The Niece Project: Giving the Gift of Travel
Back in 2012, professional nomad Sherry Ott, who made a job out of traveling the world long before it was the cool thing to do, noticed a gift-giving disconnect whenever one of her six nieces celebrated a birthday or another milestone. Ott wanted to give her nieces something memorable but realized she didn’t know what they’d enjoy.
So Ott, who’s worked and lived on the road since quitting a corporate IT job in 2006, decided to give the gift of travel. "Instead of getting them stuff that would be forgotten, I would give them experiences and introduce them to the world of travel," Ott says.
With that, the Niece Project was born. The concept was simple: Ott would give each of her six nieces a free trip, anywhere in the world, once they turned 16. "As an aunt, my role is not to save for the girls’ college and all that," she says. “My job is to introduce them to new things outside of their family experiences.”
In December 2016, Ott embarked on her fifth Niece Project trip, this time with her 17-year-old niece, Lindsey Sommerfeldt, to visit New Zealand for about two weeks. Once there, the pair joined an Intrepid Travel group for sea kayaking, hiking, bungee jumping, and ziplining. (They also embarked on another memorable adventure on their own: swimming with dolphins.)
For Ott, the trip marked a return to New Zealand after a decade. After leaving her full-time job in 2006, it was among the first countries she visited as a full-time traveler. Ott was eager to share that experience with her niece, who’d spent six years of her childhood in Singapore but never visited New Zealand.
Sommerfeldt chose New Zealand for its unique landscapes and reputation for adventure. "It’s like Colorado and Hawaii made a baby," she says. “You can look out the window, and there are hills and farms, but you can drive five miles, and you’re at a tropical beach. It feels like two places at once.”
And after a hellish start to the trip—weather delays, missed flights, and lost luggage, nearly doubling what was supposed to be a 30-hour journey that started out in Minneapolis—things began improving, and the adventure ended up being one that both Ott and Sommerfeldt will remember forever. We caught up with them to learn about their experiences, what they enjoyed, and why, for Lindsey, this trip was "the best two weeks of my life."
RootsRated: Sherry, what did you think of Lindsey’s choice to visit New Zealand?
SO: I’ve really enjoyed lately going back to these places where I started, because it’s a fun journey for me, too. When I revisit a place after a decade, I think about how the place has changed, how tourism has changed, and how I’ve changed. I also thought it would be really good for Lindsey, because it’s such an adventure-oriented place, and I knew her personality well enough to think she’d like it.
RR: During the trip, you reluctantly went bungee jumping. Tell us about that.
SO: I was terrified. I didn’t really want to do it, yet I wanted Lindsey to do it, and I knew I’d have to do it if she did it. It was this weird line of thinking. My hands were clenched in fists just before the jump, because I had nowhere else for all this energy to go. I hugged her; I’ve never hugged her like that before.
The lead-up to that is all the fear. It’s overwhelming, and then you do it. And it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. It was really special for me to do it with Lindsey. In some ways, that’s what the project is all about. It’s not so much the jump itself; it’s all those other moments that were really special.
RR: And what was it like traveling with each other?
SO: Lindsey was willing to try anything. That’s so important when you travel; the powerful word of saying "yes" is huge. It can change all of your travels, and it will usually take you in directions you could have never imagined. She was very “yes”-oriented, really easy-going, willing to do anything, willing to try anything, and just really happy-go-lucky.
LS: We weren’t really close before the trip, because she travels all the time. But now, after this, it’s amazing. Now I can talk to her about anything. It was the best two weeks of my life.
RR: Intrepid Travel has a great reputation in the industry. What were your experiences like traveling as part of a larger group?
SO: Our group included a marketing researcher from the United Kingdom, a teacher from Pakistan, and a finances worker from New York City. To me, it was just as important that Lindsey met them and hung out with them as it was to hang out with me. A lot of the people in the group were in their 20s and 30s, so she felt like she was relating. She really engaged well with them.
LS: We all came from different countries, and we all got along. Even though I was younger than a lot of them, they always made me feel like part of the group. They gave me life advice about college and career choices that I’m going to remember forever. It changed my mind about what I want to be when I grow up—I can be whatever I want.
RR: Packing for such a trip can get tricky. Did any gear come in especially handy for either of you?
LO: ExOfficio’s BugsAway pants kept the bugs off me the entire time, even in the forests and lakes, and they were so comfortable. They’re really light and airy.
Editor’s Note: Answers have been edited for content and clarity.
Originally written by RootsRated for ExOfficio.