I can still remember the way San Francisco smelled when I arrived late that June night. Not the salt and pine I was used to at home on the East Coast, but something softer — eucalyptus and tree bark.
I’d been in Santa Clara the previous week for work, but had decided, when booking my flights, to tack on a quick trip to San Francisco at the end. I knew I’d be eager to get home to New York — while I love exploring a new place, I crave going home just as much — but I’d never been to the Bay, and I wanted to see the city for myself. I made a Thursday night reservation at the Kimpton Buchanan on Sutter Street and grabbed a seat on the Friday night redeye. I would have around 24 hours to soak up as much as I could.
I woke early the next day, laced up my sneakers, and headed to The Mill for coffee and a thick slab of cinnamon toast. I walked past the Painted Ladies and the hotel where “Vertigo” was filmed and looked for its famous green light, then caught the Powell-Hyde cable car up and over the hill to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I ordered fish and chips and ate it on the pier. I walked to the bottom of crooked Lombard Street and climbed up, past manicured flower beds and gates draped in bougainvillea and cautious cars easing their way down, then caught another cable car back to Chinatown, where, walking through Jack Kerouac Alley, I stumbled into City Lights Books and read for a while in the sun, then ducked into the dark of Vesuvio Cafe next door for an apricot juice. I climbed Telegraph Hill — breathlessly — to Coit Tower, then walked down through a jungle of tropical birds and past Sharon Stone’s apartment from “Basic Instinct.” I sat outside the Ferry Building with a Humphry Slocombe ice cream and watched the commuters catch their boats home, then took a taxi to Little Gem for a bowl of bibimbap and a beer. Then, I got my suitcase and — happily exhausted and rather sunburned — left for the airport, and home.
I planned 24 hours in San Francisco because it felt like a happy medium: enough time to experience the city, but not so much I’d be itching to get out. On the contrary, it felt more full and vibrant and energizing than almost any trip to date. I still remember the red of a cable car climbing a hill; clutches of seagulls, wings spread, skimming the water; a glimpse of the bay through a stone passageway.
I loved this one-day trip so much, I planned another for the following year — this time to the Catskills. Over Labor Day weekend, my boyfriend and I caught a sunrise bus for the winding mountain drive to Phoenicia. By 10 a.m., we were there, having been dropped off on the main street in front of a particularly busy breakfast spot. By 10:15, we had a spot at the counter, two coffees, and plates of huevos rancheros on the way, our suitcases tucked beside us. Afterwards, we dropped off our bags at The Graham and Co., a boutique hotel on the creek, and by noon we were lying in hammocks under the trees. That afternoon we crossed a wide field to a wooded hike, where we were the only two on the trail, then stopped for an ice cream, swam on our backs in the inn’s quiet pool, wandered into town for dinner, and roasted s’mores under the night sky. By the time we went to bed — at 9 p.m. — I felt like I had in San Francisco, exhilarated, alive, and as though I’d been there for days.
It may seem odd that I often feel more rejuvenated on these 24-hour trips than I do on a longer vacation. When I go to my home state of Maine with my family each August, I have the luxury of time: a whole week to eat blueberries and meander the rocky coast and take outdoor showers. Instead, I spend the first few days doing none of those things, thinking, “I have plenty of time.” It’s only on the second-to-last day or so that it hits me — “I’m here” — and I pack the daylight hours with beach walks and tomato sandwiches on the porch with my sister. By then, it’s nearly time to leave. I find that a short timeframe jump-starts the process. I make the most of every minute.
It’s occurred to me that I might love these jam-packed overnights because they quell an anxiety in me, feeding my obsession with feeling productive. Last summer, in Maine, I felt antsy in the lull in the middle of the day, my 18-month-old niece napping upstairs, my boyfriend and I lazing on the porch. “Let’s do something!” I kept saying. But of course we were doing something: We were lazing on the porch. I am sometimes so eager to make the most of my time that I miss the minute I’m in.
When I know my time is limited, I tune in. I notice how the light looks and the way the air smells. I have only one lunch to eat in this place — so I savor it. Being acutely aware of the passage of time makes me more awake. The significance of this is not lost on me.
Maybe that’s why “micro-cations” like these — no longer than four nights — are becoming popular with Millennials in particular. (Though, realistically, it’s also because short trips are less of a financial burden than long ones, and require less time off.) It’s not always possible or responsible for me to take two weeks of PTO and book a meandering road trip through Italy. The same is true, it seems, for many young people.
I’d propose that overnight trips are the even more attainable version of the micro-cation. When you’re paying for just one night at a hotel, treating yourself and exploring a new place is less of a commitment. (It’s now more feasible, too, with same-day booking apps like One Night.) This style of travel opens up the possibility of traveling more often — not just once a year on a big vacation, or a long weekend each season. You can easily dip your toe into a half-dozen new places (and decide which to come back to, for longer, later). You can fit an overnight into a weekend and still — and this is huge for homebodies like me — have one night at home. You don’t even need to take PTO if you don’t want to. You can be spontaneous. Sure, this shouldn’t replace longer stretches of real, restorative time off. But micro-micro-vacations can be a much-needed reset.
To take a 24-hour trip, first look at what’s realistic. Is there someplace nearby you’ve been wanting to check out? Can you tack an extra night onto a work trip? Then, consider the best use of your time. If traipsing all over does not sound like a vacation to you, that’s okay. Reading by a fireplace is a perfectly excellent way to spend a day. Make a plan so you can be efficient; if a museum you’d like to see is next to a great cocktail bar, it’ll save time and leg energy if you couple those activities together. Put an anchor or two in your day, but don’t over-schedule. Leave time to wander.
Remember: the idea is not to have your time blocked out hour by hour. The idea is to lace up your sneakers and see where the place takes you.