When everyday life becomes a permanent staycation, parents aren’t fooling their kids when they pitch a tent in the backyard, bust out a bag of marshmallows and tape cardboard elk horns to the family dog.
Kids want out — far beyond the backyard — even if you’ve installed a tree swing and toiled through a 48-hour trampoline assembly. Heck, parents want to break away, too (especially after that final twist of the wrench on the trampoline).
But between common sense COVID-19 precautions, as well as local and state restrictions, there are fewer feasible escape plans than ever before.
Disney World? With character hugs outlawed, temperature screenings and reduced capacity, it’s about as magical as your uncle’s disappearing thumb trick.
European vacation? You’re going to need to stow away on a freighter or doctor up some non-U.S. passports to make the trip to EU nations.
Cross-country road trip? Great idea, as long as you can navigate the interstate gantlet of mandatory quarantines, coronavirus tests and other prohibitions.
These popular destinations and familiar itineraries might as well be located on the far side of the moon. But central Virginians have a solid Plan B — plenty of consolation one-tank trips spread throughout the commonwealth and neighboring states. Plus, without school or work drawing a line in the sand for so many, vacation season is extended.
Following the data
While a scan of your Facebook feed photos may offer ideas on where to point the minivan for a fall or winter getaway, we asked the folks at vacation rental site VRBO to follow the digital breadcrumbs from central Virginia to their final destination. Their data showed that travelers are choosing both in state and out-of-state destinations in 2020, with the top five being Outer Banks, N.C.; Bedford County, Va.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; and Hilton Head, S.C.
My family of four (soon to be five) has checked off two of these hot spots in the past several months. We earned our OBX bumper sticker in a condo cloistered in Kitty Hawk’s coastal forest, where the private entrance meant we could avoid common areas. We also rented a cozy waterfront home on Smith Mountain Lake (Bedford County) with a game room, treehouse and built-in social distancing.
Fake lake, real fun
Before my days as a family man and sometimes family writer, I made a go of it as a stand-up comic. And toward the end of a particularly bad show — my worst ever — an audience member sitting in the back of a crowded Italian restaurant attached to a budget hotel screamed, “Stay out of Bedford County!”
It was a warning I heeded for 20 years. But after being homebound the first few months of the pandemic and the kiddos on the verge of mutiny, we began looking for destinations we felt comfortable driving to. Smith Mountain Lake nearly jumped off the map — it was only three hours away, it offered waterfront rentals that were cheaper than the beaches to the east, and it offered a self-contained environment. So, we filled the car with groceries and pool noodles to avoid any unnecessary trips, and headed west.
Once there, we fished the manmade lake from our backyard dock, reeling in and tossing back catfish. We puttered around our inlet in a pedal boat to “ohhh” and “ahhh” at neighboring mega yachts. And we hoofed it around Smith Mountain Lake State Park, blazing trails before relaxing at one of the countless hidden beaches.
I even told my family a few jokes by the fire pit. They bombed, but I wasn’t asked to leave this time.
Before we even made the trip back, a steady stream of friends started peppering us with some version of, “I’ve always wanted to go there. How was it?” It was clear that others were contemplating the same journey; we had just pulled the trigger first.
It was a hunch I confirmed by calling one of the local rental and sales offices.
“A typical season is Memorial Day to Labor Day with 80% occupancy, whereas this year, we have stayed near 100%,” said Jessica Baily with CB Rentals. “We don’t have the hustle and bustle of the city or the beach, but families can rent a boat, visit the state park beach, go hiking, swimming, relax on the dock, and still enjoy a vacation with their family while maintaining social distance from others.”
Pro tip: In autumn, Smith Mountain Lake is a prime spot for watching free-falling foliage, and it’s when the bass really start biting.
Drive and park
In mid-March, not long after the day the Earth stood still, we made our first pandemic outing: a daytrip to Pocahontas Park. It was an “ah ha” moment as I realized what we had been missing out on — hiking adventures through lush landscapes and organic family bonding, all available for a couple of bucks.
I knew we weren’t the only family to stumble onto this revelation. Melissa Baker, director of Virginia State Parks, agreed.
“If you’ve been in a department store selling bikes recently, you’ll notice there aren’t any,” she said.
She’s right. I had to buy my bike on Craigslist. And the parks are bustling with bikers, hikers and others — in all, over 120,000 more visitors walked and rode through Virginia State Parks in June 2020 vs. June 2019. And that’s with coronavirus restrictions, which were stricter in Phase 1 and 2 than they are now.
Baker said they’re seeing both regular parkgoers increase visits and more visitors discovering parks for the first time. “Folks are taking to the great outdoors like they haven’t before.”
She has a few tips for families, too. First, check Virginia State Parks’ “Know Before You Go” on www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/ for tips on ensuring a safe visit. Second, if you want to feel as if you really did escape to a faraway destination, Baker suggests a mountainous park, such as Southwest Virginia’s Hungry Mother State Park, for views like nothing you’ve seen before.
“As the leaves change, I think that’s going to be a fantastic experience for folks,” she added.
If you’ve already checked the “daytrip” box and think you’re ready for an overnight camping trip, Baker suggests yurts as a smooth transition. These tent-cabin hybrids are circular domed structures that still force you to rough it without electricity or running water.
And finally, Baker cautions, have a Plan B in mind. Popular parks, such as Lake Anna State Park, can hit current capacity limits, even on a weekday.
It used to be that Labor Day weekend and the start of school signaled the end of vacation season.
But for all the restrictions and red tape that the coronavirus has wrapped around family travel, there is some fresh flexibility.
Virtual (and hybrid) learning and meetings mean that work and school can often take place virtually anywhere.
Back at Smith Mountain Lake, Baily of CB Rentals is preparing for a second busy season.
“With kids and adults having the ability to work from anywhere with an internet connection, we forecast a busy fall,” she said.
According to vacation rental site VRBO’s nationwide survey of families, 50% of respondents agreed that flexible school schedules provide more flexibility in vacationing, while 48% said they can work from anywhere. And 21% responded that working from anywhere creates big opportunities for travel for the remainder of the year.
My family is more than game for a bonus getaway or two. It’s easy to talk yourself into thinking that a beachfront view or mountain retreat can offer a more relaxing backdrop for wall-to-wall video conferences and the grind of multitasking.
But for the time being, we’re sticking to the backyard. Sure, it’s not the shore or even a yurt with a view. Because here’s the thing about family getaways: The harder you work for them and longer you wait in between, the better they feel.