Why I spoiled my own surprise trip
and have no regrets about it
In today’s newsletter: spoiling a surprise vacation. Thank you to our paid subscribers! With your paid subscriptions we’ve supported incredible non-profits, including the Lilith Fund, World Central Kitchen, Refugio Animal Holbox, Womankind, Girls Write Now, Women for Women, Heart of Dinner, and Black Mamas Matter. If you’ve found your way here but are not yet subscribed, here, let me help you with that:
It was December of 1997 when I stumbled across 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. Overcome by an irresistible curiosity, I picked up a small gift and gently tugged at the paper until it revealed a cassette tape from Disney’s Pocahontas film.
The cassette tape was exactly what I had wanted, and so, with a triumphant smile plastered on my face, I folded the wrapping paper back into place and put the gift 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. I had something wonderful on the horizon to look forward to, which left me giddy with anticipation.
In many ways, this behavior has persisted 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 reaction. 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, 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 choose your trip’s budget and wait for the surprise.
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 reaching for her Christmas presents, I began to tug at the wrapping paper of this surprise.
From the weather, I could tell that the city we’d be headed to would be warm and balmy, with clear skies on most days. 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, and so I tugged at the wrapping paper one more time with the only pieces of information I had left: our flight times and airport.
Looking at the flights, I began to wonder just how many 7:29 AM flights were scheduled to leave LaGuardia’s Terminal B on October 22nd and return at 9:50 PM 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 tore open the envelope to confirm what I already knew. Indeed, our surprise trip would take us to the Mile High City.
The team at Pack Up + Go had arranged our hotel accommodations, a two-hour brewery tour, and made suggested dinner reservations for our visit, but ultimately the trip was left open. I threw myself into last-minute trip planning in an effort to maximize our time in Colorado.
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 AM). 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 flanked by three giant red rocks called Creation, Ship, and Stage Rock. These three massive rocks form the venue’s stage, seating area, and side walls creating a unique concert hall found nowhere else on earth. Beyond the amphitheater, Red Rocks Park is home to 300-foot red sandstone formations covering more than 640 acres. Of course, we weren’t just here for red rocks, we were here for alpacas.
A few days before our trip, an online search pointed me toward a husband and wife-owned alpaca ranch within Red Rocks Park. 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.
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. Earlier in the week, I had researched different rental car locations until I found one that allowed us to rent and return a car within the same day.
The drive to Rocky Mountain National Park took us past the small town of Estes Park, which is known as the base camp of the Rockies. As we entered Estes Park, there were wild elks everywhere. Massive male elks with their tangle of antlers sat languidly beneath a canopy of trees while mother elks with a baby in tow casually crossed the street, halting traffic in their wake. Everywhere we looked were at least 30 elk roaming around the city.
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, I was grateful for the third time that trip that I had spoiled our surprise.
As we continued our drive, 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.
As we began to leave the lake, we noticed a sign pointing towards 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. 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.
After 48 hours spent hiking mountains, feeding alpacas, gawking at elk, and exploring downtown Denver—on Sunday morning, we decided to be lazy. With our return flight scheduled for 3:50 PM, we had just enough time to sleep in and enjoy 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 AM, 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 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.
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 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.
Princess Diana, Fodor’s finest hotels, and shrimp orzo
READ Fodor’s Finest Hotels round-up, which includes 101 of the world’s best hotels, and start dreaming of your next getaway.
COOK this easy and flavorful shrimp orzo dish from Blue Apron, which knocked my socks off.