Embracing tourist traps on family trips

L, panning for gems.

L, panning for gems.

As a native New Yorker, I like to consider myself a pretty discerning human being. I can smell a poseur from a mile away. I know when food isn’t fresh. And when it comes to vacation destinations, I’m usually the first in a crowd to call, “tourist-trap,” when such a distinction is warranted.

One might think that traveling with L and R has softened me a bit on this last point, but, in reality, the opposite has happened: Lest I expose them to something cheesy, I’m more of a skeptic than ever before.

For this reason, when we travel, we end up rejecting group/tour options and doing a lot on our own.

With this in mind, you can only imagine the conundrum I faced during our recent trip to Lake Tahoe, when the girls spotted an advertisement for a (totally contrived) gem-panning attraction and insisted we go. This is the very sort of thing from which I strive to protect the kids. Yet from their perspective, it involved gems, which meant it was non-negotiable. We simply had to go.

So we did. And they got their bags of dirt. And we walked up some stairs to a makeshift aqueduct, where we also found “pans” to sift the dirt. So the girls sifted. And they found gems. Dozens and dozens (and dozens) of gems. And they squealed with happiness. A lot.

At first, I was miserable. Sure, I pretended to be excited for their behalf, but inside, I silently screamed, “I CANNOT BELIEVE WE ARE ACTUALLY SPENDING OUR VACATION DOING THIS.”

After the fourth piece of squeal-inducing quartz, however, it hit me: The kids were having lots of fun.

Then, a miraculous phenomenon occurred: I started having fun, too. I found myself breathing heavily as I tried to unearth a shark tooth from wet sand in the pan. L showed me a sparkly green gem and I legitimately was impressed. R decided to name one of her agate crystals, “Princess Purpleflower,” and I laughed so hard I cried.

The four of us panned for gems for nearly an hour, and we could have done it for three. At one point, I looked up to see about six other people watching us, smirking. I didn’t care.

On the drive home from Tahoe, I asked L to rank her favorite parts of the trip and gem-panning held strong in her top three (star-gazing also was on the list). To be completely honest, I’d put the panning in my top three, too. And I’m not even ashamed to admit that here.

No, I’m not encouraging everybody to accept entire vacations full of shlock.

I am, however, arguing that, especially on family trips, it’s perfectly acceptable to suspend disbelief every once in a while. As Elsa sings in Frozen, let it go.

Remember, just because you think some place is a tourist trap doesn’t mean your kids will. Everything you encounter on a family trip is new to them—even places that are totally contrived. Once you fight your own skepticism about these experiences, once you see the place through their eyes, you might actually enjoy yourself. I know I did. And if it means finding another quartz crystal named Purpleflower, I’m open to trying again.

2 replies
  1. Garrick Ramirez
    Garrick Ramirez says:

    I can totally appreciate this. I’ve always thought kids make the best tourists thru their wonder and unspoiled earnestness. My 4 year-old son has gotten me to appreciate aspects of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk again. And yes, their enthusiasm is often contagious. Plus, a tourist trap *usually* has — or had — some genuine feature that made it a shared interest before being stripped of its soul. And sometimes remnants of that feature still remain. Although digging for gems still seems a little rough and probably good fodder for a Louis CK bit. : )

    • Matt Villano
      Matt Villano says:

      Garrick: Thanks for commenting. What were some of those aspects of Fisherman’s Wharf and the SC Boardwalk that you rediscovered? It’s humbling and amazing to have these little people inspire us to rethink the way we approach the world, right? Please keep reading!


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