A vacation doesn’t have to take you too far away.
With a few tweaks, this could be Lake Como. Champagne, France. I’m sipping rosé at noon, overlooking a lake, on the patio of a stone hotel.
Surprise! I’m in Wisconsin, 53 miles from my Milwaukee home.
After several months at home, the travel-bug became an itch I had to scratch, only I wasn’t ready to board a plane or leave my state. Instead, I was off to tiny and cute Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, with a population hovering around 1,000.
If you’re thinking of a staycation close to home, but wish to make it an adventure, here are 10 tips to consider.
Do Your Homework
Does the town or state you are visiting require proof of a negative COVID test upon arrival? Will you have to quarantine the minute you unpack and/or go back home? And don’t just check when you book. Check again before you depart. While in Elkhart Lake, Chicago instituted a travel quarantine for anyone coming from Wisconsin. Glad I didn’t book that cool new boutique hotel I was eyeing in downtown Chicago!
Choose a Small Town
With fewer COVID cases, not to mention thinner crowds, small towns are having a moment. Not hampered by costly rents or mortgages, business owners can give guests their space, whether it’s inside a restaurant or boutique, or strolling along the sidewalk. Bonus: Visit during the week for even more space. Also, so many museums, restaurants, and shops in America’s largest cities are closed right (or tightly regulated). Consider this an opportunity to stray off the beaten path. Coming from a metro area of at least a million people, I felt a little like Anne of Green Gables in Elkhart Lake. Fresh air!
Go Somewhere You’ve Never Been
I chose Elkhart Lake because no one in my family has been there and I usually head in the other direction (Lake Geneva) when I need a resort-town fix. While I’d traveled to this destination before, it wasn’t recently and I already had my eye on two new-to-me but long-standing restaurants on par with big-city dining: Paddock Club, owned by two sisters and where even the dessert plating is artsy (thanks to a partnership with a local pottery studio and their own ingenuity); and Lake Street Café, open for 21 years and serving the best focaccia I’ve ever had along with the state’s third-largest wine list.
Select Accommodations Carefully
If you can avoid it, a hotel with hallways and indoor common spaces isn’t the safest. Numbers-wise, you’ll be exposed to that many more people, heightening your risk for catching COVID-19. Opt for a private home (even an Airbnb apartment in a building exposes you to others) or a motel with exterior room entrances. Sprawling resorts have outdoor spaces. Try to avoid the elevator (germs on buttons or, worse, being in a confined space with others). Thankfully, my room at the newly-renovated Shore Club was on the second floor and had a private balcony, I only spotted two other guests, and breakfast pivoted to coffee and pastries to-go. A sprawling lawn with many seating areas, including some overlooking the lake, plus a Tiki bar meant lots of spots to explore.
Don’t Be Afraid to Splurge
I ordered wine with every meal and booked an 80-minute treatment—20 to 30 minutes longer than most massages and facials—at the best spa in town: Aspira Spa at The Osthoff Resort. As I sunk into the heated massage table for the Cedars Massage treatment—still a bit flushed from lunchtime rosé drunk on a 78-degree day—I knew I’d made the right decision. I mean, think of all that money we’ve saved since March by not dining out, attending concerts, or sipping a few rounds of drinks in a bar. This is also the time to pay more for a room with a balcony so you can have happy hour right there—not in the crowded hotel bar (which may or may not be open).
Support the Local Economy
As everyone knows, the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic have largely been those that are independently-owned—not the chains. Your money will have a greater impact on the destination if you dine at a restaurant or shop at a boutique with local roots. And if you aren’t sure about ordering the dessert or scooping up that soft sweater, just do it. These business owners are fighting to stay open—help them. In Elkhart Lake, I didn’t hesitate to buy comfy slippers at a cute wine shop (Vintage Elkhart Lake, owned by certified sommelier and California native Jaclyn Stuart) with wine glasses stitched on them because, help, winter is coming and my feet will most certainly be cold.
This al fresco-dining mantra, unfortunately, will expire very soon in the Northern part of the U.S. once temperatures drop, but not in states like Arizona, Texas, California, and Florida. Or, you may be lucky and find that a restaurant owner’s invested in heat lamps to extend the outdoor-dining season. I’m one of those people who did not dine in during the pandemic—I chose curbside carryout instead—so the prospect of returning to “the good old days” on my staycation wasn’t jiving with me. For this reason, I booked my trip in late September, not late October.
Pack Your Own Snacks (and Maybe Even Meals)
Breakfast buffets and even dining in a restaurant for the first meal of the day is no longer an option during the pandemic. You might find the hotel’s eating options are closed altogether. Or they may have pivoted to carry-out or deliver abbreviated versions of the breakfast to each room. Pack some fresh fruit, granola bars, or other snacks to enjoy between meals and you’ll never go hungry. Packing up the cooler with bottles of wine or beer, and snacks like cheese or cured meats, is not a bad idea because this may become your dinner. Book a room with a refrigerator so you can have things like a yogurt parfait without even getting dressed in the morning.
Try not to look at your phone. I made the mistake of doing this on day one of my staycation just before bed and woke up with a sore neck and a racing mind. On future nights I read in bed or indulged in a double feature (also in bed). This shift helped me wake up feeling more relaxed. If something happens at home, or even in the world, trust me, you’ll find out soon enough.
Bring Comfortable Walking Shoes
While many attractions are closed during the pandemic, parks and green spaces aren’t. Near every small town is a county, state, or natural park and you’d be a fool not to pack shoes you can easily walk a few miles in. Check a map ahead of time or, even better, consult with the hotel’s concierge or check-in desk for options that locals love. In Wisconsin, we all know about the Ice Age National Scenic Trail but there are so many trailheads that only if you are writing a guidebook would you know about each one. A contact of mine in Elkhart Lake suggested the trail’s LaBudde Creek Segment, which was new to me.
Set an Intention
Yoga students already know that if you set an intention for what you are about to do then you stay focused. The same goes for a vacation. Especially when your inspiration won’t come from now-shuttered museums or cultural centers. Are you stressed out with the whole remote-learning thing with your kids? Is WFH killing you with boredom? Bring a book, your yoga mat, an art project, a stack of magazines, whatever gets you inspired and helps you chill. You may even find your hotel—like many boutique hotels these days—includes a record player and vinyl library. If your accommodations have a kitchen, pop open a bottle of wine and whip up a meal using only the finest of ingredients bought at a local gourmet grocer. I packed my yoga mat to keep up with my twice-weekly yoga practice, refusing to let the new location be a deterrent!