When we were kids, vacations were the BEST.
But why were they the best? Was it because our parents planned everything? Or just the fact that being a kid made everything an adventure?
We are Tara and Eileen, and we recently tried to think of our favorite adult vacation spot...and we were stumped. But we could both immediately remember our favorite vacations as kids:
Eileen: I grew up in Montana, so my family went to Yellowstone Park a ton. We had four kids in my family, so my parents would sneak two of us in to avoid paying for the extra occupancy — these were super-low-budget trips. Then, one year, by some wonderful mistake, we were given this multi-room suite in the Old Faithful Inn. Staying in this place — with its sitting room, bedrooms, and claw-foot bathtub — felt like we’d won the lottery.
Tara: When I was a kid, my family used to own a boat that was kept at a marina on Lake Winnipesaukee in Gilford, New Hampshire. My two siblings, my parents, our dog Shawnee, and I would spend most weekends there, where we would also sleep on the boat. Thinking about it now, my father probably spent way too much money on the actual boat and then couldn’t afford for us to stay in hotels. So we would all bunker up in the cabin where my siblings and I would share the tiniest bed and the waves would rock us to sleep.
We knew what we had to do. We needed to rediscover whatever it was that made vacationing as a kid so much fun.
So we found the most offbeat and quirky vacation rentals possible in Northern California and set off on a journey to rediscover our inner kids and fall in love with vacationing again.
Safari West matched our mission perfectly with it's African style tents. We were on board.
Despite our amazing liaison, Aphrodite, reiterating many times that Safari West is a conservancy first and tourist destination second, the moment we stepped inside the grounds we were overwhelmed. We realized that going to Safari West just to "sleep in the tents" is like going to the moon just so you can "sleep in space."
The place was started in 1989 by the owners, Peter and Nancy Lang, who still own and operate it. It's grown significantly since that time, and their passion for conservancy has spread to pretty much everyone who works there.
After only an hour, we found ourselves — accompanied by Erika, the manager of hoofstock (i.e., hooved things) — petting a rhino. A rhino named Waldy.
Waldy, a 1,700-pound adolescent rhino, was brought in to help motivate Safari West's other male and female rhinos to get it on by instilling some competition.
Eileen: We heard a lot about rhino mating. The staff was very invested in the rhinos' reproduction. This sounds weird, but it was actually pretty fascinating.
Tara: Waldy knew how to walk forward and backward on command, as well as take a step up onto his little stool so the staff could trim his toenails.
And although rhinos enjoy the odd food treat, the real treat for them is being petted.
That's right — they get rewarded with PETS.
Also? They purr when they eat.
We were taken on the full safari tour, which happens on a giant multi-level truck.
We chose to ride on top because of course we did.
Our guide, Ann, is a former teacher and now part-time tour guide. During our three-hour tour, an ostrich flirted with our truck (apparently this is a thing), and we learned about Saharan-adapted antelope (or addax), which can go months without drinking water. (In fact, we saw a baby that was only a few days old, and our hearts exploded in unison.)
Ann's energy was incredibly infectious; whenever we came upon a group of female antelope, Ann would joyously yell, "Where's your handsome boyfriend?"
Ann basically embodies all of our life goals.
On our last day, Ann surprised us by taking us on a behind-the-scenes animal "snack tour."
And then we met the giraffes.
We learned that a baby giraffe had been born recently at Safari West. He was on the small side at 5'6" (they're usually 6' when born!), but he was happy and healthy.
Eileen: He is still unnamed, but my favorite name that they had been floating around is "Prince."
They told us that giraffes in the wild have been declining in number rapidly in recent decades (from around 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015). So this new addition to the family is very exciting.
Leaving was definitely harder than we expected.
We said goodbye to our cozy tents and our animal friends, vowing to one day return.
At one point, another guide named Kate told us, "If I have one kid who goes on my tour and says, 'I want to do this when I grow up,' then I've done my job."
Consider your job done, Katie.
*For more info on the incredible conservation work of Safari West, click here!
Invigorated and ready to keep exploring, we stopped along the beach at Fort Bragg, where Tara spotted some seals lounging on a rock.
Tara's inner child then began trying to talk to them.
Tara: I immediately began calling out to them in a baby voice. “How’s it goin’, guys? You havin’ fun on your little rock?” Someone help me.
Eileen: Tara talked to animals the entire trip.
We arrived at the secluded Point Arena Lighthouse just in time to catch the sun setting over the Pacific. While we leapt over a fence to get a photo, we noticed that we weren't alone.
Spread out along the beach were older couples bundled up in lawn chairs doing exactly what we were doing.
While this trip had been about rediscovering our inner kids, this felt like a moment where we embraced our inner grown-up, a person who was thrilled to just watch the sun set.
We approached this stop prepared to live as ye lighthouse keepers of old...
...which, based upon zero research, we assumed was at the top of the lighthouse. It turns out this is not the case: Lighthouse keepers used to live in little cottages beside the lighthouse. This was fine, as the accommodations were really cozy.
Eileen: This place won my heart by giving us a complimentary bottle of wine and some chocolates, which I'm pretty sure is what lighthouse keepers used to eat and drink back in the day.
Our guide, Isaac, took us on a tour of the lighthouse. We climbed the 145 steps (that’s 10.5 stories — we were winded) to the lookout. Isaac is part of the local Pomo Indian tribe that has occupied the region for centuries. He also informed us that the San Andreas fault runs only a few miles away and talked about how the area was devastated in the 1906 earthquake.
While perusing the copious ocean-themed items in the gift shop, the attendant calmly announced that a "spawn of whales" had been spotted outside.
We tore through the shop like maniacs to get outside and see them.
Eileen: I went full Tara and just began yelling at the whales, "Where are you going? Are you lost?"
And then it was time to go.
We wistfully waved goodbye to our whales and acknowledged that, while we probably couldn't cut it as lighthouse keepers, more stays at Point Arena were definitely in our future.
Lucky for us the lighthouse has been around for over a hundred years, it's probably a safe bet that we'll have more chances to visit it again.
Having each lived in New York City at one point, we've both definitely dozed off inside trains before.
But sleeping on the subway or on a commuter train definitely lacks the romance of yesteryear. So when we discovered Railroad Park Resort — a lodge made entirely of antique railroad cars — we signed up pretty much immediately.
We got there right before sunset and asked the friendly desk agent where the best place to get a view of nearby Mount Shasta would be, and she literally just pointed up the road.
This place was pretty much a one-stop shop of gorgeous views.
That night, we got to eat dinner in an actual dining car. The chef at Railroad Park is a cheesecake champion, so we were pretty much obligated to try it. (It was as fantastic as we'd hoped.) After that, we headed back to our respective cabooses to hit the hay. This is when the solitude of the place and a day's worth of driving in a car while listening to true crime podcasts started to get to Tara.
Tara: As soon as I finished plotting my escape route in the event of an attack, I was able to hear the sound of a nearby babbling creek, which soothed me to sleep.
The next morning, we had a chance to chat with the owner, Mark, about the place. We were not surprised to learn that he is a train enthusiast — but we also discovered that he had only taken over the place recently. He jokingly stated that investing in the place was like “buying a giant train set.”
Mark had already figured out what we were trying to discover:
The key to happiness is embracing what you loved as a kid.
When it came time to find a place for our final stop in San Francisco, we hit a road block.
We couldn't find a single quirky place to stay in the entire city. After tirelessly searching we nearly gave up.
And then we found it: an actual castle that you can sleep in.
The owners mostly rent it as an event space, but we were lucky to be in town on a night when it was open.
It was definitely on the more expensive side. But the digs were incredibly nice. Also the toilet looked like a throne. If that's not fancy, then nothing is.
We were also surprised at how secluded it was.
This place was so tucked away that we accidentally drove past the main gate twice.
After some R&R, we ventured out to discover the area.
We went to a New Orleans-inspired breakfast place called Just For You in the nearby neighborhood of Dog Patch. The owner would "Yoohoo!" at the customers coming in, and we ate gigantic beignets.
We almost felt like locals.
Eileen: We also got free chocolate and wine at the castle. This is another neat perk of staying in privately owned and smaller establishments. They LOVE to give you wine and chocolate. It's going to be my new requirement wherever I travel.
At the end of our trip we realized that every place we stayed was created and run by people who were passionate about it. And this is what made these places special.
This trip was a lot more than sleeping in weird and goofy places.
At the end, we learned that the best way to feel like a kid again is to never stop exploring and learning.
Also, free wine and chocolate definitely helps.
Photography by Sarah Stone for BuzzFeed / Design by Victoria Reyes
What's your favorite quirky place you've stayed? Let us know in the comments!
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