The Return of the Road Trip Vacation?

Views from the road on the western side of Ireland

I retired from full-time work last week, and at an online celebration for me a lot of my co-workers all asked me the same question: Where do you plan to travel to next, now that you’re retiring?

I didn’t have an answer for them. I know that after years of hearing about my escapades in foreign countries with my hubby, they were hoping for something wild and wonderful, but no one knows what the future is going to hold in terms of possibilities.

There are still quite a few places on my bucket list – Antarctica (our 7th and final continent), seeing Petra in Jordan, more of Africa – and I’m sure they’ll become available again at some point in time. What the conditions will be is a whole other story. My hubby and I love to get out from our hotel or resort and explore the local landscape, poke around local shops and bargain for treasures to bring home, chat with people. In Tahiti we went to one of the Food Truck nights along the waterfront in Papeete. It was pouring rain so not very busy, but the trucks all had awnings up to shelter diners, and we sampled all kinds of fabulous food. At one pirate-themed venture all the staff came out – in their pirate hats and striped t-shirts – and chatted with us for about half an hour – thank goodness my rusty French was up to the challenge!

Will those types of intimate interactions be possible in the future? It’s hard to say, but in the meantime, I think the type of trips that my parents used to take my brother and me on when we were kids are going to make a reappearance: the Road Trip.

My parents met in Canada after the Second World War, and, typical for the time, they didn’t have much money. Nor did many people, and road trips comprised the standard vacation for many families. Driving along Ontario’s highways and byways, shady pull-off spots with picnic tables were a common sight, along with some better-or-worse roadside diners and a variety of basic motels to rest weary heads for a few hours.

Our family friends moved up to northern Ontario when I was around four years old, and for the next dozen years we made an annual summer trip to visit them on their farm. There weren’t any high-speed roads north of Toronto for many years, so the journey was an all-day adventure.

The northern Ontario roads that were once gravel are now paved

Even in those days the traffic around Toronto was awful, so my parents would rouse us from our dubious sleep around three in the morning, bundle us and all the baggage into the car, and in the still of the night we would clandestinely slip off to parts far away.

I was always so excited to begin these trips – a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life. That building sense of anticipation for days in advance, packing up clothes for the trip, my mother making sandwiches and a thermos of coffee for our mid-trip break, and then the hushed setting out on the actual journey with who knew what might lie ahead!

Setting off before daybreak, 2013

(My first exotic trip, to Egypt with my hubby for our 10th anniversary, was so amazing to me that I was bouncing off the walls from the moment we paid the deposit on the tour. I suspect I drove my co-workers crazy for the next seven months, and possibly my hubby as well.)

My dad was usually rather uptight until we safely made it out of the Golden Horseshoe. The first hurdle was a god-awful highway cloverleaf around Hamilton with very poor visibility – drivers took their lives in their hands trying to traverse it, and thankfully it was removed several decades ago. Next I remember my father trying to find his way past all the crazed interchanges on the outskirts of Toronto, with only some unimpressive road signs and a map bought at the gas station to help him navigate.

Pumpkin whoopie pies on a fall picnic at French River a few years ago

The sun would be up by the time we got to a place called French River, where we always stopped for a break and something to eat. Hot coffee and Spam sandwiches sitting in the fresh morning air on a picnic table overlooking the river were the best things in the world in those moments. My parents would always give us a little time to walk around and explore, and I still remember one wet day when I discovered a fairy pond – a tiny gap no larger than a lunch plate in some moss on top of the granite undersurface where rain water had collected. I was enchanted.

After a quick ‘constitutional’ in the woods – no handy toilets – with full tummies and empty bladders we were on our way again.

Northern Ontario was pretty wild and untamed back then, except for Sudbury, with its factories and mines belching smoke into the air. From Sudbury we turned due west along the TransCanada highway, along deep blue rivers and towns selling things like smoked whitefish, until we got to Iron Bridge and left paved roads behind. The farm communities north of Iron Bridge were strung out along dirt and gravel roads that undulated and curved with the rolling landscape, edged by wildflowers and grey split-rail fences.

Split rail fences still in use

The first time we drove up there I remember arriving after darkness had fallen and a thick fog filled all the dips in the road. There were no roadside lights and we had only the car’s headlights to pierce the complete and utter blackness. Thinking back, I marvel at my dad’s fortitude in cresting each hill and driving down into a well of fog which could have been bottomless for all we could tell from the top. Finally, in the distance we could see the welcome glow of the lights in our friends’ farmhouse, and they would usher us into the warmth of their kitchen, safe and sound, amongst the gleaming fireflies that flitted through the fir trees around their yard and the lonely calling of loons somewhere in the distance.

My hubby and I have taken many road trips together, and it’s still one of our favourite things to do. There’s a timeless feel of adventure in hitting the open road. Sometimes I’ve packed a picnic, sometimes we just stop at places that look interesting.

On the road, South Island, New Zealand

We visited New Zealand by road trip, and it was a grand and intimate way to see the country. We rented a car in Auckland, and I’d bought a guest pass to the Top 10 group of holiday parks, where visitors can stay in anything from their own campervan to some pretty nice rooms with all the facilities. It was off-season, so we didn’t prebook anything – just followed the itinerary I’d mapped out and pulled up at the nearest Top 10 for the night (or two). We saw jade-green rivers, gold-dusted mountains, smoking volcanoes, iron-gray ocean waves and vivid turquoise lakes. We hiked to see Mt Aoraki, where Edmund Hillary practised his mountain climbing before attempting Mt Everest, and had tea in the Mountaineer Café he created.

You can road-trip almost anywhere – one of our favourite places is upstate New York in the autumn – and since it’s only you and your companions in a vehicle, staying in hotels or motels that can be disinfected and perhaps having tailgate-style meals in a restaurant parking lot, I think this style of laidback, carefree travel may make a comeback. Next week we’ll look at some tips on how to have a great road trip!