Hesser gets up close with a macaw during a visit to Croatia's Dalmatian coast | Photo by Amanda Booth

Over the last several years, it seems as though Americans young and old have caught the travel bug more than ever before. From Instagram-worthy moments and crossing off bucket list dreams, to celebrity television travel documentaries, most of us know someone or have watched a show about someone who has recently traveled to an exotic, one-in-a-lifetime destination.

Luckily, for Riverside resident Terry Spencer Hesser and her daughter, Kira Cook, traveling to offbeat destinations isn’t just a hobby — it’s a dream job.

Hesser, a published novelist, screenwriter and three-time Emmy award winner who grew up in Cicero and lived in Chicago before relocating to Riverside this past spring, has built her career on creating documentaries on diverse people and unsung stories. 

Throughout the years, Hesser has told the stories of Golden Gloves boxing, worked alongside Audrey Hepburn and Oprah Winfrey, and has delved deep into the psychology behind obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work in all different genres for the theater [and] for the screen, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I feel like I’m a great translator of taking real life and sort of connecting the dots to make stories out of them.”

So, when Hesser and longtime friend and producer Melissa Sage Fadim were in the midst of working on a travel series about the charm behind Michigan’s Mackinac Island and its popularity as a car-free vacation spot, the two began thinking: How many other islands in the world are car-free, and what makes them the unique gems they are? 

From there, “Islands Without Cars” was born. The show is a series of 30-minute programs in which Hesser’s daughter, Kira Cook, serves as the host, exploring remote islands around the world with limited motor vehicle access and sharing the story of their locals. 

“It’s not a travel show so much as it is telling the stories of the people who live on these islands and what makes them unique,” Hesser said.

Cook is a theater, TV, standup comedy and film acting veteran who may be best-known to movie audiences for playing the role of Hortensia in the 1996 film “Matilda.”

Hesser and Fadim, who have an extensive working relationship with PBS, were able to successfully pitch the idea to the network, with WTTW Chicago serving as the program’s presenting station to PBS affiliates throughout the country. 

In each episode, viewers are whisked away to a different island by Cook as she provides a “lighthearted look” at the history of the island and the unique engagements of the people who live on them. 

“It’s [like] having this friend taking you on a journey,” Hesser said. “It’s for amateur travelers and real travelers, but mostly, it’s just really a fast, fun cultural show.”

In season one, which debuted earlier this year, the crew had the opportunity to do watch seals play on a beach on an island in the North Sea which was bombed during World War II, sit for tea in England without having the proper ritual manners, and fly over an active volcano in Italy. 

“Basically, I feel like these people are welcoming enough to welcome us into their houses, and I get to document their customs and their courtesies,” Hesser said about the opportunity to visit locations around the world. 

Hesser said that because the first season had strong ratings across the U.S., the crew is working on season two, which will air next spring. 

“Islands Without Cars” is completely financed through Fadim’s Sage Foundation, a small family foundation based in Michigan which was started by Fadim’s grandfather in the early 1950s. It provides grants to a variety of charitable organizations and nonprofit filmmakers. Additionally, Hesser said, the show recently acquired an international distributor as well.  

Most importantly, Hesser hopes local readers will tune in to the show for a good time, no matter what their travel experiences are. 

“It’s made by people from this area and definitely has Midwestern sensibility in terms of lack of pretension and a focus on fun, and I think it has the right mix of academics and comedy,” she said. “You’re going to learn something and have fun in each episode.”

For more information and teaser videos from “Islands Without Cars,” visit islandswithoutcars.com.