Saying you love travel is a lot like saying you love beaches. Sunsets. Puppies. Puppies on beaches at sunset. Most of us love to clock out, ditch the humdrum, breathe foreign air and sleep in a room where we don’t have to make the bed. But looking back, how many of those trips got a place of honor in the knick-knack shelf of your memory? How many can you point to and say, “After that, everything changed”?
I spent nearly three years as an expat in Asia and married a traveler who became an expat himself, so there was a better-than-fair chance that our kids would have wanderlust embedded in their DNA. But after the second one came along, our travel schedule was dialed down to simmer; I just couldn’t take working a toddler or two through jet lag for a week in shared hotel rooms, because somewhere around the twentieth joyful pre-dawn “hi Mommy!”, I would begin to quietly weep with exhaustion.
But our youngest turned five this summer and, with that momentous birthday, we decided it was time to take a jaunt to the motherland and introduce the kids to their Czech relatives and heritage. We had a tight plan—plenty of stopovers for time-zone acclimation, visits to friends and family and time in Prague to explore fairytale castles and eat at a restaurant-turned-train display where they brought your drinks by model train. It felt fool-proof.
During our stopovers it poured rain; parts of Europe flooded. The train restaurant couldn’t seat us until we were cross-eyed with hunger. The mass transit, while mind-blowing for the boys, represented a death trap at every turn as they leaned over on the edges of subway platforms or walked across tram tracks. Trains were delayed; the Ambien ran dangerously low.
But at last we made our way to Igor’s home town, to the family cottage in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. There, we turned our focus to hanging out with friends and family who also had children, and in that slower country pace, we watched our boys figure out that this was part of who they were. They didn’t see a screen for 10 days and didn’t ask. They found that every Pensione or restaurant we stopped at had a place to play or a sandbox or a cage full of baby rabbits, strategically placed so that parents could tuck in to a plate of schnitzel and a beer. They began speaking pidgeon Czech with anyone who’d listen and roamed around with their new friends and cousins doing the loud-talking-point routine of the nonnative speaker, and made themselves friends. When it was time to leave, our oldest cried.
We came home shredded, my husband and I (that’s what a layover in Las Vegas after a 12-hour international flight will do to you), but we felt triumphant. Everything had changed. We talked about spending more time abroad, about the relatives coming for visits, about language lessons. And our kids came back slightly different little people.
Vacations are like pizza—most are pretty good, and some are just delicious. But really good travel can leave a transcendent feeling of greater meaning or purpose. Getting gone in a big way can be about values, and it can be transformative. That’s what we celebrate in this issue’s “Change-Your-Life Travel” feature. Whether you’re ready to go or just starting to plan, use this list as an inspiration to find the game-changing destinations right in our own backyard.
And when it’s time to pack? Ditch the plans and the to-do list. You’ll be just fine.