The Loooooooooong Vacation
Published: May 2009
By Christine Pittel
What do you do when you crave more togetherness with your kids, want to see the world, and
are feeling flush?You put your family's routine on hold and take off— for six months,
a year, maybe even a new way of life. Meet three families who did just that
America, How Are Ya?
Who The Herman/King family Home Base Brunswick, Maine Long Vacation A six-month cross-country drive in an RV, January 2003–June 2003 Trip Web Site
After two terms as governor of Maine, with a schedule that flipped from one 20-minute appointment
to the next, Angus King needed to decompress and reconnect with his family. And so, the very
morning after his successor was sworn in, he was on the road with his wife, Mary Herman, and
their children Ben, 12, and Molly, 9. Imagine someone who'd just spent eight years being driven
around suddenly finding himself behind the wheel of a 40-foot Newmar Dutch Star RV, with his
wife's Honda minivan hitched behind. "It was like driving an IMAX theater," says Angus,
who was happy when he finally hit the interstate and no longer had to negotiate turns.
The plan was to circle the whole country for about six months, heading south along the East
Coast and then traveling west— visiting friends, family, and assorted parks. "We just
marked what we wanted to see on a map and strung it all together," says Mary, who, as tour
director, quickly learned to silence her inner schoolmarm. Obligatory stops (such as the Alamo)
were offset by pure fun (sandboarding near New Mexico's White Sands National Monument). When
both kids balked at keeping a journal, neither parent insisted, though Angus diligently posted
updates on www.wheresmolly.com, his own record of the journey.
They drove in five- or six-hour jumps and stayed put in places that snagged them, such as
Texas's Big Bend National Park . "It's got everything," Angus says. "Spectacular canyons,
mountains, desert, hiking, hot springs—it's a microcosm of the West." With no pressure
to get to any particular place at any particular time, Angus quit shaving, rarely took off
his cowboy hat, and stopped worrying about shearing off the top of the RV—once he discovered
the Professional Drivers North American Road Atlas, which lists the height
of every overpass. "The most wonderful sight was an eighteen-wheeler coming toward me, because
wherever he'd been, I could go." Satellite radio eliminated the annoyance of stations fading
in and out. The family listened to 1930's serials like The Shadow, and Ben got into
Both kids had jobs: Ben hooked up the water and sewer lines at each RV park, and Molly unhitched
the minivan. Mornings on the highway, the kids tackled the packets their teachers had assembled
for them. "Roadschooling," of course, took place everywhere. At Yellowstone, where they
had to brake for buffalo, Molly earned her 12th Junior Ranger badge. Ben, on the alert after
a visit to Mount St. Helens, took a look at Old Faithful and said, "Hey, Dad, this place could
blow any time!"
Heading east in the homestretch, Angus reluctantly put the RV up for sale on RVSearch.com.
Fifteen thousand miles and 34 states after beginning their journey, they pulled into their
own driveway. The kids rejoined friends for the last days of school, and Molly stood in front
of her third-grade class recounting trip highlights (such as the time her father's horse stopped
suddenly in Canyon de Chelly—but her father didn't).
Angus, now beardless, teaching at Bowdoin College, and affiliated with a law firm, acknowledges,
"There are always fifty reasons you can't take a trip like this," but recommends ignoring
them. "An old man once said to me, 'When you get to be my age, you're going to have regrets.
See that you regret the things you did, not the things you didn't.' "
Our Top Stops
The International UFO Museum, in Roswell, New Mexico This is the spot where in 1947
a rancher reported finding alien spacecraft debris. On display is a world map with colored
lights representing UFO sightings —most of them in the U.S. Either the aliens like us
or we're the most suggestible people on earth.
The Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota It's essentially an auditorium covered
on the outside with corn. Red corn, yellow corn, brown corn, stalks, cobs, kernels—you
name it. The façade looks like a corn-by-numbers painting. Mesa Verde National Park,
in Colorado The Native American cliff dwellings are more than a thousand years old. You can
climb in and still see the soot from their fires.
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana A tiny town that's home to Café Des Amis, famous for
its rollicking zydeco brunch. We stayed at Catfish Heaven, which has to be the only combination
RV park and catfish farm in the country.
Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona This is the ancestral home of the Navajo, and the Anasazi
before them. Most people take jeep or van tours, but we went on horseback. The pace and rhythm
of the horses is just so right here—except when you fall off, as I did. —ANGUS
Who The Burton Carpenter family and entourage Home Base Stowe, Vermont Long
Vacation Snowboarding (and surfing) on six continents, July 2003–April 2004
Anybody who knows snowboarding knows Burton boards, and you
can bet that if Jake Burton Carpenter sells it, he's ridden
it. The man aims for 100 on-mountain days a
year—he keeps a running tally—and even
after nearly three decades in the business, nothing grabs
his attention faster than a foot of fresh powder. Unless
it's the perfect wave. In July 2003, he and his wife,
Donna, and their sons, George, Taylor, and Timmy (13, 9,
and 6), along with a niece (Victoria, 15), a babysitter,
and two friends (who would also function as tutors for the
kids), left Vermont for a 10-month trip dedicated to
snowboarding and surfing on six continents. "We're saving
Antarctica for next year," says Donna.
Originally, Jake had simply wanted to spend a few months on the slopes in New Zealand. It
was Donna, an equally avid rider, who asked : "Why don't we take more time and go around the
world?" She planned the trip with Blue Charm Expeditions, an outfitter that specializes in
global itineraries. "We knew we wanted to snowboard in Argentina and Chile. I had always wanted
to see Machu Picchu. And the Blue Charm people recommended the Galápagos Islands."
That's where Jake got funny looks when he brought his surf bag on the nature cruise." The
captain was very cool; he dropped me near a good spot, and I paddled into the lineup—of
sea lions," he says. "Every wave, two or three of them bodysurfed alongside me, and eventually
they started chewing on my leash and towing me backward."
In Christchurch, New Zealand, where they settled for six weeks, their rental house overlooked
four surf breaks and was a short drive to the mountains. "You could snowboard, surf, and skateboard
all in one day!" says Taylor, who, like his brothers, seems to have been born to ride. Wherever
the group landed, sports were their entrée. (Having Burton employees all over—and,
as always, a bit of business to take care of—also helped.) "Even in the most exotic
places, we all felt right at home as soon as we strapped on our boards," says Jake. In Hokkaido,
Japan, they slurped soba noodles between runs, and as they surfed in Danang, Vietnam, an elephant
Accommodations were deliberately varied. After roughing it at the Blue Lagoon, four thatched
huts on the otherwise uninhabited island of Foeata in the South Pacific, the family was ensconced
in the tallest hotel in the world, the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, which occupies the 53rd to 87th
floors of the Jin Mao Tower. The trip was so well planned that Donna literally had a spreadsheet
for each day. The kids fit in homework in the morning or at night, working through the curriculum
their public schools had provided. Though they visited the Taj Mahal and went on safari in
Tanzania, there was never more than a week between riding sessions—whether in Morocco's
Atlas Mountains or Val d'Isère in the Alps, where Jake and Donna tested Burton's 2005
line and the whole gang went paragliding on snowboards.
When they finally arrived back home, in mid-April, the kids got ready for school. "We thought
it would be good for them to finish with their classes," says Donna. "Major mistake. It would
have been easier to just start again in September." Jake, meanwhile, immediately raced up
the slopes to catch the last of Stowe's snow: "I still had only ninety-one days for the season,
so I hiked up the mountain every day to get my hundred in."
The World According to Jake
On the Norwegian island of Tromsø we snowboarded down steep mountains that
go right to the ocean— we couldn't get enough. The Rica Ishavshotel there is shaped
like a ship and perches over the crystal water. We tried whale burgers, which George said
tasted like "good, but slightly fishy, hamburgers."
In Kitzbühel, Austria, the backcountry run was frickin' epic. There were these
wide-open rollers in the middle of a powder field. With the slightest of ollies, you would
Our only chance to ride in Africa was at Oukaimeden, in the Atlas Mountains, where
the chairlift ride to the top is supposedly the longest in the world. Unfortunately, the snow
was rock hard. We Vermonters take pride in our hardpack skills, but this stuff was bulletproof.
Our stay at the Four Seasons resort in the Maldives was the perfect vacation. We
surfed every morning and afternoon, and spent midday napping and chilling by the pool. We
had a guide who got us to uncrowded surf, as heavy or as mellow as we wanted. I'll be going
back there for sure.
—JAKE BURTON CARPENTER
Sailing Around the World
Who The Ferguson family Home Base Miami, Florida Long Vacation Circumnavigating
the globe in a catamaran, September 2001–present Estimated Return December 2007 Trip Web Site www.svdulcinea.com
"We were working very hard and watching from a distance as our kids were being raised and
educated by others," says Steve Ferguson, who, with his wife, Maria, develops residential
real estate in Miami. "Also, we were worried about how kids were growing up too fast in the
U.S. So, in the mid 1990's, we decided to give our children the biggest gift we could: we
would sail around the world." Sailing was something both parents had loved as kids, and they
tested their idea with a summerlong motorboat cruise in the Bahamas with their children, Stephanie,
Julia, and Max, then 9, 6, and 1. Back in Miami, they spent three years searching before they
found the perfect vessel: a 10-year-old 37-by-64-foot racing catamaran named Dulcinea. Then Steve took another year to update every moving part.
Finally, in 2001, the Fergusons rented out their house and set sail. Dulcinea skimmed
along at an exceptionally fast 24 knots—a good thing, because their Atlantic crossing
was late in the season and entailed outrunning three hurricanes. That was accomplished with
help from Commanders' Weather, a life saving routing service for boats. "The router would
call on the satellite phone and matter-of-factly instruct us to move 200 miles south ASAP,"
says Maria. After nine days, the Fergusons were relieved to reach the Azores.
The itinerary was open-ended, which helps explain why they're still traveling after four
years (a circumnavigation of the globe usually takes about two years). They spent the first
winter largely on land in a motor home, touring Spain, Morocco, and Egypt. That spring, they
cruised the Mediterranean, then continued on to the Gambia River, in West Africa, where they
delivered medicine to villagers.
No matter where they are, onboard chores remain the same. "Maria cooks, Julia washes dishes,
Stephanie cleans, Max helps with anchoring, and I worry," says Steve, who also runs the computers
and organizes the sailing." There's no stopping in the middle of the ocean, so one person
is always on watch," he explains. "Eight minutes is all it takes for a cargo ship to travel
from the horizon to a collision with us." Julia, once she turned 13, took the 9 p.m. to 12
a.m. watch, Stephanie has the 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. shift, and they both use the time to catch
up on schoolwork. All three kids follow homeschooling programs (by Calvert and Keystone) with
teacher advisory services, which means instructors grade papers and offer counseling.
For the young Fergusons, there's only one downside to life at sea: no other kids. As soon
as Dulcinea is at port, they all head out "to see how many people we can meet," Max
says. Being together 24 hours a day does create an unusual closeness. "In Florence, I noticed
we were all going through a museum shoulder to shoulder," says Maria. Currently, the Fergusons
are moored in Brisbane, Australia, devoting 16 months to boat maintenance and things like
doctor visits. Max and Julia have slipped into a Catholic school with no apparent gaps in
their education. Stephanie aced the SAT's and will attend the College of William and Mary
this fall. The rest will be back on the boat for the last leg of the trip—through Indonesia,
India, and the Red Sea. "My family has become like one big turtle," says Julia. "We carry
our home on our backs."
Christine Pittel is a writer in New York.
Adventures 'R' Us
At Merzouga, a Moroccan outpost near the Algerian border, we started an eight-day
camel trek through the Sahara. We slept in tents alongside nomad Berber families and bathed
by rubbing sand all over our bodies, as everyone does in the desert. You actually feel cleaner
than after a shower, albeit a bit chapped.
Our scariest moment was when a rogue wave off Mauritania caught our boat from behind
at night. It was higher than our first spreader, which is 30 feet tall. We were in the cockpit,
and the kids were inside the saloon, wearing life preservers. We came close to capsizing,
but, miraculously, we surfed down the wave.
We port-hopped along the Black Sea coast in Turkey, where pleasure boats rarely go,
and were treated like conquering heroes. "I must come on board your ship and make coffee!"
insisted a friendly stranger, carrying his pot under his arm.
On the island of Tanna, in the South Pacific, we sat on the rim of a live volcano
as lava shot up, solidified in the air, and then showered down. The whole mountain vibrated
beneath us. —STEVE AND MARIA FERGUSON
These travel advisers and outfitters specialize in around-the-world family trips.
Blue Charm Expeditions
The adventure company that got the Burton Carpenter family's trip off the ground. Blue Charm
can take you into the wilds—from fly-fishing in Argentina to drift diving in the Red
25 N. WALNUT ST., WEST CHESTER, PA.; 800/644-2244; www.bluecharmexpeditions.com
In addition to offering a full catalogue of planned group outings, Geographic Expeditions
arranges custom itineraries for ambitious trips and can hook you up with inspiring guides.
1008 GENERAL KENNEDY AVE., SAN FRANCISCO; 800/777-8183; www.geoex.com
This company's founders kept their own kids out of the 4th and 10th grades to travel through
Asia and the South Pacific. Their firm will help you create your own adventure.
107 APRIL DR., STE. 3, ANN ARBOR, MICH.; 800/255-8735; www.journeys-intl.com
Get the inside scoop from three more families who took long trips.
One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children
by David Elliot Cohen (Simon & Schuster).When he turned 40, Cohen (cocreator of the photography
book series A Day in the Life) and his wife sold their house, reduced their possessions
to one suitcase and a backpack each, and set off to roam the world with their three children.
In between engaging descriptions of hiking in the Costa Rican cloud forest, maneuvering a
houseboat down the canals of Burgundy, and narrowly escaping a charging hippo—"his powerful
jaws flung open like a car trunk"—at a Botswana game park, Cohen is refreshingly frank
about their failures at homeschooling and the stresses 24/7 companionship places on a marriage:
"A trip like this accentuates problems rather than solves them."
Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth
by Daniel Glick (Public Affairs). After his brother died and his wife left him and their two
children for a woman, Glick was desperately in need of a change of subject. The former Newsweek
reporter conjured up a "before they're gone" trip to show his children some of the ecological
wonders of the world—the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, the orangutans of Borneo,
Javan rhinos in Vietnam. Over five months, Glick and his children learned to rely on each
other and re-form themselves into a three-unit family, illustrating a simple truth, which
also happens to be "the fundamental principle of conservation biology: that every organism
in an ecological system is interconnected."
12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe
by Mark Jacobson (Atlantic Monthly Press). Determined to implant "a better class of memories
than total recall of Buffy episodes," Jacobson and his wife took their three children
on a low-budget, summer-long odyssey to a few of the most exotic places on earth. Confronting
funeral pyres on the Ganges and deep-fried tarantulas in Cambodia, these jaded New York kids
suddenly found themselves "embarrassed by the shock of their own provinciality," as their
father notes, not without a little I-told-you-so satisfaction. The eldest child, 16-year-old
Rae, contributes her own blunt "backtalks" to the wry text.
Here's an ideal on-the-road audiobook: Around the World in 80 Days (Listening Library).Jules
Verne's classic elephant-by-steamer-by-sled escapade is performed by Jim Dale, best known
for his extraordinary recorded readings of the Harry Potter books.