Year in Review: My Top Travel (and Non-Travel) Highlights of 2021

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I won't lie to you: 2021 included a lot less travel than I had hoped it would after feeling so optimistic early on in the year. Pandemics, man. It looks like we're still going to be in this for a while longer!

Having said that, though, 2021 was definitely a better year than 2020. I DID take some trips in 2021 – mostly road trips, but I also got on my first flights since the “Before Times” in September and October!

I also got back to working with some US-based tourism boards in the second half of the year, which felt amazing after watching the industry struggle so much in 2020.

This yearly update may not be as exciting as some previous years, but hopefully you'll still be interested to read about some of my highlights from 2021.

2021 adventures

Here's my year in travel by the numbers:

  • Countries visited: 1 – USA (I once again didn't leave the US in 2021; it's been more than 2 years since I last used my passport)
  • US states visited: 10 – Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, New York, West Virginia (x2), Georgia, Florida
  • Total flight legs: 7
  • Days on the road: 61 (roughly 17% of the year)

My top travel highlights from 2021

9. Hocking Hills solo trip

Winter hikes in the Hocking Hills

I started out my year in 2021 with a short solo getaway to a tiny house near Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. It had been almost a year since I'd done anything solo, and while I obviously love my husband Elliot, we both needed a break from the 24/7 togetherness!

The tiny house I stayed in was adorable and modern, and located in a campsite with lake views. While there, I did some snowy hikes in the state park, got some work done in my quiet retreat, and had a little cry while watching the first female Vice President of the United States get sworn in to office.

8. Long weekend in Detroit

Detroit skyline from a drone
A look at the Detroit skyline from above

Towards the end of the summer, Elliot and I were both feeling a bit restless. I suggested we plan a weekend trip away, and we decided to head a few hours north to Detroit, Michigan. I had actually never properly visited Motor City before, and was quite honestly really blown away by it! Detroit is a little bit like Cleveland when it comes to history and architecture, but also has its own personality.

While in Detroit, we went on a downtown walking tour, saw some cool art, spent an afternoon on Belle Isle, drank at a hidden speakeasy, spent a day at The Henry Ford, rode in a Model T at Greenfield Village, and more. I haven't written about this long weekend trip yet, but I promise I will! Detroit is a cooler city than I think most people realize.

7. Solo visit to Chicago

Chicago skyline from Navy Pier
What perfect weather in Chicago!

Speaking of cool cities, I spent a few days solo in Chicago back in June. Chicago is my favorite large city in the US, and I loved it just as much as ever on this visit. I was in the city just as it was fully re-opening after its pandemic restrictions were lifted, the sun was shining my entire visit, and the vibe was just all-around great.

I've been to Chicago before, but on this trip I decided to do some things I hadn't done in years, like going on an architecture river cruise, visiting Navy Pier, and heading up to an observation deck at sunset. I also had lunch with a friend along the Riverwalk, strolled through lots of parks, and spent an afternoon just lounging beside the rooftop pool at my hotel.

>> Read about it: The Perfect 3-Day Itinerary for a Solo Weekend Trip to Chicago

6. Workation in the Smokies

Amanda looking at snow in the Great Smoky Mountains
Snowfall in the Great Smoky Mountains

In February, when the US was still in the throes of the pandemic and vaccines weren't widely available yet, I proposed a working getaway (AKA a “workation”) to a friend of mine. She loved the idea, and soon we were renting a cozy cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains. We packed up enough groceries, comfy clothes, and scented candles for 10 days away, and drove the 8 hours down to Tennessee.

This trip was super chill. We worked most days, but also went on some scenic drives in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, watched movies, and relaxed in our cabin's hot tub. We even got to experience a magical snowfall in the mountains! 10/10 would do again.

>> Read more: 10 Tips to Help You Plan a Successful Workation

5. Finger Lakes road trip

Rainbow Falls at Watkins Glen in the fall
Rainbow Falls at Watkins Glen

I seem to have not-so-great luck with trying to see fall colors in the Finger Lakes, but my (second) October trip there sans brilliant color still ranks up there as one of my favorite trips of the year. I spent a week driving solo around the 5 counties that make up Finger Lakes Wine Country, focusing on all the cool things you can do there (and no, it's not just all wineries!).

Yes, I did visit a couple wineries, but I also went on hikes, spent a day at the Corning Museum of Glass, went on a rail bike adventure, tackled a corn maze, explored really cute towns, and ate a ton of great food. If you've never considered this part of the world for a fall trip, you are really missing out!

>> Read more: A Perfect Finger Lakes Road Trip Itinerary for 5 or 7 Days

4. Exploring Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Capitol at night
The Wisconsin State Capitol at sunset

My first “work trip” of the year was to Madison, Wisconsin in June. It was a trip that had been postponed for a while, and I was so excited to finally get to go – even though the Midwest was experiencing a heat wave at the time.

Madison is SUCH a fun city, with so many beautiful green spaces and outdoor activities (perfect for a world not yet done with you-know-what), plus cool architecture and great food to enjoy. Despite the heat, I had a really fun time and would say that Madison is a must-visit city in the Midwest.

>> Read more: A Summer-Lover’s Guide to the Outdoors in Madison, Wisconsin

3. Florida Keys road trip

Sunset cocktail in Florida Keys
One of many sunset drinks

My first flight in more than 18 months took me down to Miami, where Elliot and I rented a car and embarked upon a weeklong road trip through the Florida Keys. I had been really stressed going into this trip (it was right after the Delta wave had hit the South), but it ended up being great. Most things to do in the Keys are outdoors anyway, so we had no trouble eating outdoors and more or less avoiding people.

There were so many highlights from this trip, from learning how to wakeboard and visiting the Turtle Hospital in the Middle Keys, to kayaking through mangroves, searching for dolphins, and visiting historic spots in Key West. We even took a day trip by seaplane to Dry Tortugas National Park, which was definitely a highlight.

>> Read more: The Ultimate 7-Day Florida Keys Road Trip Itinerary

2. Laid-back trip to Savannah

Amanda walking under oak trees at Wormsloe Historic Site
The oak avenue at Wormsloe Historic Site, which was once a plantation.

In October, Elliot and I were supposed to go to Austin, Texas for the Formula 1 USGP race. But the ‘Rona threw a wrench into those plans, and we decided to reschedule that trip for 2022. But since Elliot already had time off work and we could change our flights for free, we opted to spend a week in Savanah, Georgia instead.

I've been wanting to take Elliot to Savannah for years, and it lived up to all our expectations. Because we had a full week there and no time to really plan much in advance, we took things extra slow. We went on a couple walking tours, took lots of photos in pretty squares, visited a few museums and rooftop bars, and ate so much amazing food. We also took trips to Bonaventure Cemetery, Wormsloe Historic Site, and Tybee Island.

Nothing about the trip felt rushed, though, which is exactly how a trip to beautiful Savannah should feel.

>> Read more: 5 Days in Savannah: The Perfect Day-By-Day Itinerary

1. West Virginia road trip

Amanda looking out over the gorge at New River Gorge National Park
Me admiring New River Gorge National Park

It was hard to decide on a top travel highlight this year, but in the end I think it has to be the weeklong road trip Elliot and I took through West Virginia in May. This was the very first trip we took post-vaccine, and it felt so amazing to be back out there, exploring new places and feeling more positive than we had in a long time.

We were still careful on this trip, opting to do mostly outdoor things and eat to-go meals and stay mostly in rentals instead of big hotels. But it was still amazing. We went whitewater rafting and hiking (and Elliot went mountain biking) in New River Gorge National Park, explored cute little mountains towns, and even climbed a crazy via ferrata course.

Lonely Planet named West Virginia as one of the top regions in the world they think people should visit in 2022, which probably means you should get there before the secret is well and truly out!

>> Read more: The Perfect One Week West Virginia Road Trip Itinerary

And that's not all of the travel adventures I had in 2021, either. Elliot and I also went on a long weekend trip to Parkersburg, West Virginia to soak up some history; I slept in an old train car and visited Indiana Dunes National Park on my own over the summer; and I did some traveling around Ohio, too.

With 61 days of travel this year, I realize that I'm lucky and still got to travel more than most people!

Sunset at Indiana Dunes National Park
Sunset at Indiana Dunes National Park

My top 3 non-travel highlights of 2021

Last year, I added some new sections to my annual round-up post since I didn't travel much in 2020. I kind of enjoyed looking back at the non-travel highlights of my year, so I decided to keep the section again this year.

My biggest non-travel highlights included:

1. Getting vaccinated

We'll start this list with the best thing: getting vaccinated against COVID! I actually cried from a mixture of relief and happiness when I was able to schedule my first shot. Living through a global pandemic wasn't something I ever thought I'd have to add to my life bingo card, but here we are. At least now I'm not quite as scared of dying from this virus, though of course we're still not out of the woods yet.

(And if your fingers have suddenly gotten itchy with the need to leave a comment spreading misinformation about the vaccines, don't bother. I'll just delete it. I don't need that crap on my website, and if that makes you want to stop following me, please do; I don't want to be giving free travel advice to anti-vaxxers anyway.)

I have still yet to take my thrice-vaccinated self out of the country again, but I'm hoping international travel will be more possible in 2022. (Though vaccine mandates for travel are likely to continue.)

Amanda in front of a "Love can fix it" mural by Glen Infante
Love (and vaccines) can fix it. (Mural by Glen Infante)

2. Winning a Lowell Thomas Award

I've won awards in the past with this little travel blog of mine, but in 2021 I finally won the one I've been hoping to win for years: the Gold Award for Best Travel Blog in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards, which are hosted each year by the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).

These are the gold standard of travel writing awards (heavy hitters like National Geographic and the New York Times and BBC Travel usually net a few each year), and I'm so honored and excited to have finally had my travel blog named as the best!

I of course would still run this blog without any awards, but it never hurts to see all your hard work be validated.

3. Having a video go viral

The most absurd thing to happen to me in 2021 was having a video go viral on my Cleveland TikTok account. The video was about a local Christmas attraction in northeast Ohio called Castle Noel, which is this massive private museum dedicated to Christmas movies, decorations, and nostalgia. The video got more than 1.4 million views, and Castle Noel sold out every ticket into January.

Along with gaining a nice chunk of new TikTok followers, I also got featured on the local news, and even had a story written about me in a local newspaper. I figured I had to add it to this list of highlights because I just find it so delightfully bizarre. (If you want to follow my Cleveland TikTok adventures, I'm @clevelandtraveler over there.)

Amanda with costumes from Elf at Castle Noel
Me with costumes from Elf at Castle Noel

There were certainly other non-travel highlights this year, too, like hitting some new income goals and growing my Cleveland website quite nicely, but we'll just stick to my top three for now.

I hope your 2021 had its fair share of highlights, too – but here's hoping 2022 is truly better for all of us!

What was one of YOUR highlights from the last year?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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2 Comments on “Year in Review: My Top Travel (and Non-Travel) Highlights of 2021

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  1. Not too shabby a year in the end, huh? Huge congrats again on the award! So well deserved. I never knew you guys were into F1, hopefully you make it to a race next year. I went to Melbourne for the Aussie GP in 2016 and it was a lot of fun! Here’s to 2022 being a better year for us all, and especially everyone who works in travel.

      The year definitely had its ups and downs, but in the end there were a lot of highlights to be able to look back at, which is great. And yes, we’ve rebooked the UPGP for next year, so hopefully we can actually go this time!

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