Friday Five: Best Trips Ever

I was going to do the Friday Five (a weekly blog prompt) because I like the questions this week, which are all about travel. But I started writing and realized that my entry would be way too long, partly because one of the questions asks about my favorite trip ever, and I couldn’t narrow it down to just one. So I’m going to answer that question only, but with five answers.

What was the best trip you ever took? Where did you go, and with whom, and what made it so good? (These are in no particular order.)

1) ITALY! I was part of a group of seven members of a professional organization, the National Federation of Press Women, who took a tour of Tuscany in 2012. Technically, it was an organized tour group. But it was just the seven of us, the trip had been designed for us, and we all knew each other. We were accompanied by our tour leader and her assistant, and we were set up with amazing tour guides who were art and history experts. We spent a glorious time in Florence, with day trips to surrounding areas, including Siena and Lucca. We had a cooking lesson at the home of a Tuscan chef, and a winery tour and tasting (with a full meal) in the Chianti Region. And we were there during the national Gelato Festival, with its main vendor showcase on the piazza right outside our hotel. The hotel, by the way, was perfect in every way. Then we stayed a few days at a resort town outside of Pisa. This place had its own 2000-year-old Roman temple on the hill behind it, with magnificent views.

And that wasn’t all. The official tour came to an end, and I took a train to Rome for my own solo trip. I spent time in Rome and then rented a car to travel to Assisi, which not only beautiful, but is also the ancestral home of my Petrini ancestors. I did not get a lead on the relatives remaining in town until just before I had to go, so I wasn’t able to track them down. Maybe next time. It would help if I could learn Italian first. When I left there, I drove to Marche and searched (for quite a while) for the village my paternal grandmother’s family came from. I finally found it but didn’t have time to do more than take a lot of photos. Next time I go to Italy I plan to spend more time on family history, maybe finding traces of my mother’s family, too.

2) ALASKA. OK, this is two trips, both of them for NFPW conferences. The first time the conference was in 2000 in Girdwood, a ski resort area 45 minutes from Anchorage. It was September and the weather was lovely. My husband Bob came with me. We started in Seward, meeting up with some of my NFPW friends to get up close and personal with a glacier and to take a Kenai Fjords day cruise. Then it was on to Girdwood for the four-day conference. Bob went fishing for salmon while we conferenced, and there were some tours as part of the conference, too. Then he and I took nearly two weeks to travel around Alaska with our rental car. We saw Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Denali, and flew up to Barrow for an overnight stay at the highest-latitude town in North America. We even had dinner at a Mexican restaurant called North of the Border, a few blocks from the Arctic Ocean. One of the things I liked about the trip was that I planned to stay in a wide range of lodgings — modern hotels, a b&b in the woods, a tiny chalet, and so forth. I also did a lot of research along the way for the book I was writing on Italian American immigrants. And yes, I did find some great stories.

The next trip to Alaska was for an NFPW conference in Anchorage in 2015. The conference was great — and I found a lot of Little Free Libraries in between meetings. Then I took a few days and a rental car and drove down to Homer by myself. Homer is on a spit of land sticking out into Kachemak Bay, and a narrower strip sticks out from there, further into the water. My hotel was at the tip of it, so I was surrounded by water and could watch sea otters swim by my window. I found a Little Free Library, tried to explain the concept of My Jane Austen LFL project to a couple of incredulous fisherman, and had a wonderful time at an art museum devoted to one amazingly talented local artist. Then I took an excursion, still by myself, to a remote community of Russian Old Believers, where I hung out at the Samovar Cafe with the owner, Nina, who made me cream puffs but was miffed that I did not want borscht. (I have tried, but I just cannot enjoy beets.)

3) FRANCE. I was taking watercolors classes, and my teacher organized a painting trip to the South of France for his students. There were seven of us. We rented a house in Claviers, a town too small to have a hotel, where the last time most people had seen Americans was when they parachuted in at the end of the German occupation. The house was charming, the town was charming, and we did almost nothing but paint, though we painted in various towns in the region, so we got to see quite a bit. We had just one sightseeing day when we drove to the Riviera and also to Cezanne’s studio. The painting days were actually more fun.

The people were so friendly! And quirky. One old guy with a decrepit looking dog followed us home one day. Actually, he was following Brenda, a tall blonde in our group whom he took a liking to. He was confused by me. I was by far the youngest in our group. he asked if I was the maid. Our only fluent French speaker acted horrified and told him no, I was a famous American scholar. He treated me with respect after that. One couple said three weeks wasn’t enough time to get to know the area. The second floor of their house was empty since their kids had grown up and moved away; they invited me to stay in their house for the whole summer. I was tempted, but I had a job to get back to at home.

4) FLORIDA TO NIAGARA. This was two back-to-back trips in 2016. Bob had a conference in Orlando. A week later, Jon Morgan had one — he was winning a national PTA award for Music Composition. Bob had to be in Florida before school was out. So he flew down. When school ended, Jon Morgan and I set out on our road trip. He proved to be a wonderful travel companion; I loved our conversations in the car, and it meant the world to me when my teenage son told me afterward how much he’d love them, too. We stopped for a night in Savannah and had a wonderful time looking for a restaurant along the pedestrian mall there. We met Bob at his conference hotel in Orlando, attended the last day of the ALA convention, which we both enjoyed, and then moved to one of the hotels at Universal for two awesome days at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In general I dislike amusement parks, but this one was different. I didn’t go on rides (except the Hogwarts Express). They make me sick. Instead, I just soaked up the atmosphere at Hogwarts, Hogsmeade Village, and Diagon Alley. Then we moved to one of the Disney Resorts for the PTA convention, where Mickey and Minnie Mouse helped celebrate our student award winners, including my son. Then we left Florida to drive home.

That was Part One. At home, we had time to do laundry, and then Jon Morgan and I got back in the car the very next day, for our trip north. The goal of this leg of the trip was to get him to Colgate University in upstate New York, where he was attending a two-week summer music program.

We stayed at a B&B in the area for a couple days to help him get the lay of the land, sampled all the local ice cream places, and went to a movie. And then I delivered him to his dorm, got him checked in, and left. It seemed silly to drive all the way home and then come back 10 days later for the final concert. And I’d been itching to take a solo writing retreat. So I’d rented a quaint cottage on one of the lakes in the area, about 90 minutes from the school, and spent more than a week there, mapping out the plot of a book I was working on, and enjoying the atmosphere. Then I visited my sister in New Hampshire for a few days, picked up Bob at a bus station in Albany on the way back, and drove back to upstate New York.

We had part of a day to spare before the concert, so we visited Seneca Falls. I’d chosen it because I wanted to see the Women’s Rights museum there. It was fantastic. But even more memorable was a bonus site: the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum. Seneca Falls was supposedly Frank Capra’s inspiration for Bedford Falls, the setting of the movie, and it certainly looks like it. And there at the museum that day, we lucked out: the actress who played Zuzu in the film was there! Afterward, we attended the conference and got Jon Morgan checked out of his dorm.

But wait. There’s more! Jon Morgan had been really, really wanting to go somewhere outside the U.S. We couldn’t swing a trip to Europe that year, but Ontario was awfully close. And none of us had been to Niagara Falls. So I’d booked a room on the Canadian side and we spent several fun, kitschy days at the falls before setting out for home.

5) HAWAII. I won a free trip to Hawaii. Yes, I really did. I entered a public television sweepstakes, and thought it was a joke at first when I received a call saying I’d won. This was 2004. My best friend Sheila went with me. The trip was to Oahu, staying at a big Waikiki resort. Our plane was delayed and we arrived late, and the hotel clerk said our room was not available, so that she’d have to upgrade us to a suite with an ocean view. The whole trip went pretty much like that.

We rented a car so we could see other parts of the island. We snorkeled and saw colorful tropical fish. We climbed Diamond Head and ate a chocolate dessert shaped like it. And we took a whole day to look for shooting locations for the TV show Lost, at the request of Sheila’s 13-year-old daughter, who was upset that she couldn’t go with us. And we loved every minute of it. The scenery was gorgeous, the history was fascinating, and Sheila and I had the chance to spend time together without kids and husbands. What could be better? And did I mention that it was FREE?

6) OTHER FAVORITE TRIPS I would add if I were allowing myself to add even more: the Netherlands. Jamaica. Road trip to Salt Lake City with many stops along the way. Mississippi River from Minnesota to Missouri. Mississippi River from New Orleans to Missouri. Laura Ingalls Wilder pilgrimages.

But this is already too long, so I’m not going to add those.

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