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At the end of each summer, Michele Guay Sullivan, 63, packs her car and drives the eight hours from her home in Virginia to Ocracoke Island, a small, undeveloped island in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. There, she will meet up with 30 members of her family, from her nieces to grandchildren, for one to two weeks of fun in the sun.
This is her annual family vacation, which her family has attended for almost 50 years.
The first time Sullivan went to the island, she was 14 and tagged along with her older sister and brother-in-law, who were going on a fishing trip, as a babysitter for her niece. (Her now-adult niece brings her own teenage children to Okracoke now.) Since then, Sullivan and her family go to the island every August.
With about 13 miles of unspoiled beach and a quaint village at the end of the isle, Ocracoke Island remains pristine. The charming spot is accessible only by boat or plane, so the family drives and rides one of the ferries to get to their rental home.
"Our lives are becoming so busy that it is sometimes hard to get away to facilitate and foster those relationships," said Mary Beth DeWitt, chief of child psychology at Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio. "Travel and vacations in some ways protect that time to share new adventures, strengthen our bonds and increase well-being."
Families are the foundation for relationship-building and social-emotional growth in children, DeWitt said. Having that time regularly carved out to support those building blocks within families bleeds into other facets of life, such as marital satisfaction, better self-esteem for children and better stress management, she said.
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At Ocracoke, Sullivan and her family live a simple life. They wake up and have breakfast together at the house. Then they pack up sandwiches and their gear and head to the beach, aiming to be there by late morning. They "stay out all day long," she said, playing in the water, walking around, collecting seashells. At night they return to the house to either cook dinner or go out to eat before ending the night with leisurely activities such as putting together puzzles.
As Sullivan can attest, going together as a family provides a special opportunity for connection. No matter the type of activities or destination, family vacations offer time for family to engage with one another and create fond memories to look back on as they grow older.
'This is who we are'
To take that even further, going to the same destination creates a family ritual that can improve many facets of family life, from marital satisfaction to health and wellness for children, DeWitt said.
It also helps a family come up with their own identity as a clan. Researchers confirm that such rituals help families "convey 'This is who we are' as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations."
Ocracoke place holds a special place in Sullivan's – and the rest of her family's – heart. "All of us have grown and changed there," she said.
"It's a very circle-of-life moment when you realize you're giving beach-driving lessons to the teenage son of the toddler you used to build sand castles with. Our family continues to expand, to grow and change."
Her son, now an adult, takes time on his own to visit Ocracoke Island multiple times a year, sometimes just for the weekend – his love for the place instilled by his family and the many memories made at the very special destination.
She said she knows the next generations of her family will continue to visit the island for years to come, even when she is no longer able to.
A similar sentiment has fueled Emily Hines' own annual vacation planning. Each year since 2020, she, her husband, Ryan, and infant daughter, Fern, pack their bags and fly more than 4,000 miles from Michigan to Maui – a place that holds a lot of meaning for the couple.
Now in their early 30s, Hines and her husband lived on Maui for a few years as freshly graduated 20-somethings. They returned to the mainland when the 2008 recession made it "harder to make ends meet." To Hines, her time on Maui was transformative – it was the first time she lived alone as an adult, and "it gave me a lot of confidence and perspective on the world around me." She made it a goal to integrate that love for the island into their daughter's life.
So far, the young family has made the long plane ride thrice, and they have no plans to stop their new tradition in the future.
This past May, Hines and her family stayed on Maui for three weeks as "part-vacation for our family of three and part-family reunion with family members we have in the island." Because Hines works remotely as a travel writer and her husband is a college professor, she said, the family has the privilege to take long trips in the summertime.
'Make some memories'
People reap many benefits from going on vacation, such as reduced stress levels and becoming more present.
"Just getting away from your day-to-day routine can help you get out of your head, have some fun, and make some memories," Hines said.
At the same time, DeWitt reminds families that it isn't a fancy destination or hotel that are crucial to family bonding; it's how families spend time together. "The quality time is important, not necessarily a lavish vacation."
"Small activities to stay engaged, such as outings to the park, family game nights, regular conversations about their days, also contribute to relationship building and sets the foundation for social-emotional development, confidence and resilience," she said.
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While Hines and her family spend time enjoying Maui's beaches – Hines said Fern loves to look for turtles and shells and play in the water – they also go on hikes. This past May, they went to Iao Valley with some of their family members and let the kids play in the natural pools and rivers. They also explored Upcountry, relaxing at local breweries and checking out farms.
"This trip was awesome because there was no precedent to do any of the tourist things," Hines said. "We just wanted to enjoy a beach trip together and rediscover the island we fell in love with many years ago and introduce our daughter to its magic.
"I think it's especially cool to do (these trips) with kids because once they start going to school, we don't really see them that often. My daughter just started going to preschool, and it's great to have her in a program with peers every day, but I love spending time with her, too. Outside of our home life, summer and other breaks are the only chances we get to really hang out with them."
Does your family frequent a destination? Why or why not?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family vacations: Why these travelers visit the same place every year