vacations take on a different hue. A trip to seek out the annual explosion of autumn shades — as nature’s green cloak is shrugged off in favor of fiery reds, mellow yellows and deep chestnuts — is a wonderful way for families to make memories. Halloween, at October’s end, adds to the vacation fun. Get ready for:

  • Spooky sites: From Salem’s witch trials to infamous haunted drives, these destinations are not for the timid

  • Leaf-peeping: See the best of Mother Nature by taking your family on a hike, including to a volcano in Australia

  • Vineyards and castles: Enjoy a glass of wine while your kids run through the colorful vineyards in France

Orlando, Florida

The Floridian sun may still be high and hot come the final third of the year, often reaching into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (around 26 degrees Celsius), but Orlando still embraces the fall with vigor. There are pumpkin patches, autumn mazes and Halloween spectacles on offer across the city for families.

Craft fair

Don’t miss the annual Mount Dora Craft Fair; it’s a 30-minute drive northwest of Orlando but is so quaint it feels like you’ve landed in a different time. Children can try their hands at old-fashioned crafts in the Kids Zone, including making their own wooden wands.

The theme parks dress up in style for Halloween and the city’s scary drive-thru attractions are not to be missed - The Haunted Road (15239 Lake Pickett Rd.) being a locals’ favorite; this one might just be for the older kids, though. Find pumpkin patches — including striking Tiger Stripes, Jumbo Jacks and Heirloom varieties — apple donuts and delicious s’mores, plus more seasonal fun at Southern Hills Farm (16651 Schofield Rd.) in nearby Clermont.


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New Forest, UK

A two-hour drive south of London into Hampshire county lands you in one of the UK’s most beautiful national parks. The New Forest, which spans 193,000 acres and eventually runs into the English South Coast, is flooded with color during the fall. Feeling the crunch of leaves underfoot on an autumnal walk — there are 193 miles of trails — is the nicest way for families to immerse themselves in this area.

The woodland trails at Bolderwood, close to the pretty, central town of Lyndhurst, are graded from easy (ideal even for toddlers) to more challenging, with all of them highlighting the changing leaves of the forest’s soaring beech and oak trees. The tiny village of Burley is a year-round light-hearted shrine to witchcraft. A witch named Sybil Leek set up home here in the 1950s, sparking its long association with sorcery. It is a fun pit-stop for kids, with souvenir shops selling hats and broomsticks and the Burley Fudge Shop (2 The Mall) serving up creamy squares of sugar candy. Don’t miss a homemade scone (and a cup of Earl Grey) at the chintzy Old Farmhouse tea rooms on Ringwood Road, either.

Vancouver, Canada

Base yourself in Vancouver, on Canada’s West Coast, as both the city and its wider environs don’t disappoint when it comes to dazzling displays of fall color.

Stanley Park

Head to central Stanley Park, where Mother Nature brandishes her seasonal paintbrush and turns foliage in this vast urban green space crimson, copper and gold.

Take children to the seawall for the boldest pops of color for a family picnic; it might be a bit chilly, so dress in layers. The historical Sylvia Hotel (1154 Gilford St.) is worth a look too; the exterior is clad in a blanket of Virginia creeper that becomes a vertical carpet of red in October. For older kids seeking a more physical day, hike Vancouver’s Grouse Grind up 2,800 feet (about 853 meters) to the top of Grouse Mountain for arguably the city’s best fall panoramic. Hungry? The stalls at Granville Island, Vancouver's famous food market (a 30-minute walk from downtown), brim with seasonal and Halloween-themed treats, including pumpkin ales, witch-hat biscuits and jars of delicious apple butter.

Kyoto, Japan

A blazing vision of scarlet maple trees from mid-October until mid-December, Kyoto’s long fall season rivals the springtime cherry blossom season for beautiful scenery. While Japan might seem daunting for family travelers, it’s actually a great vacation destination for those traveling with children. Welcoming locals, serene landscapes, the eye-catching neon of central Kyoto and a country-wide love of Manga (Japanese animation) can all add up to an exhilarating trip. Find some of the strongest color at Tofuku-ji Temple (15 Chome-778 Honmachi) in Kyoto’s center and around Arashiyama Mountain, just west of the city. There’s a Japanese history lesson on offer in October too; children can see major periods in the country’s history represented during the vibrant Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages) parade. The two-hour procession, which takes place on October 22 every year, has tot-friendly times too — it’s all over by 2:30 p.m.

Chicago

Some of the most enthralling leaf-peeping for families staying in the Windy City can be found in Chicago’s 385-acre Botanic Garden, where trees glow with color and fall flowers, including sunflowers and chrysanthemums. Lincoln Park Zoo rolls out the autumnal carpet, too, with its annual Fall Fest. Kids can dart around corn mazes, watch pro pumpkin-carving sessions and meet the zoo’s famous residents.

Apple Fest

Apple Fest, in the Chicago neighborhoods of Lincoln Square and Ravenswood, has been entertaining locals and tourists for more than 30 years with its seasonal fun.

And the Leland Avenue Kids Zone has family yoga, storytelling and magicians, but the just-harvested apples — made into cider, pies and cotton candy — are the biggest draw.

Loire Valley, France

How does a real-life fairytale castle tour sound? Historical chateaux dominate the pastoral landscape in the Loire Valley, in France’s rural center, and look even more enchanting in the fall. You can find captivating seasonal colors in the easterly wine-making region of Sancerre. Famous for its vin blanc, the vineyards surrounding the smattering of chateaux are yellow, amber and chocolate in October. For the best vista, take to the water; the Loire River is the country’s longest waterway and a child-friendly canoe tour offers wonderful leaf-peeping opportunities. You can even paddle under the arches of 16th-century masterpiece Château de Chenonceau (37150 Chenonceaux), one of France’s most regal fortresses. There are events in many of the castles, with Château Rivau, near the commune of Chinon, being the pick of the bunch for mini-travelers. The annual Fall Flower Festival takes place in late October and includes pumpkin-carving for children, with a spooky Halloween event also on offer at the month’s end.

Douro, Portugal

The spectacular Douro winelands region, about 90 minutes east of Porto, runs all the way to Spain, with the river of the same name carving a path through the valley. Families with older children can hire a fleet of e-bikes and cruise through tiny villages and wine estates at leisure, enjoying golden landscapes and big, blue skies; the temperature is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degree Celsius) in October. Budding young photographers will have plenty of gorgeous fall scenery to snap away at, too. Many of the vineyards go the extra mile to entertain little ones, and even allow parents to sample the fruits of their lands. Quinta do Pôpa is particularly great for kids, as it offers arts and crafts for children, and so is the huge garden at Quinta da Pacheca. Halloween (known as Dia das bruxas) is increasingly popular across Portugal, so look out for local events in the region’s tiny villages. And seek out a slice of Pudim de Abóbora, a delicious pumpkin pudding that is a northern Portuguese specialty.

Oregon

If you’re seeking a laid-back road trip that puts Halloween fun and gorgeous scenery on the same ticket, then pack up the car and head to Oregon. Start inland in St Helens, on the Columbia River. The city transforms into “Halloweentown” every October and ticketed attractions (book in advance!) include Whisper in the Woods and Haunted House. An hour south, Willamette National Forest offers spectacular chances for leaf-peeping.

McKenzie River

The blue of the McKenzie River gloriously contrasts with the lightly bronzing Douglas firs surrounding it, and waterfalls add to the majestic scenery. A Junior Forest Ranger program lets children learn more about animals they’ve spotted, too.

The weather can be chilly, averaging 57 degrees Fahrenheit (around 14 degrees Celsius) in October, so bring warm clothing. Squeeze in some cinematic Halloween heritage, too. The quirky town of Astoria, on the Oregon coast, was the backdrop for cult 1985 movie "The Goonies." Self-guided driving tours will take you past the main sights of the movie.

Melbourne, Australia

The Southern Hemisphere reverses the seasons and serves up fall colors in March, April and May. Temperatures are mild — around the mid-70s Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) — and there are numerous nature-themed experiences for kids in Melbourne. Pack a picnic to the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens in Sherbrooke and find a spot by the lake to soak up a cascade of color from beeches and maples. Plot an adventure to Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens in Daylesford, about 90 minutes northeast of Melbourne by car. Kids will love that this golden foliage sits atop an extinct volcano and you can drive or walk around it. For a gorgeous view, take them up to the Pioneer’s Lookout Tower to marvel at the landscapes below.

Boston

When it comes to Halloween, Boston’s rich and spooky history is a perfect fall destination for families. Head to Concord and wander around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a guided evening lantern tour that lets you spy the resting places of some impressive names, including William Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Salem, a 40-minute drive north of Boston, is famous thanks to its 1692 witch trials. It is a town that is hard to beat if you’re looking for scary fun with some genuine history. The whole month of October is dedicated to the family-friendly Halloween festival Haunted Happenings, and features shows, parades and fireworks. If leaf-peeping is high on your youngsters’ vacation list, then Boston itself is awash with stunning color. Japanese maple trees in the city’s Public Garden are ruby red in October, and the city’s famous central Boston Common is home to 700 mighty oak, beech, chestnut, maple and elm trees, all of which are on full display in the fall.

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Joanna Tweedy is an award-winning travel writer and editor who lives in London.

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