Made in the USA is an OprahMag.com series that celebrates exploring America’s top destinations. While social media makes it seem like real travel means escaping to far-flung locales, this series is an ode to the best places to road trip-or staycate!-right in our own backyard.
After I graduated from college and moved to New York on my own, the city kept me in a constant state of wonder. On weekends, I’d take myself on long walks to explore the best museums, latest trendy restaurants, or coolest bookshops Manhattan had to offer. I was enamored; simply venturing “downtown” to neighborhoods like SoHo or the West Village sounded so chic to the ears of a suburban Maryland native.
But after a few years-and far too many overpriced meals, delayed subway rides, and grumpy run-ins with other dismayed commuters-the new car smell of New York began to wear off for me. Suddenly, I had an intense itch to get out of town and go somewhere…anywhere. It was right around that time that my best friend announced she was going to spend her summer in law school abroad in Paris. She had barely said the words before I booked a ticket.
That first trip to Paris changed my life. I came home to New York blathering to anyone who would listen about the City of Lights and its romantic architecture, sparkling Eiffel tower, and leisurely long lunches fueled by glasses of wine. I had officially caught the travel bug in a major way. While other women my age were saving up their extra dollars for shoes or handbags, I was pocketing away savings for future plane tickets and stays at tiny boutique hotels. Over the next few years (because I was lucky enough to have said savings and the privilege to do so), I would find ways to travel on a budget to everywhere from London, Barcelona, and Amsterdam to Bangkok and the islands of Thailand-and make a few return visits to Paris, too. When I finally met a spontaneity-prone boyfriend who was as open to adventure as I was, we hit destinations like Havana, Cuba and Cartagena, Colombia, making memories together around the world.
I had become a full-fledged wanderluster, someone who spent hours on Pinterest and Instagram combing through travel photos and signing up for every discount travel e-mail alert and newsletter possible. But whenever I would get notifications for local destinations-train rides to North Carolina or hotels on sale in upstate New York-I would scroll right past them. To me, cities that were here in the U.S., and especially those within driving distance, didn’t count as real travel. A true getaway, I thought, meant visiting a city where I would arrive after an exhausted few hours of flying to be culture shocked by the language, food, and sights-or all of the above.
And then I got invited by Land Rover on a press trip to visit Vermont, with the opportunity to drive their new 19MY Range Rover Sport PHEV-first to the small town of Manchester, Vermont, then the college town of Burlington, for the weekend. At first, I almost passed, thinking, “Shouldn’t I save my vacation time for a real vacation?” But then I looked at my boyfriend, with whom I desperately needed some quality time, and said It’s just a weekend…why the heck not?
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So that’s how I-someone who knows nothing about cars and drives a few times a year when she visits her parents back home in Maryland-ended up driving a luxury SUV on the open road to the state of Vermont for the weekend. I wasn’t initially very excited about taking a trip to a state that’s essentially right next door (read: not exotic, in my mind). And, as someone who isn’t a great driver, I also wasn’t super stoked about road tripping.
But before I knew it, I found my body relaxing behind the wheel, ooh-ing and aah-ing with my significant other, who was sending videos to all of his friends because he was super pumped about the Range’s bells and whistles. (Smooth drive! Buttery leather seats! Mini-fridge in the armrest!) As green trees whizzed by the window and Ed Sheeran blasted from the sound system, I thought to myself: Maybe this whole road tripping in the USA idea ain’t so bad after all.
We arrived to the Kimpton Taconic Hotel in Manchester right at sunset, and I was immediately charmed. The lobby decor was warm, full of New England touches, with a scent in the air that was at once woodsy and spicy-like a fireplace had given Christmas a maple-laced hug. Dinner at the hotel’s restaurant Copper Grouse featured delicious comfort food, from soft pretzel bites and hand cut french fries to pan seared scallops and a juicy, cheesy burger.
It was exactly the fuel we needed to get prepared for the Land Rover Experience Driving School the next day, where a certified instructor took this nervous driver off-roading on a course deep in the woods-woods that, I should mention, were populated with hills still covered in the post-winter ice that was finally beginning to melt into spring.
To say I was nervous would be an understatement-but we spent the next three hours patiently being taught the many ways the Range Rover sport can handle any terrain…even wading through a six-foot-high puddle of water or a huge pile of rock-hard snow. At one point, I was driving through a mound of ice so high, two of the car’s wheels were completely off the ground-though I was nervous, I felt safe. Those cars were made for this kind of thing, and afterward, I felt much more confident in my skills as a driver. Here in Vermont, I found myself doing something I never would’ve done in New York City…or anywhere, for that matter.
That first dinner at the Copper Grouse, by the way, was only our initial introduction to the food culture of Vermont, where everything is farm-to-table, a trend that leads the chefs at basically any dining establishment to get real creative with their dishes. During our final dinner in Manchester at Boorn Brooke Farm (an enchanting country estate straight out of a fairytale that you can rent for events or an overnight stay), I tried squab for the first time ever (fun fact: apparently, squab is, um…pigeon?) and a goat cheesecake topped with caramelized apples that I can still taste in my dreams.
Next it was off to Burlington, where we stayed at the Hotel Vermont, which felt uniquely…well, Vermont, but somehow, in a different way. This college town was visibly more eclectic and urban than its sister, Manchester. As soon as we arrived, we were off to tour the Soda Plant, a small business base camp in Burlington that’s home to burgeoning businesses including a boutique coffee retailer, Brio Coffeeworks, and the winery and tasting room Co Cellars. But nothing was more Burlington to me than Foam Brewers, the heart of Vermont’s rising brewery scene, which offers the latest in craft beer (including a sweet, pink option that I, a beer newbie, actually loved) while also putting on events to showcase the work of local musicians and artists.
That night over dinner at Hotel Vermont’s Juniper Bar and Restaurant-after devouring plates of maple wind farm fried chicken and rabbit ragout chevre gnocchi-I realized: In just four days and two cities, in a state not far from New York, I had discovered a destination that was unlike any place I had ever been. This wasn’t Paris, or Thailand, or Barcelona; it was an experience all its own. For years, I’d defined travel as something that required hours standing in security at the airport, long flights, and months and months of saving money to accomplish. But a quick road trip had opened my eyes to sights, sounds, and foods I’d never experienced.
The next morning, on the drive back to New York, I let the window down so I could feel the cool Vermont air blow threw my air. And then, I felt something familiar: The travel bug, scratching again. Only this time, I was ready to check out more of what America has to offer me. And I can’t wait to see where life takes me next.
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