It’s that time of year again, when we all reflect on the previous 12 months and for me that means reflecting on the great travel experiences I was fortunate enough to enjoy. Today I want to do something a little different though. Rather than highlight the most amazing, transformative experiences I wanted to share a few distinct moments that were just fun. Sure, we learn and grow as people when we travel, but the experience is also supposed to be fun and for me, these moments were amongst the best I enjoyed in 2016.
Sauna in the Middle of the Finnish Woods
For whatever reason, remote destinations fascinate me and I love visiting them perhaps more than even the largest cities in the world. I usually tend to visit though when it’s cold outside, but cold doesn’t even begin to describe the Arctic temperatures I found in Rovaniemi, deep in Finnish Lapland. This huge region is mostly woods, lakes and streams, but it’s also home of Santa Claus. But it wasn’t meeting Santa that was the real joy of my time in Lapland, it was heading out into the wilderness and enjoying a night in the forest just as the Finns do. Along with some new friends, we trekked to the middle of nowhere deep in the heart of the woods to a remote cabin where the heat was wood fired and the running water nonexistent. Not my typical travel experience, the evening of laughing, eating and enjoying nature was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Add in the classically Finnish experience of spending hours in a traditional wood-fired sauna, and it’s an experience that will stay with me for a very long time.
Eating my way around Southwest Louisiana
A year ago I would never have guessed I’d be adding this to the list, but I had such a good time I think it’s warranted. While there’s a lot to see and do in Southwest Louisiana, I’ve added it to this list for one reason – the food. Frankly, all of Louisiana is known for its cuisine, but the southwest part of the state takes this obsession to an entirely new level. Comfort food is the name of the game here, including boudin, cracklins, doughnuts, and more. But fine dining is also well represented and there are many restaurants featuring creative menus by new and daring chefs.
Seeing the Great Migration in Tanzania
Last year I created a project called the 40 Before 40 list. It was my attempt to try to do as many of my bucket list items before I turned 4-0 in January of this year. Some of the items were basic skillsets I wanted to learn (sewing on a button) but others were more lofty and aspirational. One such aspirational entry was to see the Great Migration in Tanzania, an experience I enjoyed just a couple of months after turning 40 years old. Triping on safari with the luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, I not only had the opportunity to witness firsthand one of the world’s great natural events, but also experience a whole host of amazing adventures in the process. The Great Migration really is an ongoing event, with millions of zebra and wildebeest migrating around Tanzania and Kenya throughout the year. I saw these massive herds many times in Tanzania, but perhaps best understood the incredible size of the event only while driving through the Serengeti. Almost immediately upon entering the massive region our truck was forced to stop as hundreds, if not thousands, of animals ran across the road in front of us, on a primal need to move and eat. It was amazing to witness this ancient movement of animals in person, to see the basic instinct that has propelled them around the grasslands for millennia. I sort of “got” the Great Migration at that moment, but it wasn’t until later on when I saw it from a hot air balloon that it all started to sink in.
For as much as I travel and stay connected with the world around me, lately I’ve been coveting time away from my phone and social media – a time to relax and enjoy myself. I’ve had the opportunity to do just that a couple of times this year, and I’m hoping for more in 2017. My first attempt was during a luxury staycation at the beautiful Four Seasons Washington, DC in Georgetown. While certainly not far away, I was able to cocoon myself in this luxury retreat, enjoy the food and services onsite and even play DC tourist a little bit. It was a relaxing and wonderful weekend to reconnect with myself and disconnect with the world, something I rarely get to do. Later in the summer, I made the short drive to the Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia, my first real attempt at total electronic celibacy. Locking up the phone and leaving the laptop at home, it was a chance for me to live in the moment and not worry about photos or posting things to Instagram. It was relaxing, it was spiritually nourishing and it was sorely needed. We all work a lot but that means we also need to balance that with relaxation and decompression. Each and every one of us needs a few moments to collect our thoughts and re-energize so we can tackle everything else that needs to be done in our lives. That’s what these two experiences were for me and that’s why they’re ultimately on this list.
Walking the Great Wall of China
There are a few experiences around the world that surely must be on everyone’s travel bucket lists, including the Great Wall of China. Although my time in Beijing was brief I knew there was no way I could conclude my first visit to China without tackling the mighty Great Wall of China. Given its size, there are a number of different points easily accessible to tourists, including a few near Beijing itself. I decided to visit the Mutianyu section due to its “classic” look and the fact that not as many tourists visit. Don’t get me wrong, it was busy, but not nearly as busy as some of the other sections can be. Away from the main entrance, most of the crowd seemed to disappear immediately and I was left with what I had dreamed of for so very long, the Great Wall of China. At the Mutianyu section at least, the Wall has been restored to a beautiful condition and its location among the rolling hills and mountains is exactly the kind of landscape we all imagine. It truly is a beautiful and remarkable feat of engineering and standing there on top of it, looking out across to the horizon was just as special as I had always imagined. It’s important to get out there and experience the Great Wall of China not just for its importance in Chinese history, but in world history and of course to admire its inherent beauty. Walking across the Great Wall of China is just one of those special and iconic travel moments everyone should try to do at least once in their lives.
Belfast Black Cab Tour
While the times of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are long since passed, it is important to learn more about this era in history and how it impacts life even today. The only way, in my opinion, is to take one of Belfast’s Black Cab Tours. Guided around former political hotspots by real cabbies, guests learn about the Troubles from people who lived through the experience themselves. It was an eye-opening morning, driving around neighborhoods I remember seeing on TV as a kid but not the quiet streets they are today, rather engulfed in flames. Touring both the Catholic and Protestant sides of town, the tour is balanced and informative, not taking sides but rather seeking to explain the roots of the Troubles to outsiders like me. This is a complicated issue and there’s no doubt tensions are still there, just below the surface, and the only real way to appreciate the historical and current events is by seeing it through the eyes of locals. This is a wonderful tour and ranks amongst my favorite tours in the world.
Hiking in Austria
I first experienced the Wachau Valley while on a river cruise a couple of years ago and even in the middle of December, the landscapes through which the Danube snaked seemed too good to be true. Picturesque little villages and a rolling valley where it seemed that every inch of available space was taken up by a vineyard. I have since returned to this postcard-perfect spot in Austria, recognized by UNESCO for both its architectural and agricultural history. It’s not large though, only about 25-miles in length, but it’s amazing what has been packed into this compact space. One of the best ways to explore the Wachau is by hiking some or all of the Wachau World Heritage Trail. The entire trail is 180 kilometers and formally links the best trails through the Wachau Valley and wine country. The trail meanders through the 13 communities of the valley and is divided into 14 legs, making it easy to do as little or as much of it as you like. It can be hiked in both directions and the entire trail is exceptionally well marked making it nearly impossible to get lost. This trail though was designed with visitors in mind and it offers the best views of the valley but better yet, it also offers immersive experiences along the way.
Sleeping in a German Castle
Driving the German Fairy Tale Route was a lot of fun thanks to the small towns and villages, gorgeous scenery and of course the unique places where I spent the night. One of the most remarkable was an actual castle, still owned by the original family. For nearly 700 years, Berlepsch Castle has been passed down through 19 generations, each one charged with maintaining the castle and grounds to the best of their ability. For the current generation that has meant opening it up to visitors, most of who come to just see this gorgeous monument to another age, but also to eat dinner in their restaurant and even spend the night. The castle features two large guestrooms, lovingly decorated to reflect the age and the history of the castle. The night I stayed there I was the only person in the castle, a little eerie at first but then peaceful and relaxing. There’s nothing like being King for a night and having an entire castle all to yourself.
Going Local in Twillingate, Newfoundland
Exhausted from a long day of driving, I was excited to finally be in Twillingate where I was promised a comfortable hotel and a hearty dinner. I’m not sure what I expected from the town, but driving in as the sun was slowing descending beneath the water created views that were simply incredible. Everything was bright and the light sparkled off the water surrounding this coastal retreat. Like every other town in the province it seems, this too was a fishing community, but today it has in large part reimagined itself as a key tourism center in this region of Newfoundland. There’s good reason for that too, from here you can join boat tours to spot puffins, whales and icebergs and it’s even a common overnight destination for folks traveling onward to Fogo Island. For me though, the night I spent in Twillingate will always be defined by an experience I almost skipped. The Anchor Inn Hotel and Suites is a lovely hotel in the middle of Twillingate with a great restaurant and incredibly friendly staff. But it was one of the nightly shows at the Inn that turned out to be an incredible experience. Summers are busy and the Inn brings in a variety of performers to entertain, including the all-female troupe Rants and Reels. Drawing upon the rich history of Newfoundland, they spent a couple of hours sharing traditional songs, dances and stories that illustrate the Newfoundland experience. Newfoundland is definitely a province of storytellers, made even the more special when true professionals deliver the tales.
Iceland’s Glacier Lagoon
Even before my first trip to Iceland a few years ago, this was an experience at the top of my Iceland to-do list and I was excited that on my 2016 trip I finally was able to experience it. But the experience started long before I reached the famous glacier lagoon itself, and that’s due to the incredible size of Vatnajökull glacier. One of the largest ice caps between the Arctic and Antarctica, this 3,000-mile glacier is massive and seeing it from the road was a special moment, one I had to stop the car to properly enjoy. The terrain in this part of the country is otherworldly, varying from black sand glacial flood plains that look more like the surface of the moon than a real place on Earth. This transitions to vast fields of green, moss-covered boulders, so large it looks like giants had placed them there eons ago. But of course, the reason why I was that far east in the first place was the glacier lagoon, and the experience easily exceeded even my very lofty expectations. Global warming is the reason we have to thank for the emergence of this lagoon fed by glacial waters and chock-a-block with calved icebergs in all sizes, shapes and colors. 75 years ago it didn’t exist, but today it’s one of the top attractions in the country. There are a few different options to experience the lagoon, from just admiring it from the shore, to taking a duck-boat ride to the option I selected, a Zodiac boat tour. The Zodiac is, I think, the best option, if you really want to make the most out of your once in a lifetime experience on the lagoon. For more than an hour, our captain took us up to the foot of the glacier itself as sheets of ice crashed noisily into the water below, and dodging in between icebergs throughout the lagoon. It was fun, it was exciting and it was one of my favorite experiences on the trip.
Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada
Otherwise known as Nevada State Route 375, this is a 98-mile stretch of road that starts at the intersection of U.S. 93 and the Extraterrestrial Highway and continues west to the intersection of the Highway and U.S. 6. Thanks to the fact that Area 51 rests along the highway, this area has long been known for alien sightings and a fierce belief in life from other worlds visiting the remote Nevada desert. Over the years the road has developed into what it is today, one of the quirkiest but also one of the loneliest stretches of road in the country. Some of my favorite moments were admiring the desert landscapes, enjoying fantastic blueberry pie at the Little A’Le’Inn, visiting (sort of) Area 51, and spending the night at a haunted hotel in Tonopah, Nevada.
While I do enjoy some adventure travel, I also have a fear of heights, albeit a conditional one. I can look out from the observation tower of a massive skyscraper, but a 5-foot ladder at home sends me into a downward spiral of fear. It’s when the barriers are removed that I get really scared, but it’s a fear I’ve been trying for years to eradicate. The world’s highest bungee swing, tower walks, zip lines, you name it and I’ve tried it, which is how I found myself donning a bright red jumpsuit to prepare for one of the most hair-raising experiences I’d ever attempted – the EdgeWalk at the CN Tower. In 2011, the CN Tower opened the EdgeWalk, allowing thrill-seekers the opportunity to walk around the outside of the Tower at a height of 1,168 feet. It’s the world’s highest full-circle, hands-free walk and I was slightly terrified. I’ve done quite of few of these extreme height experiences, and honestly speaking the EdgeWalk is the most professional operation I’ve seen so far. From start to finish, the staff take amazing care of guests and the safeguards are unlike anything I’ve experienced as well. The views from that height are stunning and it helped me appreciate the beauty of the city even more than I had before.
Watching the sunset on Bora Bora
I love to travel and almost always have a great experience wherever I end up. Sometimes though all of the stars align and a perfect moment is created, such as what occurred for an entire day when I stayed at the luxury resort Le Meridien Bora Bora. I’d dreamt of visiting the South Pacific for decades and the entire week spent sailing around the islands on a Windstar cruise was as amazing as I had hoped it would be. But at Le Meridien I experienced relaxation and contentment the likes of which I never knew possible for me. As a Type-A person, I don’t particularly like to relax. I enjoy being busy, but while on Bora Bora I decided to go with the flow and the results were amazing. My favorite moment was sitting on the pack patio of my private bungalow, watching the sunset and pinching myself repeatedly that I was actually there. Nothing was wrong in the world and I was honestly as happy as I’ve ever been while traveling.
First bite of Detroit pizza
This is a serious topic, what kind of pizza your family enjoys is a big deal, at least it is in my household, where the foldable New York-style of pizza wins the day. While I do love a giant slice from the streets of New York, as soon as I saw a photo of Detroit-style pizza, I knew I would fall in love pretty quickly. So what makes Detroit pizza so unique? Non-Detroiters would probably call the square shaped pies a pan pizza, which it is. Ordered by how many squares you want (4 or 8) the pizza features delicious, slightly burned buttery crust that I could eat on its own everyday and be a happy guy. The pizza is cooked in square pans and the sauce is baked over the cheese. Originally started at Buddy’s Pizza in the 1940s, the style has spread far and wide throughout the city and even beyond. Of everything I enjoyed in Detroit, this is the meal I find myself thinking back to again and again, wondering when and where I’ll be able to enjoy this classic meal again.
Revisiting two of my favorite cities – Paris and Prague
I’ve sailed with Viking several times, both on the oceans and rivers of Europe. For whatever reason I just personally connect with the style of travel they provide and I’ve never had a bad experience traveling with them. This year I had another opportunity to visit the Christmas markets of Europe on a Viking longship, starting in Paris and ending in Prague. While every day of the trip was fun, it was those two cities in particular that I think I enjoyed the most. Paris has always been my favorite city and although it’d been a few years since my last visit, it felt as if I was there just yesterday. The sun was out and it wasn’t too cold, rarities in December and spending those two days walking across as much of the city as I could wasn’t just a great experience, it was also just a lot of fun. Prague was also fun, but in a different way. The last time I was in this great city was 13 years ago and so it really was like rediscovering it all over again. Climbing to the top of the Old Town Hall and looking out across the square filled with the annual Christmas Market immediately put a smile on my face. Prague is gorgeous any time of year, but around the holidays it seems to have an entirely new layer of splendor and to be there enjoying it was the perfect Christmas present.
What were your most fun travel moments of 2016?