Just got back from two weeks on the East Coast, where we visited friends and family in Maine and Massachusetts. We tried a new style of traveling, borrowed from our friends The Wests, from Bonny Doon, who have three kids. Basically, you get on the road and see where it takes you. They’ve dubbed this style “adventurecation.” Why not?
For the first week, we stayed with Kia’s extended family in Martha’s Vineyard. We had dinner on a schooner. BBQ’s and beach parties. Ate lobster. Ran into Jake Gyllenhaal at the deli. Good times!
But week 2 of our vacation, we had no plan at all. We had talked about visiting some friends who had recently moved to Maine, and had some really vague ideas about what else we might do (like maybe visit Acadia National Park). For a planner like me, the prospect was nerve-wracking. No plan, no itinerary? I had visions of driving around dark towns late at night, and settling for a crappy, overpriced hotel room.
The actual experience was the opposite of my fears. We discovered and explored some great places, and (when we weren’t guests of friends or family) stayed in fantastic hotels, inns, and resorts, at prices that were extremely reasonable.
Here’s how we did it:
The Six Principles of Adventurecation
1. Embrace the fear.
I tried to back out of our adventurecation at the last minute, but Kia convinced me to give it at least two days. Planning is good for achieving a lot in a small amount of time, but it’s not necessarily a good idea for spontaneous fun-having and relaxation. It was hard for me to get out of my “productivity and planning” mindset, but as soon as I committed to the idea it got easier. We were on the road with no plan, taking it minute by minute, and we were going to end up somewhere.
2. Stop where it looks nice. Or interesting. Or both.
If you are driving with a five-year-old, expect a request to stop about every twenty minutes. We pulled off the highway for a bathroom stop, and ended up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a historic seaport. What a cool place. We ended up spending the night and exploring the next day. Strawbery Banke is a historic outdoor museum, a living history experiments where you can watch (and participate in) traditional crafts, such as pottery, loom weaving, barrel making, and so on. There’s a general store that replicates the look of an 1800’s store (including products), and a schoolroom with materials from every era.
Another find was the Norumbega Inn in Camden, Maine. As soon as we saw the place we all agreed we should “stay in the castle.” They were undergoing some renovations, and it wasn’t clear from their website if they had availability that night. So we stopped by and asked. Sue, who co-owns the place, greeted warmly and patiently showed us almost every bedroom in the vast house. We stayed, and her partner/co-owner Phil cooked breakfast for us and our friends the next morning. If you ever get a chance to eat breakfast cooked by a past chef instructor from the Culinary Institute of America, do not pass up the chance.
It’s the kind of thing that’s fun to stumble upon and explore. If I’d been planning a trip I might have either missed this place, or not chosen it as a destination.
3. Don’t book the hotel until you see the room.
This requires nerve, at least for me. I like to know where I’m going to be spending the night. But Kia once again led the way. We resisted clicking the “Book hotel” button on the smartphone and instead just drove to the place we’d been considering, parked, and walked into the lobby. “Just be friendly and we’ll see what happens,” said Kia.
So here’s the thing. If you walk into a reasonably nice hotel without a reservation (and they have vacancies), it’s an entirely different experience than pre-booking. If you’ve already committed, the hotel staff want to process your credit card and get you into your room (whatever is available) quickly and efficiently.
But if you’re shopping for a hotel room, you get the sales pitch. The staff will happily show you various rooms that are available, and probably offer you a rate that matches what you saw on your discount hotel booking website. After all, if you book directly through them, they don’t have to pay the commission to the booking site.
Obvious, right? It took me 20 years to learn this.
The nicest thing about this is that if the room doesn’t match the pretty pictures on the website, you can just go to the next place. No cancellation fee!
Obviously this won’t work if you’re in Seattle for the Dungeons & Dragons convention, and every last hotel room is booked. Which brings me to my next point …
4. Avoid the crowds.
Why would you go on vacation at the exact same time, to the exact same place, as everyone else? For a big event that you’ve been planning to attend for months, it makes sense. But for adventurecationing, it doesn’t work. Avoid the crowds. Avoid peak season in any particular place.
We learned this the hard way being on Martha’s Vineyard on the 4th of July. The main roads in all the towns were clogged solid with idling cars the whole time. We ended up avoiding most of the mess by walking and taking the bus, but the traffic was still a hassle.
On the other hand, our timing was good when we rolled into Kennebunkport and decided to stay for a few days at the Nanontum Resort. For whatever reason the town wasn’t too crowded. I felt a little weird, as a liberal, vacationing in the same town that the Bush family is known to vacation in (like I was somehow betraying my values). But it’s a beautiful town, and the people are friendly, and the only Bush I saw was a cardboard cutout in a storefront window. I wonder if Republicans feel the same way when they visit the Bay Area.
Sometimes you gotta be somewhere and do a particular thing at a particular time. But that’s not the point of adventurecationing. Avoid the crowds, follow the road, see where it goes …
5. Be extra polite
For me, one of the main reasons to go on vacation is to less structured, relaxed time with my family, and enjoy each other’s company. But traveling is sometimes stressful, and at other times boring, and sometimes both. The comforts of home are far away, and the “getting there” part of traveling (planes, trains, automobiles) can be a drag. So it’s easy to get snippy with your traveling companions at times. Which leads to anti-fun.
Our strategy was to elevate the intra-family politeness levels to maximum. Some extra pleases and thankyous go a long way (and more importantly, cutting your family members some slack and helping them out if they are having a low point). We took the same approach to everyone we encountered; we tried to be good houseguests, and strike up conversations with strangers (which is hard for me personally, but I’m getting better at), and just generally be nice.
Result: no big fights, no major tantrums, happy family times, good memories.
6. Save on the big stuff, splurge on the small stuff
You might mistake us for a rich family, staying in all these fancy places. But most of the trip we stayed with Kia’s family, who welcomed us in both Martha’s Vineyard and Williamstown, MA, in the Berkshires.
The other vacation option this summer was to visit my dad and his wife, who live in France. But the international flights were just too steep … we were looking at $5K+ just to get the three of us there and back.
So we chose a trip we could afford, and upscaled some of our lodging purchases. The price difference between a roadside motel and a nice resort (or castle) turned out to only be about $50, but the experience was completely different. The low point of our trip was the one room we didn’t ask to see (it wasn’t terrible, but it was cramped, and smelled like stale cigarette smoke even though it was a “non-smoking” room).
The nicer lodging purchases were mitigated by accumulated points on our Venture VISA. I really like the rewards system on this card — the interface allows you to “erase” previously purchased travel. The algorithm to identify what constitutes a “travel” purchase is good; all transportation (car rental, bus, ferry, etc.) and hotel purchases show up in the list. There’s no special program that the provider you purchased from needs to participate in — if it’s travel, you can erase it. We used about two years of accumulated points and “erased” approximately $1000 of purchases. If you don’t carry a balance on the card, and you travel occasionally, this works out to about a negative 2% interest rate.
Not including food (since we were saving money not buying expensive Bay Area groceries the whole time), the trip cost about $2K, of which $1K we “erased” (we used Southwest miles for the Oakland-Boston flights, so that doesn’t include flights).
Some Final Thoughts
What’s the “point” of going on vacation? Sometimes, when I’m dealing with the stress of packing, wrapping up work stuff, and dealing with everything you have to deal with, the point eludes me. But at the same time, some of my best memories and most formative life experiences have been centered around traveling. So I know it’s worth it.
For myself, I’ve come to realize that going on vacation is about mind expansion. Getting out of my routine, see new things, meeting new people, seeing how other people live — all these things contribute to new neuronal connections.
I do like to do something productive when I travel; on this trip I worked everyday for an hour or two on a larger writing project I’m in the midst of. Having a little structure allowed me to relax into the less structured adventurecation mode, but it wasn’t a full-on workation. Instead, I got to try the lifestyle of a wandering, non-workaholic writer on for size.
I liked it.
Have you ever just gotten on the road to see where it takes you? How did it work out?