FEATUREBy Jordan RaneIllustration by John DevolleUnique experiencesAs the travel industry begins to open up, those looking to book that next big trip are looking for something different.
The latest sunny forecast from the travel industry is that a renaissance of sorts is in the works. As vacation and exploration options continue to revive after two of the industry’s most challenging years, travel oracles like Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky predict that experience-hungry wanderlusters will be taking more time off, expanding their horizons and quenching a pent-up thirst for truly unique adventures. Chesky has dubbed it a travel-ution.

How exactly does one define that term — or actualize it? In a luxury treehouse on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park perhaps? Aboard a horse in John Wayne country? On a Great Lakes island-preserve blissfully afloat in the Victorian era? The beauty of travel is that a “unique adventure” is really however you choose to define it. Here are five coast-to-coast catalysts to get your travel-ution motor running.
Lodge in the trees of Tennessee
In late 2018, Pete Nelson of Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters fame was brought in for a unique project in a private, leafy community on the edge of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The task: Custom-design and build eight luxury treehouses for adventurous guests seeking a more lavish treehouse experience than the kind they had as kids.

Trees were painstakingly vetted. Months of planning and numerous logistical challenges were faced before the building crews even arrived. In mid-2020, Treehouse Grove at Norton Creek Resorts officially opened — rightfully lauding itself “the only place that lets you lodge on the doorstep of the most visited national park in the country in a secluded treehouse setting designed by ‘Treehouse Master’ Pete Nelson.”

Furnished with two bedrooms, full bathrooms, high-speed internet and charmingly arboreal names — The Cedar, The Dogwood, The Elm, The Hemlock, The Magnolia, The Maple, The Poplar and The Willow — Norton Creek’s treehouses are all uniquely designed and can accommodate two to four guests comfortably. Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the charming towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are just down the road. But guests here will likely want to spend just as much time at home in the trees.
Time travel on Mackinac Island
What’s far more enchanting (and less nerve-fraying) than motoring across the five-mile Mackinac “Mighty Mac” Bridge between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas? Hopping a 16-minute ferry ride from either end to Mackinac Island, a.k.a. “The Crown Jewel of the Great Lakes” — and likely the best offshore Victorian time warp hiding off any U.S. coast.

Barely four-square-miles, the historic resort island (and former Revolutionary War-era British military fort) remains a genteel outpost of 19th-century mansions, clopping horse-drawn carriages and palatial lakeside properties like the Grand Hotel — where afternoon tea has been a tradition for more than a century. So has the absence of all motorized vehicles, banned here since (not a typo) 1898.

Augment the experience by renting your own bike or kayak and exploring the rest of this singular National Historic Landmarked isle — 80% of which is preserved state parkland. You’ll find dramatic limestone bluffs, thick forests, remote Great Lake waters and the most timeless annual Lilac Festival (June 3-12, 2022) anywhere.
Travel with the Credit Union
American Airlines Federal Credit Union has you in mind when using our cards while you travel. Don’t forget to take advantage of these helpful features the next time you hit the road or take to the skies.
  • Travel notifications Planning a trip? Let the Credit Union know when you’re traveling and what cards you’ll be using to avoid any potential interruption in service that may be triggered by potential fraud security. Simply log into online banking and click on Traveling Soon? in the left-hand menu. Check the cards you’ll be using and enter your departure and arrival dates. It’s that easy.

  • Card on/off If you temporarily misplace your card, you can easily turn them off for peace of mind and turn them back on if they turn up. Log into online banking and click on “Card Services” in the left-hand menu and select “Card On/Off.” Just toggle off the missing cards and toggle back on if they turn up.

  • Connection Points™ If you have a Visa Platinum Rewards card with us, don’t forget you earn Connection Points that can be redeemed for flights on any airline, car rentals, hotels and other merchandise. 
Visit the Credit Union’s website to learn more.
Check into the Ahwahnee
Lazing by a huge roaring fireplace in the Great Lounge after an afternoon hike to Mirror Lake. Savoring a meal in the grand dining room with its giant gabled ceiling, sugar-pine trestles and enclosure of floor-to-ceiling windows. Describing any aspect of one’s stay at Yosemite National Park’s iconic lodge The Ahwahnee is about as futile as waxing on about its Yosemite Valley whereabouts. You just have to see it for yourself.

Back in the day, this stone-and-timber marvel of engineering was painstakingly built for an exclusive caste of well-heeled travelers to come experience Yosemite’s beauty and help influence the newly formed park’s protection. Amazingly, the thinking back then was that the only way anyone would bother to make the pilgrimage to this Shangri-La of glacial-carved peaks, towering granite walls and half-mile-long waterfalls was with a magnificent lodge that could somehow match the natural setting.

The yardstick of all national park lodges since opening in 1927, the Ahwahnee (Miwok translation: “large, gaping mouth” — a description of the park’s main valley) has welcomed generations of dazzled guests from royalty and presidents to the rest of us. An array of accommodation options include classic rooms, suites, parlors and cottages. Non-guests are welcome for walk-throughs, drinks at the bar, dinner in the grand dining room and the most bucket-listable Sunday brunch in the Sierras.
Saddle up in Monument Valley
Doing the 17-mile scenic drive past the Mittens and other instantly recognizable sandstone mega-sculptures from Stagecoach and several more of your favorite Westerns may be the first order of business in spectacular Monument Valley, an iconic movie setting where Director John Ford alone made more than half a dozen movies. An even more unique experience here? Mounting a horse and riding off into the sunset in this remote 91,000-acre Navajo Tribal Park straddling the Arizona-Utah border.

Monument Valley horse rides are bookable through authorized Native American guides within the park. They can range from hour-long rambles to full-day trips into the backcountry. For a list of approved outfitters, visit the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department.
Drive the Natchez Trace Parkway
No traffic lights. No Golden Arches. No billboards or semis whizzing by. Rolling in a car or bike along the Natchez Trace Parkway at an unhurried clip between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee, is an altogether unique vehicular experience. One that transports not just geographically, but temporally and spiritually.

The 444-mile National Scenic Byway and All American Road is its own unit of the National Park System — and a road trip unlike any other. Winding through three states and tracing 10,000 years of North American history, the commercial-free parkway roughly follows the original Natchez Trace — a former Native American trail that would become the early 19th-century lifeline connecting frontier towns like Nashville and remote outposts like Natchez (America’s original Southwest).

Chickasaw and Choctaw Tribes graced this route. So did 19th-century U.S. Army generals, explorers like Meriwether Lewis and generations of nameless outlaws. And now so do more than 6 million annual visitors, rolling peacefully along a scenic route furnished with free campgrounds, numerous hiking trails and points of interest — and, curiously, no discernible traffic. 
Prepare for the Air
Some aspects of air travel have changed since the start of the pandemic and continue to evolve as travel and health regulations are announced. American Airlines can help you Prepare for the Air. Visit aa.com and make sure you’re up to date with the latest information before you board your next flight.
Jordan Rane is a Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers and a contributing editor at Men’s Journal. His work on travel and the outdoors has spanned six continents and appeared regularly in CNN Travel, the Los Angeles Times and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.