The wonder years

Every corner of the globe, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Great Wall, is a classroom. Julietta Jameson selects 25 places, from a new book, that to visit have the potential to transform a child's life.

When Cath Pirret and her husband Iain took their daughters Jessie, 10, and Holly, 7, to Britain earlier this year, it was a trip that was all about family and showing the girls where their parents grew up. But there were also some key sightseeing opportunities, such as Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall and Tate Modern, before heading to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.

So, what did the couple from Melbourne hope their girls would derive from the trip? "A greater understanding of who they, and we, are - maturity, wonder, the sense that travel is not a difficult thing to do; an adventure," Cath says. "[Some of the highlights were] seeing how well they handled being in other countries, meeting new people and adapting to lots of different situations. They travel better than some adults I know.

"Holly didn't realise that there was a 1st century and that the world was so old. She thought it started at the 16th century. Jessie says she learnt how to deal with new situations quickly."

But Cath believes that children, in order to truly benefit from travel, need to be old enough to understand and appreciate the experience. Sydney-based ABC Radio broadcaster and film critic C.J. Johnson travelled a lot with his parents as a child. His father was "really into rivers" and decided he was going to make it the "family mission" to see the "seven great rivers of the world".

"Since we were a tiny family of three this was possible, but it didn't fully happen," Johnson says. "However, we made a great fist of it, managing to take in the Yangtze, Nile, Amazon and Loire by the time I left home … One day I will introduce my child, should I have one, to rivers."

There's no doubt, thanks to a more affluent society and the greater ease and access to all forms of travel, that few - if any - generations of parents and children have ever had the ability to journey together as far, as wide and as deep as the present one. "Travel is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child," says Tracey Spicer, Traveller on Sunday's family travel writer. "It brings history to life, builds their independence and opens their minds. A child's perspective also helps adults to see the world through new eyes. When we were driving towards the Grand Canyon, [my] then-five-year-old Grace said, 'Look, the earth has cracked open!'."

For Keith Bellows, the award-winning editor-in-chief of the American National Geographic Traveler magazine who is based in Washington, DC, the world is simply "the greatest classroom we have". He's convinced, like Spicer, that any parent willing and financially able to give the gift of travel offers a gift that keeps on giving. "Children who learn to travel will travel to learn," he says. "And they will do it all their lives."

With that in mind, Bellows, a father of three, wrote a book,

100 Places that Can Change Your Child's Life (National Geographic, $29.95) available through Random House. Here are some of his favourite places from around the world that can change a kid's life (and perhaps a parent's, too).




A full-on video game

Tokyo, the world's largest city, has - at 35 million souls - more people than all of Canada. It's a full-on video game that no child can resist, especially if they are gaijin, or foreigners. Experience Ice Cream City, where dozens of stands sell more than 300 flavours, from soy chicken and orchid root to sea-island salt and eel; the world's third largest subway (13 lines, 269 stations); and the neon smear of flickering, pin-wheeling tangerine, red, yellow and purple signs stacked to the heavens.


One great piece of art

It's the small scenes, the little moments that give this city its artistry. Help connect your children with its luminosity before you go. Introduce them to some paintings of the greats who lived and worked here. This gives them the makings of an art scavenger hunt they can pursue when there.


The tower that captivates

Because it mixes past and present-day life, the most compelling attraction for kids in London is the brooding Tower of London, redolent of history and rich with stories of ghosts, beheadings, torture and murder.



A dream place

Visit Pompeii, check out Naples' aquarium, have sublime pizza, then take the two-hour drive down the Amalfi coast to Positano. Go down to Positano's beach then point your kids to the legion of artists painting outdoors. Take a 40-minute boat ride to the island of Capri, where kids can discover the joys of walking in a place with no cars.


A more genuine Thailand

The capital of ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai remains the cultural epicentre of northern Thailand, famed for its 300 temples, wandering elephants, sprawling markets and hill tribes. Visit 600-year-old Wat Chedi Luang, which once housed the emerald Buddha and where kids can meet monks.


Sleep in a real castle

What stirred the imagination of people 200 years ago is exactly what fascinates kids today: romantic castles perched on rocky outcrops above the river, reminders of an age when Europe was all about knights on majestic steeds.



Bounty of beauty

Encompassing 180,000 square kilometres and five national parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Waterton Lakes and Yoho), start with a feature interesting to any kid: ice. At the amazing Columbia Icefield, the glaciers are made from sky-blue ice that is doubly appealing to kids because it is left over from the last Ice Age.


The ultimate safari experience

Some call the Serengeti the world's last great wilderness. This vast expanse of grassland savannah is chock-full of wildlife big (elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions) and small (bat-eared foxes, porcupines and birds). Today, the chance for children to see such a full and healthy natural ecosystem is rare.



Place of light and water

"What's the big deal about Venice?" your children may well ask you. In the words of Charles Dickens: "Nothing in the world that you have ever heard of Venice, is equal to the magnificent and stupendous reality … The gorgeous and wonderful reality of Venice is beyond the fancy of the wildest dreamer."


History comes alive

The Parthenon alone is worth the trip. The shimmering white structure is one of 20 atop or attached to the sides of the Acropolis, including two open-air theatres, a flashback to ancient times. And don't miss the Hellenic Children's Museum ( in the Plaka on the north side of the Acropolis, a maze of narrow streets that was the Turkish quarter.


Where history lives

Jerusalem was founded more than 3000 years ago and is a holy city for Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The historical heart of the capital of Israel is the ancient Old City, where you and your children can connect with the ancients by leaving a message in the Western Wall.



Barcelona's great folly

Many artists brought alive the cities in which they lived through their genius but no one has had as great an influence on a place as the incomparable Antoni Gaudi. Kids love Gaudi's flamboyant, colourful, over-the-top style.


Monument to love

A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj is the icon of India. Let children take their own photos and be drawn to the symmetry of the building.


Legacy of an ancient time

The Great Wall impresses everyone who sees it for the first time, children included. With more than 6500 kilometres to explore, there are hundreds of places where you can visit the wall. Sites near Beijing offer the easiest access.



The glory of looking down

One of the best ways to experience this World Heritage site (perhaps before it's too late) is to get right in the water. Advanced swimmers can take scuba-diving lessons and kids aged 12 and over can earn a junior licence. Younger children can still get up close with Nemo and friends by snorkelling.


Like no place on Earth

Nearly twice the size of Australia, Antarctica is a rarity of eye-arresting snowscapes, plentiful aquatic life, strangely contorted ice and monster blue icebergs. A highlight is a visit to a penguin colony, some of which may have 10,000 nesting pairs.


Ancient people and land

More than 10,000 years ago, creator beings -people, plants and animals - travelled the land and built the world as we know it today. This time of creation - alcheringa, or Dreamtime - is the foundation of Australian Aboriginal society and kids visiting Uluru can delve into the art, history and culture of this ancient people.



Europe's free spirit

Since the meltdown of the Iron Curtain, the German capital has evolved into Europe's most exciting "new" city - new in the sense that the bleak, brooding and broken city that emerged from World War II is a slick, immense (nine times bigger than Paris), urbane place indeed.


Castles, kilts and ghosts

Few cities in the world have such a dramatic, iconic silhouette - church spires and the lofty, brooding, ancient Edinburgh Castle. It seems more fantasy than real (Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling calls Edinburgh home). Children will find the castle's menacing profile and dark history irresistible.


Asia's melting pot

Nowhere else can a child experience a city so exuberantly complex in such a geographically tiny package as Hong Kong. Fiercely cosmopolitan, addicted to change, this hyperactive city encompasses villages and bustling urbanity, looming mountain ranges and ribbons of coastline.



Where magic surrounds you

Located 3500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, Easter Island is one of the most remote places on the planet. There, statues stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a stone ahu (altar). These moai, as they are called, have their backs to a surging ocean. Created by a culture that thrived here thousands of years ago, they are just the start of what children can discover.


Nature close up

There's no more wondrous place on Earth for families to amuse (and educate) themselves than this Ecuadorean island group. Kids come face-to-face with creatures in the wild, while their parents see firsthand that their offspring, who might go slack-eyed when deprived of their electronics at home, are perfectly eager to walk for kilometres over baking lava to stand transfixed by a gnarly looking iguana or a scuttling Sally Lightfoot crab.


Forged by fire

Kilauea's fire-red lava drizzling down the side of the volcano and sizzling into the ocean conjures up images of a mammoth wizard's boiling cauldron or a sci-fi planet shaped out of mysterious goo. The mystical and magical forces at work on the Big Island's lush 13,000-hectare Hawaii Volcanoes National Park extend far beyond two of the world's most active volcanoes - Kilauea and Mauna Loa - but it is the volcanic wonders that mesmerise kids.



A real dinosaur adventure

Dinosaur Provincial Park - a UNESCO World Heritage site - is the final resting place of countless dinosaurs. Today, what remains of the dinosaurs - most impressive to the kids are the bones - lies scattered naturally throughout the preserved areas of the park for kids to discover.


Deep in the souks

Start your journey in the main square of Jemaa el-Fna, the centre of the mediaeval medina. Here kids will see the monkey man, cobra charmers, acrobats, storytellers, henna vendors and henna-haired artists. It's a great chance to discuss cultural differences with your child.


• Buy a world globe for your child's room. Encourage them to imagine what life is like in each country. 
• Whenever a destination is mentioned on television, Google the country's name to discover interesting and quirky facts to share. 
• Always sensitise your child to cultural differences. This will lead to greater social awareness as an adult.
• Encourage your child to take (small, measured) risks, whether exploring at home or abroad. Ask them to lead the way. 
• Compare and contrast topography, geography and political and social systems between the country you are visiting and Australia. Tracey Spicer


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About the writer

Julietta Jameson would rather be in Rome but her home town, Melbourne, is a happy compromise. A gypsy at heart, she loves hotels, train stations, airports, road trips and inspiring others to love them, too.