The purpose of travel is to experience. That doesn’t mean everyone will have the same experience, though. Quite the contrary – people can travel to the same destination simultaneously and have an entirely different experience. That is the beauty of travel.
Looking back at 2021, I had a lot of travel experiences. From my point of view, anything to do with history, coffee, and interesting people makes for a great experience. It was easy to craft a list of favorite travel experiences using those criteria – it was challenging to whittle it down to just the top ten.
These are my ten favorite travel experiences of 2021. Which of these do you think you would enjoy? Leave me a comment below!
Visiting My First Buc-ee’s – Warner Robins, GA
Starting the list with a gas station might seem silly, but Buc-ee’s is the gas station. After visiting the fascinating Museum of Aviation, I needed fuel for the car and road snacks for myself. So I did a quick Google Maps search for “gas stations” and found several. But one name stood out above all the rest: Buc-ee’s.
I’d heard of Buc-ee’s from fellow travelers. They would speak of the Texas-based national chain in a reverence often reserved for one-of-a-kind destinations. Far from a singular location, Buc-ee’s has expanded across half the country – one of the most recent additions was Exit 144 on Interstate 75 in Warner Robins.
Approaching on the four-lane Russell Parkway, the gas station seemed big. Turning into the parking lot, I was shocked to see a sign that prohibited tractor-trailers from entering. Could this really be a gas station solely for personal vehicles and small work trucks? Driving along the periphery, I counted 100 gas pumps covered in a gargantuan shelter. Car, trucks, vans, vehicles towing boats and trailers, hundreds of cars effortlessly coming and going.
The moment I stepped inside, I laughed out loud. Small shopping carts were lined up at the sliding glass doors. Their vibrant red logo beamed on a wall above four soda fountains with every imaginable type of drink – I even found homemade root beer to take on the road. In the center of the store, workers prepared sandwiches, chips, and fresh fudge that were snatched up as soon as they were set on the counter.
Finally ready to leave, I placed the shopping basket on the counter. A 32-ounce homemade root beer, a six-pack of fresh fudge, a Buc-ee’s t-shirt, and a bag of their famous Beaver Nuggets. I spent less than $20 and nearly half an hour at the first Buc-ee’s I ever visited.
Where can I find the next one?
Writing About Coffee – Charlotte, NC
When I had a few weeks to explore Charlotte, I immediately thought about the coffee scene. Although the Charlotte area was settled by Scots-Irish immigrants in the mid-1700s – and the city was incorporated in 1768 – the Queen City is just now seeing a boom in local craft expansion. Craft breweries, art galleries, and local coffee shops are some of the latest additions.
I googled all the coffee shops in Charlotte, including various neighborhoods throughout the city limits. Then, I plotted them on a Google Map and began formulating a plan to visit each one of them. For nearly three weeks, I visited two or three local coffee shops every few days until I had seen all of them – well, almost all of them.
This was one of my favorite travel experiences of the year because I usually don’t have so much time or freedom to explore a destination. I typically have three days filled with non-stop exploration from sunrise until sunset. Even in smaller destinations I usually can’t visit all the coffee shops. This was different, and that’s why it was a favorite experience of the year.
And also – I needed that caffeine.
Discovering the Second Oldest Dairy Queen – New Smyrna Beach, FL
The four-lane highway was divided with a median of grass and small trees, lined with motels and car dealerships and autobody workshops, filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic chugging along at reasonable speeds. I was keeping my eye on the bumper in front of me when I caught something out of the corner of my eye – a Dairy Queen sign.
At first, I paid it scant attention – Dairy Queens are a dime a dozen. But then I saw the retro blue and yellow awning stretched across the front of a concrete building, a long line of people standing outside, and picnic tables with matching umbrellas. What kind of Dairy Queen was this?
In 1953, Mary McGuirk built the Dairy Queen along U.S. Highway 1, hoping to take advantage of traffic during the road trips of the 50s and 60s. After she passed away in 1978, her son, Jim, took over the business. He refused to sell it or make a single alteration to the retro design. However, he did expand the ice cream-only menu to include Nathan’s hot dogs. In 1996, Jason McGuirk became the third generation of the family to own and operate the Dairy Queen.
Visitors order from a window beneath a shelter, pick it up from another window and enjoy the treat at one of the picnic tables scattered beneath the towering palm trees. The original neon sign, old lampposts, and long-forgotten color scheme have never been changed.
Sitting at a table with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard and listening to the constant hum of traffic on the highway that never seems to stop was one of my favorite travel experiences of the year. Sometimes, travel is about taking it easy.
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Going for a Hike at Natural Bridge State Park – Natural Bridge, VA
Traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Waynesboro and Roanoke, I always saw signs and heard stories about Natural Bridge State Park. I had seen lots of photos of benches on a concrete path with a view of the natural bridge spanning a small river. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience.
After spending a few days in Lexington, I headed toward the state park to go for a hike. Descending 112 steps – plus an additional 25 steps inside the visitor center – I walked around a bend in the paved path and found the natural bridge. My jaw dropped. Hundreds of feet high, the opening gaped like the mouth of a whale, swallowing the river and path and pedestrians alike. People on the trail were no more than tiny figures compared to the sheer enormity of the opening.
I stopped directly beneath the natural bridge and craned upwards. It was like standing in a cathedral admiring the painting on the ceiling, only this was natural carved stone from millennia of flowing water on the river. I laughed again. How else was I supposed to react?
Exploring the North Carolina Pottery Highway – Seagrove, NC
The North Carolina Pottery Highway is a short, 15-mile stretch of NC Highway 705 between Robbins and Seagrove. The highway connects dozens of local pottery studios, some more than a hundred years old and run by descendants of the original. During a road trip across North Carolina, I had the opportunity to spend an entire day exploring the highway.
I was introduced to the world of pottery and a brief history of the region at Jugtown Pottery, where I met siblings Travis and Bayle Owens. Next door, I had the chance to chat with their uncle, Boyd Owens. He was one of the most interesting people I met all year!
Throughout the rest of the day, I visited other pottery studios. Some were located inside log cabins, others in modern chic buildings. In Seagrove, I met with David Fernandez, the mayor of the town, owner of The General Wine and Brew, and a potter along with his wife, Alexa Modderno.
Friendly people, gorgeous pottery, and a pleasant drive through the countryside cemented this one day as a favorite travel experience of the year.
Spending My First Week at the Gulf of Mexico – Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, AL
I had always wanted to visit the Gulf of Mexico. Early in 2021, I planned to attend a travel writer’s workshop organized by the Midwest Travel Network. I decided to arrive a week earlier and have a nice workation.
I spent a week working in a Gulf view condo, exploring the town, and loving the temperate, tropical climate. The windows in the car were constantly rolled down, music blaring as I traveled back and forth along the mostly deserted four-lane parkway, the warm air blowing through the car. It was the happiest I had been in a long time and set the pace for the entire year.
At the end of the week, I had maybe done a little more play than work – but that’s okay. I played rounds at miniature golf courses, went for hikes on the beach and at Gulf State Park, and devoured some of the best food of the year. But I didn’t nearly visit all the attractions, and I never got onto the water with a sailboat – so I have reasons to return to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Soon, I hope.
Sunrise at Jetty Park – Fort Pierce, FL
I believe anything before noon should be illegal. That has always just been my clever way of admitting I’m not a morning person. However, there are times when I’m willing to get up early enough for sunrise. When I learned Fort Pierce was nicknamed “Sunrise City,” I knew this was one of those times.
Half an hour before sunrise, I arrived at Jetty Park – a public park with a paved surface on the rocky jetty protecting the Fort Pierce Inlet. A few fishermen already set up in folding chairs with coolers and umbrellas and fishing gear. I set up my tripod and camera with a remote shutter release – and waited for sunrise.
The sunrise was not colorful, but it was spectacular. Beams of light protruded from behind a bank of clouds just above the horizon, casting shades of orange across the sky. Aside from the constant crashing of waves on the rocks, it was silent. Conversations were muted and infrequent like everyone was waiting for the play to begin in a gorgeous theatre.
The day truly started when the sun finally peaked above the clouds. Brown pelicans flew across the jetty just feet above my head. Boats churned through the choppy water, heading out into the Atlantic for a day of fishing and fun. Conversations grew louder, water sprayed across the jetty from the waves, and wildlife became more populous – it was like the train that had finally gained speed and roared down the tracks.
After capturing all the photos I could, I sat on a bench just to enjoy the moment. A brown pelican sat on the bench next to me. It was nice to have company.
Exploring the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (Again) – Merritt Island, FL
I visited the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for the first time when I was 16 years old. For me, it was the most significant moment in my young life so far. My childhood dream was to be an astronaut, so visiting the heart of NASA in Florida was like a dream come true.
While traveling along Florida Highway A1A, I realized I would pass by the visitor complex. I reached out to the public relations folk to ask if I could visit for a day and write a travel guide for others. I’m still working on that travel guide because it is much more complex than I thought!
I arrived just minutes after the gates opened, and I was the last visitor to leave that day. I had spent an entire day exploring the Mars missions, the future of NASA, and gawking at the space shuttle Atlantis. Yes, I was gawking. That alone would have made this my favorite travel experience of the year, but along with the other exhibits and the towering Rocket Garden, this was certainly one of the best of the year!
Traveling Scenic Highway 30A – Santa Rosa Beach, FL
The sun was getting low to the horizon, and I had just arrived in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. It was as good a place as any to stop for the night. I saw the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier nearby on Google Maps – my favorite road trip planning tool. Sunset on the pier would be nice, I thought.
I parked beside the pier and walked across a covered shelter. That’s where I met two ladies – mother and daughter – with a local tip that would change everything for me. I told them I wrote about road trips and was currently on a spontaneous, itinerary-free journey across the Florida Panhandle. In unison, they said I should visit Florida 30A.
County Highway 30A is a two-lane road connecting more than a dozen real estate communities along the Gulf Coast. Each community – Dune Allen and Blue Mountain Beach and Seaside and Ally’s Beach – presented a unique and gorgeous aesthetic. Meticulously designed townscapes, carefully controlled residential architecture, and a unique color palette distinguished each community.
I spent one day driving along scenic Highway 30A – but that wasn’t enough. That night, I found a nice hotel nearby in Panama City Beach and returned for the second day of exploring the scenic coastal highway. Local food, desserts, a few coffee shops, one bookstore, and a hike on the beach later, and I had barely scratched the surface of what the area had to offer.
It was one of the most surprising destinations I had ever visited. It was one of my favorite travel experiences of the year. But it was also one of the most bittersweet places to leave behind because I didn’t have enough time to explore it as fully as I wanted.
I need to return. And when I do, I might not leave.
Seeing the Million Dollar View – Lake Lure, NC
There are a few travel experiences that took my breath away. This was one of them and the only such travel experience I had all year.
Paul helped everyone board the covered pontoon boat at the marina. Minutes later, the one-hour guided tour with Lake Lure Tours began. Paul was inciteful, full of fantastic stories to share, and comical at just the right moments. It was an entertaining ride across the peaceful lake as we learned about the history of the area and iconic homes on the lakeshore.
We slowly made our way east across the lake for half the journey with the sun at our backs. Then, suddenly, Paul exclaimed, “Everybody be ready to look to your left. I’m about to show you what the locals call the Million Dollar View.”
The boat turned – and for the briefest of moments, my breath caught in my chest. The sunlight shimmering on the choppy water was almost blinding. In the distance, a giant valley between towering mountain peaks trailed into the foggy distance. It was like ornate bookends on a gorgeous shelf.
Paul gave us a few minutes to enjoy the view, but the guided boat tour soon continued. I didn’t have the chance to change lenses or capture more than a few photos. This photo is good enough, but it still doesn’t do the experience justice. Then again, I’m not sure any photo could do the “Million Dollar View” justice.
But it’s something I want to try someday. More than anything, I just want to see this view again. But next time, I’m renting a boat for the day.