January Travels: from Palmy to Placid
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
As anyone who lives in New Hampshire or a cold northern climate knows, January can really be a buzzkill for travel. The holidays are over, snow piles are growing by the week, and while the days are getting longer, it now gets dark at 5:00 or 5:15 instead of 4:30. Whoop-de-doo!
I was fortunate enough to escape the January doldrums five years in a row, from 2005-2009. I also took a sanity-questioning family trip north in 2016. Let's take a look back, shall we?
It was senior year of college and I had just met Alyse the year before. As an Italian Education major at U. of Delaware, she had signed up to study in Italy for five weeks during the winter semester that year. Of course I longed to accompany her, or at the very least visit her for a few days. Alas, it was not meant to be financially. I did, however, have a most welcoming aunt, uncle, and cousin in the Palm Beach area that were willing to host a pale-skinned exchange student from NH, graciously taking me in for a few days.
I had been to Florida once, in April 1994 with my parents and brother. We had spent a few days at Disney World, then drove Palm Beach-ward to visit said relatives. I hadn't been back since, and I'd never had the pleasure of visiting during a vicious New Hampshire winter.
Snowbirds and those who can afford the winter migration consistently may be jaded to the experience, but I was absolutely enthralled to step onto a plane shivering, and emerge 3 hours later in shorts, surrounded by cerulean skies, palm trees, and lavishly blooming bougainvillea. You only realize how colorless it is up north when you're suddenly thrust into this beauteous, technicolor world.
Think of it: in all of human history, the concept of air travel is still extremely new. The concept of affordable air travel newer still, perhaps 20 years old? For an individual - a poor college student no less - to go from crusty snow piles to subtropical bliss in a matter of hours was absurdly magnificent.
I don't even remember what we did that first year other than walking along the beach. Hardly mattered. I was in flip-flops and I was warm. In January. Sweeeeet.
The following two years Alyse joined me. My relatives were expert tour guides, bringing us to happening downtown West Palm, Lake Okeechobee, the Jupiter Lighthouse, and on a drive down stunning A1A. A sweep of endless teal sea to the left, mansions of ridiculous opulence to the right, it all felt like being in some fantasy realm, despite having English homework due on Tuesday. Evenings were filled with home-cooked meals, games, movies, and laughter. Good times...
The bad news was we wouldn't make it to Florida in '08. The flip side of that is that our destination was farther afield and even more exotic - to an easterner anyway.
This trip was significant for many reasons, but mostly because it was by a huge margin the farthest west Alyse or I had ever been. To quote from Given Latitude:
I was a quarter-century old and had never been west of Indianapolis. Alyse and I lived austerely and scraped together every dollar we had. As we eagerly pushed southwest, I could feel a splash of sunlight slowly illuminating a shaded space within. We flew to Phoenix and hit the ground running, spellbound by our impossible distance from the familiar.
Covering nearly 1,000 miles, we gawked at the Grand Canyon, cruised across Route 66, and trekked betwixt Joshua Tree National Park's spiny denizens. The next evening, we arrived at Oceanside Pier, claiming front-row tickets to the sun's nightly disappearing act. Toes ensconced in cool sand, we silently marveled as the sky blushed magenta and pomegranate before surrendering to star-flecked darkness. California!
Being here was pure, audacious freedom, for which I'd wholeheartedly yearned like so many sheltered New Englanders. An electrifying guitar riff in a hushed concert hall. We then meandered through San Diego, salty Pacific zephyrs tickling our pale northeastern faces. A brief excursion south of the border to Ensenada rounded out our absurdly full yet remarkably satisfying five-day journey.
2009: Florida - the final chapter
Times were a changin' in 2009. I had finished grad school and moved from Pennsylvania back to NH, living with my parents temporarily until getting married in May. Knowing that our Florida trips would be numbered, I convinced Alyse to take one last long weekend adventure.
This trip was a bit different in that we rented a car for the first time - a white Kia Spectra whose steering wheel shook like Santa's belly at highway speeds. Between that and knowing that I might not be back for a while (sadly, I'd been right; haven't been back for a winter visit in 12 years and counting), we made it happen.
With Royal Palm Beach as our home base, we set off in a new direction, immersing ourselves in the steamy Everglades on a day trip that also included a stop at the International Swimming Hall of Fame Museum (who knew, right?) in Fort Lauderdale.
Not only was this our last time in Florida together, to this day it was our last trip anywhere warm in January. While I lament not being able to foray south in the winter these days, I'm incredibly thankful to have had these opportunities during this time of my life. Also, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my wonderful relatives for hosting us four separate times!
While hardly exotic, Alyse and I day-tripped to Indianapolis while in Cincinnati in early 2007. At the time I had found it a handsome downtown, especially the distinctive Monument Circle. We rambled about the Canal Walk, ascended to the top of the tallest building for a sensational view, and pondered some prodigious works at the Museum of Art.
In January 2009, just weeks prior to the aforementioned final Florida fling, Alyse and I made a quick stop in Charleston, West Virginia en route from Cincinnati back east. At the time I think I was "collecting" state capitals (and capitols), as the only photos I can find are from West Virginia's state house. Handsome lil building right thar...
2016: Lake Placid, NY
When you can't afford to go south in the winter, go north. At least that's what I said in 2016 when I convinced Alyse, Julia, and my parents to join me on a frigid winter run to the Adirondacks. The real reason we braved the northern New York chill was to witness an international bobsled race, a bucket list item of mine for many years.
Ever since Cool Runnings (and, truth be told, even before the movie popularized the sport in 1993), I've loved watching bobsledding. When I was but five years old, my dad recorded the two-man bobsled event in the 1988 Calgary Olympics - I converted the grainy VHS footage to DVD many years later and still have it today. When I heard that the world's best 2- and 4-man teams were competing in Lake Placid, I knew I had to see a race in person.
Lake Placid is a fascinating little town, to say the least. Snuggled in the heart of the 'Dacks, this town with a population of under 3,000 has hosted the Winter Olympics not just once but twice, in 1932 and 1980. I had actually been before, way back in the mid-90s as a kid. Family friends who had a house on the NY side of Lake Champlain had invited my family, as well as two other families, to a several-night stay.
We sledded, skied at Whiteface, visited the bobsled/luge run, and just did what kids did - had fun being silly with each other. Tremendous memories were made, even if they were now as grainy as that VHS footage.
Little did I know that the next time I'd feel the Olympic spirit up close would be 20 years later, with a 5-year old of my own in tow. Our first stop was at the actual ski jump used at the 1980 games. I forgot to mention that I'm a huge Winter Olympics fan in general, and though I wasn't alive in 1980, I still had a childlike gleam in my eye seeing where the events were held.
Our next stop was downtown, where the outdoor speed skating venue and 1932 hockey arena - better known as where the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" occurred - were located. That US victory over the Soviets has become such an iconic part of sports and American history that I almost felt guilty that I wasn't born yet. In any case, absorbing the vibe of that arena was something I had wanted to do while in town. There was some sort of figure skating practice going on at the time.
We hit the Olympic museum, seeing artifacts such as equipment and medals from past games, then ended the busy day with dinner at a local eatery.
"I'm feeling very Olympic today!"
-Sanka Coffie, Cool Runnings
Day 2: off to Mount Van Hoevenberg we went. It was time for a bobsled race. Walking through oblique morning sunlight from the parking lot past competing nations' flags en route to the mile-long icy chute was thrilling for me.
We stopped at various vantage points to see the cold metal sleds thunder past, gone almost as soon as they came into view.
We then made our way all the way up to the starting area, which was more crowded for good reason. Here we got to see the teams push off, equal parts brute strength and coordinated finesse. After watching this on TV for almost 30 years, I was enthralled.
The highlight of the day was seeing the US team on home ice, captained by 2010 Olympic gold medalist and winningest American bobsled athlete ever Steven Holcomb. (Side note: while Americans are used to winning just about everything in Olympic competition, this was no normal win; it was the first gold medal in bobsled since 1948!)
Tragically, Holcomb took his own life the following year at age 37, so little did we know we were seeing him in one of his last races.
The rest of the day went smoothly, and we stayed to watch the medal ceremony at the foot of the mountain. While obviously this is not one of the most popular sports, it still struck me how close we were standing to some of the world's most talented and decorated athletes, and how comparatively casual the atmosphere was compared to say, the end of an NFL game. The security-detailed players would hit the locker room and emerge again in black-windowed Range Rovers, long after fans were gone. In this case, had I been more of a socialite, I probably could have stepped up and spoken to some of the athletes myself.
Alas, like all other travel, getting out there in January is not always affordable, easy or warm. But in the end, it is 100% worth working for. No major travel this year due to COVID, but even if I have to be in cold, white, New Hampshire, I'll never stop exploring. If you can't find a palm tree, sometimes a snow-cloaked birch or spruce can be just as graceful.