Closer-to-home trips can be more out-there than you expected.
You expect the exotic in Morocco or Southeast Asia. But you don’t need to trigger a case of jet lag to have vacation that’s as fun and revelatory as a junket to Machu Picchu or Myanmar. The United States and Canada can serve up plenty of un-vanilla experiences. This year in particular—as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th Anniversary and travelers look to get their thrills in a few fewer days—North American Tours are on a record number of radar screens. And if you think you know everything to expect, think again!
Plenty of people go to Bryce, Grand Canyon and Zion for the geology. Slot canyons so narrow you can touch both sides at once. Chasms so deep that you need binoculars to see the bottom. And then there’s Walhalla Plateau where the ruins left by ancient puebloan people were already 350 years old the Incas were building cities in the Andes. This is our own land’s history, awesome and mysterious unlike anything you’ve ever seen without showing your passport.
Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is plenty exotic (glacier walks, tide-pooling, walking on the Iditarod Trail). But for a pure I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing moment, we vote for the watch icebergs bob on a glacier-fed lake way above sea level. Marooned up there at higher altitude, they’ll never collide with one of those giant cruise ships that blast past the coast. It’s a magical, unexpected place—and one you can enjoy at leisure with a picnic on the lakeshore.
You think Québec is going to be one thing, and instead it’s crazy/glorious mash-up. The city is 16th Century France, right down to the
cobblestones. It’s Saguenay Fjord. (Wait—an honest-to-goodness fjord on the U.S. border? Oh, yes.) Mix in the highest mountains east of the Rockies plus the birthplace of Cirque du Soleil and an elk herd or two. Québec is a combination you’ve never seen before, and that’s a recipe for a brag-worthy vacation.
Strolling under the Spanish moss in Charleston and Savannah, the architectural frills and extreme gentility are just as you imagined. But there’s a
parallel culture, deep but dwindling, out on coastal islands like St. Helena. The Gullah, descendants of slaves, clustered there and 300-year-old ethnic
strains of Africa still run through daily life and the local creole language known as Geechee. In a country that feels more homogenous every day, it’s a revelation to step back to a time when every community was an intensely rooted in faraway places.
Daytime is very fine in Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks. But it’s the night that will really open your eyes. Jasper is in the world’s largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve. Light pollution is nearly non-existent. So find a spot where you can stretch out on your
back and just look up. The Milky Way is milky white. The constellations are vivid. Focus for a couple of minutes and you can make out satellites moving across the glittery background. Finally, it makes sense why the ancients who saw this display every night worshiped the skies.
Lobstermen and giant tides and being ogled by a whale. All are noble reasons to get yourself off to Nova Scotia. Within in a mile or so either side of the Atlantic shore, you can have an amazing time. The Mi’kmaq natives, though, had other ideas that will surprise you. Nova Scotia has an inland too where whisper-quiet forests and mirror-smooth lakes replace the coastal roar. In a canoe, gliding under a wide sky, you see a side of the province that most tourists never even imagine.
In Napa and Sonoma, as in just about every grape-growing region on earth, the soil and climate the vines love is equally hospitable to olive trees. Gnarled, silver-leafed, low-to-the-ground, the yield fruit too hard and bitter for a martini—but just right for oil. Go tasting with an expert and you find that the vocabulary is match for wine: eucalyptus, melon, almond, grassy, buttery, peppery and on and on. You sniff, you slurp, you savor and—unlike a classic wine taster—you’re even encouraged to swallow.
Glacier Park’s amazing Highline Trail runs through a wildflower meadow. Amid the larkspur and forget-me-nots, our favorite is the Indian Paintbrush. In-and-out park visitors are prone to taking pictures of “the pretty red flowers.” With a naturalist, though, you learn that the Ojibwe turned it into shampoo and that because it has no branches it can only be pollinated by hovering insects. Its name comes from the legend of a young brave who received paintbrushes from the Great Spirit in order to paint the sunset. His discarded brushes sprouted to become these blossoms. And you thought they were just pretty flowers.