Transformative Staycations: Finding Respite and Adventure Close to Home
May 29, 2020 09:30AM
By April Thompson
Staycations—sticking close to home for new travel experiences—was a growing trend even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned it into a practical necessity for many of us. Staycations reduce costs, minimize travel time and also lower our carbon footprint by eliminating international travel. Happily, they don’t reduce the pure pleasure of finding new adventures, exploring untrammeled nature, seeing the familiar with fresh eyes and meeting people from all walks of life. All of that is close at hand, and especially when compared to foreign jaunts, the price is right.
A good place to start is by checking out state and regional parks, often overlooked gems offering scenic miles of trails for hiking, biking, birding, fishing, picnicking and other activities. “Whether mountains, prairies, rivers, forests in the country or heart of the city, there is always a state park waiting to welcome you, no matter what kind of recreation you enjoy,” says Jason Clay, spokesperson with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In Colorado parks, people can, for example, river raft in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area; boat, fish and hammock camp in Jackson Lake State Park; and rock climb in Eldorado Canyon.
Parks can be discovered and trail maps downloaded by visiting TrailLink, run by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. It provides searches for nearby trails using parameters such as distance, types of activity and wheelchair accessibility. Its smartphone TrailLink app is free to download and $30 per year for unlimited customized use.
State, local and regional parks across the country offer rich educational opportunities for kids and adults alike, including naturalist-guided activities, bird and botany walks, lessons in local history, ecology and geography, and more. Several states offer free admission to all state-run parks, including Hawaii, Tennessee and Illinois. State-by-state listings of fees and policies can be found at TripSavvy.
Making a Quick Getaway
Weekend forays into natural and rustic settings can be ideal escape valves for people needing a simple, quick change of venue. Camping, of course, is always an option, but for those that want to be in nature in a more comfy fashion, using “cabin” as a search word works well in websites like Airbnb.com and TripAdvisor.com. The option of glamping—or glamorous camping—offers surprisingly luxurious stays outdoors in tents, pods and domes.
Getaway offers woodsy outposts in 10 locations equipped with “tiny house” cabins around the country designed for quick escapes from cities. “If you were at your desk in need of an escape, you could cut out early and be there by 6 p.m.,” says Vice President of Marketing Rachel Mansfield. The private experience, with no check-in desk or communal areas, enables it to continue operating safely during the pandemic. The cabins, designed to blend in with their natural surroundings, are equipped with food for purchase, stove, books, radio, firewood, fire pit and Adirondack chairs, as well as a map for local hikes and adventures.
“I did a getaway at a point in my life where I wanted some time alone, away from commitments, to figure out what my next chapter in life was going to be,” says Paige Conner Totaro, of Alexandria, Virginia, the founder of Unquote Travel, a web-based tour agency focusing on small group, off-the-beaten-track adventures. “You can change your environment without going very far, and that in turn can change the way you think about things. Little things like sleeping on the other side of the bed can help you shake up your brain.”
Local-led excursions are another way to see our home turf through a new lens. Airbnb Experiences, offered virtually everywhere that Airbnb lists lodging, are one-of-a-kind tours and classes designed and hosted by locals with unique expertise. Experiences run the gamut from neighborhood tours on foot or bikes with athletes to museum tours led by local artists or art historians. Many include a hands-on learning component, like how to make mosaics in a community art space or cook a local delicacy from a family recipe. Similar tours and experiences can be found on TripAdvisor’s Things To Do listings. Withlocals, whose mission is “to break down the barriers between travelers and locals worldwide,” also offers foodie fun and off-beat adventures.
Kelly Kniewel stumbled onto tour guiding after experiencing burnout in her previous career in the beverage industry. An Airbnb Experiences host, Kniewel now leads small group tours of Chicago, introducing locals and visitors alike to many of its little-known facets. “I’ve fallen in love with my city all over again doing these tours,” says Kniewel, a self-proclaimed history geek.
She loves to take guests inside Art Deco and Beaux Arts buildings they may have passed before without realizing the gorgeous art and architecture that exists inside, such as the library-turned-cultural center, Chicago Cultural Center, boasting two impressive glass domes, one designed by Tiffany Glass. Another favorite excursion is taking guests on a water taxi tour. “It’s a cheap and unique way to see Chicago. The water, both the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, is so much a part of who we are as a city.”
During the limitations imposed during the COVID-19 period, Airbnb and other websites began offering experiences online, allowing people from all over the world to connect and make pastries with a Swedish baker, draw with a Mexican cartoonist, learn about apartheid from a South African or experience a day in the life of an American Olympic bobsledder.
Traveling the World Without Leaving Home
Hosting travelers can bring new meaning to a staycation, offering a rich opportunity for cross-cultural exchange without any exchange of currency. The popular CouchSurfing.com connects travelers with locals offering free use of a couch, air mattress or spare bedroom. Available in more than 200,000 cities worldwide, it has 14 million members and sponsors local language exchanges, dance classes, hikes and dinners, so there are opportunities to make new friends and have new experiences even without offering a place to sleep. (During COVID-19 restrictions, these activities were moved online.)
Similar organizations that offer opportunities for local hosting (including low- or no-cost lodging) include Servas International, established in 1949, which stresses world peace and cultural exchange, and pre-interviews potential guests and hosts to ensure safety; GlobalFreeloaders.com, a free registry for hosts and guests that do their own online screening and matching; and Evergreen Club, in which hosts provide a bed-and-breakfast homestay for travelers over age 50 for $20 a night. An exciting option for homeowners is HomeExchange, a $150-a-year service that allows people in far-flung places to switch homes, either directly or through a staggered point system so they can truly live like locals.
John Fackenthal, of Rockville, Maryland, has hosted more than 100 couchsurfers from 29 countries, and loved every experience. “I had a big apartment in the heart of Washington, D.C., when I first started hosting, but lived alone and felt a little isolated. I wanted to bring back the youth hostel feel from travels in my younger days, where you’d hang out with fellow travelers and go hiking, share a meal or play cards,” he says.
A web developer, he recalls such memorable guests as a carpenter in his 60s from the Pacific Northwest that helped him with fixer-upper projects, a pair of pro volleyball players from the Czech Republic and two young women from China that prepared him a massive traditional Chinese feast “with all four burners going,” he says.
“It’s restored my faith in humanity. I’ve encountered nothing but wonderful people, all with such different personalities and backgrounds.”
Be a Weekend Farmer
Agrotourism, in which working farms open the barn doors to visitors for day or overnight trips, has the added advantage of supporting local agriculture. Agritourism World and Farm Stay USA provide listings for farm stays worldwide searchable by type, such as Christmas tree farm, vineyard, orchard, dude ranch or alpaca farm.
The 40-acre Taos Goji Farm and Eco-Lodge Retreat, in Taos, New Mexico, is one such venue. “My husband and I returned to the land nine years ago after many years working as professionals in stuffy offices. The farm has been developed for our family and others who wish to be close to nature and to live off of the land,” says co-owner Elizabeth vom Dorp.
The farm is open for paid guests, as well as to the volunteers known as “Wwoofers” that come through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms to help raise goji berries, fruits, vegetables and free-range chickens. All cabins date from the early 1900s, including an old dairy barn converted into a duplex and five sheep herder cabins. The farm is surrounded by a national forest, so many guests visit to enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, rafting and ballooning. “Families with children love to come and pick berries, collect eggs and pet the animals. We have rescue alpacas, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys,” says vom Dorp.
While the world may still be at the mercy of unfortunate circumstances this summer, travel is ultimately a state of mind. By staying open, curious and present, there are always new encounters and discoveries underfoot very close to home.