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How My Son Spent His Gap Year During Covid: First Stop, Hawaii

by Wendy Perrin | November 28, 2020

“Sorry, Mom, I didn’t ask your permission about this.”  Those words, spoken by my 18-year-old son at the start of the video below, are not what Moms usually want to hear.  Mercifully, Charlie’s decision to jump out of a plane 12,000 feet above Hawaii’s Kohala Coast left him unscathed.

I didn’t know he’d gone skydiving until he texted me this video.  It’s a sign of the times that my first reaction was not fear of a malfunctioning parachute or a landing in the Pacific Ocean but, rather, alarm over Charlie’s too-close-for-Covid proximity to the tandem-skydive instructor.  I thought it might worry you too, so I waited 14 days to share this video, just so I could assure you that nobody got sick.

How did my 18-year-old end up in Hawaii during the pandemic?  Well, he’s with a group of students who all deferred their freshman year of college because of Covid. Rather than spend the fall attending college from the attic bedroom of their parents’ house via a computer screen, these students have been living and traveling on Hawaii’s Big Island as part of a Pacific Discovery gap-year semester program.  Since Labor Day, they’ve been working on farms, helping local conservation causes, and learning about sustainability. They’ve managed to steer clear of the virus entirely and enjoy some sense of normality.

That’s partly because Hawaii has the lowest infection rate of any state in the U.S.  In fact, it’s the only state that has seen a decline in coronavirus cases this month.  Hawaii’s Big Island has taken particular pains to keep the virus off its shores:  Until recently, all incoming travelers were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.  Which is what Charlie and the other students did.  The quarantine is a strict lockdown:  Charlie couldn’t leave his room to buy food or go for a swim, and he had only 45 minutes a day in a backyard for exercise.  Before that quarantine, the Pacific Discovery students had already—immediately before their flights to Hawaii—self-isolated at home for 14 days and tested negative for Covid.

Hawaii’s Big Island recently implemented even stricter measures than Oahu and Honolulu:  Incoming travelers must produce two negative Covid tests (not just one) if they want to bypass the 14-day quarantine.  Which is why my worry about Charlie’s proximity to the tandem-skydive instructor began to fade, once I learned how small the probability of infection was: the Big Island has 4.5 cases per 100,000 people. (Charlie also explained that the instructor had recently been tested and that half of the students and the program director had skydived too and nobody got sick.)

If you have a college-age kid who’s interested in a gap-year semester program, you can learn of options here.  Pacific Discovery is one of only a few that figured out how to operate a real-world travel program this fall (others switched to virtual programs).  Pacific Discovery managed it by switching the trip from its original location of New Zealand and Australia (after those countries’ borders closed to U.S. residents) to the new location of Hawaii’s Big Island, and by adopting Covid safety protocols that worked.

Jealous parents: If you’re too old for a gap-year program but inspired to travel to Hawaii with no quarantine, and to get the maximum experience while minimizing risk, reach out to me via Ask Wendy.

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