I should have known better than to sign up for a surprise trip, and yet that’s exactly what I did.
It was December of 1997 when I stumbled across the Holy Grail: a glimmer of colorful wrapping paper hidden behind a slew of boxes in the basement. There, almost in plain sight, was a pile of perfectly wrapped Christmas presents with my name on them. Hesitantly, I reached for a small square one and turned it over in my hands. Before I knew what I was doing, I delicately peeled back the tape until a flap of the shimmering paper lifted.
Overcome by an irresistible curiosity, I gently tugged on the paper until it revealed a cassette tape featuring every song from Disney’s Pocahontas film. Since watching the animated movie, I dove into Pocahontas the way a cartoon character might jump off a ledge and disappear into a cup of water, vanishing completely. I donned Pocahontas pajamas, watched the movie on repeat, and played Pocahontas computer games on my big clunky Windows ’95 desktop. The cassette tape was exactly what I’d wanted, and so, with a triumphant smile plastered on my face, I folded the wrapping paper back into place, pushed down the tape, and placed the gift back in the pile of presents.
It didn’t matter that I had to wait two more weeks until I could “officially” open my present. It didn’t bother me that I had “ruined” my surprise, nor did I worry about the Oscar-winning performance I’d have to give my parents come Christmas morning as they awaited my reaction. Instead, I was happy to know what gift I had coming and appreciative for it, nonetheless. I had something wonderful on the horizon to look forward to, which left me giddy with anticipation.
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In many ways, this behavior has persisted well into my adult life. I don’t mind movie spoilers. I sometimes flip to the last page of a book before I begin reading it. I often ruin my own surprises by giving away birthday and Christmas gifts a week early, unable to contain my excitement at seeing a person’s face light up. Knowing this about myself, I should have known better than to sign up for a surprise trip, and yet that’s exactly what I did.
Pack Up + Go is a travel agency that focuses on surprise vacations, including road trips, staycations, train travel, or plane trips around the United States. The process starts by filling out an online survey that asks you everything from the number of days you’re looking to get away to the type of travel you prefer (action, relaxation, or culture). From there, the survey inquires into any destinations you’ve lived in, have recently visited, or have plans to visit soon, thereby eliminating the chance of being sent to, say, your very own hometown.
Additionally, Pack Up + Go tries to get a feel for its travelers by asking about their hobbies or interests. Whether you love dive bars, thrift shops, museums, or live music—this part of the survey is a chance to help shape your surprise trip. Once the survey is filled, you can choose your trip’s budget (per person for plane and train trips or per hotel room for staycations and road trips). For plane trips, for example, the budget can range from a minimum of $650 per person or a maximum of $5,000 per person for a vacation that is anywhere from three to 11 days. Once you’ve set your budget and filled out your survey, it’s time to just sit back and wait for the surprise.
In theory, I’ve always loved the idea of being surprised with an impromptu vacation. In my relationship, I tend to be the one immersed in travel planning, while my partner opts for a more “backseat” approach. I typically spend weeks planning, researching, and booking reservations for an upcoming trip, so I had looked forward to relinquishing control of this getaway. Or, so I thought.
One Week Before Take-Off: The (Losing) Battle of Restraint
The Friday before our departure, an email landed in my inbox from Pack Up + Go. Enclosed were our flight times and airport (excluding airline and destination), the predicted weather in our surprise destination, and a list of suggested items to pack. These being the first clues to our surprise trip, my curiosity immediately began running rampant. Like that little girl instinctively reaching for her Christmas presents, I began to tug at the wrapping paper of this surprise too.
From the weather, I could deduce that the city we’d be headed to would be warm and balmy, with clear skies on most days. This immediately knocked out towns like Portland, Maine (too cold) and Seattle, Washington (too rainy). As much as I tried to match our predicted weather to a place within the United States—the options were too vast, and so I moved on. I pulled the wrapping paper back further to look at Pack Up + Go’s Instagram account, highlighting spots their recent travelers had visited. I noticed a few repeat locales from every new image of a smiling traveler opening their surprise envelope at the airport. Charleston, Austin, Chicago, and Miami were quickly eliminated due to weather, and so in frustration, I turned toward the packing list.
From the provided packing list, I could glean that wherever we were going would have ample hiking trails (hint: pack hiking boots) and a good food scene (hint: pack a nice dinner outfit). Between the weather and packing list, I was no closer to uncovering our mystery trip. I tugged at the wrapping paper one more time with the only pieces of information I had left: our flight times and airport.
While Pack Up + Go hadn’t given us an airline or flight number, they had provided a round-trip departure and arrival time as well as an airport. Looking at the flights, I began to wonder just how many 7:29 a.m. flights were scheduled to leave LaGuardia’s Terminal B on October 22nd and return at 9:50 p.m. on October 24th. I pulled up the flight schedule and found just one: a United Airlines flight leaving to Denver, Colorado.
When our Pack Up + Go envelope arrived two days later with the disclaimer: “No Peeking Until Departure Day,” I went ahead and tore open the envelope to confirm what I already knew. Indeed, our surprise trip would take us to the Mile High City, where we would be spending two nights at the Kimpton Monaco Hotel in Downtown Denver.
The team at Pack Up + Go had arranged our hotel accommodations, a two-hour brewery tour, and made suggested dinner reservations for our visit. The rest of the travel packet contained information on Denver itself as well as a suggested itinerary, but ultimately the trip was left open and unplanned. I threw myself into last-minute trip planning in an effort to maximize our time in Colorado.
Friday: Grateful for Spoiling a Surprise
Arriving at the Kimpton Monaco in Downtown Denver, I was glad for the first time that trip that I had ruined our surprise. After calling the hotel a few days prior, I was able to secure us early check-in and an opportunity to unpack, change and relax before sightseeing (a Godsend, considering we had been up since 5 a.m.). The Kimpton Monaco is ideally located within walking distance of Denver’s main attractions, including the historic Larimer Square and Union Station. After a quick breakfast beneath the strung lights and Bronco’s banners of Larimer Square, we hopped in an Uber to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater.
Considered one of the world’s best venues, this Denver amphitheater dates back to the 1940s and is uniquely flanked by three giant red rocks called Creation, Ship, and Stage Rock. These three massive rocks form the venue’s stage, seating area, and sidewalls, creating a unique concert hall found nowhere else on earth. Beyond the amphitheater, Red Rocks Park is stunning with its 300-foot red sandstone formations covering more than 640 acres. Boasting endless hiking trails and a view of distant Denver (about 20-30 minutes away by car), Red Rocks Park is a must-see. Of course, we weren’t just here for red rocks, we were here for alpacas.
A few days before our trip, a simple search pointed me toward a husband and wife-owned alpaca ranch within Red Rocks Park. We’d decided to cancel our two-hour brewery tour in lieu of feeding alpacas in view of the Rocky Mountains. This under-the-radar ranch invites travelers to come by, learn about alpacas, and feed the fuzzy creatures. As we fed hay to a rambunctious young alpaca named Bennie, I was grateful for the second time that day that I had spoiled our surprise trip.
Saturday: The Joy of Planning Ahead
After an indulgent breakfast at our hotel, we took an Uber to a Hertz rental car about 20 minutes away. Earlier in the week, I’d researched different rental car locations until I found one that allowed us to rent and return a car within the same day. After reading through Pack Up + Go’s suggested itinerary, I was eager to experience Colorado’s famed hiking but realized we’d need a way to get there. And so, I booked us a rental car for a trip up to Rocky Mountain National Park.
The drive to Rocky Mountain National Park was about one and a half hours and took us past Boulder and onward to the small town of Estes Park, which is known as the base camp of the Rockies. As we entered the city of Estes Park, I noticed a slew of stopped cars and gawking people staring at a massive herd of wild elk. We pulled over as I eagerly jumped out of our car. Seemingly everywhere were elks of all sizes and ages. Massive male elks with their tangle of antlers sat languidly beneath a canopy of trees. Mother elks with a baby in tow casually crossed the street, halting traffic in their wake. A herd of female elk could be seen munching on grass in the center of town or eating leaves off bushes from front lawns. Everywhere we looked were at least 50 elk roaming about the city of Estes Park.
As it turns out, elk flock to Estes Park between mid-September and mid-October for mating season, also known as their “rut season,” when they descend to lower elevations. With over 2,400 elk in Estes Valley, seeing wild elk in town is about as common as seeing pigeons in New York City. As I stood gaping at the elk crossing the street every which way, I was grateful for the third time that trip that I had spoiled our surprise.
As we continued our drive out of Estes Park, we began to wind our way up the Rocky Mountains. My research in the days leading up to our departure had shown me that the Bear Lake trailhead was the most popular hike. We arrived at Bear Lake only to find it was about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot on a trail cluttered with tourists. Sure, the lake was beautiful, but after driving nearly two hours from Denver, we hoped for a walk that would prove more challenging.
As we began to leave the lake, we noticed a sign pointing toward others: Emerald Lake, Nymph Lake, and Dream Lake. We began to hike further into the park, leaving behind the throngs of travelers. As we gained elevation, we were greeted with light snow flurries and alpine lakes that proved more stunning than the next. Emerald Lake’s waters were indeed a deep emerald color that stood in stark contrast to the snow-covered banks and verdant pines, but it was Dream Lake that captured the imagination. Whereas at Bear Lake, the snow-peaked summits seemed to rise in the distance, at Dream Lake, it felt as if we were cradled in the summit of the Rockies with contrasting colors of blue, green, brown, and white on all sides.
As we drove away from Rocky Mountain National Park, I felt grateful for the fourth time since we’d arrived in Denver that I had spoiled our surprise trip. We quickly got back to the city, returned the rental car, and took an Uber back to the hotel for some downtime before dinner and a burlesque show at the Clocktower Cabaret.
In the days leading up to Denver, I’d stumbled across the Clocktower Cabaret and its upcoming “Blood and Lore” Halloween show that would combine the spooky tales of fictional and real characters with burlesque. At the time, I’d figured the Clocktower Cabaret would be a fun-albeit-racy post-dinner experience to enjoy while in Denver. While burlesque does involve female nudity, it is more of an art form that incorporates acting, drama, dance, singing, acrobatics, and yes, the occasional pastie.
At Clocktower Cabaret, each performer who performed poured a painstaking amount of detail and talent into a performance that encapsulated the essence of their horror-inspired character. Whether it was aerial yoga and animatronic wings to capture the legend of a child-eating forest creature, the sensational vocal stylings of a woman singing the sad song of La Llorona, or a ballet performance to Radiohead from a performer channeling Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde infamy—this show was well worth coming to Denver for.
Sunday: A Return and Revelation
After 48 hours spent hiking mountains, feeding alpacas, gawking at elk, exploring downtown Denver, eating fantastic fare, and applauding performers at the cabaret—on Sunday morning, we decided to be lazy. With our return flight scheduled for 3:50 p.m., we had just enough time to sleep in and enjoy another indulgent breakfast before heading to the airport.
I tried to imagine what our time in Denver would have looked like had I waited to open our Pack Up + Go envelope until we were standing at La Guardia Airport. Groggy and red-eyed at 5:30 a.m., how would we have reacted to the reveal of our surprise destination? In the end, there are some things I know for certain.
We would have arrived in Colorado tired and frustrated at having to wait six hours before we could check-in to our hotel room. We wouldn’t have fed alpacas or discovered a place where people and wild elk live side-by-side in harmony. We wouldn’t have found an affordable rental car with a same-day return or driven to the Rocky Mountains for the most beautiful hike either one of us had experienced. We wouldn’t have booked tickets for a burlesque show at an iconic cabaret venue that’s been wowing Denver since 2006.
While I may have torn the metaphorical wrapping paper from our surprise trip, I was glad I did. For as much as I thought relinquishing travel planning would be a treat, I realized in its absence just how much I enjoy the sweet anticipation and planning of something extraordinary on the horizon. I’ll always credit Pack Up + Go for surprising us with a trip to Denver, a city we likely would never have visited otherwise. But, in the end, I’ll credit myself for spoiling the surprise and making our trip unforgettable.