I need a vacation.
I know I’m not the only one feeling this right now. It’s a sentiment I’ve been hearing a lot from friends and on social media, and it’s no surprise given the strange and stressful circumstances we find ourselves in. The unpredictability of the pandemic and the global economy, coupled with the strain of adjusting to new realities of work, childcare, and school, have almost everyone I know craving an escape. Yet with travel still restricted in many places (especially in the U.S.), the vision of a carefree getaway isn’t exactly in the cards for most people.
Still, vacations are an important part of well-being. One study, for example, showed that when men at risk for heart disease didn’t take annual vacations, they had a 32 percent higher risk of having a fatal heart attack than those who did. Likewise, a study of women showed that those who took vacation rarely (once every six years or less) were eight times more likely to develop heart disease. Other studies have shown an increase in sleep quality, and an improvement of up to 80 percent in reaction times after taking a vacation. And still other research has shown that regular vacations are more important than money to overall well-being, so much so that a regular vacationer making less than $24,000 a year might be happier than a non-vacationer making more than $120,000.
But it’s one thing to know you should take a vacation, and it’s another to actually take one, especially when just a simple trip to the grocery store can be a daunting experience. For those of us who don’t feel safe to venture forth right now (and with a newborn at home, I’m definitely in this camp), a staycation can provide some of the same benefits: a chance to rest, a break from usual routines, opportunities for freedom and play. Sometimes, a staycation can be even more relaxing than a regular vacation. Think about it: No crowded airports, no jet lag, no jostling for the best lounge chair at the beach or a spot in line at the museum. With a staycation, you get to maximize the time you spend recharging your batteries.
There’s plenty of advice out there for how to make the most of a staycation. (This article has some helpful tips.) Unplug from your devices. Take a break from the news. Change your schedule, so that you’re creating a clearly different rhythm on your vacation days. Yet while these ideas might help you have a restorative week, I’m not sure they really capture the joy of getting away. It strikes me that one thing that’s hard to find on a staycation is adventure, especially if your staycation occurs entirely within the four walls of your home. And adventure is one of travel’s greatest delights. Shaken out of our usual surroundings and plunged into a different world, our ears filled with the sounds of a foreign language, breathing in unfamiliar scents — the potential for joy is all around us. Adventures break the monotony of the everyday, restore senses that have become numbed by long hours staring at screens, and help us build new memories.
So what I’ve been wondering is: Is it possible to have an adventure without leaving home? And if so, how?
Here are eight ideas to do just that, and help you kindle the joy of travel during your next staycation.
Read books and watch movies that transport you
One of my favorite things to do before taking a trip is to search out books and movies that can help me get a feel for a place. But you can still do this even if you’re staying close to home.
Search out famous (or not-so-famous) books or films from the part of the world you’re wanderlusting after. It’s especially worth seeking out works by native or indigenous authors, who live or were raised in a place, as opposed to travel writers, who have a more limited perspective. Then get lost in these during your staycation week.
And when you do finally get to take that trip? The historical and cultural perspective will make it all the more inspiring.
Broaden your musical horizons
Music is deeply connected to our emotions, which makes it particularly transporting. The ethereal sounds of Sigur Ros, for example, can create a dreamy Icelandic atmosphere. Hawaiian ukulele and hula music brings the beach to your living room, with a vibe so relaxing it can untangle the knots in even the tightest of shoulders. Caribbean music, whether reggae or calypso, salsa or soca, has a similar power to set the tone for a laid back afternoon.
Try searching for artists or genres of music from your desired destination and build a playlist to help you set the ambience. Or, if you use a music service like Spotify, you might find there are ready-made playlists full of tunes that take you places.
Sip a place-appropriate aperitif
Cocktail hour is often billed as a moment to escape from reality, but where are you escaping to? Whether you’ve had to cancel a trip or are just daydreaming, a little research can help you turn this regular ritual into a joyful one.
So if the South of France is on your vacation agenda, order a bottle of anise-flavored Ricard or a bright rosé. If Italy is in the plan, try making your own amaro or searching online for bitter Italian sodas. For U.S. destinations, look for local microbrews you can order directly — there are small breweries in all 50 states!
Your choice doesn’t have to be alcoholic either. Consider Southern sweet tea or Mexican agua fresca, or explore this list of 100 non-alcoholic beverages savored the world over.
Take a culinary adventure
In my memories of travel, food and adventure go hand in hand. I remember being 13, eating a pizza in Northern Italy, so much thinner and floppier, the tomato so much tomatoier than at home. Those first Tom Yum soups in the south of Thailand when I was 26, a little bit sour and so much hotter than any I’d had before. A pile of wiry rambutan from the markets in Vietnam. Cheese-filled khachapuri in Tbilisi. Travel broke my palette wide open.
If you’re craving new culinary adventures, treat yourself to a cookbook that lets you explore the cuisine of a far-off land. For example, Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem will transport you to the Mediterranean, while The Slanted Door by Charles Phan will give you a window into Vietnam. The internet can help you stock your pantry with a few new spices or condiments to make these recipes sing.
Not that your choice needs to be exotic. You can find adventure in lobster rolls if you’re craving the seaside, hot dogs if you’re missing the ball park, cotton candy if you wish you were at Disneyland. Strawberry shortcake reminds me of summer visits to my grandparents’ Florida retirement home, as does store-bought lemon pudding with meringue on top. Tune into what your palette is craving, and see where the food leads you!
Play a new game
Games from afar expand our field of play, revealing new ways to access that ageless inner child. If you have a destination in mind, seek out games that are common in or invented in that part of the world, like Mahjong in China, boules in France, or Perudo, believed to be an Incan game brought to Spain in the 16th century.
Or go in reverse: research the origins of your favorite game and see where it takes you!
Visit a museum, virtually
Museums in many places have started to reopen with social distancing and masks, but if you’re not ready to go in person, you can spend an afternoon exploring virtually. Google’s Arts and Culture project has digitized hundreds of collections and online tours at museums around the world. Find one near your destination using this map.
Yes, it’s not the same as seeing the works in person, but you do get to museum-hop without the constraints of real life. (When else can you check out the Tate, the Reina Sofia, and the Acropolis Museum in one day?) You can also explore by artist or theme, composing your own “museum” from the collections of the world’s best.
Tour a national park
Camping is one kind of vacation that’s mostly safe and accessible right now. But if you can’t get to the great outdoors, bring the outdoors to you, with an online tour of a US National Park. Explore a Hawaiian volcano, dive a Florida shipwreck, or ride horseback through the red rocks of Bryce Canyon.
These aren’t a substitute for getting outdoors, of course. Spending time in nearby nature is essential for well-being, and recent research suggests that outdoor pastimes are generally low-risk for Covid transmission. But if you’ve become weary of your local scenery, these digital adventures can help you get a change of pace.
Learn a new language
“Language is the dwelling place of ideas that do not exist anywhere else,” writes ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass. “It is a prism through which to see the world.” Even just speaking a few words of another tongue can help us shift our perspective, and feel more connected to a place. The challenging pronunciations of Icelandic feel of a piece with the country’s beautiful, ineffable landscape. The musicality of Hawaiian, a language with only eight consonants, has a gentleness that feels like the water you see at every turn. Speaking Italian, if only the words for “hello” and “thank you,” feels like a window into the good life.
If there’s a place that’s calling your name, why not learn some of the basics of the language? The Duolingo app offers 35 different languages (including Klingon!). You might even take it up a level and find a penpal in your destination locale. Then, when you’re able to get there in person, you’ll have a new friend to meet as well.
Buy a “souvenir”
For some of us, a trip isn’t complete without something to remember the journey by. This is one of my favorite things to do when traveling: scouting out rugs in Morocco, prints at the Paris flea, or crafts from a roadside stand.
But if you can’t go in person, why not do this in reverse, choosing a piece of art to help you build anticipation for a trip to come? You could research galleries and artists at your destination on Etsy and purchase a piece of art to add some well-traveled ambience to your home. When you do get to take your trip, you might even try to time it to the artist’s next show, or arrange a studio visit.
If you’ve had to cancel travels due to the Covid crisis, or you simply don’t have the budget or time to travel right now, try layering a few of these ideas together to create a kind of at-home immersion.
The idea for this post actually began when we cancel our “babymoon” earlier this year. With the Covid warnings and the risk of being quarantined, pregnant, far from home, we had no regrets about canceling our trip to Hawaii. Still, we were disappointed. We hadn’t had a vacation in nine months, and it was that part of winter in the Northeast where the grey feels endless. The week of the trip we were inclined to mope around the house a bit. Then Albert had an idea: What if we brought Hawaii home?
One of our rituals when we go to Honolulu to visit family is to go to the Halekulani hotel in Waikiki at sunset to drink maitais and eat coconut shrimp and coconut cake, and listen to ukulele music. (Is it a little touristy? Sure. But the mix of sensations is pretty darn joyful!) So we ordered a bunch of tropical decorations and leis, which we put up all over the house. We looked up the recipes for the coconut shrimp and cake and subbed virgin piña coladas for maitais since I was pregnant. We found a playlist of Hawaiian hula music. Albert donned his favorite Aloha shirt and I put on a tropical dress, and for an evening, we let ourselves be transported.
No, it wasn’t as good as a week in the land of rainbows. (What is?) But in its own way, it was just as memorable. Travel shakes us out of our everyday, removing our familiar bearings and helping us disconnect from our worries and troubles. This did too, breaking our slump, and reminding us that we have the power to make our own joy.