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The Travel Mama’s Top 3 Hidden Gem Destinations

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Shh…don’t tell anyone but today I’m sharing with you my top three favorite hidden gem destinations! You probably have not heard of these destinations, but they’re all well-worth adding to your travel wish list.

Lerici, Italy

Lerici's harbor

Lerici’s harbor (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

I discovered lovely little Lerici during a Disney Mediterranean Cruise in 2007. Our ship docked at La Spezia, from which most cruisers bus a couple of hours inland to Florence for its renaissance art or to Pisa for its leaning tower. Since we had just tackled Rome in a day, and because my husband and I were traveling with our then two-year-old daughter, Karissa, we avoided the long drive to these popular destinations and instead opted to take a short boat ride to lesser-known Lerici.

Picture-perfect cappuccinos in Lerici, Italy

Picture-perfect cappuccinos in Lerici, Italy (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

The boat ride to Lerici afforded gorgeous shoreline views of Cinque Terre and Portovenere in the distance. We pulled into Lerici’s darling little harbor with its battalion of toy boats bobbing in the water and a castle perched on a hill overlooking the town. The rain sprinkling from an overcast sky provided the perfect excuse to duck into a café for cappuccinos. When the rain let up, we wandered the quaint cobblestone hillside streets, winding in and out of offbeat Italian clothiers and antique stores.

A tiny park in Lerici, Italy

A tiny park in Lerici (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

We stopped in what may be the world’s smallest park to let our toddler run free for a bit before resuming our uncharted discovery of the town. Then we rewarded Karissa for good behavior with a spin on the town’s unassuming carousel before loading up on more cappuccinos and taking another boat to La Spezia for lunch. We could have found our way to the castle, I suppose. But, really, a visit to Lerici is not about seeing sites. It is about walking to where the road leads you and taking a new path as it appears. It is about enjoying the world as it unfolds before you.

Montpellier, France

Montpellier's main plaza, La Place de la Comedie

Montpellier’s main plaza, La Place de la Comedie (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Whenever I tell someone I lived in France during my junior year of college, they assume I lived in Paris. No, mes amis, I lived in Montpellier, capital of the Languedoc-Rousillon region of Southern France.

fountain, Les Trois Graces in Montpellier, France

That’s me in front of the fountain, Les Trois Graces (The Three Graces), during a return trip to Montpellier in 2004 (Photo credit: Travel Mamas)

But here’s what the French know. They know Montpellier is a cosmopolitan town filled with universities to which students from around the world flock. The French know Montpellier’s very walk-able downtown is filled with shops with the latest fashions. They know the town’s large center square, La Place de la Comedie, is one of the prettiest you’ll find in all of Europe. The square is surrounded by cafes perfect for people-watching and is flanked by a gorgeous opera house at one end and the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, at the other. In the summer, the beaches just outside of town are filled with French and foreign tourists seeking sun and sand at a more affordable price than what can be found to the East along the French Riviera.

The modern architecture of Montpellier's Antigone District

The modern architecture of Montpellier’s Antigone District (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

If you want art and monuments, go to Paris. If you want history, head to Normandy. For castles, the Loire Valley. For wine, Burgundy or Champagne. Skiing, Grenoble. Posh beaches, Cannes. But if you want to visit a French city with a youthful vibe and an international flair, where old world tradition and architecture collide with modern day…you must go to Montpellier.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), Minnesota

A misty morning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

A misty morning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (Photo credit: Tom Lanin)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is over 1,000 lakes in a million acres of wilderness located in Northern Minnesota. Motorized boats are not allowed. There are no hotels or indoor plumbing. This is what you do. Get a permit and choose a point of entry. Follow tiny squiggly lines on a map, trying to decipher if that clump of rocks ahead is the island in the picture. Paddle all day long in your canoe, stopping for a lunch of PB&J if you must, or fresh walleye if you’re lucky. Portage from one lake to another, carrying a forty-five pound pack on your back and a canoe on your head, back and forth over land and around un-passable rapids.

A mama moose and her calf in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota

A mama moose and her calf in the Boundary Waters (Photo credit: Tom Lanin)

I have seen a wealth of wildlife the few times I have visited the BWCA with my dad. We spied on a mama moose with her calf wading through the water, pausing to take sips from the lake. We paddled past a family of playful otters that popped their heads up and peered at us, as if to say, “Whatcha doin?!” I braved a shower of fluorescent green frogs leaping from mucky black mud and into my canoe. (Have I mentioned that I have a phobia of frogs?) We witnessed a bald eagle soaring above our heads, and we paused to listen to the “swoosh…swoosh” of wind whipping through its wings. I have seen snakes, mice, bunnies, squirrels, and birds of all kinds. My brother and my dad even had a showdown with a bear once, but that is their story to tell.

Minnesota's State Bird, the Common Loon, on one of the many lakes in the BWCA

Minnesota’s State Bird, the Common Loon, on one of the many lakes in the BWCA (Photo credit: Tom Lanin)

I have heard the haunting call of loons, which sounds like a cross between a wolf’s howl and a wind flute. It is at once the loneliest and the most beautiful sound in the world. Instead of having hollow bones like most birds, these prehistoric creatures have solid bones. This extra weight restricts their habitat to the large lakes of the North, where I have watched these magnificent black and white speckled birds take off from the water, flapping their wings furiously until their bodies began to slowly rise and skim the water, and finally they soared through the air.

Camping here takes planning. And the right gear (which, if you’re like me, and you don’t camp much, you can rent from an outfitter). And some skills – like how to pitch a tent and how to hang up your food pack at night so you don’t attract bears. Although I have neither of these skills, I can follow directions like a champ. I suppose I could go car-camping sometime. I could probably manage that. But after camping in the Boundary Waters, it would seem like cheating.

A typical Boundary Waters scene

A typical Boundary Waters scene (Photo credit: Tom Lanin)

For me, wilderness does not have cars or electricity or, for the most part, other humans. Camping means miles and miles of still water, trimmed by prickly triangles of pine, jutting up into the sky and back down again into the water’s reflection. It smells like emerald green, mixed with the sweet scent of crisp leaves slowly turning soft and sinking back into the earth. It’s a nighttime so black that the bright twinkling of stars in the sky are literally all that can be seen. There is no noise beyond the gentle lapping of water, the buzz of mosquitos wishing they could enter your tent, and the footsteps of some woodland creature padding past your campsite, all punctuated by the sweet melancholy sound of loons calling out to each other, looking for reassurance that they are not alone.

What are your favorite secret travel destinations? Have you visited any of my favorite hidden gem locations? Please leave a comment below!

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show,, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

  1. Katie, Tripbase says

    A thoroughly enjoyable read – some real gems here, thanks for sharing!

  2. Lisa Bergren says

    Okay, I’m beginning to loathe this series of travel secrets from bloggers because it makes me want to go EVERYWHERE you fabbo writers talk about!! Seriously, I’ve always wanted to go to the Boundary Waters, having relatives in MN that have long sung its praises, but I’ve never heard of Lerici or much about Montpellier. Thanks for expanding my list with good reasons to go to all three. Someday. *Sigh.*

  3. I have alaways wanted to go to the Boundary Waters and now I am absolutely drooling. It sounds like an amazing place.

  4. soultravelers3 says

    Great tips! We adore finding hidden gems and find the Italian Riviera and Southern France actually full of them. Two of our fave areas!

  5. Love the suggestion for Lerici instead of Pisa or Florence. As wonderful as the more popular cities in Italy are (or any other country, for that matter), we’ve always had a wonderful experience traveling to the smaller, lesser-known towns that surround the big cities. The pace seems slower, the people friendlier and I feel like I’m getting a more “authentic” experience. Thanks for the great suggestion!

  6. If you are going to the Boundary Waters be sure to get yourself into great physical shape a month before you go.

  7. Meryl Pearlstein says

    Thanks, Travel Mamas, for nominating my blog for one of the best to offer “secrets for travelers.” I take pride in offering interesting, exciting, insightful, and insider suggestions about what to do with your family — not just in New York City but also around the world. I’d love to hear from your readers about what they think about the blog, what they’d like to read about, and whether I might be able to interview them. Please have them write to me at Congratulations to all the nominees. Meryl, Travel and Food Notes,

  8. Your pictures and descriptions make me long for a trip to Italy and France, especially as I face a winter in Minnesota. It strikes me that you found your gem in Italy by taking the road less traveled – and found it enchanting. Inspires me to be more open to allowing for unplanned options. Thank you for the escape.

  9. Natashia Painter says

    Gives Thanks for the post, I will add up this internet site to my bookmarks, my friend just told me about this just last week. gracias


  1. Hidden Gems says:

    […] thanks to both TravellingTwo and TravelMamas for nominating me for the […]

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