10 Vacation Ideas to Stir Your Soul

Whether you’re seeking a destination you’ve never considered or simply a new perspective on an old favorite, here are some unforgettable adventures.

eye-opening-vacation-experiences-galapagos-sea-lions Ralph Lee Hopkins

Sometimes vacation isn’t about just getting R&R. Sometimes you experience something unforgettable that changes the way you look at the world. Maybe it’s a slice of earth’s natural beauty that stops you in your tracks, or a new experience that whisks you—delightfully!—out of your comfort zone. Maybe it’s a historical site or the opportunity to give back to the local culture. Here are some of the trips that most inspired us. Could they do the same for you?

1. Walk amongst giants in California

eye-opening-vacation-experiences-redwoods California Redwood trees can grow to nearly 400 feet in height—or roughly as tall as a 36-story building. Michael Hanson/Aurora Photos

If you stand at the base of a redwood tree, the view up is otherworldly—ancient trunks and outstretched olive-colored limbs woven together in an intricate net, set against the sky. The giants of northern California’s Redwood National and State Parks are the tallest trees on Earth—up to 370 feet—and have existed here for thousands of years. Still, these trees remain a mystery. No one knows why they grow so tall. Scientists do know they’re uncannily hardy. Because the soil here has few nutrients, the trees rely on one another for nutrition. Dying trees decay and return to the earth to enrich the soil and feed their living friends, helping them shoot to the sky.

Each year, curious explorers journey here to take in the majesty. The adventuresome stand in trunks hollowed by nature—tiny specks of human life, silenced by the wonder.

2. Have a whale of a time in Hawaii

Humpback whales in Hawaii Weighing over 30 tons, a breaching humpback whale creates a splash you won’t forget. Shutterstock

Just off the boat’s bow, a humpback whale and her calf swim side-by-side, their gray skin shimmering in the sunlight. It’s the type of unforgettable sight that awaits on whale-watching tours in the Hawaiian islands December through April, when more than 10,000 humpbacks mate, calve and nurse their young. Come summer, the behemoths migrate more than 3,000 miles north to the nutrient-rich waters of Alaska. Whether you see them against the jagged, blue-hued glaciers of the Inside Passage or beneath sunny Hawaiian skies, you’re witnessing nature at its most raw and powerful.

3. Journey to the bottom of the earth

eye-opening-vacation-experiences-antarctica penguins Watch as penguins waddle through their virtually untouched habitat. Andrew Peacock/Aurora Photos

“When my friend suggested we take a cruise to Antarctica,I wasn’t sure about it until she said, ‘We’ll see penguins.’

‘Penguins?’ I said. ‘I’m in!’

Antarctica is amazing. You’re in this beautiful ocean, it’s really quiet, and you’re just watching nature. It was worth every minute, all the money, putting on the parka and boots every day, because you’re seeing something not many people get to: nature so pristine, mostly untouched—though showing some effects of global warming. You come home more aware. Now anytime there’s an article on Antarctica, I read it. It’s got a place in my heart.” —Erica Goldberg, AAA Member

4. See one-of-a-kind creatures in the Galapagos Islands


“As a nature lover, I often wonder what places looked like before civilization entered the scene. The Galapagos Islands gave me a glimpse of that. The number of visitors is limited, and most of the islands are uninhabited. So when I went on an expedition cruise, no one was around—just us, the pure air, and the silence. And the animals! We strolled along an island beach where a band of sea lions lounged, sunning themselves—completely unfazed by our presence. (The lack of predators means the animals don’t fear people.) Unusual birds, like blue-footed boobies, waddled past, nearly brushing against our legs.

But nothing topped the thrill I encountered while snorkeling: Two sea lion pups swam up and blew bubbles at my mask, signaling they wanted to play. As they dove and darted around me, I tried to keep up in their liquid game of chase. It was thrilling! Then they swam away and it was just me again, floating in a vast sea, in a place that felt like Eden.” —Lucinda Hahn, AAA Living Executive Editor

5. Stroll the Freedom Trail in Boston

Freedom Trail in Boston One of America’s most historic cities offers a firsthand look at our country’s beginnings. iStock

It was on the narrow streets of downtown Boston that brave colonists began to speak out in support of freedom—and a new nation. The people and places that helped the city become the “birthplace of the American Revolution” come to life along the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail. A red line, laid in bricks or painted along sidewalks, leads the way to 16 sites. Imagine voices raised in protest at the “home of free speech,” Faneuil Hall, and see where Paul Revere began his midnight ride. It’s a history lesson that stirs the soul, a humbling glimpse of the unshakeable determination of our forefathers.

6. Revisit WWII in Normandy

Revisit WWII in Normandy Row after row of white crosses represent only a fraction of American lives lost on D-Day. Yadid Levy/Aurora Photos

“Ever since I saw the movie The Longest Day, about the events of D-Day, I’ve wanted to visit the beaches at Normandy. During a river cruise along the Seine, I got to go—and being there was awesome. It’s pretty sobering to see the distance those guys came across that bare sand to attack those vertical cliffs. And when you realize many of them were just teenagers, it’s mind-blowing. We also visited the Normandy American Cemetery. Those 10,000 white crosses were quite a sight. And, as our guide explained, they represent only a third of Americans who lost their lives in Normandy. It was definitely a bucket-list experience.” — David Miller, AAA Member

7. Explore a lost civilization at Machu Picchu


“Machu Picchu is alluring, mysterious—it kind of calls your name. Just getting there takes a lot. We rode the train up through the mountains, and it became misty and foggy as we got closer. By foot, we entered the complex through a narrow, stone passage, and then—wow! We were hit with this beautiful view over the mountains. It’s just awe-inspiring. As we walked around, I was amazed by the manpower it took the Incas to build it. I’ve since helped AAA Members travel to Machu Picchu, and there’s always something luring them, whether it’s spiritual or historical or just the intrigue of it. And it delivers.” —Kimberly Scheetz, AAA Travel Advisor

8. See Europe from a new perspective on the Danube

Cruising on the Danube in Europe A slow glide along the Danube River offers the perfect pace. AmaWaterways

“Cruising on the Danube in late fall was pretty amazing. To wake up in the morning, go out on your balcony and see the mist rising off the river, as the old churches and the little towns go by—it was surreal, in a way. And the fall foliage brought so many beautiful colors out. One of the highlights was a bike ride we took through the Wachau Valley in Austria. Those endless, endless vineyards … stopping to take pictures of a clump of grapes left over from the harvest, pedaling over cobblestones on narrow, curving roads, through towns that look like they’re out of a storybook. The valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you definitely see why: It’s very unspoiled, very unique, and anyone who goes to Austria should see it. It’s a privilege to be among something that special.” —Alex Kantor, AAA Travel Advisor

9. Stay a While in the Eternal City

St Peter's Basilica is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture St. Peter’s Basilica is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. twistah/Shutterstock

No city in the world holds as many mighty relics of the past—yet pulses so vividly with life in the present—as Italy’s capital. It’s this mix that’s made Rome so alluring, and kept it so relevant long after the fall of the massive empire it once oversaw. The magnificence of the nearly 2,000-year-old Colosseum inspires wonder—especially on the just-reopened top levels. The Roman Forum is now an open-air museum where you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back through time. And the masterpieces of the Vatican Museums make up one of the world’s richest art collections.

But a good chunk of any Rome visit should be set aside for the unhurried experience of la dolce vita: strolling through timeless, twisting streets; pausing to people-watch in an ancient piazza; peeking inside centuries old neighborhood churches; and enjoying leisurely meals in unassuming trattorias. Before long you’ll be transformed—no longer just an observer, but now part of the pulse that makes Rome so eternal.

10. Ride the Rails Across the Last Frontier


As you board the train in Anchorage, your mind is on your destination—Denali National Park & Preserve, an eight-hour ride away. But as you settle in next to your panoramic viewing window, the train gains speed, carrying you through sylvan strands of fir and birch, past rushing rivers and fields ablaze with hot-pink wildflowers. Alaska’s awe-inspiring wilderness is but an arm’s length away, unfurling before you. You sit back in wonder—and realize that today is about the journey.

Maybe you take photos—and spot a bear! Maybe you listen to your car’s Alaskan host telling stories about the culture and wildlife—and giving an excited heads-up when Denali, North America’s tallest peak, reveals itself on the horizon. Perhaps you mosey downstairs for an exquisite meal in the white-tablecloth dining room. (It’s worth springing for a ticket to cars that offer this delight.) And maybe—no, this one is a must—you venture onto the open-air platform at the end of your car. There, you lean out into Alaska’s embrace—feeling her wind in your hair, drinking in the purest of air and wishing that this journey would never end.

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