The Loooooooooong Vacation
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 www.wheresmolly.com
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 Little Richard.
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 KING
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 swam by.
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 launch.
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 Sea.
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.