Daring to travel multiple times during a global pandemic has given the Robinsons a new appreciation for small group tours, wide open spaces, and the joy of connecting with others.  

They stayed grounded in their hometown of Nashville, TN for nearly all of 2020, but by the year’s end, the Robinsons felt wildly stir-crazy. Like so many others who place a high level of importance on travel—this family of three trades off picking yearly trip locations—they were pandemic-weary and travel-hungry after seeing their 2020 getaways moved, moved again, and then canceled outright. So as many countries began opening their borders to Americans, the Robinsons leapt at the chance to travel internationally as carefully as possible. They’re an example of the travel enthusiasts that are kickstarting a safe return to tourism—and this trio didn’t exactly start small.  With Classic Journeys, they first traveled to Costa Rica in December, then booked a March trip to Galápagos Islands (a place they’d planned to visit in the spring of 2020 with another company, which was eventually cancelled), and now even have a third trip to Iceland planned in June. All in all, the Robinsons are traveling internationally three times during a global pandemic…albeit, what we hope is the end of it. 
Family kayaking in costa rica

“In my household we prioritize travel,” says Michael Robinson. “It’s one of the few things that we believe that you can take with you.” What helped him, his wife and their 16-year-old daughter feel extra enthusiastic about carefully setting off on an adventure again was the ability to do it within a small or even ‘micro’ group. While they’d previously preferred to travel in larger 25-35 person groups—primarily so that their daughter would find playmates among other children—Classic Journeys’ small group model fit the times and circumstances. “COVID forced me to ‘micro’-group, which I’d never done before,” says Robinson. “And I’m grateful for it. Because no matter how good a company is at managing people, there’s more risks associated with large group travel now.” 

To the Robinson’s delight, they’ve now not only discovered how easy it is to social distance out in nature, but found something more intangible: An authentic outpouring of joy at the return of tourism from everyone they’ve come in contact with. “I have never been treated better than I have been from my last trips, just from sheer happiness that we were there,” Robinson says. 
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Classic Journeys guests on luxury Costa Rica tour ziplining

7 Days in Costa Rica – December 2020

Their Costa Rican excursion, which brought the Robinson family through the rainforest, to the foot of Arenal volcano, through Manuel Antonio Park and back to San José, was an ultra-small group experience. As it turned out, they were the only guests on this tour.  They easily created a sort of ‘bubble’ with their Classic Journeys guide, Kenneth, and being largely out in nature daily meant that social distancing naturally happened without a second thought. “Everything was wide open, we were doing everything outside, and when we were going places, they were never crowded,” says Robinson. “We’re in the geothermal pools, and there’s no one else around. There’s very little risk of contracting COVID if you don’t have anybody else with you. And that was almost the entire trip.”

The lack of crowds in Costa Rica was refreshing—“though I would trade it all in right now off to just have life back to normal,” Robinson says—and there was another unexpected bright spot too. Their guide Kenneth had launched a pizza business last year as tourism waned, and on their last night, the Robinsons tasted one of his pies. “It had all their local meats plus a special sauce that he makes himself, and it was cooked in the brick oven he built his backyard when COVID started,” says Robinson. “It was totally different, not American-style at all, and we downed it in about 6-7 minutes. It was great. I still have the menu saved on my phone.”
Classic Journeys luxury Galapagos tour guests and guide

5 Days in the Galápagos Islands – March 2021

Their experience in Costa Rica got the Robinsons even more excited to travel to the Galápagos Islands, a place that had been on their 2020 list (and eventually cancelled via another travel company). They opted to go in March, just three months after their last international journey. “Instead of spreading our trips out, we thought, ‘forget it, let’s go,’” said Robinson. 

Quito, Ecuador’s capital, carried a strict curfew and stringent social distancing measures, but once out on the islands, an experience similar to their Costa Rican trip played out: Social distancing came naturally. (Classic Journeys also offers a unique ‘Galápagos travel bubble’ with same-day PCR testing in Quito.) The Robinsons traveled with Michael’s 70-year-old mother, as well as one other family for this trip, which took them between Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands. 

While the natural beauty and wildlife of Galápagos was impressive, Robinson considers himself someone who focuses on the quality of the people he meets and the interactions he has during trips. On both trips, their Classic Journeys guides offered up so much warmth and welcome that it made all the difference. Kenneth, their guide in Costa Rica, still keeps in touch via WhatsApp regularly. And their guide in Galápagos, Sebastian, (whose grandfather was once the president of Ecuador) is someone Robinson believes, “may be the most lovable being on the planet, always calling us, ‘my beautiful travelers, my beautiful people, my beautiful family…’” he laughs. At one point, Sebastian allowed another guest on the trip, an active member of the Navy, to pilot the boat the group was riding on for several minutes—an unscripted, spur-of-the-moment joy for him. Remembering that day led Robinson to muse, “That came out naturally, because [he and Sebastian] were getting to know each other, versus using a questionnaire or just following an itinerary. Those are the things you remember down the road. It’s always the small things.”

“I can tell you a hundred great things about Costa Rica, and a hundred great things about Galapagos, but what I’m going to remember twenty years from now is Kenneth and Sebastian,” Robinson goes on to say. “My impression of those countries is always going to be my impression of the people who showed them to me.”
Iceland Classic Journeys guests smiling with ice
Iceland – June 2021 (and Beyond)

The next stop for The Robinsons is Classic Journeys’ 6-day Iceland trip in June, an exploration of the capital Reykjavik out to the glaciers, riding shaggy Icelandic horses along the coast, and exploring Viking ruins with Classic Journey’s guide Atli, a Viking descendant himself. 

And with travel ramping up again across the world as vaccines roll out, the family is confidently planning out their next several years’ worth of trips now. On the docket is a previously-booked European river cruise for 2022, his wife’s pick; in 2023, the year his daughter graduates from high school, she has her sights set on an African safari. When Robinson’s own year rolls around again in 2024, he’s thinking Southeast Asia. 

What he’s most excited for is that the appreciation of travel he’s always shared with his family seems nearly ubiquitous now.  “You can always have a Kenneth or a Sebastian that are wonderful, but it’s so rare to have 90 to 95% of the people you interact with throughout a tour have the same feeling and great gratitude that you’re there,” he says. 
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Kelly Phillips Badal is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and world traveler who writes about travel, lifestyle and design. The former editor in chief of Interiors California, her work has also appeared in Sunset, Angeleno, BBC Travel and CondeNastTraveler.com; and she’s held staff positions at Better Homes & Gardens and Country Living. Kelly is married to travel and lifestyle photographer Tanveer Badal. Together they split their time between New York City, Los Angeles, and wherever their travels take them. Follow her at @kellybadal

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