Summer vacation season is officially upon us, so here are some of the fabulous experiences we’ve had while traveling (in no particular order). Tell us yours in the comments!
El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico
After my wife finished grad school, she and I took a spontaneous trip to Puerto Rico. We didn’t do an all-inclusive-type package, so we just rented a car and winged it. Jessica and I saw all kinds of awesome things during our trip: Old San Juan, El Morro Fort, and the many beautiful beaches (even if we did end up getting lost and eating at a stupid Sizzler at one point). One of the highlights was the El Yunque National Rain Forest. After hiking for a few miles, we came upon a waterfall and little pool of water, which was almost so perfect to swim in that it bordered on the “island-paradise” cliché.—JK
Zip Lining Through The Rainforest Canopy In Antigua
Aboard the Carnival Freedom in 2010, my family and I chose a zip lining adventure excursion. I’d already zip lined a couple times in college, so it didn’t scare me, but my mother has a thing with heights and spent the whole trek through the trees twitching and freaking out that she’d be one of those who clutched the brake too soon and got stuck suspended 300 feet in the air while waiting for one of the guides to retrieve her. She made it through fine, but her fear was half the fun of the whole thing. (Does that make me a mean person?) It was a great time, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to bring cameras, so this one is courtesy of antiguarainforest.com.—DT
Kidani Village Disney World In Orlando, Florida
My wife loves all thing Disney, so Walt Disney World was the natural choice for our honeymoon last October. We started our stay at the Saratoga Springs resort, which is nice enough, but spent the last half of our vacation at Kidani Village villas in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. It was awesome. Even being a bit dubious about zoos, it was pretty amazing to wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and look out the window to see a giraffe or zebra hanging out just 20 feet away.—JK
Swimming With Dolphins In Hawaii
Hawaii has become a total “paradise” cliché, but when my family and I spent two weeks on the Kona coast of the Big Island in 2008, it was truly nothing short of paradise. We knew at one point that we would want to swim with dolphins, championed as a truly unforgettable experience. Even before viewing The Cove documentary, I was opposed to captivity, particularly of marine mammals. So we stumbled across SeaQuest, which offered a snorkeling excursion that brought us to a secluded cove where wild dolphins rest in the morning. We had pods of up to 25 spinner dolphins swimming mere feet below us (fuzzy underwater camera photo above). I’m not exaggerating when I say it was life-changing. I wrote an essay about it for my creative nonfiction class in college and even tried to get it published in Hawaii Magazine. You can read it here.—DT
Discovery Cove, SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida
As hesitant as I am to include this one, after seeing the documentary Blackfish and learning about the horrors of SeaWorld, it really was a pretty amazing experience. We swam with a dolphin named “Dash” and got to hang out for most of the day in these cool little coves they have throughout the park, swimming with rays and other tropical sea creatures. It seems kind of exploitative in hindsight (Blackfish ruined SeaWorld forever for me), but it was a unique experience.—JK
Whitewater Rafting Through Class V+ Rapids In WV
I did a lot of crazy things in college (most of which were the result of reaching the bottom of yet another bottle of Captain Morgan rum), but the craziest by far were done with the same group of people throughout our four years as members of LHU’s Outing Club. The name is a little vague and we often thought about trying to get it changed, but basically it meant we went camping a lot. And swimming. And climbing. I joined the club on a whim my freshman year because some spots opened up on a West Virginia whitewater rafting trip and my roommate convinced me to inject some adventure into my life. I had such a blast that I officially joined up and never looked back. I even became an officer down the line. I forged some really sweet friendships sitting around a campfire and had so many invigorating first-time experiences with those people, like zip lining off mountains, crawling through muddy caves, and hiking high above the Susquehanna River which flowed right past our campus.
The one trip that always stands out was our third trip down the Gauley River in the fall of 2008 in my junior year. (You’ll find my little face between the second letter ‘A’ and the ‘L’ in the photo to the right. Woo!) Each rafting trip was done right after a dam release, so the rapids were insane. The third year was the most intense and the first time I ever experienced the sheer terror of being flung into a boulder (Pillow Rock), raft upended, flying down the river in nothing but my lifejacket at breakneck speed. My safety training flew right out of my head and I went halfway down the river before remembering how to pop myself above the surface. When I finally reached calmer water and was pulled into another raft, I was shaking and panting and afraid to keep going lest it happen again. It was what some might call a near-death experience, but I’d never felt more alive. Pretty soon, I was laughing—and paddling—and even though it did happen again (twice more, in fact), it stands out as one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life.—DT
New Jersey Shore
This is kind of a cop-out, but some of my best vacations were with friends and family in Seaside Heights or Wildwood, New Jersey. Just hanging out on the boardwalk, eating fries and other junk food, visiting all the T-shirt and cheap souvenir shops made for some of my favorite memories from when I was a kid. I’ve also included the dorkiest photo of me imaginable from when I was 10 or 11 at Seaside Heights (I’m on the right, my friend Tom is on the left).—JK
Swimming With Stingrays In The Cayman Islands
While aboard the Carnival Legend in 2007 with my family, one of the shore excursions we chose was to visit the infamous Stingray City on Grand Cayman. You take a boat out to a shallow sandbar and are able to swim and snorkel with these gentle giants. Here’s where it gets a little less-than-fun for people who are easily creeped out: The rays are as big as dinner tables and are so accustomed to meeting new people on this sandbar that they glide right up looking for snacks. It’s a truly beautiful location with crystal clear water, but it was a little too deep for us, because the rays were able to slither all the way up our backs. Knee-deep? Sure. Waist-deep? Ehhh. And forget snorkeling. I put my face in the water once and whipped it right back out. The rays were soft and squishy and slimy (and super friendly!) and while some people may find this enjoyable, my sister and I couldn’t contain our shrieking and wound up back on the boat after 10 minutes—which is why we don’t have any photos [this one’s from Google]. I’d still recommend it because those 10 minutes were an unforgettable experience and one of our favorite stories to tell.—DT
Monticello In Charlottesville, Virginia
I geek out about history, among many other things, so visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia and getting a curated tour just about made my brain explode. My family and I stayed in nearby Staunton—which is a really cool little town with a great music festival and the best used bookstores—and traveled to Charlottesville to check out the historic sites. Just getting to see the place that one of the preeminent founders of the country designed and called home was pretty amazing. One of the more poignant and disturbing things was seeing Jefferson’s slave quarters, which were basically cages in his basement, and slave cemetery. They are important reminders that not everything in our history is noble or pretty.—JK
Parasailing In Lake George, NY
I like to think I’ve been a thrill-seeker for most of my life. I’m not sure when it started, but in the realm of adrenaline rushes, I haven’t been afraid of much. The first big moment that I can look back on and say, “wow, I really did that” was our final summer vacationing in Lake George, New York. I have so many fond memories of my summers spent there. We were always there the same week, as were most of the surrounding families in our resort and by the time 2000 rolled around, we’d amassed quite a rowdy group of kids with whom to play tag, build sandcastles, and tell scary stories around the fire while gooey s’mores gave us sticky fingers and happy mouths. There was one family who had been there from the beginning and we became great friends with them. To celebrate our final summer together, we were given a whirlwind day of surprises. Whitewater rafting (my first time and so much tamer than my college days—the rapids were maybe class II at most) followed by ice cream for lunch and an on-the-spot decision to try parasailing.
I was 12 years old at the time (my sister was only six!) and I hesitated for only a fraction of a second before giving my hooks to the guides, sitting in the harness like a swing, and clutching the ropes as “3-2-1” we were released and went soaring into the air high above the lake. My friend and I were hitched to the same sail and it was a great first-time experience to share together. We commented on how the lake looked like a sheet of glass and how beautiful the view was. I quickly screamed back to the boat “This is awesome!” before we were too far to be heard. (My dad has that on video.) By the time we circled back to the boat, I was loving it. You can even see me leaning back in classic “relaxed” pose in the photo above, like the cocky pre-teen I was. Just yet another amazing experience I can attribute to my generous parents and lucky childhood.—DT