In just the past few months, the Stuart family went on a safari in Kenya, toured Auschwitz and rode a gondola in Venice. But, like everything else in the era of COVID-19, the vacations were all virtual.
“We, as a family, have always loved to travel,” Rachael Stuart said. “So when COVID hit and we couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, we said, ‘Well gosh, we still want to see things and don’t want to go stir crazy.’ That’s how it started.”
Every week, Stuart, her husband Jeremy, and their four children, Karlen, Rogen, Ryker and Tiger, would choose a new place to travel to from their Woodland living room.
They planned out which monuments and museums to visit, picked an authentic meal to recreate at home and sometimes capped the trip with a Disney movie, if one corresponded with the area they visited.
“We’re big Disney fans,” Stuart said. “It didn’t always work out, but when we did the South Pacific Islands we watched ‘Moana.’ When we did central Mexico we watched ‘Coco’ and then we watched ‘Ratatouille’ when we went to France.”
Besides the movies, Stuart said the family chose mostly YouTube videos of walking tours or museum tours instead of travel documentaries, because they liked the immersive feel. Most of those they watch were just filmed by normal people on vacation, she said.
“It was really quite cool because they’re videoing with their phone or camcorder so you’re just seeing what they are seeing as they walk around. It almost felt like you were there walking next to them,” she said.
In total, the family went on a dozen virtual vacations, and they plan to keep going over the summer.
Their school year trips kicked off with Easter Island to learn about the mystery of the giant Moai statues, then on to Central Mexico to see the monarch butterfly migration the kids learned about in science.
They saw Jerusalem over Easter, then went on to Germany where they visited Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for the Disneyworld and Disneyland castles.
In Germany, they also visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, to coincide with the school’s World War II lessons, Stuart said. They chose a video by a man who walked the entire complex, translating German signs into English.
“It was really a sobering experience. We weren’t there in person, but you’re there with a person who is walking through and talking about it. It’s not just a documentary, it’s a completely different feel,” Stuart said. “It felt like you had videoed it and were back at home watching your home video.”
After Germany’s meal of schnitzel, bratwurst and pretzels, the family moved on to Venice, Italy, then Paris. Stuart said they toured the Louvre Museum so her son could write his art essay and then virtually went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which has been her daughter’s dream.
“We’ve always wanted to visit Europe and certain places so this gave us a little insight into what we could see,” Stuart said. “It was a little preview.”
Some of the Stuart children had qualified to go to state for swimming this year, Stuart said, but since it was canceled, they decided to visit Greece and tour the training grounds of the first Olympic Games.
“It was neat to still experience some sports tradition even though we can’t live it,” Stuart said.
Then came one of her favorite trips: A safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
“I did not realize how docile and non-threatening cheetahs are,” Stuart said. “They just hop into the jeeps and hang out there.”
That led the family to research cheetahs, giving them an organic learning opportunity. In fact, each stop on the trip taught them new things, Stuart said.
For example, they didn’t realize the inside halls of the pyramids in Egypt were mostly bare rock.
“We did a walking tour walked down into the pyramids and we expected that the walls were all decorated with hieroglyphics. Well, there’s nothing on them. They’re all plain. So that was really surprising to us,” Stuart said.
And the Taj Mahal in India and the Great Wall of China were both larger than they thought, Stuart said.
After watching a video of a college student climbing all the steps on the Great Wall, Stuart said they “were tired just watching him.”
“Note to self: Be prepared with plenty of water when we go there,” she said.
Their final school year stop was back in the United States. At their youngest son’s request, they visited New York City. They toured the Statue of Liberty, the Bronx Zoo, the Empire State Building and the world-famous FAO Schwarz toy store (featured in the movie “Big”), ending the night with homemade pizza.
While most of the meals were homemade, the family also got take out a few times to support local restaurants, Stuart said. During their trip to Asia, they ordered Thai food, to be the “most authentic we possible could be, living here in America.”
The most challenging meal to cook was falafel during their Egypt trip, Stuart said.
“I don’t have the right equipment so I wasn’t able to make it quite like it should be. But we tried and got an idea,” she said. “(The meals) wrapped it all up and immersed you in the experiences.”
Overall, Stuart said it was a great learning and bonding experience for a normally on-the-go family.
“We had the choice of ‘woe is me, look what we’re missing out on during quarantine’ or the opportunity to use the time given to us in a positive way,” she said.
The virtual trips helped the family be more aware of the world and appreciate the things her children read in textbooks more fully, Stuart said, making them more real.
“We won’t forget that time. Even though we didn’t actually go there, it felt like we did a family vacation,” she said.
And with plans to virtually visit Scotland and England over the summer to see where their ancestors once came from, Stuart said the trips are a free way to beat boredom and see things they had always wanted to see.
“Now we’re like, where can we go next?”