Go here on vacation — if you dare

Where should you go on vacation? If you don’t have to answer that question because you’re just planning to lie on the beach for a week or read a book while the kids splash in the pool, then wake up.

You can make your next getaway unforgettable by adding a quirky attraction to your itinerary, detouring to a dangerous place, or engaging your brain.

Last week, I mentioned some of the places the pros don’t go. And by “pros” I mean my three kids, ages 11, 13 and 16, who have been on the road for the last eight years. I explained how they avoid train museums, aerospace museums and kids’ museums, and offered one or two alternatives. But I also promised I’d tell you where they do go.

A new summer vacation survey by WalletHub offers some clues about the type of destinations you’re likely to visit. They include museum-heavy cities like Washington, D.C., and world theme-park capitals, such as Orlando, Fla. As someone who has lived in both those places, here’s a secret: You can have a great vacation there — or find yourself bored silly. (Just ask my kids.)

Go here on vacation -- if you dare.
Erysse Elliott at the Roswell UFO Museum in Roswell, N.M. Offbeat, quirky places leave a memorable impression.

Go for something memorable. Like aliens

I’ll never forget the Roswell UFO Museum in Roswell, N.M. Roswell, of course, is known as the site of a UFO crash in 1947 — or was that a weather balloon? The museum doesn’t take itself too seriously, with walls filled with kitschy, mid-century memorabilia and exhibits featuring scary-looking extraterrestrials. Watch out, kids, here come the Men in Black.

The way I see it as a writer, any time you can work space aliens into one of your articles, you know it’s going to be a good story. But there’s a broader point here: Out-of-the-ordinary places make great day trips. For example, on a recent visit to Fort Collins, Colo., I discovered an 80s Museum, which is believed to be the only one of its kind. It’s also a pizza restaurant. Ditto for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. You probably won’t find anything else like it on Earth.

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That’s the thing. There are hundreds of aerospace museums, but only one UFO museum in Roswell, maybe only one 80s museum, and darned few computer museums. Uniqueness is essential because that’s what makes your vacation unforgettable. It’s the stuff travel memories are made of, and you should try to add these places to your list, even if you aren’t into space aliens or the 80s.

Go here on vacation -- if you dare.
Erysse Elliott at the top of Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park. It’s rated among the most dangerous hikes in America.

Spend more time on the edge of your seat

Here’s a little vacation advice that you won’t read anywhere else: add a little danger to the mix. The last precarious half-mile of our hike to Angel’s Landing in Utah’s Zion National Park still haunts me. It’s a steep rock face accessible only by a narrow path bracketed by chains. There are drop-offs on both sides of the narrow ascent. This is not for the faint of heart. Yet when the kids saw steep rocks in front of them, they didn’t hesitate. They crawled to the top, sometimes on hands and knees. When they made it to the summit, my daughter asked, “Dad, can we do this again tomorrow?” This, from a girl who is not terribly fond of hiking.

We’ve done other things that kept us on the edge of our seats, or off our seat altogether. That includes climbing the smooth red rocks at Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in Utah, and snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in the Florida Keys. The risk is almost always worth the reward.

If you’re headed somewhere on vacation this summer, find a national park or a state park and challenge yourself. Take a narrow, difficult path or make a challenging dive. Don’t play it safe.

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Iden and Aren Elliott at Sproul Plaza, in Berkeley, Calif., the birth of the Free Speech Movement.
Iden and Aren Elliott at Sproul Plaza, in Berkeley, Calif., the birth of the Free Speech Movement.

Stretch your brain, too

Also, don’t let your brain atrophy while you’re away. Too many people equate vacation with letting their minds disengage. They bring a pulp novel with them, or worse, spend their off-time watching TV. I say: Go the other way.

That’s what we’ve learned in recent months, as my two sons approach college age. Every visit to a new place is an opportunity to learn about something new. When we swung through Northern California, we toured the University of California campus and learned about the Free Speech Movement. In Salt Lake City, we spent weeks at the Family History Library, researching our genealogy. The discoveries made their academic lessons come alive; biology became more relevant when it wasn’t just abstract DNA, but their DNA being studied. And, naturally, every day is a lesson in free speech, at least in our family.

Your intellect may not need to rest when you’re on the road. To the contrary, it could benefit from more information that makes you a better person. Add a little danger and weirdness — if you dare — and I promise you’ll have a memorable adventure.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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