Taking the Kids: Meeting the locals in the Bahamas and elsewhere
Forget the souvenir T-shirt.

If your family is visiting the Bahamas, make sure the kids take home a shiny pink conch shell (you can buy them for a few dollars everywhere), suggests 12-year-old Jenna Williams, who lives in the outer Bahamian Abaco Islands (http://www.bahamas.com/islands/abaco). Get a locally made straw basket or hat with their names on it too, she adds.

Kids shouldn't go home without trying conch fritters (the meat of conch is plentiful and very popular here, used in everything from chowder to fried fritters to salads) adds Mackennlee Ferguson, 8. "It's really fun to live here," she said.

That's because there's so much to do, especially at the beach, local Bahamian kids say. "Go snorkeling and fishing," suggests 14-year-old Joshua Wong, who like most Bahamian kids spends most of the time he's not in school at the beach.

"And don't be afraid of the fish," said his younger brother Gabriel, 11.

Wherever you go this summer, encourage your kids to chat up local kids, join a pick-up soccer game in a city park or play in a playground or on the beach. They'll go home with an entirely different perspective. I met these Bahamian kids at the Abaco Beach Resort (http://www.abacobeachresort.com) where they've signed on to be Bahamas Buddies in a new program designed to help visiting kids get to know local kids through supervised beach and cultural activities. I wish more resorts had such programs. "It's fun to meet people from other places," said Jenna Williams.

Resort spokesman Jules McCafferty says the idea is for young visitors to go home with a sense of the culture and customs of the Bahamas, and maybe a new friend, as well as a tan, especially this summer as the Bahamas celebrates the 40th anniversary of Independence.

The resort charges visiting parents $30 for the three-hour supervised program -- far less than many organized kids' club resort programs.

But kids aren't the only ones who get to meet the locals. The Bahamas People-to-People Program (http://www.bahamas.com/people-to-people) pairs your family with locals of similar interests who might take them to church on Grand Bahamas Island, for a run in Nassau, on a boat ride in the Exumas or to dinner at their home. There is no charge. Think of this opportunity, if you are planning a cruise that stops in Nassau.

"Family is central to Bahamian life," said Romeo Farrington, a longtime Nassau VIP guide and businessman. "We want families who visit to become part of our family. Too many visitors come, check into a resort, get off their cruise ship for a few hours to shop and leave without really seeing the Bahamas," he said.

There are some 500 volunteer ambassadors across the Bahamas Islands, all of whom have been carefully screened. You might meet your guide in Nassau or when visiting the Outer Islands. There's even the opportunity to attend a tea party at Government House in Nassau, hosted by the governor general's wife on the last Friday of most months.

You'd be surprised how many places around the world offer such volunteer tour programs led by locals. You can Meet the People in Jamaica and in New York City (http://www.bigapplegreeter.org/). Big Apple Greeter was started in the early '90s by New Yorker Lynn Brooks who discovered in her own travels that people seemed afraid to visit New York. They'd tell her they thought it was too big, too scary. If only they could connect with New Yorkers, she thought, that would alleviate all of those fears. (In NYC, there are about 300 volunteer greeters, and Big Apple Greeter meets about 7,000 visitors per year on about 2,800 visits per year.) AAA Travel projects 40.8 million Americans will travel during the holiday weekend, down slightly from last year.

Today, you can tour with a local who speaks your language everywhere from Melbourne, Australia to Shanghai, China to Switzerland to Spain, France and England. Paris Greeters offers tours in more than 10 languages, showing 5,300 visitors the City of Light just last year. (Link to the different programs from http://www.globalgreeternetwork.info.) Typically, you sign up online at least several weeks in advance and gear your tour to your family's interests or the ages of your kids.

(Here's what I wrote about my Big Apple experience in New York.)

In the Abaco Islands we were treated to a home-cooked Bahamian meal. "I want visitors to see beyond the typical tourist experience," explained Matthew Taylor, a taxi driver who, with his wife Kenya, son Kyro, 13, and daughter Malaysia, 7, hosted us when I was touring the Outer Islands recently as part of a project with Ava Thompson, the Bahamas chief family officer. (Yes, they have one!)

These visits often inspire lasting friendships, Thompson observed as we dug into freshly caught fish, coleslaw, baked macaroni and cheese and peas and rice. Taylor's aunt had provided a home-baked coconut tart for dessert.

The Taylor kids weren't the least bit shy about talking to strangers -- they've done this drill before -- about their schools, (Kyro wishes they didn't have to wear uniforms), food (they love the community fish fries that everyone attends and their mom's conch salad) and even the mail (they can't believe Americans get mail delivered directly to their homes.)

In New York, you might focus on architecture; in Paris food, in Jamaica music. You might be able to meet up with someone who does the same job you do.

Maybe you'll trade recipes or learn to cook a local dish. "In the Bahamas, everyone always ends up in the kitchen," Romeo Farrington joked.

"What I love about the visits is that they are exactly what I'd love if I were traveling in another country," one young Big Apple Greeter in her 20s told me. "Guided tours and museums are great, but I'd much prefer to hang out with a local for a day."

Me too.

(If you are still making summer vacation plans, check out the Taking the Kids Very Best Family Summer Vacation Ideas. Connect with Eileen @TakingtheKids and like the Facebook page.)