Old Northeast Resident Hits the Self-Care Sweet Spot Through Travel

A photo of a woman in a neon green shirt and black leggings posing with hands on hips in front of the ruins of Machu Pichu.

An impulse changed Carol Poulson’s life and she’s ready to do the same for others. In 2014, while teaching school, she had a sudden realization, “I need to get on an airplane and go somewhere.” And it wasn’t because her class was driving her crazy. Poulson realized something was missing. As a stay-at-home mom, she loved taking care of her sons, planning birthday parties, volunteering at their school, and driving the carpool. But carving time out of her busy day for a little self-care or “fun” made her feel guilty. 

“As moms, we really do need to put our oxygen mask on first,” Poulson says. 

On that first solo trip, her husband, John, and two sons stayed home while she went to Sedona, Arizona. There, Poulson was struck by the personal freedom of traveling without worrying about anyone else’s appetite, what activities everyone agreed upon, and the serenity of having her hotel room to herself. She hiked, photographed the natural beauty around her, and felt dizzy with the “knowing.” Poulson says she reconnected with her love of nature, solitude, and adventure – and she returned home recharged, excited again about her roles as mom, wife, teacher, and friend. As she puts it, “It was like waking up and remembering things about yourself that had been swept under the rug of life.”

Poulson didn’t know then that she was planting the seeds of Backpack and Chocolate, a new and different kind of travel company that aims to empower women to connect with themselves, new places, and new friends through nature and adventure.  

The Sedona trip was not only rejuvenating, but habit-forming. Soon her coworker Ginger began joining her on her little escapes from the day-to-day of family life. In fact, it was on a hike with Ginger that the name “Backpack and Chocolate” was born, originally as Poulson’s personal Instagram name. To her, the name was a nod to two of the things that brought her contentment. 

A photo of a person with a helmet and hiking gear on a narrow mountain path with a steep drop down to a green valley below.
On the Via Ferrata from Murren to Gimmelwald in the Swiss Alps.

“My husband always had a sailboat and his own outlets, and I had never really developed my own identity after we had kids,” Poulson recounts. “I remember introducing myself at work retreats and having to make up hobbies, because I didn’t really have any.” She knew that other women must feel the same way, and her trips started to grow as more friends took her up on the offer to plan a group getaway. 

In the meantime, Poulson didn’t give up teaching. She and her friend and alley-neighbor, Jeannie Hunt, started The Reading Tree for tutoring dyslexia students. For the past fifteen years Poulson’s been a savior to Old Northeast’s dyslexic children and a critical advisor for families as they negotiate the services their kids require at school. Parents of her students know that she cares. 

Dominique and Scott Greene, once neighbors on 10th before moving to 17th Ave. NE, sent one of their daughters to Poulson. Dominique says, “My daughter first started seeing Carol for tutoring after she was diagnosed with dyslexia in the fifth grade. At that time, my daughter’s self-esteem was at an all-time low. This crushed me, and I just prayed Carol could somehow help instill greater confidence in her own abilities. To say Carol changed my daughter’s trajectory is not an exaggeration. Now she’s in the top of her class and takes huge pride in her academics. Learning at school is literally what she loves best.”

Even through the pandemic, Poulson tutored kids outdoors and online, making sure they didn’t fall behind. During that time, she also laid the groundwork for her travel planning.

A photo of a group of women standing on a cliff with the sea and a mountainous coast in the background.
Path of the Gods, Amalfi Coast.

Poulson says she’s always had the travel bug and spent most of her life on the move before landing in St. Pete. Growing up, her father was a home builder, following Central Florida’s construction boom. She moved 18 times around the Orlando area before she finished high school. Graduating at age 17, Poulson took a month to travel through Europe with a group of fellow students. 

She met John, a civil engineer, while studying Psychology at Florida State in Tallahassee, and it was fitting that they’d end up in St. Pete after a short stay in the panhandle where she started her teaching career. In a way, her roots were always here. Poulson’s grandmother moved to St. Pete in 1913 and her mother was born here. She and John bought their home on 10th Ave. N. 20 years ago. That’s by far the longest she has ever lived anywhere.  

Like many moms, Poulson made her kids a priority, and took nearly a decade off to raise her boys before she went back to teaching, first at Shorecrest and then at Saint Paul’s Independent School in Clearwater. She laughs when she recounts her own diagnosis with mild dyslexia. “I was in a course on how to screen people for dyslexia and realized I’m mildly dyslexic. It was something I suspected, because both my mother and my brother were identified as dyslexic, and it’s hereditary.”

A photo of people in a pool looking out of windows at the sea.
Lounging in a cliffside swimming pool in Italy.

Poulson’s work as a reading specialist (she uses the Orton-Gillingham method) is more than teaching and it gives her an opportunity to combine her psychology background with her classroom experience. She says she knows her students’ challenges because she understands how their brains work. Students who might experience frustration or embarrassment in class feel safe learning from Poulson. Rather than telling a student they’re wrong, she will ask if they’re sure and help them arrive at the right answer. 

Poulson approaches her travel work with the same passion and empathy. Whether it was planning a dream trip for her family to Machu Picchu, which included taking the time to train for hiking at high altitude, or curating a trip for friends to Italy, she’s says what she’s looking for is balance. While her trips emphasize adventure, she doesn’t want people to return home feeling exhausted. 

When working to craft the perfect getaway, Poulson interviews potential guests through a “discovery call” to make sure her trip fits what they’re looking for. She keeps the groups to about 10 per trip. “It’s not a tour and it’s not a hiking company. I look to balance adventure, connection, and big splashes of fun. In the evenings we come together as women and talk about the day, why we’re here, and knowing who we are.”

A photo of a woman in a neon green shirt and black leggings posing with hands on hips in front of the ruins of Machu Pichu.
Carol Poulson conquering the high altitudes of Machu Pichu. Photos courtesy of Carol Poulson.

Fittingly, Poulson’s very first trip with Backpack and Chocolate was to Sedona in November of 2022, with a group of women eager to get out after the pandemic. Was it a success? “Here we are four months later and the women from that trip still have a group-chat going. Lifelong friendships were made.” 

And about that chocolate: Poulson says it is part of her mission. “Enjoying life, the sweetness of every day,” she explains. “Our trips are a balance of activity and downtime. People can make choices. I honor introverts and extroverts. At the end of every trip, we do a Cacao Ceremony in which we prepare a rich strong chocolate drink. We talk about the history and benefits of the cacao. It’s nourishing and has antioxidants. It’s a calming ritual.” Made even sweeter by a desert sunset. 

Backpack and Chocolate’s next trip is to a remote luxury island near Belize in April. In July she’ll be off to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington (one of her favorite places). Poulson will be on the Amalfi Coast of Italy in September, and future trips include Maine and Southern Utah. The change in perspective that travel brings is its own reward for Poulson: “I like to take adventurous women out of their day-to-day lives.”